Originally published in The Age Newspaper
Secularisation no answer for Muslim world
By AMIR BUTLER
Wednesday 16 January 2002
Two consistent themes in much of the contemporary analysis of world affairs have
been the impending clash of civilisations and the need for the secularisation of
the Muslim world.
Secularism seeks to make the temporal rather than spiritual the basis for all
laws. It arose in response to a uniquely European Christian problem - the
excesses of the church, the antagonism between the church and science, and the
intra-Christian wars being fought at the time. The separation of church and
state was a logical solution.
In contrast, the periods of Muslim caliphate, particularly between 622 and 1492,
were marked as periods of growth, intellectual advancement and social justice.
The rights of minorities were protected, human rights were enshrined not just in
law but in scripture, and a knowledge-centred society was fostered that was the
intellectual well from which all of Europe came to drink.
Contrary to popular opinion, Islam, in its political manifestation, is
democratic - if democracy means that people choose their own leaders and laws
are passed through discussion and deliberation.
The Prophet Mohammed himself refrained from appointing a successor, instead
allowing people to choose the next ruler of the fledgling Islamic state. Umar,
the second Caliph (ruler), said that the ruler can be chosen only through the
consultative approval of the people.
However, Islamic democracy differs from secular democracy in that the right of
the people to legislate is limited by what they believe to be a higher law, to
which human law is subordinate. There is no axiom that states that a democracy
must be secular, in the same way that there is no axiom that states that a
secular system is intrinsically democratic.
The subordination of law-making to the Koran and Sunnah (traditions of the
Prophet Mohammed) made Muslim society immune to absolute tyranny and
Such emphasis also prevented absolute tyranny by giving Islamic scholars more
legislative power than the ruler. It was their word that was final on many
matters. If the ruler made a decision that was contrary to that of the ulema
(people of knowledge), his decision was to be rejected.
There is a stark contrast between past glories and current reality.
Whereas once the Muslim world was ruled by a single caliphate, its post-colonial
manifestation is a collection of weak, mostly secular, nation-states. Termed
"bunker regimes" by Samuel Huntington, their guns face their own people,
ruthlessly repressing dissent and committing some of the worst violations of
It is a sad irony that in many cases, Muslims have more freedom to practice
their religion in the secular democracies of the West than in the secular
dictatorships of the Middle East.
In Islam, there is no conflict between theology and science, between the demands
of the spiritual and the temporal. However, one can draw parallels between
Christian Europe before Enlightenment, and the intellectual stagnation,
reactionary impulses and conflict that characterises the Muslim world today.
Yet, what is required is not a wholesale adoption of secular democracy, but a
uniquely Islamic reformation.
Is it then unreasonable that Muslims, who have their own culture, values and
history, can be allowed to choose their own future? Those who advocate Western
secularism as a universal panacea, are akin to the child with the hammer who
thinks every problem is a nail.
Indeed, the call to secularise Islam as a means of averting a clash of
civilisations is really the first salvo in such a clash. Huntington wrote that
the problem for Islam is not the CIA nor the US Department of Defence. It is the
West, a different civilisation whose people are convinced of the universality of
their culture, and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on
them the obligation to extend that culture throughout the world. These are the
basic ingredients that fuel conflict between Islam and the West.
What is needed today is a revival of the tremendous energy that propelled
Muslims forward in history; the energy that comes from a clear sense of purpose
Muslim society must subject itself to critical self-evaluation, recognising the
principles that made it great in the past, as well as drawing on the positive
aspects of the West and other societies, adapting and improving upon them.
From this may spring a profound sense of empowerment and a realisation that
Muslims can make their own future.
The call to modernise Islam thus becomes a call to Islamisize modernity.