Rethinking the Relationship between Islam, Secularism and Democracy, by Uluhan Sahin

By Uluhan Sahin, MA Student, Universities of Applied Sciences Kehl/Ludwigsburg, Germany

The events of the Arab Spring have fundamentally changed the global perception of the Islamic countries in the Middle East. A region often associated with tyranny, religious fanaticism and the lack of civil liberties has witnessed the struggle of its population for democracy and freedom. In this atmosphere of cautious optimism, citizens engaged in countless public debates about the political future of the region.

Unfortunately, only Tunisia emerged from this struggle as a democracy, although even Tunisia still has a long way to go. Despite its failure to turn the authoritarian states of the Middle East into democracies, the Arabic Spring will continue to have an effect, especially through the sparked political discussions. One major debate, which can be traced back even decades ago and has been intensified with the events of the Arab Spring, is the compatibility of the Islamic religion with democracy and secularism.

The traditional narrative in both the western and the eastern hemisphere is that unbridgeable discrepancies exist between Islam on the one hand and democracy or secularism on the other. The extreme conclusion of this flawed logic is that Islam must be “reformed” in order to fit with democracy and secularism or that there is an Islamic exceptional way towards democracy, which includes the dominance of religion on state and society. Both ideas lead to a dead end and will create only further problems and challenges. Instead, alternative ways should be pursued to address the discrepancy between these terms.

It would be foolish to think that this difficult challenge only affects the countries of the Middle East. Europe, with its large Muslim communities and its rising numbers of Muslim refugees must also recognize the severity of the task to reconcile Islam and the fundamentals of modern democracy. In order to start a discussion in this respect, a comprehensive definition of the relevant terms should be considered.

The first question we need to ask ourselves is what exactly is democracy? Is it just the ballot box and elections? Or is it more than that? Traditionally, democracy is described as the rule of the people, which is expressed through majority voting in free elections. Although free elections are an indisputably important part of a democracy, the exclusive focus on elections would be an insufficient characterization of the concept of democracy. Democracy reduced to majority decisions would be nothing but the dictatorship of the majority, in which minorities (in this case in the politically context) could not exert any influence in the political decision-making process despite their participation in elections.

Therefore, in addition to free elections, other conditions must be met in order to speak of a complete democracy in a country. One of the main components would be the separation of powers. The intention behind this is to avoid a concentration of power among the rulers through the existence of certain control mechanisms as well as through the independence of the judiciary. No matter how popular the government is in a country, it must not have absolute control over all state organs and institutions. In this sense, it would be absurd to claim that the action of a constitutional court against a government is anti-democratic.

Furthermore, in a democracy, civil liberties must be protected and safeguarded by the state. These rights are defensive mechanisms designed to protect individual citizens from arbitrary state interference. These rights are defensive mechanisms designed to protect individual citizens from arbitrary attacks by the state and society. In the context of a democracy, this means above all that the individual rights of the citizen (including those of minorities) should be protected, even if the majority of the population disagrees.

Another core element of any democracy is a free press or freedom of speech. The nucleus of human progress is the clash of ideas and opinions, which can only take place if the right to different opinions and criticism is respected and protected by the state. This element quickly reveals the difference between an autocracy and a democracy. While in democracies, people openly talk about grievances and problems in the state or in society and are able to criticize the government, in dictatorships people who criticize the government or uncover grievances such as corruption or arbitrary power are branded as dissidents and persecuted.

The task to define the term secularism is much harder.  Different explanatory patterns exist side by side. The interpretation of this term depends on the respective ideological point of view. From a religious fundamentalist perspective, secularism is inherently anti religious. According to proponents of this position, the aim of secularism is the complete elimination of religion from society. Similar views are shared with the Communist perspective, where religion is viewed as a relic of the past that hinders societal progress. On the other hand, the consensus about secularism is that it is the separation between religion and state/politics and the resulting fact that the religious beliefs of some groups cannot provide the basic framework for political authority. However, how thick this dividing line between religion and state is, is handled differently across different contexts. For the purpose of this text, secularism should always be understood as the separation of state and religion and nothing else.

As with the term democracy, secularism also contains various key components that must be fulfilled in order to call a state secular. One of them is the neutrality of the state towards religious groups. The state does not interfere in religious affairs and keeps the same distance from all religious groups. The consequence of this commitment is another core feature of secular states, namely freedom of religion.

In this sense, a secular state cannot tolerate a religious group trying to impose its religious doctrine on other people or even on society. In such a situation, it also becomes clear that religious freedom is not absolute; it ends where the rights of another human being begin. In this context, one should also not forget that the possibly religious views of a person or a group, if applied in practice, could lead to discrimination against other people. In other words, the secular state is exempt from its policy of neutrality towards religious groups only if religious fundamentalist groups threaten the constitutional order or the rights of individual citizens.

So, what is the connection between secularism and democracy? The importance of secularism for democracy can be explained by the following consideration: Secularism is a prerequisite of democracy, since it ensures the transfer of the legitimacy of power from God’s grace to the will of the people. It is important to stress here that secularism is only one of several preconditions for democracy. Secularism alone never guarantees democracy. Without secularism, however, no democracy is conceivable.

Opponents of secularism repeatedly bring the example of the Communist states to illustrate that secularism does not guarantee democracy and that tends to be anti-religious. The answer to this assertion is that the reason for the authoritarianism and for the hostility towards religion does not rest in secularism, but in Communist ideology itself. Whether Communist states were at all secular states is also open for discussion, since the state did not act neutrally towards religions here.

Secularism is not only a precondition for democracy, but also for civil rights. For civil rights to be protected, a kind of wall must be built between the citizen and the state to guard the citizen from state interference. Secularism would not be the wall, but an important brick in this protection. This point can be explained by the fact that religion and politics merge in a non-secular state. The product of this unholy connection is that religion no longer is a covenant between the individual and the divine, but a political weapon and foundation of legitimacy. In non-secular states, political opponents therefore also become heretics at the same time. This mode of legitimating political authority is the perfect way for autocrats, especially in theocracies, to justify the persecution of political activists in the eyes of the particularly conservative sections of the population. Therefore, I would argue that secularism is positive for religions, since secularism prevents religions from becoming the political power instrument of despots and autocrats.

Although secularism alone cannot bring democracy into the world, it can nevertheless be said that a minimum of secularism in the sense of a separation of religion and state/policy is necessary for a functioning democracy and for the existence of civil rights.

Now we come to the Islamic perspective on the two terms. Unfortunately, both in the West and in the Islamic world, the common opinion is that Islam and secularism are incompatible, as is the relationship between Islam and democracy. It is important to emphasize that there is no single “Islam”; there are as many different interpretations of the Islamic religion as there are Muslims. This means that it is never possible to make universal statements about Islam and its relationship towards democracy and secularism that apply to all Muslims. Nevertheless, in order to make statements about the relationship between Islam, secularism and democracy, which is appealing for a large part of Muslims, one must look at the relationship from a theological perspective. It should be noted here that the only way to convince conservative Muslims of democracy and secularism is to use the Koran and Islamic theology as arguments. In this sense, Islamic theologians play an important role in the struggle for secularism and democracy.

Although the dominant current narrative preaches the incompatibility of Islam and secularism, there are also voices that argue for compatibility, using theological arguments as well. Although these persons represent a minority opinion within the Islamic world, they are nevertheless very important, since they are a proof that religious hardliners within theology are not left with the monopoly of interpreting this relationship.

Indeed, with the help of Koranic verses, attempts are being made to legitimize secularism and democracy through Islamic means. Examples would be the following verses: And those who have responded to their lord and established prayer and whose affair is [determined by] consultation among themselves, and from what We have provided them, they spend. (Surah 42, Verse 38). This verse implies that rulers must consult with citizens on political decisions. My argument is that this verse implies democracy, since consultation with citizens takes place best through democratic elections.

And We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], the Book in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a criterion over it. So judge between them by what Allah has revealed and do not follow their inclinations away from what has come to you of the truth. To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ. (Surah 5, Verse 48). This verse implies that a plurality of laws and political systems is God’s will. This verse contradicts the idea of religious hardliners that there is only one law of God that must be imposed upon all mankind.

There shall be no coercion in matters of faith” (Surah 2, Verse 256). The verse also argues that the best way to avoid coercion in questions of faith is to treat all religious groups equally. This objective is best achieved by a neutral state in matters of faith, in other words a secular state. The fact that the Prophet was also a head of state is often cited as an example of the incompatibility of Islam and secularism. Here it is worth noting that the time of the Prophet must be given an extraordinary classification. It should also be considered that according to the Koran the time of prophets is over and that no more prophets will come. In other words, the reasons for legitimizing the Prophet’s rule cannot be applied to our time.

One reason why secularism has such a bad reputation in the Islamic world is the prohibition of religious symbols in the state sphere. This experience leads to the exclusion of Muslim women who wear headscarves. Although it would be wrong to say that the prohibition of religious symbols is based on hostility to religion (in some cases it is rather a desire to prevent abuse of religion using religious symbols), in my view such prohibitions are counterproductive to secularism. In Turkey, for example, such prohibitions have led to the exclusion of conservative women in school and work, and thus to them being driven into the arms of religious fanatics. A headscarf debate has also strongly shaped public discourse in many Western states, most prominently in secular France. Even if the headscarf is misused as a political symbol by religious fundamentalists, such prohibitions should be avoided, since the only consequences are an increased polarization of society and the creation of a victim role, which is exploited by religious fundamentalists.

Instead, secularism should be interpreted in such a way that religious symbols are also allowed in the public sphere. Ultimately, wearing religious symbols does not violate other people’s rights and this should always be remembered in such debates. The state should only act in the case of concrete violations of rights by religious fundamentalists.

A positive link between Islam and secularism would also be extremely beneficial for Europe. For decades, the integration of Muslims in Europe has been discussed. The integration of Muslims in Europe could be effectively facilitated if one could show them that the Islamic religion is compatible both with secularism and with a pluralistic-democratic society. In this way, the rising right-wing populism in Europe could also be combated. The main reasons for the success of right-wing populists in Europe are the alleged and exaggerated danger of an “Islamization” of Europe and the assertion that Muslims cannot be integrated into democratic, secular societies. A successful experience in daily life that Islam, democracy and secularism are compatible with each other and that the majority of Muslims in Europe also think so, would deprive right-wing populists of their key ideological argument.

In my concluding reflection, I would like to point out that Islam, secularism and democracy are compatible and that democratization in Islamic countries must include secularization. However, the concept of secularism should be redefined and reconsidered to guarantee religious freedom and to prevent the abuse of religion as a political means. In addition, followers of secularism should distance themselves from any despots in the Middle East, who present themselves as secular rulers to gain sympathy abroad. Such autocrats have nothing to do with secularism and have more in common with religious fundamentalists than one might think.

Islam is a holy covenant between the individual and the divine, but without the separation of state and religion, this holy covenant can become a crook stock for autocrats, which they like to use like a mace against their own population.

“The author of this blog entry was supported by the Baden-Württemberg-STIPENDIUM for University Students, a scholarship of the Baden-Württemberg Stiftung”.



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