Scholars such as Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi have written vehemently against ‘secularism’ in the Middle East and how it curtails the freedoms of many people. I have also tried to highlight the more ‘hard’ form of secularism of some states and regimes, and the totalitarian ideologies of certain parties and how it contradicts the principles of freedom, shura (consultation), justice and equality in Islam.
Having said that, secularism is not a definitive principle, its practise and implementation differs from one country to another based upon their political and social frameworks. Countries such as France and Germany, for instance, implement a ‘harder’ version of secularism – the hijab ban in France and parts of Germany is a prime example of this. Other countries such as Britain meanwhile adopt a more ’soft’ form of secularism.
A recent [controversial] report, ‘Contextualising Islam in Britain’, suggests Muslims in Britain should recognise the more soft or ‘procedural’ form of secularism in place, even though it has an established church. The report states, ‘British secularism has historically been closer to procedural secularism than to ideological secularism. In general, British Muslims are perfectly happy with this notion of the secular, and it is important to express support for this more accommodative type of secularism that is part of the British tradition. The goal should be to ensure that Britain is a state where there is room for all religious sentiments, and where Muslims have the freedom to practise Islam without interference, in an atmosphere of respect, security and dignity’.
This is also similar to the ‘European Charter Project’, which states, ‘Muslims of Europe adhere to the principle of secularism based on the neutrality of the state regarding religious affairs. This means just dealings with all religions and allows those who hold religious values to express their beliefs and practice the rites of their religion either as individuals or groups in both the general and specific matters, as is specified in European and international human rights charters and treaties. On this basis, it remains the right of Muslims, as religious communities, to establish mosques, religious, educational and welfare institutions to practice their religion in day-to-day affairs in virtue of diet, clothing and other needs’.
The implication of that, the report exhorts, is Muslims need to be active politically ‘in the legislative process to articulate their own visions and values, and to ensure they are properly represented. The support of British Muslims for multicultural secular pluralism must not be based on expediency, but on principled support for religious freedom and peaceful co-existence of diverse religious groups and those of no faith on the basis of mutual respect, co-operation and pursuit of the common good’.
I tend to agree with this and support the general spirit of this section of the report as it highlights the British model of secularism as the best mechanism (at our disposal) by which we can maintain a religious Muslim community in the UK. However, I do have an issue with the report where it states that Muslims should promote ’secularism’. Secularism in essence conflicts with the Qur’anic perspective of Islam as a complete way of life, and not a private faith. At best, the most that can be said is, Muslims can and should work with this model of secularism.
To formulate a proper or informed view on a subject, one should look into it from a myriad of angles – and not have a narrow pre-supposed perspective on it. The definition of secularism also differs from one academic to another - here’s a good introduction by Charles Taylor (video lecture), and his book is called A Secular Age. Our only concern, as with other principles, should be to understand its intent and importantly the practical application. If it does not conflict with the Shari’ah it is accepted, otherwise it should be rejected as a famous maxim states, “There is no opposition to definitions as long as they do not contradict the Shari’ah, for the deductive implication is not attached to the words but the meanings.”
The British version of secularism in practice means ‘neutrality of the state’ in matters of religion. Although still nominally a ‘Christian’ country, it however does not discriminate against other religions. Minorities are almost totally free to practise their faiths, without state interference – of course this excludes governance and the penal code according to Shari’ah, however this isn’t required in a minority context. If by secularism we mean this, then it would not only be acceptable and tolerated – but even beneficial for Muslims to work with this model of secularism.
This is in contrast to the French [ideological] model of secularism, which tries to ‘eliminate religion’ from the public sphere. This model is copied in some Muslim countries; an example includes Turkey and Tunisia, and is totally against Islam as a ‘complete way of life’. Islam is not just a faith; our religious scripture guides all aspects of life – including politics and legislation.
Islamic politics is distinct from other theories in the sense that in the Islamic state, the people and its elected legislature – although free to enact any laws to better regulate their lives - are not sovereign; all laws must ultimately conform with, and/or must not contradict the divine guidance (Qur’an and Sunnah).
This is one small yet crucial aspect of the report which needs to be clarified. There are other issues which could be seen as questionable but not relevant here. As a minority, we should be happy to work with the procedural secularism, but cannot accept the essence of secularism (which seeks to exile God to the home and church). That would be against our basic beliefs (Aqeeda) as articulated by God in His last testament to humanity and the Sunnah (methodology) of His last Messenger.