The Myth of Secularism

M. A. Muqtedar Khan

Had Allah willed He could have made you all one community. But He made you as you are [diverse] as a test. So vie one with another in good works. Unto Allah you will all return, and He will then inform you of the meaning of differences within you.

Identity and Politics
As a Muslim intellectual living in the West, researching and teaching political theory and political philosophy, I have always marveled at the durability of the idea of secularism. For a civilization that boasts considerable sophistication in most areas to assume that politics and religion constitute two separate realms or that the two can be separated is uncharacteristically naive. This belief, not in separation of church and state but in the separability of church and state, in my opinion is one of the enduring myths of modernity. This myth rests on the false assumptions of pure politics and pure religion. Secularism is a device that seeks to protect religion from the corruption of politics and politics from becoming usurped by religion.

All core issues not only are normative in nature but also impinge on individual and collective identities. Neither the conception of the individual self nor the construction of the collective self is free from political or religious considerations. Even in societies that were antireligious, such as the former Soviet Union, or more secular than the United States, such as Turkey, religion remained an important political issue and politics shaped the way religion was practiced. Christianity played a significant role in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and Islamists found a way to come to power in secular, fundamentalist Turkey. The place of religious symbols in the public sphere, whether it is hijaab (the Muslim head scarf ) in French public schools or the Ten Commandments in American courts, remains contested primarily because there is no consensus anywhere on the exclusion of religion from the public sphere.

Not only does religion play a role in politics, but the politicization of religion is also a common occurrence. Notice how some Republicans are relishing the idea of trouncing Howard Dean, if he becomes the Democratic nominee in the coming presidential elections, by painting him as an advocate of gay marriage. This would be a clear case of exploiting religious sentiments (that marriage is a divine institution) for political gain. I notice that often American politicians couch their religious motivations in secular terms while advocating specific policies. A good example is the unyielding support for Israel and Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza among certain Republican politicians with Evangelical connections. Although they support it for biblical reasons, they justify it by arguing that Israel is the "only democracy in the Middle East." I often wonder if their support for Israel would stop if Israel became less democratic or if it could be shown that some people within its borders do not enjoy basic democratic rights.

In the Muslim world, on the contrary, legitimacy comes from Islam, and therefore many politicians justify material motivations using Islamic cover. Religious politicians in the West often use secular discourse to gain legitimacy; Muslim politicians deliberately Islamize mundane issues for the same reason. Notice the Islamization of Saddam Hussein's rhetoric in the first Gulf War. While religion in the West lacks legitimacy in the public sphere and must therefore be concealed, in the Muslim world all legitimacy derives from Islam and hence Islam is used as a justification for politics.

There are two reasons that religion and politics are intertwined. The first is the increasing use of complex discourses for the purpose of legitimization. Today all politicians seem to follow the Machiavellian dictum that it is not important to be just, it is important to be seen to be just. Therefore politicians and political parties and regimes produce discourses to legitimize their goals and strategies. It is in the production of these discourses that religion either underpins political logic or camouflages politic motivations, depending upon the cultural context.

The second and perhaps the most important reason that religion will always play a role in crucial issues is the important role that religion plays in identity formation. All political issues that are important eventually affect individual and collective identity and in the process trigger religious sentiments. As long as religion plays a role in the identities of people, it will play a role in politics.

Self-Restraint or Constitutional Limits
Both Mario Cuomo and Mark Souder link religion with private and public morality. They both agree that it is difficult for believers to divest themselves of their religious values while also serving in a public capacity. However, it is interesting to see how each uses separate mechanisms to limit the impact of religion on public policy. Cuomo argues that politicians must exercise self-restraint and allow only those religious values that are universal in nature to influence their politics—and abstain from allowing particularist values to shape their agendas. Souder rejects the notion of a natural law and common religious values by suggesting that the uncommon is more important than common ground among religions. This is an interesting contrast between identity and difference. Cuomo seeks to overcome differences by seeking the identity of all faiths, while Souder celebrates difference in search of identity.

As a member of a religious minority in America, I feel very uneasy with Souder's response to the question about the fears of non-Christian religious minorities. To put it bluntly, his response that because Christianity is so diverse Christians will never manage enough consensus to impose their religious values over others seems evasive. What if they do agree upon some basic issues? What if the Christian coalition does manage to construct a broad coalition to deprive Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism of the same legal protections as Christianity (for example, in England blasphemy laws protect Jesus but not Muhammad)? When Muslims repeatedly asked President Bush to condemn the anti-Islam (Islamophobia) bigotry of prominent Christian figures such as Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, and Jerry Falwell, the president hedged for weeks, because these individuals have a large following that translates directly into political power at the ballot box and in campaign fund-raising.1

In an era when religious minorities in America are becoming extremely nervous about the relations between the Christian Right and the Republican establishment, which controls both the White House and the Congress, a plain, unequivocal statement (such as, We will not impose Christian beliefs on non-Christians) would go a long way to allay fears. Souder makes the point that as a Christian politician he is conscientious enough to fulfill his constitutional obligations. He will abide by the U.S. Constitution since he has sworn to protect it and abide by it. After listening to Cuomo's eloquent argument for self-restraint, I wish someone had asked Souder whether he would promise to abstain from advocating an amendment to the Constitution to make his religious beliefs the law of the land. In a democracy, what stands between minority rights and majority domination are constitutional guarantees, which are themselves at the mercy of the good intentions of the majority.

The Muslim world today is experiencing a deeply divisive and traumatic religious resurgence. This is not a venue to discuss this phenomenon, but it is important to draw a parallel prompted by Souder's claim that his faith is a worldview. The Islamists too make this claim. They argue that Islam is not a religion, it is a worldview, and they even compare it to other ideologies and worldviews such as capitalism and communism. Islamists have penned tons of books comparing Islam with communism, socialism, capitalism, liberalism, and democracy to prove not only that Islam has something to say about every aspect of life but also that whatever it may say is necessarily superior to what other ideologies say on the same subject. This for them is an article of faith. Claims about religious creeds as an all-encompassing worldview have the potential to blossom into totalitarian ideologies.

The two politicians demonstrate contrasting models. Cuomo's is a model of statesmanship, as he chooses wisdom over parochialism and seeks to exercise self-restraint on personal beliefs in search of common public values. In doing so he chooses to become a generic religious politician and not just a Catholic politician. Souder's, on the other hand, is a model of citizenship in which his commitment to the Constitution proscribes the role of his religion in politics. But his view that his faith is a worldview and the true worldview, including those elements that question the authenticity of other faiths, places the Constitution in jeopardy. His citizenship will prompt him to uphold the Constitution, but I fear that his Christianity will compel him to change the Constitution whenever possible to accommodate his beliefs. The statesman will always be the ally of religious minorities in pluralist democracies, but the Christian citizen is an imminent threat to constitutional guarantees of freedom from religions.

Islam and the Political Sphere
Two verses from the Quran are apt here: "O humanity! We have indeed created you from one man and one woman, and have made you into various nations and tribes so that you may know one another" (Quran 49:13). "And let there be amongst you a group of people who invite to goodness, encouraging that which is right and forbidding that which is wrong; it is they who are the successful" (Quran 3:104). These verses and the one with which I begin this essay make two important points: that diversity is a consequence of divine designs and that Muslims have an ethical role to play in the public sphere. Verse 3:104 in the opinion of some Muslims scholars is a Quranic call for political parties to emerge and play a normative role in the public sphere. I argue that the mission of Islam and Muslims in the West can be to become the moral conscience of free societies.2 The objective of Muslim participation in Western, particularly American, politics should be to encourage what is right and forbid what is wrong rather than seeking to advance the geopolitical agendas of the Muslim world.

Islamic sources recognize racial and ethnic and even religious differences and advocate a culture of inclusion and equality. However, there are also sources that lend themselves to exclusivist politics. Consider the following verses: "Those who believe [in the Quran], and those who follow the Jewish [scriptures], and the Christians and the Sabians, any who believe in God and the Last Day, and do good deeds, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve" (Quran 2:62 and 5:69). "And if one seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted from him; and he is among the losers in the Hereafter" (Quran 3:85).

Today liberal and radical Muslims are divided over which of the above two verses should determine Muslim relations with other faith communities. The first verse is inclusive and clearly indicates that those who are good people have nothing to worry about. And if one treats the word and as joining sets of people ("any who believe in God") "and [any who] do good deeds," one could even argue that atheists who do good deeds, such as stand up for justice or help the poor,may have nothing to fear. This status of fundamental moral equality of all people can become the basis for political
equality in a multicultural, multireligious society.

But radical Muslims who believe that only Islam has the truth and that only good Muslims are good people, rely on verse 3:85 exclusively, arguing that it is not only the ultimate source for defining Muslim and non-Muslim relations but also abrogates both verse 2:62 and verse 5:69. Some Muslim leaders in Dallas, Texas, now object to my speaking there because I once rejected the idea of abrogation of Quranic sources that radicals do not like; I argued that the only reason God repeated verse 2:62 in verse 5:69 was to ensure that bigots did not use verse 3:85 to annul verse 2:62. How can one verse abrogate two verses from the same sources? was my point. Muslims must realize that not only does Islam influence politics, but politics too shapes what Islam is.

Today Islam has once again become the ethical language of the Muslim world. Islam will not only guide Muslim public discourse but also the Muslim conception of what is ethical politics. The Iraqis today have managed to make President Bush an advocate of Islamic democracy. European Muslims are making sure that Europe's foreign policy balances the pro-Israeli stance of the United States in the Middle East. As Muslims become a political force in America, they will most certainly seek to redefine the role of religion in American politics. I only hope that an inclusivist rather than an exclusivist understanding of Islam shapes American Muslim politics. I hope verse 2:62 prevails over verse 3:85 and that Muslims seek to emulate Mario Cuomo and not Mark Souder.

Final Thoughts
The reason that the myth of secularism is so precious to modernity is not its potential to separate religion and politics but its potential to advance a framework for dealing with religious diversity under conditions of unequal power. In perfectly homogeneous societies, it does not matter if the state is influenced by religion or not. It is only when there are other faith communities, or other interpretations of the same faith, that the state can become an instrument of religious oppression in the hands of the majority. But religion disguised as national interest or secular reason can play havoc with minority rights. As religion becomes more assertive and religious zealots become more adept at "playing the system," then constitutional guarantees become meaningless if even the Supreme Court can be rigged. In the modern West, the best examples of freedom and protection of religious minorities has come under the reign of secular democracies; in the Muslim experience the same has happened under the reign of Islam.

Today, as all religions experience revivals, we must find ways to guarantee religious freedom without proscribing the scope of religion. Ultimately the plight of minorities is at the mercy of those who are enlightened among the majority and who are willing to break ranks with their kind and stand up for equality and justice for all. Systems are safe only as long as we strive everyday to keep them safe.

1. Muslims hope that one day this word will become as powerful as the term anti-Semitism in calling attention to prejudice.
2. See M. A. Muqtedar Khan, American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom (Beltsville, Md.: Amana Publications, 2002).

Reprinted with the permission of Brookings Institution Press

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is director of International Studies and chair of of the Political Science Department at Adrian College, and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C..

Cheryl Sanders

is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at the Howard University School of Divinity, and Associate Pastor at the Third Street Church of God in Washington D.C..