Political Islam Versus Secularism

A new book sparks a heated debate between Muslims of different schools.

        [NB: this is a longer version of the article published in the September 2008 issue.]

“Those who thought that religion could be separate from politics understand neither religion nor politics.”
—Mahatma Gandhi

Two Muslim-majority countries that have registered significant gains for liberal democracy in recent years are Turkey and Indonesia. This is reflected in the rankings of Freedom House, which publishes an annual survey measuring civil liberties and political rights worldwide. While their democracies are nascent and fragile, both countries have consistently obtained some of the highest scores for liberal-democratic development that clearly set them apart from other countries in the Muslim world. What is intriguing about these gains for democracy is the seminal role played by religious-based parties and Muslim intellectuals — many of them with roots in political Islam. Left-wing parties and secularist intellectuals cannot claim credit here.

These new developments from the Muslim world suggest several things. First, they require us to rethink long-standing assumptions about democratization, particularly the role that religion can play in this process. A concomitant that flows from this is that the “Islamists-equals-bad guys versus secularists-equals-good guys” approach to Muslim politics is simplistic and distorting. Second, democratic gains in Indonesia and Turkey confirm the observations of political scientist Vali Nasr, in a famous essay on “The Rise of ‘Muslim Democracy’,” that conservative-based Muslim parties and politicians will likely lead the way toward a democratic transition in the Muslim world.1 Third, recent trends in Turkey and Indonesia suggest why Tarek Fatah’s new book, Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State, is a fundamentally flawed study of the Muslim world.

Tarek Fatah is a Toronto-based broadcaster, polemicist and self-described secular Muslim activist. He has been a prominent and controversial voice in debates that pertain to Canadian Muslims and Islam. Recently, he has devoted himself to exposing an alleged Islamist agenda in Canada that he claims has infected not only the Muslim community but also the CBC, the Canadian banking system and the Ontario Human Rights Commission.2 “There are within the staff [of the … commission], and among the commissioners, hardline Islamic supporters of Islamic extremism,” he was recently quoted as saying.3

His argument in Chasing a Mirage revolves around the tension between what he calls the “state of Islam” versus “an Islamic State.” He praises the former and excoriates the latter. The “state of Islam” is the privatized form of faith that is spiritual, ethical, apolitical and based on the individual. Past contributions by Muslims to human civilization can be credited to this form of Islam. In contrast, an “Islamic State” refers to all politicized forms of Islam that have emerged throughout human history, from the 7th century to the 21st. This variant of Islam, Fatah asserts, is uniformly puritanical and supremacist and seeks political power and mastery over not only the Muslim world, but over Europe and North America as well. His book seeks to demonstrate “that throughout Islamic history, all attempts to use Islam to justify or validate political power … have invariably ended in bloodshed and war” and that “the cause of violence that has engulfed the Muslim world is centred on the premise of an Islamic state or caliphate.” In short, there is a Manichean struggle taking place within the Muslim world between these two forms of Islam. The problem is politicized Islam in all its manifestations; the solution is a rigid form of Turkish secularism. Liberals and leftists in Canada are also criticized for not taking the threat of Islamic fascism seriously, which, we are told, threatens Muslim societies, as well as the West itself, if left unchecked.

There is much to criticize here: from the alarmist rhetoric that echoes the writings of Daniel Pipes, Bernard Lewis and Mark Steyn to Fatah’s monolithic and monochromatic portrayal of all forms of political Islam throughout history, without any nuance, context, qualification or variation, to the polemical ferocity of his writing style that scars this book and detracts from the important topic he is attempting to explicate. As the focus of Fatah’s inquiry is fundamentally about religion-state relations in the Islamic world, I want to focus my remarks on this aspect of his narrative.

•••

In the widely acclaimed book The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West, Mark Lilla observes that historically almost every human civilization based its original understanding of legitimate political authority on the divine nexus between God, man and the world. Political theology, Lilla suggests, is the original condition of civilizations as they try to make sense of the relationship between religion and politics and the natural order of the world that surrounds them. The question that is germane for this discussion is how did this divine nexus between God, humans and society gradually eroded in the case of Latin Christendom, thus leading to political secularism and what are the comparative lessons today for Muslim societies.

The history of secularism in the West is long, complicated and generally misunderstood in intellectual debates in the West (especially when making cross-comparisons with Islam). Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is a good place to start the discussion. In retrospect, four broad trends that had secularizing consequences for the West are discernible: the rise of modern capitalism, the rise of modern nation-states and nationalism, the scientific revolution and, most importantly, the Protestant Reformation and the Wars of Religion during the 16th and 17th centuries. It is this latter development that is central to the rise of political secularism, especially in the anglo-American tradition, and that is particularly helpful in illuminating the question of religion–state relations in Muslim societies.

Post-Reformation Europe saw the emergence of new debates about religious toleration, not only between Catholics and Protestants, but also among the various Protestant sects. In an age of gross intolerance, most denominations were interested in enforcing religious uniformity on their societies, each of them claiming exclusive knowledge of God’s will on earth and warning of the dangers of social disorder if religious toleration was allowed to flourish. In brief, religious toleration and political stability were thought to be negatively correlated. Uniformity of religious practice in the public sphere and the need for an established state religion were widely believed to be a prerequisite for peace, order and prosperity. This was the dominant view at the time, right up to the late 17th century, as discussed by Perez Zagorin in his magisterial work, the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West.

It was left to John Locke to rethinking the relationship between toleration and political order. In his famous A Letter Concerning Toleration, he rejected his earlier support for the firm union of church and state and posited a new solution to the core political problem that was plaguing Europe. Religious pluralism in the public sphere and political stability were indeed compatible, Locke newly argued, on the condition that we can “distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and … settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other.” In other words, a soft form of secularism was required. The key interpretive point here is that political secularism emerged in England as the direct result of an existential crisis that was tearing the country apart. This conflict had been raging for many years, and without a solution, Locke affirmed, Europe would not know peace, prosperity or stability. The colossal size of this crisis cannot be overstated. Mark Lilla rightly observes that without a resolution of this issue the self-immolation of the West was a very real possibility. The future political stability of the western world hung in the balance. Political secularism thus emerged in the anglo-American tradition due to critical crisis of survival. It was intimately and indelibly connected to these transformative events in the early modern period of Europe, or, as Taylor has written, “the origin point of modern Western secularism was the Wars of Religion; or rather, the search in battle-fatigue and horror for a way out of them.”4 In short, the idea of a separation between church and state originates as a political solution out of this existential dilemma. A contrast between this picture and the case of the Muslim world, with respect to the relationship between religious toleration and political order, is most illustrative.

Historians are in broad agreement that, comparatively speaking, Muslim societies were more tolerant of religious pluralism than Christendom. The fact that until the mid 20th century, for example, the city of Baghdad had a population that was one third Jewish speaks to this point. I am not suggesting here that the Muslim world was a bastion of liberal tolerance as we understand this concept today, or that minorities were never persecuted; far from it. I am simply stating that Muslim societies and empires historically did not face the same all-consuming wars of religion and debates over religious toleration and political order that were so central to European political history in the early modern period. Comparatively speaking, Sunni–Shia relations and the treatment of religious minorities were far more tolerant in the Muslim world than comparative relations in Europe over the last millennium.

The key point that flows from this fact of relative Muslim tolerance is that no burning political questions emerged between state and society where religion was the key, all-consuming and overriding bone of political contention. As a result, no inner political dynamic emerged within the Middle East that would necessitate the development of intellectual or moral arguments in favour of religion–state separation as a way out of an existentialist dilemma in the same way these arguments developed and were so critical to the rise of secularism in Europe during the 17th century.

The primary political problems facing Muslim societies that threatened socio-political order were the corruption and nepotism of the royal court, natural famines and disasters, and, most importantly, foreign intervention and invasions such as the Crusades of the 11th to 13th centuries, the Mongol invasion of 1258 (which sacked the Abbasid caliphate), the Castilian re-conquest of the Iberian peninsula and, increasingly in the modern period, growing Russian, French, British and later American penetration, colonialism and imperialism (to varying degrees depending on the country, region and time frame in question). Due to this significantly different historical experience with respect to religious toleration—and this is key to understanding the relationship between Islam and secularism—Muslim societies never had the need to think about secularism, not in the same way the West did, as there was no existential crisis that resulted from debates on religion–state relations where secularism might be posited as solution to a pressing political dilemma.

Moreover, as Noah Feldman argues in The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, religion–state relations in the Muslim world were far more stable and amicable than they were in the West. For more than a millennium, religion played a constructive role as an agent of stability and predictability. In contrast to the European experience, where religion in the post-Reformation period became a source of deep conflict, in the Muslim world religion and the scholars who interpreted it managed to place restrictions on the personal whims and ambitions of the caliphs and sultans by forcing them to recognize religious limits to their rule in exchange for conferring legitimacy on the state. In short, the rulers were not above the law—as they later became during the 20th century—but they were often reined in by it, thus limiting autocracy and arbitrary rule. Religion–state relations in the Muslim world has thus bequeathed different historical lessons and memories to the faithful, where religion is viewed by large segments of the population not as an ally of political tyranny and a cause of conflict, but as a possible constraint on political despotism and as a source of stability. According to Feldman, this partly explains why demands for a greater role for religion in politics have a broad following in the Muslim world today (where Islamists are not in power). This brings us to the modern period.

For the past 200 years, the Muslim world’s experience with secularism has been largely negative. It is important to appreciate that in Europe secularism was an indigenous and gradual process evolving in conjunction with socioeconomic and political developments while supported by intellectual arguments—and critically by religious groups—that eventually sunk deep roots within its political culture. By contrast, the Muslim experience has been marked by a perception of secularism as an alien ideology imposed from outside first by colonial and imperial invaders and then kept alive by local elites who came to power during the post-colonial period. In short, secularism in Europe was largely a bottom-up process that was intimately connected to debates from within civil society while in Muslim societies secularism was largely a top-down process that was driven first by the colonial state and then by the post-colonial state. As a result, secularism in the Muslim world has suffered from weak intellectual roots and, with a few exceptions, has never penetrated the mainstream of Muslim societies.

Furthermore, most states in the Muslim world by the end of the 20th century were developmental failures. A pattern of state–society relations unfolded in the post-colonial era that further impugned the reputation of secularism. An autocratic modernizing state, often with critical external support, suffocated civil society thus forcing oppositional activity into the mosque, inadvertently contributing to the rise of political Islam. A set of top-down, forced modernization, secularization and westernization policies by the state—within a short span of time—generated widespread social and psychological alienation and dislocation. Rapid urbanization, changing cultural and socioeconomic relationships coupled with increasing corruption, economic mismanagement, rising poverty and income inequality undermined the legitimacy of the state. These developments reflected negatively on secularism because the ruling ideologies of many post-colonial regimes in the Muslim world were openly secular and nationalist.

Thus, for a generation of Muslims growing up in the post-colonial era, despotism, dictatorship and human rights abuses came to be associated with secularism. Muslim political activists who experienced oppression at the hands of secular national governments logically concluded that secularism is an ideology of repression. This observation applies not only to Iran (under the shah), but also to Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq (under Saddam), Yemen, Turkey and many other Muslim majority countries in the latter half of the 20th century. Summarizing this trend, Vali Nasr has noted: “Secularism in the Muslim world never overcame its colonial origins and never lost its association with the postcolonial state’s continuous struggle to dominate society. Its fortunes became tied to those of the state: the more the state’s ideology came into question, and the more its actions alienated social forces, the more secularism was rejected in favor of indigenous worldviews and social institutions, which were for the most part tied to Islam. As such, the decline of secularism was a reflection of the decline of the postcolonial state in the Muslim world.”5

None of this is recognized by Tarek Fatah. Instead, we are treated to a warped and deeply ideological reading of religion–state relations that turns Muslim history not only on its head, but inside out as well. The problems of the Muslim world, both past and present, are exclusively attributed to political Islam—a marginal political current until the late 20th century—while the colossal failures of the secular post-colonial state are not scrutinized. For example, the religious opposition to the Mubarak regime is frequently attacked (sometimes justifiably), but not the regime itself. There is no discussion of its growing authoritarianism, corruption, torture and subservience to U.S. foreign policy diktats or the US$2 billion aid package that sustains the military dictatorship in Cairo and that fuels an Islamist opposition. Fatah’s discussion of the Palestine–Israel conflict is similarly bereft of any recognition of the socio-political context that has allowed a religious-based opposition movement to rise to the forefront of Palestinian politics.

We are told that Palestinians remain stateless and under occupation because Iran and Hamas have “hijacked” the struggle for Palestine while the “hope” lies with Mahmoud Abbas and the U.S.-sponsored peace process. Hamas should be rejected because it mixes religion with politics and wants to “wipe out the Jews,” Fatah explains, while President Abbas merits support because he is secular and pro-peace.

This narrative of the conflict is indistinguishable from that of the Bush administration. Prior to negotiations, the Palestinians are required to renounce violence and recognize Israel, yet no reciprocal demands are made of Israel to do the same. For example, Israel is not required to reject violence despite an almost five-to-one kill ratio between Palestinians and Israelis (including almost 1,000 Palestinian minors), nor is Israel required to a priori recognize a Palestinian state within its international legal borders (i.e., the West Bank and Gaza)—a position no Israeli government or political party has ever adopted.6 Rather than challenge this interpretive framework of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Fatah’s book reinforces it.

Fatah seems unable to fathom topics that are openly discussed and debated within Israel. According to Neve Gordon, a human rights scholar at Ben Gurion University, the popularity of Hamas “stems from its being seen as the voice of Palestinian dignity and the symbol of the defense of Palestinian rights at a time of unprecedented hardship, humiliation, and despair.”7 Palestinians who voted for Hamas frequently cite its role in resisting Israeli occupation along with its reputation for honesty, modesty and clean government, attributes that contrast sharply with the corruption, nepotism and subservience of the U.S.-backed Palestine National Authority.

Palestinians who express support for Hamas are not by definition religious fanatics, nor have they been bought off by Iran or afflicted by Islamic fundamentalism. As in many other parts of the Muslim world, Palestinians are forced to choose between a dishonest, incompetent and unpopular establishment party and a grass-roots civil society–based religious movement. The latter has won a wide following by critiquing the status quo while simultaneously providing basic needs such as health care, food and other social services. As the prospects for a peace settlement diminish in Israel and Palestine, and while poverty increases to record levels in the Occupied Territories, accompanied by ongoing violence and Israeli settlement construction, it is not difficult to fathom why some Palestinians have turned to Hamas. In fact, given the political options available to Palestinians today, siding with Hamas is a perfectly rational and understandable choice, however regrettable it may be for Palestinian society after independence.

For Fatah, all that matters is Islamist ideology, not the social conditions that give rise to it. Although claiming to be influenced by socialist ideals, Chasing a Mirage reveals that if its author has in fact read Karl Marx, he has not understood him very well.

Marx’s famous statement that “religion is the opium of the people” is pertinent here. Taken at face value by left-wing activists who were shaped by the political convulsions of the 1960s, it continues to exist as a form of religious dogma for many. Marx, however, was far more insightful in discussing the role of religion in society. What is often forgotten are the words that precede this famous aphorism. The full paragraph reads:

”Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”8

Moreover, this book is marked by a noticeable absence of any serious discussion of state–society relations or of the relevant history, sociology or political economy that has generated a political Islamist opposition and that has been exhaustively analyzed by scholars such as Sami Zubaida, Carrie Wickham, Olivier Roy, Vali Nasr, Nikki Keddie and Gilles Kepel. For those seeking an alternative to Fatah’s analysis of political Islam, Mohammed Ayoob’s newly published The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World comes highly recommended.

Ayoob’s work dispassionately challenges several assumptions about political Islam that have been lost in the alarmist treatment of this topic: that religion exclusively dictates political behaviour in the Muslim world; that political Islam is monolithic, transnational and independent of a social, political and national context; that Islamists are all single-minded fanatics, obsessed with sharia and incapable of making political compromises or building coalitions; that Islamic formations are by definition anti-democratic and make use of democracy instrumentally; and that political Islam is inherently violent and is incapable of evolving and learning from its political experiences.

In brief, Fatah is unable to appreciate that long before there was religious fundamentalism in the Muslim world, there was a form of modernist fundamentalism, which was state-centred, authoritarian, paternalistic, repressive, often backed by foreign powers and widely perceived as secular. Calls for the creation of an Islamic state are thus in large part due to a reaction and rejection of the failures of the secular state (both colonial and post-colonial) during the 20th century. Rather than acknowledging this basic facet of Muslim politics, Fatah sees the world in black and white, suggesting that the Muslim world would be a wonderful place if only religion were to be removed from the public square. How more than a billion people, many of whom self-identify with religion as a key marker of their identity, could suddenly relegate religion to the private sphere, is a problem that the author is not prepared to expound on.

Returning to the theme of secularism, Chasing a Mirage is a perfect illustration of a problem that Akeel Bilgrami has discussed. Referring to the crisis of secularism in the Muslim world, Bilgrami perceptively noted that “secularism has to be earned, not assumed.” Given the European roots of secularism and the differing historical experience of religion–state relations in the Muslim world as outlined above, the challenge for Muslim democrats is to develop coherent and indigenous arguments in favour of religion–state separation as part of a broader strategy for advancing democracy. Where Fatah stumbles, and stumbles badly, is that he assumes secularism rather than argues for it. His analysis is premised on the false assumption that because the West (after a long history) has democratically arrived at a consensus on the normative relationship between religion and government, the Muslim world must also have done so already. Thus anyone who challenges comfortable western political equations must be an Islamic fascist. In other words, he makes the critical error of projecting his own secularity and a western paradigm of political development onto the broader Muslim population that remains religious and has a different historical memory with respect to the relationship between religion and politics.

One reason why liberal democracy has made significant gains in Indonesia and Turkey is precisely because Muslim intellectuals have followed Bilgrami’s advice (and rejected Fatah’s). Indonesia’s Nurcholish Madjid and Turkey’s Fethullah Gülen, for example, are widely influential Muslim intellectuals who support the participation of religious groups in the public sphere. They have creatively developed an indigenous reconciliation between Islamic thought and liberal democracy (particularly secularism) that has allowed Muslim parties and civil society groups to make important contributions to democracy in their respective countries. This is a story has yet to be properly told. It serves as a potential model for other Muslim societies to study and to emulate.

•••

One of the epigraphs at the start of Chasing a Mirage is a quote from Eqbal Ahmad, a Pakistani dissident intellectual, scholar and human rights activist who died in 1999. He was asked by Harvard University Islam expert Emran Qureshi to describe the strategies Muslim and Arab intellectuals should pursue to democratize their societies. He replied:

”One must make an effort to understand the past … with compassion, sympathy and criticism. The reason I am stressing that is that many Arab and Muslim intellectuals know more about the West, more about its modern history, more about the ideas of the Enlightenment than we do about our own [history and culture]. No significant change occurs unless the new form is congruent with the old. It is only when a transplant is congenial to a soil that it works. Therefore, it is very important to know the transplant as well as the native soil. [Emphasis added.] “

I am reminded of this observation after finishing Chasing a Mirage as it perfectly demonstrates Ahmad’s point. Unfortunately, Tarek Fatah reveals in this book that he does not know the transplant (the relationship between religion, secularism and democracy as it evolved in the western tradition), nor does he understand the native soil (the unique history of religion–state relations in Muslim societies and the challenges of promoting religion–state separation). Consequently, Chasing a Mirage substantially subtracts from our understanding of the Muslim world. In the end, it tells us far more about the idiosyncrasies of its author than it does about the topic under investigation. Although it will be welcomed by those who share Fatah’s ideological predisposition, those seeking a firmer grasp of the politics and history of the Islamic world and the numerous developmental challenges facing Muslim societies today are advised to look elsewhere.


  1. Vali Nasr (2005), “The Rise of ‘Muslim Democracy’,” Journal of Democracy volume 16, number 2, pages 13–27.  

  2. See Tarek Fatah and Farzana Hassan (2007), “Little Masquerade on the Prairie,” Toronto Sun, February 12; and Tarek Fatah (2008), “Banks Are Helping Shariah Make a Back-Door Reference,” Globe and Mail, January 25.  

  3. Joseph Brean (2008), “Rights Body Dismisses Maclean’s Case,” National Post, April 9.  

  4. Charles Taylor (1998), “Modes of Secularism,” in Secularism and Its Critics, edited by Rajeev Bhargava (New Dehli: Oxford University Press), page 32.  

  5. Vali Nasr (2003), “Secularism: Lessons from the Muslim World,” Daedalus, volume 132, page 69.  

  6. Statistics provided by B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and cover the period from the start of the second Palestinian intifada on September 29, 2000, until June 30, 2008. See .  

  7. Neve Gordon (2006), “Why Hamas Won,” Counterpunch, February 7, 2006 ; see also Neve Gordon and Dani Filc (2005), “Hamas and the Destruction of Risk Society,” Constellations volume 12, issue 4, pages 542–560.  

  8. Karl Marx (1978), “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” in Robert C. Tucker editor, The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: W.W. Norton), page 12.