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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 January 2021

Islam is not at odds with secular government - it celebrates it

A French national flag flies atop the Grand Mosque of Paris in memory of the 130 victims of ISIS terrorist attacks in the city November 13, 2015. AFP
A French national flag flies atop the Grand Mosque of Paris in memory of the 130 victims of ISIS terrorist attacks in the city November 13, 2015. AFP

As French President Emmanuel Macron has mounted a robust defence in recent weeks of laicite, the French philosophy of secular government, many public leaders and religious figures around the world are asking questions about secularism. Some are claiming that secularism is against religion, and even tantamount to atheism. They are wrong.

There is no denying that across the West there is now the rise of white supremacists and their political cheerleaders. The 2020 Global Terror Index released this week by the Institute of Economics and Peace notes a remarkable rise in right-wing terrorism. In France, Austria, Holland, Germany, far-right parties are organising against Muslim migration. In India, similar Hindu supremacism is rising. The far right want us to believe that Islam and Muslims cannot accept secular government. They want to force a clash of civilisations. If we do not understand the history and significance of secular government, we will do their disastrous work for them.

From the medieval crusades to today’s Hezbollah and Muslim Brotherhood, people have long abused religion to exploit the masses and command political control. For 300 years, Christianity flourished in the Roman Empire as a spiritual path away from political power, a salvation for the faithful. Witnessing Christianity’s success in giving joy and meaning to the life of millions, the Roman Emperor Constantine announced it as the official religion of the empire in the year 323 AD. A series of imperial councils in Nicaea, Ephesus and Chalcedon followed that led to state enforcing one opinion as orthodoxy.

Tunisia is one of many countries in the Islamic world home to popular movements to protect secular values in the public sphere. AFP
Tunisia is one of many countries in the Islamic world home to popular movements to protect secular values in the public sphere. AFP

It was at odds with the beautiful teaching of Jesus, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Now Caesar had been allowed to usurp the Church and enforce on religion the dogmas and doctrines necessary to control the masses, to minimise dissent.

The merging of religion and politics is not without risk. Both can become sullied.

Faith, by definition, must be free and unpressured. In Europe, secularism in government has safeguarded that principle.

The root of the word “secular” is from French via Latin: Old French “seculer”, from Latin “saecularis”, from “saeculum”, meaning “generation” or “age”. It was used in Christian Latin to mean “the world” (as opposed to the otherworldly). British writer George Jacob Holyoake first used the term “secularism” in 1851. Holyoake invented the term to describe his views. He argued that “Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it”.

If governments enforce one religion, then hypocrisy begins – for religion is for individuals to observe.

Early Muslims knew this fact. The Prophet Mohammed, when he entered Medina in the year 622, did not enforce Islam on its inhabitants. Famously, his Charter of Medina named Jewish tribes. His community included Jews, Christians and others. When questions of agriculture or farming, worldly matters were asked of the Prophet, he said “antum a’lamu bi umuri dunyakum”, meaning “you know the matters of your world better”. Islam was about pluralism.

The Umayyad caliphs did not seek to convert by force or even persuasion the Christian communities in Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo and elsewhere. That churches from antiquity still thrive in those cities is testament to Muslim governments not forcefully imposing doctrine or religious beliefs.

Many extremist groups promote intolerance and argue for a single state religion. Getty
Many extremist groups promote intolerance and argue for a single state religion. Getty

Some claim that secularism is tantamount to atheism. They are wrong

From Spain to Arabia, Muslim jurists developed a system of thinking that sought to harmonise Islamic law with the legal philosophies of their own time. From Imam Al Juwayni to the great Ibn Khaldun, Muslim thinkers argued that Islamic law was in keeping with natural law. Therefore, any government that guaranteed the sanctity of human life, intellect, security and family, and protected private property and allowed for freedom of worship was in fact, fully Islamic. For those are the “objectives of Islamic law”, or “maqasid al sharia”, in the language of jurists. The aim of Islamic law is not to chop a thief’s hand, but to protect property and provide security. If fines and jail terms provide for realising the aim, then Muslim jurists for a thousand years accepted that way. In short, debate and interpretation were all valid.

Muslims have an in-built advantage in practicing secular government because the entire ummah is not controlled by a single clergy. When in Europe, its greatest minds looked for examples of tolerance and secular government free from the control of clerics, John Locke and Voltaire both looked towards the Muslim world and cited Muslims in their writings. The last century was a decline in openness in too much of the Muslim world.

The French philosopher Voltaire, depicted in a relief bust next to French President Emmanuel Macron, praised the Islamic world as a model of tolerance during his lifetime. AFP
The French philosopher Voltaire, depicted in a relief bust next to French President Emmanuel Macron, praised the Islamic world as a model of tolerance during his lifetime. AFP

In 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood erupted into existence in Egypt. Ten years before, in Moscow the Bolsheviks had come to power with chants of “workers of the world, unite” ideology. Revolution and state control followed. The Brotherhood imitated the same Communist methods with popularising a new slogan of “Islam is the solution. Quran is the constitution. Jihad is our way. Martyrdom is our highest aspiration”.

To this day, their interpretation of the Quran as a political document and a state “constitution”, and their willingness to die in this totalitarian pursuit bedevils many Muslim nations. Many political leaders are unable to move forward in the spirit of the “maqasid al sharia” because the Brotherhood and its offshoots pressure them into accepting the literal application of jihad, killings, forced conversions and discrimination against women.

These Islamists oppose secular government because they wish to enforce their interpretation of Islamic law. In the name of democracy, they propose Islamist fascism. Just as democracy is not possible when Nazis or fascists are in the ascendance, one of the greatest obstacles to progress in the Muslim world today is dogmatic Islamist opposition to secular governments.

Left-leaning Western governments often risk falling for the Islamist trap of “democracy promotion”. What is more important is the rule of law, gender equality, free trade and understanding that a person can be fully pious, God-loving and charitable, while supporting secular governments. It does not follow that personal piety needs clerical government. Iran is the result when clerics are in power: loss of piety, corruption, support for terrorism, and bankruptcy.

Secularism is not hostility to religion, but neutrality towards it. In Britain and America, Canada or Australia, the government is not hostile to religion. Muslims and others are free to worship. In France, laicite is attempting to find that expression of neutrality, and end hostility from its days of war with Catholicism. For Muslims today, a sense of secularism is vital for the good of global Islam. The Quran itself forbids forced conversions. In a world with people of many faiths and none, the outdated imperial ideology of forcing “correct belief” and spreading it with government funds and control is defunct.

Ed Husain is author of The House of Islam: a Global History and a columnist at The National

Published: November 27, 2020 08:00 AM

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