Against the Reduction of Islam to Governance
Posted Oct 26, 2005

Against the Reduction of Islam to Governance

Any Islamic reflection on the problem of historical existence, if it is to be true to its calling, must avoid both the Augustinian and the Machiavellian temptations. Under no circumstances may Islamic political thought abolish the inherent contradictions of the human situation by either seeking asylum in a heavenly city or remaining incarcerated within an earthly principality. The transcendent vision of Islam may not, in other words, be depleted of all historical consciousness, nor may Islamic existential imperative be degraded to a mere stratagem for survival. Neither a deification of history nor its renunciation, neither an existence fully consumed by time nor an eternity unaffected by it, is what the Islamic faith and vision demand.

Islam’s resolve to bring history and eternity, morality and spirituality, within a single existential enterprise, its unflinching commitment to overcoming the paradoxes of the human condition though an ethic of right action rather than though a doctrine of right belief, however, leads to a severe confrontation with the modernist ethos which, having chosen the Machiavellian path, now espouses both a metaphysics of immanence and a politics of pure temporality. Little wonder that contemporary Islam finds itself on the receiving end of an ideological polemic that, rallying around the emotive and sacrosanct notions of democracy and secularism, vehemently questions the validity of its worldview. Given the highly charged ideological atmosphere within which any discussion of Islam’s relationship with democracy and secularism takes place, it is therefore a matter of some satisfaction that the works cited here treat these inflamed themes with intelligence and restraint. Hopefully, it is the sign of the more informed and sober debate to come.

Works Discussed in this Essay:

Secularism and its Critics. Ed. By Rajeev Bhargava. Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1998. Pp. 550. ISBN: 0-19-563987-1.

L’Islam Laique ou le retour la Grande Tradition. By Olivier Carr. Paris, Armand Colin, 1993. Pp. 168. ISBN: 2-200-21403-0.

Islam and Democracy. By John L. Esposito & John O. Voll. New York, Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. 232. ISVN:0-19-510816-7.

Without doubt, the most sacred doctrine of modernity, and the linchpin of the world-order created in its name, is secularism. The legitimacy of the modernist project stands and falls with the acceptance of the distinction between the sacred and the secular; the ostensible separation of Church and State that actually subordinates the former to the latter and banishes ‘God’ from the governance of the human polis. Secularism, then, is not all form and procedure; it is not a mere method that lays no claim to any truth. No, secularism possesses a substantive and normative content of its own and as such cannot be distinguished from other doctrines of salvation. Indeed, for its more ardent champions, the truth of secularism reveals the ultimate scheme of things. It is therefore not surprising that any cultivation of the secularist discourse, even outside the emotionally infected and ideologically doctrinaire European environment, generates much ideological heat but little ideational light. Rajeev Bhargava’s intelligent, discerning and dispassionate monitoring of the Indian debate on secularism, presented through a collection of original and thoughtful but highly discordant essays by a number of prominent Indian and Western thinkers, confirms this impression.

Though essentially focussing on the Indian scene and recapitulating the Indian experience, Bhargava’s anthology is much more ambitious in scope in that it seeks a broader, trans-civilisational, view secularism’s goals and strategies. The initial section, for instance, which is devoted to secularism’s Western apologists, not only seeks to introduce the presumed non-Western reader to the legitimising ethos and supporting arguments on its behalf but also to alert him to the fact that ‘Western secularism ... is essentially contested, with no agreement on what it entails, the values it seeks to promote, or how best to pursue it.’ Significantly, this dismaying insight is acquired after having been exposed to the highly articulate and suggestive, though manifestly inconclusive and problematic, statements by such celebrated ideologues of secularism as Charles Taylor, T.M. Scanlon, Michael J. Sandel and Jean Bauberot. Clearly, there is more to secularism than a mere formula for governance.

Contrary to normal expectations, the Western effort to present secularism within a trans-cultural context and to legitimise it as a ‘universal’ doctrine results neither in a clear expos੩ of its intellectual foundations, nor in any confident assertion about the unassailability of its ‘truth’. What we receive instead are either nervous pleadings for the espousal of a ‘secularism of overlapping consensus’, ‘that we converge on some political principles but not on our background reasons for endorsing these’ (Charles Taylor), or utopian homilies about the need for tolerance and the difficulty of achieving it (T.M. Scanlon). Much of the polemics, however, is gratuitous and is premised on the sacred tenet of secular faith that religions are inherently intolerant whereas secularism is not. (Of course, the argument takes no notice of the actual policies of certain ‘lac’ states, such as Turkey and France, that sanction the banning of headscarves worn by the Muslim citizenry as part of the secularist agenda! Ironically, then, Scanlon’s concluding statement, that tolerance ‘can be given content only through some specification of the rights of citizens as participants in formal and informal politics’, reveals a sub-text that is far more problematical than a mere apology for secularism!)

Much more intractable for the secularist conscience is the problem of validation; the determination of the source and authority of its categorical imperative for the cultivation of (political) tolerance as the highest virtue. For, if tolerance can be given a meaningful content only within a system of political rights, but if all systems of right will be ‘conventional and indeterminate’ (and as such never immune from moral criticism or abuse by political exigencies), how may one acquire and justify ‘the larger attitude of toleration and accommodation’ (70) that both prefigures and sustains such a system? If tolerance is not to become synonymous with the arbitrary legitimisation of any kind of regime, if it needs must be distinguished from absolute relativism and a total annihilation of the political will, then the question of the ultimate locus of secular values and the binding nature of its commandments cannot be eschewed, especially so when secularism claims, both as a method of governance and an ethic of pluralism, universal validity. At any rate, religious conscience cannot help wondering whether an ethic of means is able to foster genuine tolerance, or whether a doctrine of relativism can generate any categorical imperative, even if it is an imperative about not having any imperative at all? In short, these authoritative expositions by Western thinkers suggest, if anything, that secularism is an unexamined doctrine, which is as much in need of a genuine encounter with the critical religious consciousness, as the latter is under obligation to recognise the humanist claims of secular morality. If traditional religion is all cause and no programme, secularism is just a programme without any cause.

Bhargava’s presentation of ‘Secularism in the West’ incorporates two other, contextual and historical rather than textual and theoretical, statements. From an examination of the American Supreme Court’s decisions, Michel J. Sandel (Religious Liberty: Freedom of Choice or Freedom of Conscience) comes to the insight that the Court’s tendency ‘to assimilate religious liberty to liberty in general .... does not always serve religious liberty well. It confuses the pursuit of preferences with the exercise of duties, and so forgets the special concern of religious liberty with the claims of conscientiously encumbered selves.’ (93). This confusion, according to Sandel, has led the Court to restrict religious practices that it should permit, and also to permit practices, it should probably restrict. One far less salubrious consequence of the state’s acclaimed neutrality towards religion is that the law fails to take religion seriously, or that when a permission for the public use of a religious symbol is granted, it is usually justified in the name of secular values and practices, it denies the sacred meaning of the symbol it ostensibly protects. The other essay by Jean Bauberot (Two Thresholds of Lacization) is a classic statement of the aggressively anti-clerical French variant of secularism. It has been often invoked as a foundational text in the French debate and has even been properly scrutinised by a perceptive Muslim thinker (Soheib Bencheikh: Marianne et le Prophﯨte: L’Islam dans la France laque, Bernard Grasset, Paris, 1988. Bencheikh’s book, a very radical reflection on secularity and the future of Islam in Europe, certainly merits an English translation.)

Whatever its pretensions to neutrality with respect to Christian conscience, there’s no denying that Western secularism is blatantly, outrageously and to some even pathologically anti-Islamic. Joseph Carens and Mellissa Williams’ detailed scholarly discussion of ‘Muslim Minorities in Liberal Democracies: The Politics of Misrecognition’ amply testifies to the fact that while Western liberal democracies regard the value of religious liberty as paramount, this priority is often reversed when dealing with Islam. Or, as the authors themselves confess: ‘We have written as non-Muslim political theorists, concerned about the need to reconcile the principle of equality with the fact of social difference, and about the full citizenship of immigrants within liberal democracies. We have been struck by the vehemence of anti-Muslim sentiment not only in Western societies generally, but particularly within academia..’ (173). Needless to say that the article, written not ‘to defend or criticise Islam’ but with the ‘hope of unsettling some of the assumptions that the critics of Islam often make’, makes a distressing reading. Nevertheless, its articulate, balanced and generally low-key approach lends cogency and poignancy to its observations and arguments and makes one wonder how far removed may secular practice become from secular theory before secularism itself may be dismissed as a doctrine of pure expediency, devoid of any moral imperative? The inclusion of this disturbing piece of reasoned scholarship in this collection, an indication of the ambition of the editor to provide a comprehensive and critical guide to the secularist debate of our times, certainly enhances the academic worth of this book.

Unlike the West, which has in some ways moved away from religion to science, and where secularism has acquired all the characteristics of a dominant worldview, India remains a traditional society, deeply committed to religious values. The principal justification for the cultivation of an official secularism in the Indian case was to provide a counterfoil against the articulation of the separatist Muslim identity and to desist from a politics of communitarian exclusivism. Commitment to secularism afforded India with a pathway to modernity, just as it promised a modicum of protection to religious minorities, but it did not legitimise indifference or antipathy towards religion. The ambiguities of the Indian brand of secularism, a deeply religious society pursuing the ideals of a religiously indifferent polity, were candidly, though sympathetically, elaborated by the American scholar, Donald Smith. This vintage piece, written as far back as 1963, that has become a compulsory reading for every student of Indian secularism, is also included in this anthology. Though Smith viewed secularism as part of the larger project of development, and espoused the kind of evolutionary Eurocentrism that goes with it, his speculation over the question whether India was a secular state or not has retained its actuality to this day. That Smith’s worldview incarnates a typically vulgar scheme of Weltgeschichte, or that his view of Islam (indeed of Hinduism as well) is highly schematic and simplistic (187), need not discourage the Muslim reader from encountering this text; for it is not on account of their accuracy but because of their currency that Smith’s ideas demand attention.

With the rise of Hindu fundamentalism and the ascendancy of the anti-Muslim ideology of Hindutva, India today is experiencing a crisis of secularism. Given the increasingly tense, often violent, nature of the inter-communal relationship that not only makes the governance of that mammoth nation extremely difficult but which also has the potential of destroying very basis of civilised existence, it is but natural that liberal Indian thinkers show concern and apprehension over these developments. Indeed, the present work responds to the challenge of religious fanaticism by summoning the intellectual and moral resources of indigenous thought and tradition. All the Indian contributors to this volume, whether the source of their moral inspiration be Western liberalism or the Hindu religion itself, are ardent advocates of a humane and non-sectarian politics, and when they challenge secularism, they do so with the anguish of a chastised humanist rather than with the glee of a triumphant adversary. It is in this vein that Partha Chatterjee (Secularism and Tolerance) poses the question: ‘Is secularism an adequate, or even appropriate, ground on which to meet the challenge of Hindu majoritarianism? (345) (Chatterjee also presents some chilling comparisons between the political rhetoric of pre-War Nazism and that of ‘the Hindu right’!) And it is in this spirit that Ashis Nandy (The Politics of Secularisation and the Recovery of Religious Toleration) and T.N. Madan (Secularism in Its Place) deliver their gratifying and cogent indictments of doctrinaire secularism.

As the most outspoken critic of secularism, Ashis Nandy makes an extraordinarily forthright plea for ‘the recovery of religious tolerance from the hegemonic language of secularism’. Nor is he any less candid in his denunciation of modernity and its legitimising doctrines: ‘To accept the ideology of secularism is’, in his judgement, ‘to accept the ideologies of progress and modernity as the new justification of domination, and the use of violence to achieve and sustain ideologies as the new opiates of the masses.’ (343). The religiously motivated violence in the South Asian context is accordingly a gift of modernity that has caused a split in religious consciousness between faith and ideology. Thus in a language and perception that is strikingly similar to the one employed here, Nandy maintains that while ideology for those who believe in it is something to be constantly protected, faith is usually experienced as something that protects the faithful. Why? Because ‘faith always includes a theory of transcendence and usually sanctions the experience of transcendence, whereas an ideology tends to bypass or fear theories and experiences of transcendence, except when they could be used for secular purposes.’ (323). Given this propensity of religion as ideology for the acquisition of secular trappings, it is apparent to him that ‘what passes as fundamentalism, fanaticism, or revivalism is often another form of Westernisation becoming popular among the psychologically uprooted middle classes in South Asia.’ (335). In short, Nandy delivers a very profound and radical critique of secularism that is as convincing to Islamic reason as it is congenial to Islamic faith.

This rich collection incorporates a number of other essays (Marc Galanter (Secularism, East and West, & Hinduism, Secularism and the Indian Judiciary), Akeel Bilgrami (Secularism, Nationalism, and Modernity), Amartya Sen (Secularism and its Discontents) and by the editor himself, Rajeev Bhargava (What is Secularism For?)) that are all equally suggestive and analytical, just as the availability of an ably written Introduction and a fairly useful bibliography (though no Index!) renders this work a very useful guide for the study of secularism and its ideological critique. What is offered here is not a synopsis or a historical summary of the secularist debates of our times but a set of original statements and reflections that may be used as source material for further discussion. The selection of these previously published essays, however, has not been vitiated by any ideological slant; it neither offers an uncontested apology of secularism nor its unqualified condemnation. All in all, a very balanced and competent effort that, given the astonishing paucity of available literature in this field, must be welcomed by every student of modern intellectual history.

Despite volumes upon volumes of recent studies monitoring the phenomenon of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, very little is known of the intriguing relationship between Islam and this-worldliness, between the mandates of transcendent faith and the exigencies of mundane existence. The conventional wisdom, by now even part of the ritually chanted academic refrain, proclaims that there is an essential and inescapable unity of faith and state, that religion and politics are merely two sides of a single Islamic reality. Islam’s woes with the modern world are thus easily construed, at least by its critics, as the logical outcome of its inability to produce any indigenous model of ‘secularism’, of the incapacity of its theology to recognise any realm of Caesar, and intransigence of its ideology to accept any separation of Church and State. The logical perfection of Islamic doctrine, so the reasoning goes, is also its Achilles’ heel. The Islamic order, perfect in theory, is forever imperfect and flawed in actual practice. There’s always an unbridgeable chasm between the ideals and realities of Islam.

Whatever the doctrinal benefits of this scheme for insiders, or its polemical gains for outsiders, it is difficult to imagine that one and a half millennia of Islamic history, in all the four corners of the ancient, medieval and modern world, signify nothing but an eternal wandering in the non-man’s land of a spurious, sub-Islamic, existence! Or, conversely, given the ubiquity and durability of Muslim empires and the un-Islamic conduct of their rulers, could the unity of faith and state have signified, for countless number of faithful, merely a trans-historical ideal? To claim therefore that Muslims were strangers to the logic of historical compromise, or that Islamic sages always chose Divine Governance over Caesar’s rule is to revel in a fundamentalist fantasy or to draw an Orientalist caricature. One of the most original and provocative thesis about the nature of existential compromise achieved by the Islamic tradition, a compromise that secured a separation of faith and governance, has been presented by the French thinker Olivier Carr. His slim volume about the Great Tradition of a la﩯c, non-ecclesiastical Islam, one of the most exciting pieces of writing to have appeared on the scholarly scene, merits an English translation as soon as possible.

Carr’s insight is based not on the discovery of any new historical evidence, but on a novel way of perceiving the dialectics of Islamic existence; that is, not as the dichotomy of text and history, the antinomy of ideals and realities, but as the interplay of ‘governance’ and ‘law’ in the arena of lacit鯩, in the worldly domain where the political is not under the tutelage of the clergy. Traditional Islam, accordingly, has been ‘secular’ without being ‘secularist’; it has affirmed the this-worldly logic of politics and history but never accepted the state as sovereign or reduced faith to governance. Carr’s thesis, then, fiercely rejects Orientalist prejudices about Islam’s inherent incapacity to separate governance from sacred law and hence become modern, just as it boldly challenges all other Islamophobic claims that have been advanced in contemporary France in the name of sociology or secularism. Carr’s argument that is based on the lessons of Muslim history and actual praxis, thus, forcefully repudiates all those glib assertions about Islam’s (essential!) incompatibility with individualism, secularism, democracy and the rule of law!

The Great Tradition, that long and enduring heritage of Islamic political thought which provided ideological shelter to Sunnism and Shi’ism both, cultivated a quietist ethos that was sustained by a sharp demarcation between the concepts of prophecy, sainthood and political authority. It differed from the charismatic and messianic ideologies of early sectarians, in that the Great Tradition clearly separated the legislative and constitution-building politics of prophecy from its routinisation in the post-Prophetic era. Indeed, according to Carr驩, the separation of religion and politics has been the norm; the ulema and other men of religion had their religious duties (doctrine, rituals (‘ibadat), charity, certain domains of (civil) law), just as the caliphs, emirs, sultans, kings and presidents had their political functions (taxes, armies, (criminal) law, police). Further, this separation of roles finds its acceptance and justification in the doctrine itself. Only the judiciary and schools have belonged, as in all societies, to the contested arena of church-state politics. (62-3). Revolutionary Islam and other forms of ‘deviant orthodoxy’ - contemporary Muslim states promoting an official version of Islam - now contest the validity of this separation and disrupt the harmony and balance of this age-old compromise. Not inconsistent with this outlook, Carr thus ends his reflection on the hopeful note that a ‘post-Islamist Islam’ will rediscover the political acumen and sagacity of the forgotten Great Tradition that has been the spiritual and temporal home of the overwhelming majority of Muslims.

No doubt, Carr has produced a provocative and challenging work that raises a number of significant questions about secularisation and Islamic governance, just as it seeks to rectify a host of misconceptions of the la驯c - Islamophobic - French tradition that promotes Islam as the main adversary of secular modernity. And even if Carr’s thesis is, in all essentials, a modern reiteration of Ibn Khaldun’s insights about the efficacy and legitimacy of mulk, it is a very scholarly, perceptive and topical expos that merits the fullest attention of the scholarly community.

The next work discussed in this review is notable on account of the proverbial Anglo-Saxon empiricism that conscientiously eschews Grand Theory for concrete historical analysis. John Esposito and John Voll’s elaborate account of recent political developments in the Muslim world that are related to the processes of democratisation and Islamisation of public life is a good exemplar of this, pre-eminently American, approach to political science. The two veteran scholars, who have access to nearly all the relevant facts of the matter, have produced a text that is very detailed, thoroughly researched, lucidly written and free from all gratuitous polemics. It is sure to become, as is the case with the previous works by these authors, a useful compendium and a standard academic text on the subject. If one may have a quibble at all, it will have to be with the title. Given the fact that both ‘democracy’ and ‘Islam’ are contested concepts, and may be construed to mean almost anything under the sun, a less general and nondescript rubric, perhaps in the form of a sub-title, would have been more appropriate way of drawing attention to the specific contents of this study. Further, this reviewer at least is grieved by the fact that ‘Islam’ is fast becoming a convenient label for anything Muslim, no matter how parochial, mundane and ‘un-Islamic’. It ought to be more meaningful, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, to reserve ‘Islam’ for something transcendent, universal and pertaining to the norms of the faith and to let the epithet ‘Muslim’ denote everything else that is concrete, historical and immanent. Further, given the fact that Esposito and Voll have no pretension to conduct any philosophical and metaphysical discussion about the nature of ‘sovereignty’ or the source of ultimate values - the kind of discourse for which the use of ‘Islam’ is justified, it is not unreasonable and squeamish to make this plea.

The starting point of this inquiry is the insight that the two most important political developments at the end of twentieth century are the resurgence of religion and the emergence of prodemocracy movements throughout the world. There is a further realisation that it the global, cosmopolitan and international context which heavily influences, if not totally controls, the interplay of the forces of Islamisation and democratisation. Despite this, it is contended that the intertwining of the Islamist and the prodeomcratic discourses can take place, and hence meaningfully discussed, only within a well-defined body-politic, normally a nation-state. Accordingly, the bulk of the book deals with the recent political debates and developments inside six key Muslim states, viz. Iran, Sudan, Pakistan, Malaysia, Algeria and Egypt. (Significantly, however, Turkey is missing in this list. The notable fact that the conflict between secularism and Islamism has serious implications for the future of ‘democracy’ in that country, makes this omission, if not dictated by practical reasons, hard to understand. Is Turkey too imperfect a model for ‘secular democracy’, or is it too embarrassing for secularist conscience to have any discussion about it at all?) Needless to say that these surveys are very rich in factual information and display a scholarly competence that is quite impressive. Similarly, the two preliminary chapters that introduce the reader to the ideational and intellectual background of the current debates are quite informative and rewarding. Lucidity and ideological moderation are their principal virtues. In short, as a preparatory text, Islam and Democracy explores the contemporary Muslim scene with assiduity and keenness. It does achieve what it sets out to accomplish and may therefore appeal to a broad spectrum of readership.

The most significant point to emerge from Esposito and Voll’s inquiry into the interface of democracy and Islam is that the problem of governance is the most paramount question today and that modernity forces Islam to resolve it within the context of a parochial nation-state. It is tantamount to coercing Islam to acquire the trappings of an ideology. That Muslims need to have a theory of governance that they can identify as their own is indisputable; but is it incumbent upon the Islamic intellect and conscience to provide such a theory, to delineate a parochial and temporal vision of a torso Islam? Clearly, it is the duty of the Muslim intellectual to resist such a temptation to make Islam ‘modern’ by reducing it to a mere theory of governance and, hence, secularising it.

As for democracy, what militates against its growth in Muslim societies is not any hurdles set up by the Islamic doctrine, but the refusal of current regimes to grant their Muslim citizenry the most fundamental of the rights of the secular state 驖 freedom of conscience and religion. Secularism in the Muslim context (cf. Turkey!) is construed not as a formal separation of church and state but as an absolute ban on Islamic political conscience, an adamant denial of its right to partake in public debate and propose public policies no matter how peacefully and ֑democratically this civic conscience articulates its societal aspirations! In the final analysis, it is not an issue of Islamic obduracy or militancy but that of the despotic, absolutist and undemocratic nature of the secular Muslim regimes (and the civilisation in power that sustains them). A democratic Muslim state, it must be strongly emphasised, is able to meet all the challenges of secular morality and appease all the demands of Islamic conscience!

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