I need a secular state
By Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im
ALTANTA - To be a Muslim by conviction and free choice - which is
the only way one can be a Muslim - I need to live in a secular
state. By a secular state, I mean one that is neutral regarding
religious doctrine to facilitate genuine piety. The state should not
enforce sharia (the religious law of Islam) because compliance
should never be coerced by fear or faked to appease state officials.
When observed voluntarily, sharia-based values can help shape laws
and public policy through the democratic process. But if sharia
principles are enacted as state law, the outcome will simply be the
political will of the state.
Many Muslims equate secularism with antireligious attitudes. Yet
I believe that a secular state can promote genuine religious
experience among believers and affirm the role of Islam in public
The so-called Islamic state is conceptually incoherent and
historically unprecedented. There simply is no scriptural basis for
an "Islamic state" to enforce sharia.
The leadership of the prophet Muhammad in Medina is an inspiring
model of the values Muslims should strive for in self-governance,
transparency, and accountability. But since Muslims believe that
there is no prophet after Muhammad, the Medina model cannot be
There's no precedent for an Islamic state in practice.
Historically, rulers sought the support of Islamic scholars and
religious leaders to legitimize their authority, but religious
authorities needed to maintain their autonomy. This was always a
negotiated relationship, not a marriage.
The experience of the vast majority of Muslims across the world
today is about struggles for constitutionalism and human rights,
economic development and social justice - not about the quest for
Islamic states to enforce sharia. The world community must support
Muslims in these struggles instead of punishing them for the sins of
the extremist fringe of political Islamists.
Muslims and others often blame sharia and Islam for the
backwardness and underdevelopment of Islamic societies. This view is
inaccurate and unproductive. Such blame shifts responsibility and
the ability to change away from Muslims as human agents to abstract
forces or causes.
Historical interpretations of sharia that discriminate against
women and non-Muslims can and should be reinterpreted and reformed.
Without such transformation, state officials cannot be expected or
trusted to uphold principles of constitutionalism and human rights.
Yet those principles are prerequisites for advocating the necessary
transformation. The secular state provides the space for and
facilitates both aspects of this dialectic process.* Abdullahi Ahmed
An-Na`im is the author of the forthcoming book "Islam and Secular
State: Negotiating the future of Sharia."
Burqas and ballots
By Jocelyne Cesari
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. - Islam is often perceived as a potential threat
to democratization. Justifications for this view are grounded in the
common view that for Islam there's no separation between politics
In the West, politics based on individual rights and religion as
independent of the state have marked the triumph of a liberal vision
of the self within a secularized public arena. It may be argued that
no similar movement has taken place in the Muslim world. It may be
tempting, then, to infer that the Muslim mind is resistant to
secularization. However, the reasons for such resistance are
political and contextual and have very little to do with the Koran.
Within the Muslim world, Islam either is a state religion or is
under state control. Therefore, the state is almost always the
primary agent responsible for the authoritative interpretation of
As a result, Islamic thought has lost a certain vitality, not
only in questions of government, but also on issues of culture and