Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 -21 January 2004
Issue No. 673
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Our secular legacy

The uproar over headscarves in French schools has falsely pitted secularists against Islamists, writes Hala Mustafa*

Hala Mustafa When French President Jacques Chirac urged the parliament to pass a law banning conspicuous religious symbols in public schools (Islamic headscarves, large crosses, the Jewish skullcap), he said that this move was meant to protect secularism, which he described as non-negotiable and irreversible. Hardly had Chirac finished his statement that a flurry of protests came from some Islamic and Arab quarters.

Critics described Chirac's position as racist, biased against Muslims and antagonistic to Islam. For those who follow the cultural and social life in today's Arab and Islamic world, this reaction was to be expected, for there is no shortage of conspiracy theorists in our midst. Cultural, let alone political, reason is often silenced by those willing to pour intellectual venom on anyone with a different view.

Few paused to consider the motives France may have for such a move. Few addressed the merits of the secularism the French president wants to preserve, not for his own personal glory or that of his government, but to uphold France's long record of struggle for human freedom, fraternity and equality. Few showed willingness to examine secularism neutrally and objectively. But is it true that the Arab and Islamic world has not known secularism, and not enforced it, at least partly, for centuries? Is it true that secularism is against religion? And will the day ever come when the Arab mind would surmount the barriers of rejection and listen to reason?

Few, it seems, are ready to approach the question of secularism with objectivity. This is why secularism remains a much distorted and maligned concept. Some see it as too "Western". Others think it antagonistic to religion. In most cases, one-sided and biased explanations cast a shadow on the truth of secularism. One of the endemic problems of Arab culture is its propensity to ritualise the past and regard openness with suspicion. This is why no talk of democracy is possible without addressing the values, ideas and concepts governing political culture.

Democracy does not materialise the moment it is approved by the constitution or the law, or the moment voters appear at the polling stations. Democracy is a product of the environment in which it is applied. In other words, the essence of democracy depends on whether the prevalent culture is favourable to, or antagonistic to, freedom, tolerance and equality. All of these concepts are at the heart of civil rights and liberties.

Democracy aims to bring about the largest possible amount of rights and freedom to the individual. It was no coincidence that democracy, as a form of government, only took root after decades of struggle. The Magna Carta, declared in England in 1215, was the first legal document spelling out the idea of citizenry and individual civic rights. The American Declaration of Independence, ratified on 4 July 1776, was no less revolutionary. The latter was crowned with the drafting of the constitution in 1788, which confirmed the civic rights of the individual. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their creator, with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," notes the US constitution.

The French Revolution in 1789 put together the first specific declaration on individual rights and basic freedoms. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is one of the best known human rights declarations. It became universal when the United Nations adopted it in 1948. In its first article, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights announces that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

Democracy took root only after these rights and freedoms were accepted. Democracy, therefore, was more of a result than a cause of freedom. Human rights and freedoms developed in the context of secularism, for the latter paved the way to tolerance, freedom, and political accountability, just as it ended despotism in all its political and religious forms, including the practices of the clergy in Europe's Middle Ages. Man's natural right became a foundation for government; social contract theories paved the way for democratic systems; and man-made laws ended all forms of discrimination and fanaticism.

Secularism, generally defined as the "separation of church and state", was never meant to undermine religious beliefs. On the contrary, it helped protect religious beliefs, while preventing their use for political and authoritarian ends. Secularism is a set of regulatory measures aimed to separate the religious and political domains so as to prevent despotism. It is a guarantee that no social or political force would impart on itself, or on its views and interpretations, a sacred status in the name of religion, then proceed to impose it on individuals, society and the state.

What paved the way for secularism was the great interest Europe's Renaissance took in philosophy, history, poetry, literature and arts, all of which form the ingredients of modern civilisation. The spread of secularism in Europe and America (and thereafter to other parts of the world) took place only after bloody conflicts which cost the lives of many intellectuals and artists. Freedom was the fruit of the worthiest struggle known to humanity -- the struggle for human dignity. If secularism is occasionally confused for antagonism to religion, this happens as a result of the spread of some doctrines in the 19th century, particularly Marxism, with its atheist inclinations.

It is erroneously assumed that the Islamic world is unfamiliar with secularism. In fact, Islamic societies mostly abide by the modern idea of a nation state, have constitutions that endorse civic rights, and pass legislation that is clearly man-made. As a rule, the Islamic world does not uphold the unity of church and state, even though the dividing lines between the two gets occasionally blurred.

The secular aspect of Islam is not new. Prophet Mohamed did not recommend a certain system of government or name a successor. The change of the Muslim system of government, from the caliphate to hereditary monarchy, is a sign that no particular political system is obligatory in Islam. What we have are general principles used for overall guidance.

Islam does not recognise the principle of religious authority or endorse ruling through divine mandate. Jamaluddin Al-Afghani, for example, called for "the establishment of a constitutional government subject to the oversight of an elected parliament", insisting that the nation should choose its ruler. Abdul- Rahman Al-Kawakibi said that "rulers and politicians who attempt to confuse politics with religion are hiding behind the latter in order to tighten their grip on the gullible members of the nation, a conduct which has no basis in Islam as a religion."

In his endorsement of the National Party, Sheikh Mohamed Abdu said, "the National Party is a political, not a religious, party. It is made up of men who differ in denomination and creed. All Christians and Jews, everyone who tills the soil of Egypt and speaks its language, may join this party, regardless of the difference in creed."

In Islam and the Principles of Government, published 1925, Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razek, one of Al- Azhar's most luminous scholars, stated that "Islam is a religion, not an authority or a caliphate ... a message, not a command." In 1950, Khaled Mohamed Khaled addressed the same issue in From Here We Start, saying "Islam is a religion, not a state, and does not need to be a state ... Religion offers signs that illuminate our path to God. It is not a political force that controls people and forces them to follow the straight path."

Two of our contemporary scholars, different as they are in their doctrinal background, make the same point. Mohamed Ahmed Khalafallah states "the prophet-messenger draws his authority from God who chose him, whereas the caliph draws his authority from the people who chose him." In Islam, Arabism, and Secularism, Mohamed Emarah, argues that Islam, just as European secularism, has a utilitarian aspect.

This quick review demonstrates how secularism, a Western legacy, has served the cause of freedom, democracy and individual rights. Islamic legacy, meanwhile, has never been absent from the course of human advancement. We have gone through times of freedom and creativity, and others of repression and backwardness, and we have the right to disagree. Only, no one has the right to confiscate knowledge or stifle objectivity.

* The writer is editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya (Democracy) published by Al-Ahram.

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