David Hall on the myth and reality of Islamism
Fouad Zakariyya is a former professor of philosophy at Cairo University, and the present work was written in the wake of the Iranian revolution in 1979, and the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Its subject matter is the confrontation between Islamism and secularism in the Muslim world.
What is secularism? The commonly held opinion among Islamists is that it is equivalent to 'irreligion'. According to the Lebanese religious thinker Muhammad Mahdi al Din, secularism is: 'A way of life which removes any religious orientation or influence from the organisation of society, human relations in society, and the values at the heart of these relations. Secularism is a materialist way of life that originated as the result of the growth of non-religious materialistic philosophies.'
Professor Zakariyya attempts to refute this idea of secularism point by point. Firstly, he admits that secularism removes religion from the 'organisation of society', that is to say from politics, but denies that this means the removal of religion from 'human relations in society', or 'the values at the heart of those relations'. Secularists can, despite the absence of religion in the political organisation of society, still: 'enter their marriage on the basis of a religious contract, and follow the inspiration and guidance of religious principles and values, applying them to most aspects of their personal and social behaviour.' Secondly, he points out that the term 'irreligion' is ambiguous. It might mean someone who 'is outside the domain of religion', or someone who is 'anti-religious', or is a 'religious rejectionist'. It is, however, quite possible for a secularist to be 'irreligious', in the first sense as regards religious politics, but not at all in the second sense. Indeed, it is quite possible to be a religious secularist. Thirdly, he notes that secularism has no essential or necessary connection to materialism. The modern history of Europe, the cradle of secularism, exhibits more Idealist philosophers than it does Materialists. Moreover, they were all secularists who 'strongly opposed the intervention of the Church or religion in the political and social organization of the state, while at the same time being arch-enemies of materialism.'
Professor Zakariyyah also takes time to refute the assertion of Islamists that secularism is part of an Orientalist-Jewish-Masonic-Imperialist-Crusader plot to subvert Islam, re-colonise, convert, and exploit the Muslim world. This manifestation of paranoia is really too absurd and incoherent to be taken very seriously in the west, but needs to be tackled in the Middle East where it is widespread. A more important objection to secularism is that it is a purely European phenomenon, a product of the peculiar development of western societies, unlike, and therefore unsuited to, the non-western world. This idea applies especially to the Islamic world, which has never undergone any experiences similar to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, or the French Revolution. Professor Zakariyyah will have none of this either. He points out that, despite the denials of the Islamists, there is a direct analogy between the power of the Catholic Church in the European Middle Ages, and the powers of the religious hierarchy in Islam. Just as it was necessary for Europeans to curb and confine the powers of the Church in order to 'move into the modern world', so it is equally necessary for people in the contemporary Muslim world to curb the powers of the clergy (ulama) in the sphere of politics.
Professor Zakariyyah concludes: 'Contrary to the claims of its critics, secularism is not the product of a peculiar society in a specific phase of its evolution, but is a necessary requirement for any society threatened by the oppression of tyrannical and authoritarian modes of thinking, in which millions of people are subjected to a systematic campaign to rob them of their ability to question, criticise, and think about the future.'
This is all very rational, sensible, and liberal, and will no doubt warm the hearts of secularists everywhere. Unfortunately, it fails completely to take the measure of contemporary militant Islamism in the era of 9/11. This form of Islamism is not really concerned with social issues at all. A society organised on secularist principles or the Shariah is neither here nor there for nihilistic apocalypticism.