The South Asian Islamist theorist Abul Ala Maududi (d.1979) detested secularism. His ideas went a long way in constructing what came to be known as ‘Political Islam’. These ideas also influenced a number of Islamist ideologues outside South Asia.
A synthesis began to emerge when Maududi’s ideas engaged with Islamist ideologues in Arabia and Iran. At the core of the synthesis was an impassioned castigation of secularism. It was denounced as being a European concept that was inherently anti-religion.
But non-Islamist scholarship and studies on secularism in the last three decades have demonstrated that there are various kinds of secularism within the Western world. The same scholarship also maintains that secularism as an idea or its implementation in non-Western regions has deeper roots in those regions’ own histories and conditions.
The baseline thought behind secularism is the state’s neutrality towards religion. In various European countries, this thought has evolved to mean the right to practise religion as long as this right is not abused to challenge the writ of the state and disrupt the democratic contract between the state and society.
Islamist ideologues often posit secularism as being against Islam. However, an exploration of the history of Western secularism reveals that the problem is often with the Islamists’ cherry-picked interpretations
The state is to remain religion-neutral, treating religion as a citizen’s personal matter. The state can only intervene if it establishes that the matter has become publicly problematic and is causing discord.
This strand of secularism is the product of 17th and 18th century Enlightenment — a period in Europe and in the US that emphasised the importance of reason, science and material progress over ‘superstition’, monarchism, clericalism, traditionalism, etc. Most Enlightenment thinkers advocated the separation of the Church and the state. However, they did not call for the obliteration of religion.
They wanted religious texts to be ‘disenchanted’ and/or simplified and freed from superstition. The Enlightenment thinkers wanted religion to operate as a constructive social current (instead of an impediment) in an era of rapid political, economic and social changes.
So why did most Islamist ideologues explain Western secularism as anti-religion? I think it was a case of cherry-picking. They chose to focus more on the idea of secularism that emerged in France during the tumultuous 1789-99 revolution in that country.
Revolutionary French secularism was the product of a strong anti-clerical current in French society. Most common folk and intellectuals in France had accused the nexus between the monarchy and the Church as being entirely exploitative and the main culprit behind the country’s economic woes.
Compared to other European countries and the US, the strand of republicanism in France was more intense. During the revolutionary period, priests and clerics were violently persecuted, until the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte, who restored order. Nevertheless, republicanism in France remained strong.
The US political scientist Elizabeth Hurd differentiates secularisms in the US and most European countries from French secularism, which is also referred to as ‘laïcite’. According to Hurd, the former strand of secularism seeks to preserve the liberties of citizens to think, organise and worship (or not) as they wish; whereas laïcite gives priority to the state and to common national identity over religion. But it is in no way anti-religion.
Many Islamists also mistook the overt anti-religion policies of some former communist regimes as secularism. Scholars of secularism desist from calling these regimes secular because they often tried to suppress established religions with an, albeit atheistic, creed built around a cult of personality.
Another flaw in the Islamists’ perceptions of secularism was their assumption that it was an entirely Western construct. Early Islamist thinkers were shocked when the Turkish nationalist Kamal Ataturk abolished the Ottoman caliphate and declared Turkey to be a modern republic. Indeed, Ataturk was influenced by French republicanism, but his secularisation policies were largely rooted in the political and economic turmoil that his country had plunged into in the 19th century.
When European powers began to encroach upon the political and economic interests of the Ottomans, it was the caliphate which responded by secularising many legal and social aspects of the empire. From 1839, the caliphate began to roll out a series of reforms. The reforms were introduced to sustain the empire and meet the changing needs of Ottoman society.
Therefore, Ataturk evolved something that was already in motion. This produced a secularism that was formulated to suit Turkish society. Turkish intellectuals, such as the sociologist Ziya Gokalp, played a prominent role in arguing for a secular Turkish nationalism as a way to address economic and political turmoil in Turkey. He contributed in coining the word ‘laiklik’ for Turkish secularism.
Unlike European and US secularisms, Turkish secularism was not religion-neutral. Instead, it gave the state the power to monopolise Islam and regulate it in the public sphere. It accepted Islam as being Turkey’s major religion, but one that was to be regulated according to the country’s modern nationalist and republican aspirations.
Indian secularism too was formulated according to India’s nationalist aspirations. It took into account the country’s religiously diverse society. Indian secularism is not about expunging religion from the public sphere, as such. It is about treating all Indians as equal citizens, no matter what their religion. It’s another thing that Hindu nationalists are of the view that Indian secularism is tilted more towards benefitting non-Hindus. They want to see it gone, or at least recognise India’s Hindu majority.
In Muslim-majority Pakistan, its founders conceptualised a project in which Islam was not used as a theocratic expression, but as a concept to formulate a political identity and nationalism.
According to the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, when religion is used to formulate a nationalist idea or identity, the ritual and theological aspects of the faith decrease. Taylor sees this as part of the secularisation process. During the first two decades of Pakistan, the state formulated a secularism which saw the state regulate Islam in the public sphere, but continue using it as a nationalist expression.
This strand of secularism also took shape in various other Muslim-majority nation-states. Islamists abhorred it, because it limited their participation in the project. Therefore, they began to explain it as a Western concept and anti-Islam, before barging in (from the 1970s onwards) and redirecting the project’s orientation towards building a more Islamist nationalism.
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 8th, 2023