Issues in Islam: Secularism and the Islamist Challenge

By Noakes, Greg | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 31, 1993 | Go to article overview

Issues in Islam: Secularism and the Islamist Challenge


Noakes, Greg, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Issues in Islam: Secularism and the Islamist Challenge

Throughout the 20th century, Muslim societies have been torn between the impulse of secularism and the attraction of Islamic renewal. Both systems are seen by their proponents as the key to solving the Muslim world's social, political and economic problems. Secularism has yet to be accepted by most Muslims, however, while the Islamic revival has yet to live up to its heady promises.

Contemporary Islamic thinkers have seized upon the concept of ijtihad, or individual intellectual effort, in order to reinterpret their religious and cultural traditions, meet the challenges of modern life with solutions that draw upon Islam for their source, and fulfill the aspirations of their coreligionists.

"Islamic secularism" is a concept which plays well both in university lecture halls and the give and take of a council of ministers charged with administering a modern nation. In such environments, many scholars and analysts see Islam as a brake on society, impeding the economic and social development of Muslim states.

In the West, the notion that religion should guide society was weakened during the Renaissance, dealt a crushing blow in the Age of Enlightenment and drew its last gasp as the French Revolution put a dramatic end to the "divine right of kings." The course of progress in Western historiography mirrors the story of secularization; man assumes his role as the measure of all things and religion becomes a matter of private devotion.

For a number of modern thinkers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, Islamic society, too, is badly in need of a reformation, or better yet a renaissance, to break religious shackles that keep the Muslim world backward and ignorant. If Muslims are to develop, the secularists argue, Islam must be relegated to the private sphere and rational humanism allowed to guide society.

So much for the lecture hall. In practice, secularization has yet to succeed to any significant degree in most of the Muslim world, though not for lack of effort. Non-Muslims attempted to impose secularism in the Soviet Union and Communist China as a policy directive of the highest order. China's Muslims remain oppressed, but the rapid resurgence of Islam as a faith, political platform and source of sociocultural identity in Central Asia after seven decades of Marxist-Leninist rule indicates the failure of Communism to stamp out the "opiate of the people."

The 1950s and '60s were the heyday of modernization theory in the West, and particularly in the U.S. Where Moscow and Beijing sought to tear Muslims from their faith, Washington expected they would wean themselves voluntarily from "reactionary" Islam.

In the post-World War II era, modernization theorists talked about the educational power of mass media, surveyed individual attitudes toward social change and "modernization" and generally attempted to remake the Muslim world in the West's image.

Naive "Modernization"

Daniel Lerner, a leading architect of modernization theory, rather patronizingly wrote that the West would transform the Arab world through "a rationalist and positivist spirit against which Islam is absolutely defenseless." Some 35 years later, modernization theory is a curious relic of a bygone age of naivete, shattered by realities it had failed to take into account.

Some Muslim rulers adopted the secularist model as well, following either the authoritarian or liberal path to "modernity." Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's scorchedearth Westernization of Turkey in the 1920s is an example of the first approach. Turks were forced to use a European alphabet and wear European clothes, shrines and religious brotherhoods were closed and the number of mosques limited by government decree. Resistance to such enforced secularization was met with repression, and occasionally with death.

In Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba followed a kinder, gentler program. While Mustafa Kemal proclaimed Turkey a secular republic, Islam remained the state religion in Tunisia. …

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