Islam Versus Secularism: Muslim Democrats and a Third Way

Foundation Update

Islam Versus Secularism: Muslim Democrats and a Third Way

07 May 2015

Too often we assume that secularism is a monolith, an oft-imagined separation of church and state, an avoidance of overt religion in public life. But this aspiration was born out of a particular history and place. Today, public expressions of religion around the globe can no longer be contained by Western European-style secularism. But alternatives do exist. The West must take stock of its position and realign its policies to ensure that they reflect the public's religious sentiments, writes Ed Husain for our Global Perspectives Series.

Islam Versus Secularism: Muslim Democrats and a Third Way

By Ed Husain

The secularism project in most parts of Europe, it can be argued by observers, is not about separation of powers, but about minimising the public appeal of religion. Church attendance is declining; rationalist, materialist and modernist interests are supreme; and talk of religion is taboo. French government officials preach the 1871 doctrine of laïcité, removing religious instruction from elementary schools. In France and Germany, only one in ten Catholic adults have said they attend religious services on a weekly basis in Pew Research surveys conducted in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Pew Research, 'During Benedict's Papacy, Religious Observance Among Catholics in Europe Remained Low but Stable', 5 March 2013, [ The West is now home to populations who no longer understand religion and are therefore intellectually disconnected from the majority of the world.

This lack of understanding and interaction with religion flaws foreign policy formulation. European diplomats are trained to think in compartmentalised terms, separating religion from politics in their interactions with other nations. They approach conflict zones with materialist analyses, overlooking the powerful appeal of religious narratives in Israel, Palestine, Nigeria, the Caucasus or Pakistan. Domestically, we are troubled by the assertive religious identity of European Muslims, children of immigrants, who do not conform to the quietist surrender of the segments of Western European societies who still attend churches and synagogues.

The French outlawing of niqabs or face veils, the Swiss ban on minarets and the German persistence that German Muslims are 'guest workers', immigrants who will go home one day, are the symptoms of a deeper resentment of a rising Islam. J. Angelos, 'What Integration Means For Germany's Guest Workers', Foreign Affairs, 28 October 2011, [ Globally and domestically, hardline secular attitudes are determined to confront religion anew. However, liberal democracy will not win the argument unless it identifies allies amid religious communities. There is a lot to learn about different visions of secularism and its religious partners from recent events and, in particular, the rise of new forces in the Middle East.

In India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand, in varying degrees, we have witnessed the rise of Hindu and Buddhist political assertion. In Israel, secularist forms of Zionism are fading as revived Judeo-inspired political ideologies of Zionism become the norm. Across Africa and Latin America, Christianity is increasingly more muscular in public expression. But the real challenge comes from politicised strains within Islam for several reasons. First, Islam's adherents are numerically stronger and geographically widespread. Second, Muslims' historical political experiences of a caliphate have revolved around the merger of the religious and political offices of state. Third, there is widespread acceptance among Muslims that interpretations of sharia should be introduced in some form in state law. Fourth, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is advancing an extreme experiment of a new caliphate with implications for territorial borders. Fifth, 30 million Muslims are Western citizens. Islam is now the second largest religion in the West. Unravelling and addressing this abiding challenge of Islam and secularism in the modern world could not be more urgent.

To do this, we need to better understand the battle of ideas inside global Islam, within and between Sufism, Salafism, Islamism and modernism. The struggle with the modern West is but a spillover of this raging conflict. We make the mistake of focusing excessively on the Sunni-Shia conflict, failing to realise that it is the rise of Salafism within Sunni Islam that explains this revived Sunni-Shia sectarianism. In the Marxist context, Antonio Gramsci described how an organised minority of aggressive ideologues could control disorganised masses. In the Muslim milieu, it is a small number of extreme Salafis that are on the ascendance. They are advocating a more confrontational, literalist Salafism manifesting itself in anything from reluctance to integrate and promoting more puritanical forms of gender inequality, to intolerance of religious minorities and endorsing terrorism as jihad.

The Salafis have three major advantages over more mainstream, disorganised Muslims. First, extreme Salafis have the perceived advantage of claiming to be truer Muslims because of their literalist adherence to scripture. They are visibly Muslim in their unkempt beards and burkas. The more mystically inclined majority of mainstream Muslims cannot compete on this level of religious ostentation. Second, Salafis are exceptionally well-financed through Gulf zakat or charitable sources from businesses and royalty. For several decades, they enjoyed the benevolence of the Saudi state. No other Muslim faction can currently compete with revenues in Salafi coffers accrued through a global web of non-governmental organisations. Third, a variation of Salafism controls universities in Mecca and Medina. There is, therefore, a constant supply of Salafi preachers and proselytisers with shining credentials from Islam's sacred cities.

Local forms of mainstream Islam in Turkey, Indonesia, Nigeria or Bangladesh cannot outshine this Arabian, seemingly pristine, wealthy brand of Islam being unleashed from Saudi Arabia. This Salafi ideology and its assorted adherents have been spreading throughout the Muslim world. It is the most vocal and visible alternative to Western secularism for Muslims. Mistakenly, Arab governments, such as that in Egypt for example, are keen to co-opt Salafis against Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood. That policy provides Egypt's new government with short-term consolidation of power as they imprison Islamists, at the cost of the long-term consequences of radicalising a population by providing public platforms for Salafis.

Ideally, governments, civil society and media personalities should endorse and encourage Sufi forms of mainstream Islam as the public norm, as in Indonesia, Bangladesh or Morocco. This rooted and historical strain of Islam is, however, too mystical, accommodationist and quietist for the zeal of the university activist. In that space, Sufis, who are focused on saints, litanies and spirituality, mostly cannot provide a political outlet for creating a sharia state in the way that politicised Salafis can through their offer of a renewed, invigorated, state-centric Islam.

Despite widespread and horrific atrocities, ISIS, which essentially comprises violent political Salafis, is now able to showcase its abilities in government, providing safety for its citizens, keeping schools open and the job market functioning, generating revenue from taxation and oil sales and expanding its territory. The risk is that Muslims across the world begin to see this as a viable option. An alternative path must be presented.

Arguing for Western secularism in this context, however, is a non-starter. Amongst many Muslims the term 'secularism' connotes atheism and anti-religion. But, for the past four decades, an array of leading Muslim individuals and institutions has been struggling to reconcile the modern world with a Muslim political discourse. Political parties change when realities around them evolve. In 1993 for example, the British Labour Party moved away from a far left commitment to 'common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange' towards the political centre. Islamist political movements are no different. After decades of trying and failing to gain power, the more intelligent and creative Islamists have jettisoned ideology and sought new ways of succeeding at the ballot box.

They have all been on a journey of opposing the West; revolting against their hardline secularist governments; and slowly progressing to a political space that is pluralist rather than 'secular', democratic and broadly conservative. They no longer wish to impose literalist sharia, but wish to see the values of the sharia reflected in government. Known as maqasid al-sharia, it is a scripturally sound approach that can compete with Salafism's religious appeal. Maqasid al-sharia translates as objectives of the sharia, which are to maintain security in society, intellectual and religious freedom, property rights and family values. Any society that upholds these values is Islamic; by that definition, the modern West is fully Islamic. The proponents of maqasid are slowly growing.

These proponents were Islamists two decades ago, but today some are Muslim democrats. Working with them may at times be a frustrating and expensive venture. To be credible and appealing, Muslim democrats must not only be theologically robust, but must also offer security, prosperity and better opportunities than ISIS and the Salafis. However, aligning with, and emboldening, these new Muslim democrats will be a strategic investment that opens a space for fostering a third way between Salafism and secularism in Muslim-majority countries and, importantly, in the public imagination. The most instructive examples of this intellectual trend are with Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party and with Tunisia's Rashed Ghannouchi and the Ennahda party.

Turkey's Islamists do not refer to themselves as Islamists but as centre-right conservatives. They believe in the free market, are members of NATO and have consistently aspired toward EU membership. They have pioneered a new path that respects a secular polity, but empowers the personally pious to govern without imposing a rigid interpretation of sharia as state law. In the last decade, per capita income has gone from $2,000 to over $10,000. The World Bank, 'Turkey Overview', [], accessed 19 November 2014. Turkey is far from perfect and there remain challenges around Kurdish rights and press freedoms, but it is far better to be incentivising Turkish Muslim democrats to improve on these contentions, than to be building alliances with Salafi forces in Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

Similarly, after free and fair elections, Tunisia's Ennahda party have given way to the victors. Ghannouchi openly talks about both mosques and bars being open and about leaving people to choose freely. While Ghannouchi and others have avowedly rejected French secularism, which seems more anti-religious than neutral on questions of religion in the public domain, he is on the record for endorsing British and American accommodation of religion as a possible model for Muslim democrats. Council on Foreign Relations, 'A Conversation With Rached Ghannouchi', 30 May 2013, [].

These transformations do not happen in a vacuum. Tunisian and Turkish Muslim democrats have been in public and private discussions for two decades. Together, if the political conditions and incentives are put in place, these same organisations can assist in shifting the narrative of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and elsewhere.

If these Muslim democrats are supported and their success amplified, then we can envisage Salafi leaders shifting in this direction. Sheikh Salman al-Audah, a major Saudi Salafi leader not affiliated with the government, has already endorsed Ghannouchi. Ideas travel between geographies and individuals. If Muslim democrats are able to illustrate practical success in government and wider acceptance by the West, this process can be hastened. Greater and deeper Western support for Turkey's membership of the European Union, for example, would be a powerful way of illustrating European support for Muslim democrats.

After decades of struggle between Salafism and secularism, a new prototype of modern Muslim democracy has emerged in two important Muslim-majority countries. If we understand the significance of this historical moment, the potential to spread this model to other countries is real. ISIS distracts us, but our attention should be on the reconciliation between religion, secularism and the public space underway in Turkey and Tunisia. If this goes well, then Muslim citizens in the West will draw inspiration from Muslim democrats, not Salafists and Islamists.

This article is taken from the Global Perspectives Series (Volume I): Religion and Conflict: Responding to the Challenges. Find all the articles from the volume here.

Copyright © December 2014 by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Edited by Daniel Cere and Thomas Thorp.
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