Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Islam and the Secular State

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im, an expert in Islamic law and human rights law from Emory University, has an important op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor about why Muslims should support modern ideas of the secular state and reject theocratic societies. The first paragraph is a powerful argument aimed at his fellow Muslims:

To be a Muslim by conviction and free choice – which is the only way one can be a Muslim – I need to live in a secular state. By a secular state, I mean one that is neutral regarding religious doctrine to facilitate genuine piety. The state should not enforce sharia (the religious law of Islam) because compliance should never be coerced by fear or faked to appease state officials. When observed voluntarily, sharia-based values can help shape laws and public policy through the democratic process. But if sharia principles are enacted as state law, the outcome will simply be the political will of the state.

He then confronts the arguments for Islamic states offered by theocratic elements in Islam:

The so-called Islamic state is conceptually incoherent and historically unprecedented. There simply is no scriptural basis for an “Islamic state” to enforce sharia.

The leadership of the prophet Muhammad in Medina is an inspiring model of the values Muslims should strive for in self-governance, transparency, and accountability. But since Muslims believe that there is no prophet after Muhammad, the Medina model cannot be replicated.

There’s no precedent for an Islamic state in practice. Historically, rulers sought the support of Islamic scholars and religious leaders to legitimize their authority, but religious authorities needed to maintain their autonomy. This was always a negotiated relationship, not a marriage.

And he argues that the Western world should support movements for secularism in Islam:

The experience of the vast majority of Muslims across the world today is about struggles for constitutionalism and human rights, economic development and social justice – not about the quest for Islamic states to enforce sharia. The world community must support Muslims in these struggles instead of punishing them for the sins of the extremist fringe of political Islamists.

I agree with this. I don’t know what percentage of Muslims around the world tend to support ideas like liberty and human rights. I hope he’s right that it’s the vast majority. I suspect it is at least a majority. But there is no doubt that a sizable portion of the Muslim world rejects the fascist ideology found in movements like Al Qaeda and the Taliban and it is incumbent on the Western world, in the interests of our own self-protection if not for moral reasons, to distinguish between these groups and provide as much support as we can for moderate organizations and movements in the Islamic world. They are as threatened by theocratic Islam as we are and they are our allies in the fight to defeat it.

He also argues, as I often have, that the principles and values of liberal democracy can have a similar effect on Islam as they had three centuries ago in Christianity, humanizing the most barbaric elements of a religion that in its current form is an enemy of human freedom and progress:

Historical interpretations of sharia that discriminate against women and non-Muslims can and should be reinterpreted and reformed. Without such transformation, state officials cannot be expected or trusted to uphold principles of constitutionalism and human rights. Yet those principles are prerequisites for advocating the necessary transformation. The secular state provides the space for and facilitates both aspects of this dialectic process.

I think both left and right tend to get this wrong. The left tends to downplay the seriousness of the threat of Islamic radicalism while the right tends to believe that all Muslims are like Bin Laden. The truth is that Islamic radicalism is the most serious threat to liberal, secular society in the world today and if we do not defeat that underlying ideology, we will continue to live under the threat of mass terrorism. The further truth is that there are powerful elements within Islam that oppose this ideology and it is clearly in our best interest to build alliances with those groups and strengthen their hand.