Author: Thomas von der Osten-Sacken
When secularism is mentioned in Arab states, it is usually not about the separation of religion and state.
Many newspapers claim that the overthrow of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was also a victory for the „secular forces in Egypt.“ In Syria, however, Bashar al-Assad’s army is defending a secular regime against the Islamist opposition. The term secularism appears with tiresome regularity, only what it should actually mean in concrete terms remains unclear, as every actor who is not decidedly Islamist is considered to be somehow secular. And not only in the German Middle East reporting. The Syrian dictator calls himself that in an interview with the friendly questioner from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, as does large sections of the Egyptian opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. Why actually? Almost all non-Islamist parties in Egypt have agreed in the constituent assembly to the paragraph in the preamble that establishes Islamic law as the main source of legislation, a formulation that, in almost identical terms, also applies in Syria, where the constitution also stipulates that to be the President of the Muslim faith. A quick look at other constitutions and legal texts in the region shows that in civil law, for example, Sharia regulations and commandments play an important, if not the dominant role.
With the exception of Tunisia and Turkey, for example, polygamy is legal everywhere, and women are discriminated against in inheritance matters. Baha’i, Buddhists or Hindus shouldn’t even try to build a place of worship in an Arab state. The supposed religious tolerance extends only to the so-called „religions of the book“ in the Koran, that is, Christianity and Judaism. Atheists, too, are encouraged to keep their views to themselves, otherwise, even in supposedly secular Tunisia, they are threatened with legal proceedings for apostasy. While it is generally difficult in Sunni Islam – to which, unlike Christianity or Shia, independent clerical institutions are largely unknown – to speak of a church that could exist separately from the state, the fact that in the In the past 200 years almost all major, previously privately financed religious foundations in the region have come under state control. Although less pronounced than in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, a bitter struggle took place in the Islamic world between the emerging nation-states with their claims to legitimacy and rule and the religious authorities that relied on existing structures and the power of the tradition . As early as the middle of the 19th century, the Egyptian ruler Mohammed Ali tried to disempower these authorities as part of his modernization and reform policy by subordinating religious foundations, above all the influential al-Azhar University, to state control.
Wherever reforms, usually ordered from above, took place in the following years, religious leaders and clerics opposed the project. The reactions were similar, whether in Turkey under Ataturk, in Ba’athist Iraq or in post-colonial Tunisia: Religious institutions were nationalized, clerics were put on the payroll of the newly established ministries for religious affairs and were henceforth subjected to very strict government control. Those who opposed this, and above all the emerging Islamic parties and movements, were targeted by state persecution. Most of these repressive, supposedly secular regimes, especially when they got into a crisis, showed a willingness to make far-reaching concessions to the Islamic opposition. Whether in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who even perpetuated his newfound love for religion with the words „Allahu Akbar“ on the national flag, or in Egypt, where Sharia was anchored in the constitution as early as Anwar al-Sadat’s time.
As long as the power of the respective rulers was not questioned and it was only about the position of women or religious minorities, there was a willingness to compromise on Islamist demands for more Sharia. So the political actors who call themselves seculars can hardly be concerned with a separation of state and church. On the contrary, they are demanding that the nationalization and thus the control of religious institutions be retained, and if possible even strengthened. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, strive for the establishment of an Islamic state with their slogan „Islam is the solution“. Once they have gained power, the constitution, legislation and daily life of the people are to be reshaped according to the rules of Sharia. Once the state is Islamic, the question of its relationship to religion is superfluous, because, as the thought leaders of political Islamism emphasize again and again, in Islam the two form an inseparable unit.
For the Muslim Brotherhood, the term secularism is still today identical with atheism, immoral conduct and westernization, in the spirit of their spiritual leader Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who decreed: »There is no doubt that secularism contradicts Islam in every respect. There are two different paths that will never meet; to choose one is to reject the other. Therefore, whoever chooses Islam must reject secularism. “ If the non-Islamists are primarily concerned with the control of religion by the state, not with separation, the Muslim Brotherhood has so far aimed at the Islamization of the state.
The Salafists, on the other hand, are still undecided as to whether they should also go through the state institutions or whether they should advocate the independence of the religious institutions they control. Even less than the Muslim Brotherhood, they have a coherent idea of the state; what they most likely have in mind is the terror based on the direct rule of Sharia in those petty caliphates that jihadists are so fond of establishing in failed states. In Tunisia, after the fall of the Ben Alis regime, Salafists took over several hundred mosques, which they have since controlled and converted into radical Islamist centers for their struggle. The fact that these houses of prayer slipped out of the control of the Ministry of Religions, i.e. that the church was de facto separated from the state, is a scandal for the so-called secular in Tunisia.
During a visit, the Islamist Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of all people recommended that the Egyptians adopt a secular constitution. He was certainly not interested in pushing religion back from politics. On the contrary, in its quite successful attempts to Islamize Turkey, the AKP has repeatedly and successfully emphasized that it is the actually secular force in the country, since it is about the liberation of religion from the state tutelage of the Kemalists. Unlike Qaradawi, the AKP uses the term secularism intelligently for its own ends.
The Muslim Brotherhood could learn from the defeat they suffered with the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt that they should take Erdoğan’s advice seriously and work for greater independence of religious institutions from state control. The allegedly secular parties would probably be in dire straits. What arguments should they use to counter such demands? Because anyone who is in opposition to the Islamists does not have to be secular by any means. A debate about what a secular state could look like in a country with a Sunni-Islamic majority population has not even begun. Although there are a few theoretical considerations, also on the part of some Islamic reformers, the majority of the population continues to believe that secularism has something to do with godlessness and moral degradation, and is therefore a Western concept that has no place in the Islamic world.
In Egypt people therefore prefer to speak of the „civil state“, a concept that has so far remained extremely vague and can be directed against theocracy as well as against military rule. That is why it is supported by al-Azhar University and various Islamist groups as well as by the non-religious parties. Civil state, which means a bit of Islam in the constitution, but no clergy control of the legislative process. Islam remains the official state religion and should continue to play an important role in everyday life, but religion is somehow also a private matter. In short, the term „civil state“ represents a compromise solution that avoids clarifying fundamental questions about the relationship between religion and politics, Islam and the state.
(Reposted with the permission of the author Thomas von der Osten-Sacken from Jungle World 2013, as this is a still actual basic text)
Comment from Global Review:
Admittedly, there does not seem to be this separation of state and religion / church / clergy in the Muslim world, in fact the so-called secular state is proclaiming Islam as the state religion and instrumentalizing and controlling the religion and harnessing it in its favor. But is the separation in the so-called secular West also ideal-typical or factual? To what extent are the USA, the One Nation under God, New Jerusalem, the City upon the Hill with their Christian Political Action Comitees and 80 million fundamental Christian evangelicals a secular state, especially if you look at reborn Christians like George Bush Jr. or at the evangelical PACs which are supporting Trump. Why does a Magaret Atwood write “The Handmaid’s Tale”, which is now running as a television series and the bizarre The Satanic Temple seems to be the only opposition to the US religious right after the US atheists and the spaghetti monster with their demands for the separation of the state and religion remained without any real influence? Gilead does not seem to be so far any more. Agnostics and atheists are also asking themselves the same thing in relation to Germany (God in the Basic Law, although public officials are free to confess when they are sworn in, collection of church tax by the state, church law that protects clerical abusers from access by the public prosecutor’s office, close ties of the Churches to the political parties, the CDU and CSU, which only call themselves Christian among all conservative parties worldwide after the dissolution of the CD Christian Democrats in Italy) or even France, or also Poland and the Southern European countries? Are state and church / religion really hat seperated? Or only pro forma? Also in comparison to the Muslim states. Maybe Al Sissi is more secular than Trump or Bush Jr. could ever be.