Is the Muslim world ready for the separation of church and state?

Whatever descriptive truth was left in the old saying, ‘Islam admits no separation between din and dunya’ (that is, between religion and the world) has been definitively emptied out by the Arab Spring – Olivier Roy

It is often said by Christians that unlike Christianity, Islam allows no distinction between church and state. While Christianity has always emphasized the spiritual (or eternal) nature of the church in contrast to the secular (i.e., temporal) character of the state (or of civil government), Islam allows no such nuance. The implication, to many Christians, is that Islam as a religion is incompatible with the values of freedom and democracy.

In a fascinating recent essay entitled “The Transformation of the Arab World,” Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, argues that the Arab Spring has challenged this perspective. While Islam may be somewhat incompatible with liberalism or secularism, he points out, it is by no means incompatible with democratization, or with the secularization of politics. What’s more, it is the very revitalization of Islam that is making the distinction between religion and politics an emerging reality.

Roy points out that intellectuals often view the Middle East as if it is caught between the horns of a terrible dilemma: the choice of secular dictatorship or Islamic totalitarianism. Even democratization, it is often thought, will inevitably fail due to the political commitments of the various forms of Islamism.

In contrast, Roy argues that the Arab Spring has given expression to a very real democratization that is beyond the power of the Islamists to control even as it remains thoroughly Islamic in its orientation. Roy writes,

In order to grasp what is happening in the Middle East, we must set aside a number of deep-rooted prejudices. First among them is the assumption that democracy presupposes secularization: The democratization movement in the Arab world came precisely after thirty years of what has been called the ‘return of the sacred,’ an obvious process of re-Islamization of everyday life, coupled with the rise of Islamist parties. The second is the idea that a democrat must also, by definition, be a liberal.

In other words, it is just as Islam has thrived in the Middle East that Arab culture has become increasingly democratized. It is just as young Muslims are taking their faith more and more seriously that politics is going through a process of secularization.

In part, Roy explains, younger Muslims are coming to embrace a form of Islam less associated with political identity and more associated with personally embraced faith. One reason for this is the set of significant demographic changes these Muslims have experienced.

[T]here has been a dramatic decline in fertility across the Arab world… Women have entered universities and the job market. Young people obtain more schooling than their parents did and marry later. Husbands and wives are more often closer to each other in age and level of education. They have fewer children, with nuclear families replacing extended households. Mobile phones, satellite television, and the Internet have allowed the newer generations to associate, connect, and debate on a ‘peer-to-peer’ basis rather than through a top-down, authoritarian system of knowledge transmission. The young feel less strongly bound to patriarchal customs and institutions that have been unable to cope with the challenges facing contemporary Middle Eastern societies.

As a result of these political changes, Roy argues,

The young are more individualistic and less prone to feel the pull of holistic ideologies, whether Islamist or nationalist… The failure of political Islam that I pointed to twenty years ago is now obvious. This does not mean that Islamist parties are absent from the political playing field – quite the contrary. But their utopian conception of an ‘Islamic state’ has lost credibility.

Democratization, in short, is resulting from profound social and cultural changes in the Middle East. Al Qaeda is “yesterday’s news” and younger Muslims are interested in a different form of Islamic practice. Even the Salafists “are recasting religion as a code and a set of clear-cut norms disconnected from tradition and culture.” The new form of Islamic practice “delinks personal faith from traditions, collective identity, and external authority.”

Young ‘born-again’ Muslims have found their own way by surfing the Internet or joining local peer groups. They have criticized the cultural Islam of their parents and have tried to construct their own brand of Islam, one that feels more like a matter of conviction and less like an inherited habit.Religion has become more and more a matter of personal choice.

And what is the political result of all of this?

This individualization and diversification have had the unexpected consequence of disconnecting religion from daily politics, of bringing religion back into the private sphere and excluding it from that of government management. Fundamentalism, by disconnecting religion from culture and by defining a faith community through believing and not just belonging, is in fact contributing to the secularization of society.

To be sure, the secularization of politics should not be conflated with political secularism or with liberalism. Most Muslims continue to want Islamic convictions or shari’a law to serve as the guide and foundation for civil law. But there is less faith in the ability of Islamists to “change a society by decree,” and as Roy demonstrates by numerous examples from recent events in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, even the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis are increasingly conforming to the democratic game.

Why? Because the increasing emphasis on the role of religion in every area of life, alongside the democratization of that religion, has “given birth to a variety of religious movements.” The multiplication of forms of Islam represents “a willy-nilly democratization of the religious field.” And when so many religious groups are competing with one another, democratic politics becomes a necessity.

Again, the point is not that Islam is no longer viewed as relevant for politics. But its relevance is more in the way of values and moral commitments rather than authority. Increasingly Muslims are recognizing that even shari’a law is more of a “reference point” than an “autonomous and complete system of law that can replace ‘secular’ law.” Indeed, as Roy notes, “Instead of the secularization of society, we might do better to speak of the ‘autonomization’ of politics from religion and of religion from politics, due to the diversification of the religious field and the inability to reconstruct religion as a political ideology.”

These are fascinating developments, and there are numerous points of analogy with the experience of Christians in the modernization, secularization, and democratization of the West. Tomorrow I’ll take a look at some of these points of analogy.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on September 6, 2012, in Islam, Liberalism, Religious Liberty and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Is the Muslim world ready for the separation of church and state?.

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