Thursday, March 29, 2012
I recently came across this interesting presentation on Islam and Secularism by Tunisian intellectual Rashid Ghannouchi. Tunisia is at a critical juncture, having just elected an Islamically-inclined party, Ennehda, to power after having successfully staged their revolution that went on to spark the Arab Spring. And Ghannouchi is the intellectual head of this movement.
I have read some of his works written in years past when he was in exile and so I was looking forward to his perspective after having finally achieved a platform for implementing his vision. Unfortunately, I came away greatly disappointed in what I felt to be a grossly apologetic approach to synchronizing the paradox of Islam and Secularism.
I’ve taken snippets from his talk followed by my comments. However, in order to taste the full complement of flavors experienced in his talk, you really must read it from beginning to end.
“Secularism appeared, evolved, and crystallized in the West as procedural solutions, and not as a philosophy or theory of existence, to problems that had been posed in the European context. Most of these problems emerged following the Protestant split in the West, which tore apart the consensus that had been dominant in the Catholic Church, and imposed the religious wars in the 16th and 17th century. It was thus that Secularism and/or secularization began.”
Secularism is not simply a set of ‘procedural solutions’. How could a set of mere ‘procedural solutions’ have been proposed to clean up the mess made by the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries? One needs only to look back at the embryonic stages of secularism and study the environment in which it was gestated to realize that the Reformation, the Renaissance, Enlightenment and other deeply philosophical events were key in the formulation of Western Secularism.
Europe needed an entirely different mindset and worldview in order to overwrite centuries of damage caused by the paternalistic Church. And thus, Secularism conveniently separated the over-reaching arm of the Church from the state and declared all religious matters divorced from the public realm. No ‘procedural solutions’ could have ever achieved such a monumental paradigm shift.
True, secularism has a procedural component, such as the significance of rule of law or the separation of powers, but to suggest that it isn’t a philosophy or that it doesn’t strongly promote and encourage a certain theory of existence (i.e. atheism) is patently incorrect.
“In the United States religious interference in the public domain is evident, despite the differentiation that exists there remains a significant religious influence. Their leaders' speeches are laden with religious content and references, and religion is debated in all electoral campaigns where it manifests itself in issues such as prayer in schools and abortion.”
To argue that the US intermixes religion and politics in issues of any substance is naïve. The rare sprinkling of religion into the political realm is superficial at best. The role of religion in core governance issues is nonexistent. The fact that religion is allowed a chair at the table of government is merely a PR ploy. Only peripheral issues, such as abortion, contraception, and prayer in school, are regularly marched before the public (coincidentally during election season), so as to distract from the more vital issues such as social services , foreign policy, economics, etc.
“This will naturally lead to a diversity in interpretation, and there is no harm in that except when we need to legislate, at which time we are in need of a mechanism, and the best mechanism that mankind has come up with is the electoral and democratic one which produces representatives of the nation and makes these interpretations a collective as opposed to an individual effort.”
Based on what is he able to declare that the best legislative mechanism that mankind has come up with is the electoral and democratic one? With so many apparent abuses and failures of the democratic methodology, how can this be the best mankind has devised? It is folly at best, and disingenuous misrepresentation at worst, to suggest that a republic based on democratic procedures can most optimally yield a just and fair government. Have not centuries of this exact political experiment in Europe and the US proven that all democracies inevitably spiral downwards into the sewage of plutocracy and oligarchy? Why are we so in a rush to duplicate the failures of our masters?
“But if what is mean is the separation in the French sense or in accordance with the Marxist experience then we may engage in a dangerous adventure that may harm both religion and state. The total stripping of the state from religion would turn the state into a mafia, and the world economic system into an exercise in plundering, and politics into deception and hypocrisy. And this is exactly what happened in the Western experience, despite there being some positive aspects. International politics became the preserve of a few financial brokers owning the biggest share of capital and by extension the media, through which they ultimately control politicians.”
The speaker has failed to provide any alternate method by which a secular democracy can be employed without inevitably resulting in the above-mentioned negative after-effects.
“There is no value to any religious observance that is motivated through coercion. It is of no use to turn those who are disobedient to God into hypocrites through the state's coercive tools. People are created free and while it is possible to have control over their external aspects, it is impossible to do so over their inner selves and convictions.”
This is a typical red herring by the pro-secularism side and while I expect such misleading drivel from the likes of Bush, I am very disappointed to read it from Ghannouchi. They paint a binary landscape in which complete freedom of religion exists solely in a setting where religion plays a minimal role in governance or religion and politics mix into a toxic potion resulting in coercion and compulsion by oppressive religious state authorities.
No one is arguing for state interference in private religious matters. No one wishes for the state to have control over ‘their inner selves and convictions.’ It isn’t a choice of absolute liberalism or absolute authoritarianism.
“The state's duty, however, is to provide services to people before anything else, to create job opportunities, and to provide good health and education not to control people's hearts and minds.”
What about creating a rich, fertile society in which man can fully express his humanity, which happens to be through adherence to the Quran and Sunnah.
“For this reason, I have opposed the coercion of people in all its forms and manifestation and have dealt with such controversial topics such as al-Riddah (apostasy) and have defended the freedom of people to either adhere to or defect from a religious creed, based on the Qur'anic verse that says: 'there is no compulsion in religion'.”
Sadly he shows his limited understanding of the ideal mix between religion and politics when he restricts his samples to the media-mandated hot topics of veiling and apostasy.
These are all straw men, propped up and consequently shot down by him to simply further his pro-secularism contentions. No sane advocate of combining religion and politics is suggesting that the state must force religiosity on its citizens. Rather, the state must cultivate an environment conducive to carrying out one’s religious obligations while enriching one’s spiritual development.
“This is why Muslims consider Islam's proof to be so powerful that there is no need to coerce people, and when the voice of Islam proclaims 'Produce your proof if ye are truthful' this challenge is being proposed at the heart of the political and intellectual conflict.”
Again, the argument isn’t about coercing citizens to observe religious rituals. It is about enacting religious principles in state institutions. It is about removing predatory capitalism from the economy. It is about instilling a more just foreign policy, in line with the Quran and Sunnah. It is about educating the masses away from materialism and back towards a more spiritual worldview
“The fact that our revolution has succeeded in toppling a dictator, we ought to accept the principle of citizenship, and that this country does not belong to one party or another but rather to all of its citizens regardless of their religion, sex, or any other consideration. Islam has bestowed on them the right to be citizens enjoying equal rights, and to believe in whatever they desire within the framework of mutual respect, and observance of the law which is legislated for by their representatives in parliament.”
And all this can only be achieved via a secular democracy? Is our intellectual capital so exhausted that we cannot even consider an alternative Islamically-anchored possibility?
Thursday, March 15, 2012
During my college days, back in the early 90’s, I had the very fortunate opportunity to attend a weekend conference featuring both Dr. Israr Ahmed and Sh. Mokhtar Moghraoui. It was organized by TINA (Tanzimi-Islam of North America), a branch of Dr. Israr’s Pakistan-based Tanzimi-Islam movement. The 3-day conference was very small (around 20 attendees) and offered an extremely intimate environment whereby serious discussions and exchanges could be had. The organizers had Dr. Israr presenting his political philosophies while Sh. Mokhtar was asked to focus on the spiritual aspect of community development.
For anyone unfamiliar with Dr. Israr and his pro-khilafa movement, he preached an almost literal approach to the Prophetic model of state development. He advocated for a grassroots movement by which a critical mass of devoted followers would accumulate, after which a confrontation with state authorities would inevitably ensue. At it's core it wasn’t a violent message, but one which called for Muslims to prepare for sacrifice if and when the need arose.
But in our private sittings with Sh. Mokhtar, he was respectfully adamant in disagreeing with Dr. Israr’s approach. Instead of the need for a revolution, Sh. Mokhtar believed in the need for an evolution. He insisted that revolutions only bring about fleeting change, while the Muslims are in dire need of an evolutionary change that is sustainable and enduring.
Years later, I’m convinced that both approaches are required. We need an evolutionary change to our spirits, but we need a revolution to initiate an upheaval to our crumbling status quo.
This excellent article over at CommonDreams succinctly states the steps we need to take considering the dire circumstances in which we find ourselves:
“We are going to need a revolution. An energy revolution. A social revolution. And a revolution in international relations -- waging war on climate change, instead of war on countries with the misfortunate of sitting on top of oil and other coveted resources.
To achieve all this we are going to need to summon an unprecedented collective will to take back the public sphere, including the media, and we will have to re-imagine our democracy, our cities, our societies, and our daily lives.”
I think Muslims have become too timid to discuss the need for a revolution. Revolutions need not involved bloodshed. Revolutions need not result in outright chaos and anarchy. Revolutions can take countless shapes and forms.
Must we restrict ourselves to the ‘revolution within’? In the midst of all this global uncertainty, where are the Muslims to offer their Divinely-inspired solutions?