Should the United States be actively practicing secularism

Qantara.de - Dialogue with the Islamic World

In the religious-political culture of the Arabs, secularism has always been synonymous with atheism and a lack of religious belief. In Western culture, however, which clings to secularism, it is not seen that way at all. One of the consequences of this contrast is that Muslims project into secularism a meaning which it not only does not have, but which also does not correspond to the ideological premises of the term.

It is sometimes claimed in the Islamic world that people from European cultures who believe in the concept of secularism justify this with the fact that the New Testament has been distorted, thereby deviating Christianity from its original meaning, the truth or the Removed the role that God had originally intended for him. And this was also the reason why Europe fell into the "dark age" from which it could only be liberated through secularism.

There is a certain paradox behind this, because if it was secularism that brought the West out of the "dark age" into the Enlightenment, and if secularism means atheism and a lack of religious belief at the same time, it was consequently not faith but atheism and the lack of faith that has led the way out of the darkness of ignorance, backwardness, into the age of knowledge and freedom. But does such a conception really stand up to closer empirical analysis?

Limited fields of interpretation

Another question arises: if Muslims equate secularism with a lack of religious belief, do they judge the concept against doctrinal and Islamic criteria as understood by Muslims? Or do they judge it on the basis of Christian norms and values ​​as they are understood by Christians?

If you take the doctrinal and legal criteria of Islam as a basis, your understanding of secularism and the related doctrinal deviations is restricted by the interpretative limits that are accepted by Muslims - that is, mostly by the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet. Because of such cultural boundaries and within the framework of the cognitive relativism of their representatives, this interpretation subjects secularism to criteria and conclusions that lie outside its own historical, cultural, and intellectual context.

Indeed, this is where the fallacy begins: making a value decision about a particular cultural or historical experience based on criteria belonging to a completely different culture and historical experience. This is completely incompatible with empiricism. In other words, the analysis and conclusion thus made is not empirical but religious. And as such, it reflects cultural and ethical prejudices against another culture and other ethical values.

The Bible as the subject of two opposing readings

If we want to evaluate secularism on the basis of Christian doctrine of salvation or the criteria of Christian law, one should remember that the Bible, which in the "dark ages" was interpreted to mean that it gave the divine consent to alliances between church and state power, the same thing Book that later offered no basis for stigmatizing secularism as atheism or lack of religious belief.

This means that the Bible was the subject of two opposing readings, each from a different time and historical era. But which of these two readings is more correct and closer to the logic of events and history? It is the later one that is based on the principle that a text cannot be restricted to a single interpretation. This throws a spotlight on the acceptance of diverse readings. During the "dark age" this principle was not recognized, and the majority in the Islamic world today still does not recognize it.

Secularism as a modern concept of states in East and West

This begs another question: is the separation of religion from the state or politics an issue that only appears in Western or non-Islamic history? Or is it a socio-political issue that appears in different forms in every society and thus reflects its individual historical characteristics?

It can be argued that "secularism" is the formula that has endured as a modern state concept in both the West and the East. Such "secularism" is only one of several ways to deal with this issue. Hence, it can be stated that this concept is more typical for Western or non-Islamic societies than for others, especially Islamic societies.

As a result, it should be noted that no aspect of the Western experience, the secularism that resulted from it, or the specific nature of this experience need lead to the conclusion that the separation of religion from the state or the distinction between the religious and the political in other - Islamic - societies does not occur or has no meaning in its history.

Of course, it is no secret that such a hypothesis is consistently rejected in the Arab world. Turkey, on the other hand, which has been ruled by an Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) for over ten years, accepted secularism decades ago - and the Islamist majority there seems to have come to terms with it today.

Apparently the AKP sees no contradiction between Islam and secularism. In fact, she believes in the possibility of bridging the conceptual gap between them.

And all of this happens despite the fact that Ataturk originally used force to enforce his own extreme form of secularism - a secularism that is markedly different from that practiced in the United States, for example.

Alliance between secularists and Islamists

Tunisia, for its part, appears to be moving in the same direction, even if the country is still in the throes of post-revolutionary changes. Rachid al-Ghannouchi, general secretary of the Tunisian "Ennahda" movement, had emphasized with good reason that any post-revolutionary system of government in the country must be based on an alliance between secularists and Islamists.

The Tunisian experiment is still in its infancy, and until we can see how permanent this new order is, we will have to wait a long time - especially with regard to how strongly the "Ennahda" movement believes in this arrangement and how committed it is to its legitimacy and necessity.

In this context we must remember the well-known statement that "Islam is a religion and a state" and, more famous, that there is "no priesthood" in Islam. Both suggest that it was the Christian priesthood and their dominance that eventually led the West to choose secularism as a way out.

Khalid al-Dakhil

© Qantara.de 2016

Translated from the English by Harald Eckhoff