Discussing the nature and impact of secular fundamentalism in the Middle East

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Iqbal Siddiqui

Dhu al-Qa'dah 18, 1422 2002-02-01

Book Review

by Iqbal Siddiqui (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 23, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1422)

Islam and Secularism in the Middle East edited by John L. Esposito and Azzam Tamimi. Pub: New York University Press, New York, NY 10003, USA, 2000. Pp: 214. Pbk: $18.95.

In the Western mindset, modernisation and secularisation are inextricably linked; indeed, secularisation is an instrumental feature of modernisation, without which social progress is impossible. Thus the separation of church and state and "freedom from organised religion" are hailed as fundamental values to be demanded of all civilised societies, and imposed — by brutal force if necessary — on people who fail to appreciate their importance and benefits.

This secularisation thesis is also being increasingly questioned in Western intellectual circles, by social scientists and others open-minded enough to see that the ‘death of God’ is far from reality in many parts of the world, where people confronted with modernity are becoming more religious rather than less so. But this understanding tends to be hidden from public view, being largely confined to the rarefied circles of academic debate.

In the Muslim world this mindset, promoted and enforced by the Western imperialist and post-colonial world powers, has had a massive impact on the Muslim world and on Muslim societies. It has been extensively critiqued from an Islamic perspective, but little of this critique has appeared in English, with the result that few English-speaking people, Muslim or non-Muslim, are aware of it.

This book, edited by John Esposito, an American academic, and Azzam Tamimi, a Muslim intellectual who is director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London, brings together papers representing and linking both these lines of criticism of secularism, producing as a result an excellent and thought-provoking introduction to a crucial issue.

The book’s greatest weakness comes early on: the lack of a proper introduction providing an overview of the issue, an explanation of how the volume came to be compiled, and comments on the perspectives taken by contributors. Instead we get a brief and badly-organised paper by Esposito, promisingly titled ‘Islam and Secularism in the Twenty-First Century’, which fails completely to live up to its title. Esposito offers only a few disjointed points about ‘Muslim nationalism,’ the experience of secularism in Turkey (he describes Turkey’s radical secularists as having "anti-religious secular ideology/belief system which was as rigid, militant and intolerant as it claimed ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ was"), the sacrilisation of secularism and the wider dangers of ‘secular fundamentalism.’ He then ends on a polemical note that serves both to endorse secularism and to confirm tacitly many of the secularists’ false assumptions about Islam: "both secular and Islamic paths will be challenged to develop modern forms of secularism that foster a true and open pluralism which responds to the diversity of society, one that protects the rights of believers and unbelievers alike."

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Esposito’s sole role is to provide academic substance — and perhaps access to a major publisher — for a project in which he actually had little involvement or interest; every other paper in the book is superior to Esposito’s, and the effect of his contribution is not to raise its standard but to diminish it. It seems doubtful that he even read some of the other contributions to the volume that his supposedly co-edited, as his introduction seems utterly uninformed of their arguments.

Far more useful is Azzam Tamimi’s essay ‘The Origins of Arab Secularism’, which is the second paper of the book. After a brief introduction to the history and development of secularism in the West, as a product of Christian society, Tamimi traces the introduction of the idea to Arab thought in the nineteenth century, in the context of the West’s increasing impact on the Muslim world. In Arabic, Tamimi tells us, "secularism" is translated "either as ‘ilmaniyah, a neologism derived from‘ilm (science or knowledge), or ‘alamaniyah, derived from ‘alam (world or universe)." He also highlights the many different understandings and usages of these terms, which are as varied and complex as understandings of secularism in the West.

Tamimi then traces major Arab intellectual reactions to the challenge posed by the West, and in particular the various understandings of secularism, looking in particular at the thought of early and later Islamic modernists, and of Arab Christians, before concluding with a brief discussion of Islamic critiques of secularism.

Perhaps the most substantial paper in the volume is by Rachid Al-Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s Al-Nahda Islamic movement. His paper, ‘Secularism in the Arab Maghreb’, opens with a discussion of the "model of secularism that emerged in the Arab Maghreb," particularly that of the Tunisian state, which he describes as being "known for espousing a form of secularism more radical than Kemalism itself."

Ghannouchi characterises this model as "pseudo-secularism", arguing that it is "a counterfeit that takes from Western secularism its most negative aspects and discards the positive ones." This secularism is, moreover, only part of a wider understanding of modernity that Ghannouchi describes as including a commitment to reshaping society according to a French model, which advocates a break with the past. He then goes on to detail the policies by which the Tunisian state pursues this vision of modernity, by manipulating and abusing Tunisian institutions, including Islamic institutions.

In analysing the Tunisian state’s aggressive secularism, Ghannouchi compares it to the outlook of Tunisian Islamists, who, he says, instead of pseudo-modernity that is characterised by secularism, seek "genuine modernity, one that emanates from within, one that is in response to local needs and that is in conformity with the local need and that is in conformity with the local culture and value system." He then goes on to discuss a number of other key issues related to modern Western secularism and their application (or not) in Muslim societies, including in particular the concept of civil society.

Unfortunately it is not possible to go into details of all Ghannouchi’s arguments, let alone those of other contributors to this volume. Other particularly interesting papers include one by Abdelwahab Al-Affendi, on ‘Rationality of Politics and Politics of Rationality’, in which he argues that "all that needs to be said about Islam and politics [can be summarised in] two principles: appeal to reason and an unwavering ethical commitment." More directly related to secularism is a paper by Hebba Raouf Ezzat, of Cairo University, on ‘Secularism, the State and the Social Bond: The Withering Away of the Family’.

Two non-Muslim academics provide perspectives on secularism from within the Western tradition. These are John Keane, of Westminster University in London, and Peter Berger, an American sociologist who has done some work on the failure of secularism. Both papers are interesting counterpoints to those of Muslim contributors (and not only compared to Esposito), even though they show a lack of understanding of Islam in certain regards. Berger, interestingly, includes among the exceptions to his thesis of desecularisation, "an international subculture composed of people with Western-type higher education, especially in the humanities and social sciences."

It is natural for books like this that no reader will agree with everything. Still it is informative about a debate among Muslims, and between Muslims and non-Muslims, that is central to the problems facing the Ummah. Despite its limitations, books of this type, on many key issues, are needed in order to provide a basis for genuine discussion within the Islamic movement.

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