By Khaled Diab
A secular society confines religion to the spiritual sphere where it belongs, and leaves worldly affairs to human resourcefulness.
The question of bringing the Arab and Muslim worlds into the ‘modern age' has occupied some of the greatest minds of the past two centuries. It has been approached by natives of the region and foreigners, by friends and foes, by those with an honest desire for reform and those with their own agenda.
Some may question why Arab and Muslim societies need to secularise, while others will argue it is a doomed project because Islam and secularism are apparently incompatible beasts.
Well, it is my conviction that secularism is the bedrock of enlightenment because it confines religion to the individual spiritual sphere where it belongs, and leaves the ever-shifting reality of worldly affairs to human resourcefulness. The compelling proof of this is that Europe and the west's success has been largely secular, as was the Muslim world's before that, by the standards of the time. So, what can be done to speed up the train of secularisation and modernisation?
The Guardian's Brian Whitaker explores this question thoroughly in his new book – which I was interviewed for and had the pleasure of reading and commenting on in pre-publication – and in a series of articles for Comment is free.
“The Middle East will only be convinced by Islamic arguments for a secular state,” he argues. “Secularists have to be prepared to engage with religious arguments – something they are often reluctant to do.”
Since enduring reform comes from within and is usually gradual and incremental; this has also been my position. In self-defined ‘Islamic' states, especially those with a vibrant political landscape and nascent democratic institutions, such as Iran, this can empower reformers. While in Arab and Muslim states which are already secular, Islamic arguments for secularism can help steal the thunder of the Islamists and neutralise them intellectually.
This also broadly corresponds with what generations of Muslim reformers have attempted, beginning with the ‘Islamic modernists'. The founder of that movement, Muhammad Abdu, sought to “liberate thought from the shackles of imitation/tradition [taqlid]” and to prove that “religion must be accounted a friend to science”. Abdu lamented the closing of the gates of ijtihad and that through this manner of reasoned (re)interpretation Islamic morality and law could be adapted to suit the modern world.
However, placing secularism in an Islamic shell is not enough. It needs to regain its credibility by delivering concrete results. Many Arab and Muslim societies seem to be caught between the rock of repressive regimes, often with western backing, and the hard place of the Islamists, who are likely to take authoritarianism to a new level if they gain power.
Secular opposition needs to find a way of offering a viable alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood and other mainstream Islamists in the eyes of the disenchanted. There are early signs of this occurring in places like Egypt where secularists have been regrouping in recent years.
As Whitaker points out in his book, one of the key appeals of the Muslim Brotherhood is not so much their religious identity but their promise – whether honest or not – to stamp out corruption and restore the rule of law. To highlight that Islamism is not the only show in town, secularists need to demonstrate that their efforts to promote democratic freedom and limit the political powers of leaders is driven by a desire to protect the dignity and rights of the individual.
Dressing secularism up in Islamic garments is a useful stepping stone, but will eventually come up against the brick wall of what I term the “God veto” on issues where religious and cultural beliefs are too strong to be reasoned with effectively. A good example of this is the status of women.
In Egypt, for example, although the legal, social and economic status of women has improved significantly over the past century, efforts to create true equality are often derailed or watered down, as occurred during the revamping of the country's personal status laws, by an unholy alliance between religious and conservative circles.
There are also limitations on the ideological plane. Muhammad Abdu's back to fundamentals “salafiyya” was interpreted by secular reformers as an opportunity to jettison Islam's historical baggage and create a new, modern future-oriented society. However, by the likes of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, it was interpreted as an invitation to re-create the “glorious” past of the “pious ancestors”.
To overcome this kind of inertia requires a society not to seek guidance from the past but from the future, and this requires the culture to shift away from the tendency to 'emulate' – whether the Islamic past or the western present – and move towards ‘innovation', a challenge many ancient societies in decline have faced in the modern age.
Contemporary western societies possess both the confidence and resources to future-orient their perspectives. I don't believe it is an accident that the west's “golden age” has coincided with its domination of the global trading system, and the Middle East's terminal decline coincided with the loss of its monopoly on east-west trade.
Today, the pursuit of knowledge and development is such a resource intensive undertaking that, what had been in the mid-18th century a relatively small qualitative gap, has widened to almost unbridgeable proportions. Most Arab and Muslim societies, as well as many other developing countries, are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, domestic and global inequality, ignorance, and systematic disadvantage in the global balance of economic and political power.
To overcome this requires reform in every sphere, from decent education to political freedom, not to mention efforts to promote equality not just between individuals within a society, but between countries in the global trading and political system.