Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Using Religious Arguments to Promote Secularism

There is an interesting column in The Guardian by Brian Whitaker called, "Mutual friends: secularism and Islam." At first glance, that title looks ridiculous, but the subheading provides more explanation: "The Middle East will only be convinced by Islamic arguments for a secular state." Whitaker points out that many of the repressive policies of Islamic nations rest on weak interpretations of the Quran, and that those interpretations vary from state to state. Rather than attempting to promote secularization of society, which is anathema in most Muslim countries, he argues that the main effort should focus on separating the state from religion -- an admittedly difficult task. In order to do this it is necessary to attack the notion that any state can adequately interpret Islam. As Whitaker writes,
The central illusion here is that states can determine the one "true" voice of Islam, regardless of the diversity of Islamic thought through the ages, and also have the right to impose it on the public...The question "How do they know their version is correct?" is what starts to undermine this edifice.
Whittaker argues that secular advocates must use religious arguments to undermine the religious interpretations of the state, regardless of their own beliefs, because a purely secular case will go nowhere.  The effectiveness of this approach may sound doubtful, but essentially Whitaker contends that it is necessary to chip away at the state's attempt to identify itself and its repressive policies with Islamic teaching. 


  1. How did it happen in Turkey? I don't know too much about it besides the power vacuum following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. That doesn't really explain why secularism should suddenly seem like a good alternative though.

  2. This is a great oversimplification, but it was basically Ataturk's doing. He had the prestige and authority to set up the new Turkish state as he thought it should be. He viewed a secular state as modern, and the Caliphate and Islamic influence in government as backward. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI, he had an unusual set of circumstances that gave him an opportunity to totally remake the state.

  3. I knew a little about Ataturk, mainly that he banned the fez, thus crippling Istanbul's souvenir industry for decades to come. I think I'll spend some more time reading about it.