By Maryam Sakeenah
In a country plagued by violence in the name of religion and sect, secularism as a pillar of statehood comes to be seen as an ideal system. The typical response by the religious elements to this eulogisation of secularism in Muslim societies is to warn their followers that secularism is equivalent to unbelief and a great sin.
In understanding the secular state to be an ideal polity free of the tyranny of religious politics and based on pluralism and egalitarianism, we gloss over both its nuanced history and its practice in the present. On the other hand, viewing secularism as unbelief and an evil ideology hostile to religious belief is not only inaccurate but also ignorant of the great ravages religious politics is capable of and has often unleashed, especially in European history.
A more accurate rendering of what a secular state ideally entails is that it dissociates religion from the state and in turn guarantees religious liberties without prejudices and discrimination on religious grounds to all religious groups. It does not mean the elimination of religion, but its privatisation.
In the Middle East — quite contrary to Europe — one finds that secularism has been a foreign implant and secular regimes have been backed by Western states with their own neo-colonialist agendas
In the European experience, the achievement of the secular state was indeed a liberation from the religious oppression of the Church throughout much of what is described as the Dark Ages. In pre-enlightenment Europe, religious politics were indeed unregulated and unaccountable, exploiting with impunity under the ‘Divine Right of Kings.’
Having said that, the universalisation of the European secular experiment is a mistake we often fall into making, given the well entrenched Eurocentrism of education in postcolonial societies. Non-European societies had radically different approaches to and experiences with the question of religion and state.
Even a cursory glance at Muslim history makes it clear that the religious state was not always an instrument of corruption and abuse. It is difficult to contest the progressive and prosperous character of religious rule in the earliest history of Islam before the monarchical takeover of the caliphate.
There is evidence attesting to how rights and privileges were accorded justly, the supremacy of law held high and protections extended to non Muslims.
In most of Islam’s history, involvement of religious scholars and religious leaders in politics checked, regulated and held governments accountable. In fact, religious leaders, specifically the great Imams of both the Shiite and Sunni tradition, often became active forces of resistance to political excesses and abuse of religion. The example of Hussain R.A and the Imams of the Ahl-ul-Bayt as well as other companions is a powerful legacy.
The example of Al Andalusia under Islamic rule shines through history as a model of pluralism as well as intellectual, cultural and social progress. This is why the thesis that the secular values of egalitarianism and pluralism can in fact be accommodated within the ideal Muslim state exists. What needs to be understood here is that given this history, Muslims are entitled to conclude that the achievement of what are understood as secular ideals does not require the liberation of the state from religion. In other words, while Andalusia stands as a refreshing exception, it does show that the achievement of a progressive, diverse and tolerant civilization is possible and has been achieved without going through the separation of church and state, unlike in the European experience.
In the Middle East, quite contrary to Europe, one finds that secularism has been a foreign implant and secular regimes have been backed by Western states with their own neo-colonialist agendas. Such secular regimes in the Middle East have often been brutal and oppressive, corrupt, high-handed and even undemocratic. They have never really represented the popular will. This reality of secularism in the Muslim world is far from the ideal of secularism that fires our imaginations.
According to Phillip Bond and Adrian Pabst writing for the International Herald Tribune, “European societies enshrine the primacy of secular law over and against religious principles. Far from ensuring neutrality and tolerance, the secular European state arrogates to itself the right to control and legislate all spheres of life; state constraints apply especially to religion and its civic influence.”
Karen Armstrong, referring to the concepts of ‘dharma’ in Hinduism and ‘Deen’ in Islam asserts how secularism is a radical modern innovation as religion was always understood by human beings as a way of life without the public/private schism. She writes, ‘Questions like social justice or rights have always had sacred import.’
Whether we believe in the establishment of secular states in Muslim societies or not, we must accept that the case for secular states in Muslim societies is not only a historical, it is stridently Eurocentric at best and neo-colonialist at worst.
Maryam Sakeenah teaches Islamic Studies and Social Sciences in Lahore