Secularism and Islamism in the 21st Century

ATLANTA, Georgia ~ The recent decision by Tunisian authorities to reinstitute a ban on the veil in public spaces will surely make great fodder for Islamist activists. Advancing their anti-Western agenda, they will conjure up the memory of Muslim women being physically forced to remove their veils by the regimes of Kamal Ataturk in Turkey and Shah Pahlavi in Iran, reinforcing the image of secularism in the Muslim world as an alien, anti-Islamic ideology enforced by self-serving autocratic regimes. Meanwhile, the religious zealousness of those opposed to the ban will reinforce the image of political Islam, or Islamism, in the West as an intolerant anti-liberal ideology seemingly stuck in pre-modernity.

This event is yet another reminder of the great challenge of our generation to expose the dangers of ideological extremism, whether secular or religious, and find common ground in the mutual commitment to human dignity. It begs the question: how will secular humanism and political Islam coexist in a global community?

Recently, those dedicated to a humanistic worldview have been experiencing the paradox of defending the inalienable rights of religious expression and self-determination in contexts where it is feared that Islamist politics may lead to the radicalization of Muslim societies. Indeed, it would be ironic if the cooption of democratic processes leads to the destruction of liberal and universal principles, yet sanity tells us we are far from the 19th century belief that “some people” are simply “not ready for democracy.” Hesitation in applying the inalienable rights of religious freedom and political self-representation destroys hope not only for political reform in the Middle East and the rise of moderate Islamism, but more importantly, it undermines the legitimacy of the democratic project as a whole, leaving radicalism to fill the vacuum.

Tunisian authorities seem to be using secular humanism as an ideological cover to maintain an autocratic political system. Embarrassingly, it is in this light that the Tunisian government – once thought to be a model for Arab development – shares the company of Saudi Arabia, whose use of Islam as a mechanism for preserving an antiquated monarchy has long been exposed. Similarly, the Turkish law prohibiting the teaching of Arabic to children under 12 essentially mirrors press controls throughout the Muslim world that prohibit society-at-large’s access to Western literature. The failing in all cases is a zealous commitment to ideology over and above respect for the fundamentals of human dignity – education, expression, religion and collective will.

The solution in coming decades will not be found in advocating the ideological principles that form the basis of any political or philosophical system, but in a mutual commitment to the rights and values which those systems espouse in the first place. Secular humanism may have to compromise and accept some forms of religious expression in public space, but the payoff will be an expansion of the borders of tolerance and inclusion. In turn, political Islam may have to accept constitutionalism, along with its procedures and guarantees, in place of an absolute notion of divine legislation. The official French, Tunisian and British discomfort with some Muslim women’s aesthetics seems to be in need of such compromise.

It is precisely at this moment, as Muslims throughout the world feel the brunt of being targeted minorities, that the restrictive Islamic legal codes that discriminate against non-Muslims might be seriously reconsidered. The result of such mutual introspection may be the creation of a new space wherein religious and secular ideologies can coincide in an increasingly complex yet intimately global world. Ultimately, dedication to the “human” in “humanism” alongside an equal dedication to the Islam in “Islamism” might offer solutions to our current series of stalemates.

Abbas Barzegar is a Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative Religion in the Department of Religious Studies at Emory University.

Filed under: Opinion

Comments are closed.