Muslim reformer's 'heresy': The Islamic state is a dead end
From Nigeria to Indonesia, Sudanese law professor spreads ideas of a secular state and human rights.
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The essence of the Sufi's message had been that certain verses in the Koran represented the universal, eternal message of Islam, while others were relevant to a particular historical context and no longer viable. "Specifically [he argued] for equality for women, freedom of religion, and equality for non-Muslims," Naim says. After fleeing the country, he translated Taha's work, "The Second Message of Islam," into English.Skip to next paragraph
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Naim later became director of Africa Watch, monitoring human rights on the continent, and in 1995 began teaching at Emory. He's written books on human rights and sponsored social-change projects promoting human rights in local communities in Yemen, Tanzania, and Southeast Asia.
A new book just released in English, "Islam and the Secular State," represents the culmination of his life's work, he says.
Islam teaches that every Muslim stands before God and is responsible for making his own moral choices in observing sharia. The Koran does not prescribe a form of government, but speaks only of the community of Muslims. The book argues that there has never been an Islamic state.
"You will not find any reference to an Islamic state or to state enforcement of sharia before the mid-20th century – it's a post-colonial discourse based on a European-style state," he explains.
While Iran, for instance, claims to be a republic, implying popular sovereignty, a council of clerics is supposed to ensure that it is Islamic. But that council is made up of fallible humans as political as everyone else, he argues. "How is it that 30 years after the revolution they cannot trust the Muslim citizens to make the choice as to who is likely to be faithful to Islamic values and to represent them?"
Further, Iran and Saudi Arabia both claim to be Islamic states, but to each other they are heresies, he adds. So what does Islamic mean? To call a state Islamic is to attempt to silence political or theological dissent, he says.
"Most Muslims have an intuitive feeling about this but can't articulate it, so when confronted by Islamists who say this is the will of God, they are defenseless," Naim says. "My hope is that with this book, we give people confidence to respond that "this is not Islam, it is your view of Islam."
For some time, Naim has been visiting countries across the Muslim world from Nigeria to Indonesia, testing his ideas in public gatherings, which may range from 25 to 800 people. Before he set out, early manuscripts of his book were translated into Indonesian, Bengali, French, Persian, Russian, Swahili, Turkish, and Urdu and uploaded onto a website.
Only once has he felt physically threatened – after a talk in northern Nigeria – although people have tried to shout him down. "I try to persuade gently, to give examples from Muslim history that people understand, and that helps," he says.
One huge challenge is the negative connotation in the Muslim world of "secularism," often seen as being antireligion.
Yet Radwan Masmoudi, director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, believes Naim's goal of separating political and religious institutions is what a majority of Muslims want. Gallup's recent global poll showed "that 80 to 90 percent of Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia want democracy," he says, but similar majorities also want sharia to be a source, or the only source, of law in their countries.
"This is the struggle of our time, coming up with a modern interpretation of sharia that is true to Islamic principles but also to democratic values," he adds.