The Sacred and the Secular: Promoting Muslim Democracy

June 2nd, 2011, by Asef Bayat


Asef Bayat

Asef Bayat

Urbana-Champaign, Illinois

The presence of religion in public space challenges our ideas about the roles of faith in our lives and politics. Over the last centuries, proponents of secularization have claimed that as societies modernize, the role of religion in public and private life diminishes. For them, modern rationality, science, and the ideal of representative governments as sovereign replace religion as a source of authority, regulation, and security.

But a new claim is that religion is necessary for us today, not despite modernity, but precisely because of it. Religion is required in the public space, it is argued, because only faith can amend the deficits and alleviate the pain caused by modern life. Since the 1970s, the secularization thesis has been forced onto the defensive as a tide of religiosity — often “fundamentalist” in nature — gained renewed influence in the major traditions, including Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Religion has thus returned to overtly public and political matters.

But how closely can sacred teachings inform politics and governance?  The prism of the Muslim Middle East shows how the public role of religion has varied over time. In the late 19th century Middle East, several religious movements emerged in response to Islam’s encounter with the European colonial conquest and modernity. Traditionalists such as Wahabis sought to preserve their culturally specific Islamic heritage. The modernist trend, spearheaded by cosmopolitan leaders such as Jamal eddin Afghani and Mohammad Abdou, advocated an evolving Islam that would coexist and flourish within this emerging modernity. And some people demanded separating Islam from the state entirely.

Middle East Muslim public life has for over a century been the site of rivalry between a minority wanting to entirely secularize their societies, and Islamic traditionalist or fundamentalists, who oppose many modern ideas and civil institutions. Meanwhile, the majority of ordinary people have tried in their daily lives to marry their modern aspirations for basic rights and better material lives with their religious traditions.

The 1970s brought revived and aggressive religious engagement in society and politics. Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979 bolstered a new global era of religious politics in the Middle East and beyond by offering a tangible model of Islamic rule. That same year, Islamic militants seized the Grand Mosque of Mecca in a failed effort to dislodge the Saudi rulers. The shocking assault spurred radicalization and accelerated the rivalry between Wahabi and Salafi trends. By the mid-1990s, the public space in the Middle East was dominated by Islamic movements, institutions, and sensibilities—in mosques, media, NGOs, education apparatus, judiciary, and in the streets. More concretely, religious groups in the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iran ruled through Islamic states.

But the realization of an Islamic state carries within it contradictory seeds of its own decline. History has shown that religious states of any faith inevitably lead to the secularization of theology, for leaders, religious or not, must respond to day-to-day exigencies of governance. Sacred injunctions are bent, revised, or cast aside to accommodate the requisites of governance or merely to justify power. As in Iran, authorities will ignore laws, including the constitution, or proscribe people’s religious obligations, if such is deemed necessary to secure the “religious” state. Religion thus descends from the height of devotion and spirituality to be a pliable instrument to serve secular objectives.

Cynical secularization of the sacred by the “Islamic” states is alienating many Muslim citizens. Secular, faithful, and even many members of the ulema (Muslim spiritual leaders)have pleaded for the separation of religion from the state, in order to restore both the sanctity of religion and the rationality of the state. Most of them are seeking a post-Islamist trajectory where faith is merged with freedom and Islam with democracy, in which a civil democratic state can work within a pious society. Examples in the Muslim world, from Indonesia’s Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) to Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, as well as the current “Arab Spring,” are pointing toward post-Islamist polities.

For Muslim societies, not modernizing is no longer an option. Only a secular democratic state respecting basic human rights for all, can provide good and modern governance for the faithful and the secular alike. Under a secular democratic state religion can flourish while non-religious people and religious minorities remain secure. ends

Asef Bayat, Professor of Sociology and Middle East Studies, University of Illinois. His latest book, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (2010), is published by Stanford University Press.

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