Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Silence of the Secularism Issue | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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I did not expect that the debate on the civil state and religious legitimacy that I wrote about last week to reach such a level of vitality. I read the comments of many writers from various forums and it seemed that the debate expressed a real need despite that in most cases the problems were not free from political maneuvering and ambiguity.

Last week, I referred to only one aspect of the problem and this was related to the structure and the nature of the modern nation-state. Yet, some commentators thought that I deliberately avoided discussing the concept of secularism, which is regarded by some as the intellectual and the institutional framework of the relationship between religion and the state in the modern political practice. In fact, this concept conceals as much as it reveals. Moreover, it is often employed in varied contexts and trends beyond the apparent similarity of western modern states.

In this regard, I would like to draw attention to what Jose Casanova wrote about in three different cases that are often mixed up concerning the common image of secularism. These are:

-Secularism being the separation between civil society and religious concepts and institutions

-Secularism as a feature of the withdrawal of religious rituals and beliefs from the public sphere

-Secularism as a feature of withdrawal of religion from the private sphere

These three different cases are not necessarily linked but are rather separate and vary according to context even in the western world and within the varied European context itself. Each of these three cases or phenomena has its own conditional reasons and defining factors. It is true that the separation between the church and state is a general phenomenon including all western countries. However, in some countries this separation did not necessarily imply the withdrawal of religious feelings or rituals or their restriction to individual consciousness.

In some countries such as Spain, the church combated political and the cultural modernity which led to the retreat of religion from the public sphere. In other places, such as Poland, the Church played a pivotal role in fighting despotism, therefore became a forum of enlightenment for civil society and witnessed a clear religious revival.

Moreover, there is a great difference between the Protestant Church, which played a major role in advancing secularism by coexisting with the consecutive modernist waves, and the Catholic Church in Southern Europe, which had great difficulty accepting and absorbing modernist values and concepts.

If we apply what is said above to the Islamic situation, we would conclude that the dominant positions rarely realize these small differences. They usually reduce the whole matter of the definition of secularism to the separation of religion and state. Meanwhile, you have a less dominant position of the Egyptian intellectual Abdul Wahab Al Messeiri, which regards secularism as the exclusion of religion and the de-sanctification of the public human sphere. In the former approach, the focus is on legal and legislative dimensions, whilst in the latter, it is more on cultural and doctrinal dimensions.

Through objective analysis of the religious-political conditions in Islamic countries, we could clearly observe that Arab societies have only experienced intellectual and social secularization in marginal proportions. This means that the rate of religious practice has remained the highest in the world just as social religious practices always find root and support in public life.

Furthermore, despite the perception of many Islamist currents, the talk about political secularism in the Arab world needs further verification. The majority of Arab constitutions declare that Islam is the religion of the state and that it is the main source of legislation or one of the main sources of legislation. The state usually takes on the role of protecting religious institutions and practices. This poses two problems for Islamists: the first is related to the religious legitimacy of this state, and the second is related to the relationship between the religious institution and the political institution.

Concerning the first problem, we should remember that political Islam has oscillated between withdrawing the Islamic definition from the state under the pretense that it has no religious frame of reference, and accepting it as a political entity that maintains the nation even if not completely legitimate.

As for separation between the religious institution and the political institution that has become a fact of the Islamic experience since its inception, this is understood in different conditions today in light of the confrontation between the state and Islamists who in the end belong to modern apparatus of the political and civil activities. In a recent study Gilles Keppel, the French political scientist, showed that the Islamic currents ascertain rather than deny the separation of the political rationale that does not contradict religion, and the political doctrinal sphere of affiliations to which political Islam belongs.

In other words, what we are seeing now, is the transformation of Islamic currents in the public eye into political groups that play a mobilizing ideological role through the pattern of collective religiosity. Nevertheless, they are unable to inherit fully the roles of the traditional Islamic religious institutions (religious endowments, edicts, and education) which constituted the pillars of the religious and cultural existence of the nation. Clearly, the groups that ask for the right of political participation find themselves forced to recognize implicitly the legitimacy of the system that they oppose and accept the division of religious roles in a non-monopolized manner.

Therefore, these groups with their organization and strategy of resistance are following the method of political secularism by being incorporated in the politics of a modern nation state, which is based on the distinction between religious awareness and everyday life.