Side Views

On the secular state controversy ― Ahmad Fuad Rahmat

September 26, 2012

SEPT 26 ― Some weeks have passed since the release of our rather controversial call for a secular state. Naturally, we encountered many comments along the way. Many were constructive, while one particularly from HAKIM was nothing short of vitriolic.

In the interest of furthering democratic debate, we shall take the opportunity here to clarify the misconceptions we encountered along the way in hope that our position will be more clearly understood.

Clarity of definition important

Muslims are particularly, and understandably, cautious at the slightest use of the word secular due to its connotations of the French ban of the veil or the Swiss ban of minarets. This has given rise to the wrong impression that secularism is particularly anti-Islamic.

To understand the full meaning of a concept by simply reducing it only to its most negative manifestations is to distort it. Indeed, from our observation, the adverse visceral reaction Muslims tend to have towards the slightest utterance of the word “secular” is not unlike the reaction of those who erroneously associate terrorism only with Islam.

Matters are far more complex than that and in our case, what we have only called for is a secular state. That is to say, the state as a political instrument is not to have any stamp of partiality to any particular religion as far as it is able to as possible.

To be clear, this is different than the call for a secular society or morality, where religion is to be completely removed from all aspects of life and behaviour. The idea behind a secular state is to have a neutral institutional arbiter and enforcer for a complex society where a diversity of views, ways of life, religions, cultures and ideas can be maintained.

Neutrality is a precondition of justice

A common objection against this position is to say that secularism itself is not neutral since it privileges its worldview against the religious one.

An important emphasis is needed here. What is sought after is not neutrality for neutrality’s sake, but neutrality to ensure that a polity remains as inclusive and open to as many divergent views and perspectives from as many segments of society as possible.

Neutrality, in other words, is a necessary condition to ensure justice for all. To be just, is to be fair, open and balanced. This cannot be ensured if the goal is to design a state based exclusively on one religious worldview.

Islam is not a State

In response to this, we have encountered another common objection, this time claiming that Islam itself can ensure neutrality and justice for all without needing to resort to secular ideals. We agree with this claim in a general sense but we also emphasize that there is no contradiction between Islamic principles and participating in a secular political entity.

Abdullah Ahmed an-Naim made this point astutely in his book, “Islam and the Secular State”. He reminds us that the state as the territorial concept we know today is inherited from a particular European vision of nationhood.

The increasing insistence to have Islam absorbed into that state framework then reduces the faith into squabbles on land and population. At best, it is a distraction from other priorities of Justice that Muslims should be concerned with. At worst, it is an outright abuse of the faith.

Furthermore, those who insist that non-Muslims can be protected under Muslim rule also miss the point: Citizenship is not simply about living undisturbed, whereby one’s property and livelihood is protected. That is merely a condition of well-being, not the be-all end-all.

The goal, indeed for any citizen ― Muslim or non-Muslim  ―  is to have one’s aspirations reflected in the nation’s identity. Political participation is not just about being left alone to go about one’s business, but having one’s particular desires, concerns and hopes recognized. In concrete terms, this means allowing as many perspectives to participate in the design and construction of a nation.

The more exclusively the state is defined by a particular religion or culture, the smaller that space would be for others.

Religious knowledge is not political knowledge

Abdullah Ahmed an-Naim made another point that is worth considering and that is the fact that religious expertise is not sufficient to address the complexity of managing a state.

Both forms of leadership obviously require a significant degree of ethical conduct. But the skill set needed to master religious texts is far different than what is required to manage the economics, security, diplomacy and public affairs of a state.

Furthermore, the way in which ethics is evaluated for a politician is different than that of a religious personality. Evaluating the latter, one might say, is a more personal and intimate process than the former. It is built upon conversation and direct impacts on how we live our lives and make everyday choices. The former, in turn, is measured more concretely through matters of public policy.

The desire to confuse the two ― which can be often found in the rhetoric of Islamic statehood ― has given rise to the trend where leaders who otherwise have little to no concern towards religion begin to feign piety to attract public support.

Thus, the increased impulse to see religious leaders take power may satisfy the religious pathos of many, but it may not lead to actual improvement in concrete policy, in which case even Muslims will lose out.

Muslims need a new vision of power

In the age of nation-states, what we have found is the increasing drive among Muslims to seize and concentrate power in state terms. The idea is that the glory of Islam can only be restored through the imposition of Islamic laws by way of state enforcement. Glory and civilisation, in other words, is to be understood primarily in terms of the ability to control, and in more particular instances, ban and repress.

Justice and equality, the cornerstone of the Islamic mission, has somehow been obscured in all this. Hence, Muslims today have little to say or offer in terms of reducing the widening global wealth gap, or the worsening environment, or how migrant workers, religious, cultural or racial minorities are mistreated even in Muslim majority countries.

Put in more straightforward terms: The world is falling apart, but what matters most for many Muslims is that the state is won.

But what if, instead of imagining Islam as a force for intimidation and control, it is communicated and lived in ways that would inspire and enlighten, whereby Muslims organise themselves to reclaim the inclusive and compassionate thrust of Islam, in which the elevation of suffering for the marginalised and vulnerable is placed at the core.

Perhaps the day will come we can hold on to power in a way that we are no longer afraid of others, when love is what lies at the heart of all motivations. This is indeed a tall order, but Muslims can begin by slowly letting go of their scramble for the state and find new ways of boldly facing the complex world in which they inhabit.

* Ahmad Fuad Rahmat is a Research Fellow with the Islamic Renaissance Front

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.