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News ::
Secularisation no answer for Muslim world
15 Jan 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.

Secularisation no answer for Muslim world

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

The subordination of law-making to the Koran and Sunnah (traditions of
the Prophet Mohammed) made Muslim society immune to absolute tyranny
and dictatorship.

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 human rights.

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

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 and direction.

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.


Amir Butler is executive director of the Australian Muslim Public
Affairs Committee (AMPAC).


Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee (AMPAC)
PO Box 180
Email: info (at)
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