Does Islam Tolerate Secularism?

The town of Kigoma sits next to the warm and deep waters of Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania. During my year long stay at a chimpanzee research site on the lake, I would make the day long journey to town to pick up supplies. The research site, funded by the Japanese government, employed twenty Tanzanians, and provided living quarters and transportation for them and their families. Shoes were a perk of their job, whether it was trail cutting, fishing to support the research camp, or chimpanzee tracking, and so every month I ended up at Jon Mohamed’s shoe shop in a colonial-era white stucco building in the center of town.

Jan Mohamed was a thin but vigorous man of 78 who had lived his entire life in Tanzania. As a result he had made and lost many fortunes over the years. “I build, and the government takes it away,” he once told me over a bowl of yogurt served by his proud wife, referring to the policy of “ujamaa” or collectivization that had left one of Africa’s richest countries in terms of raw materials one of the poorest. “So I build again, and they take again. Eventually, one of us will tire of the game.” Jan sent his children to school abroad where they eventually settled and became successful. In my view that, and the fact that Jan had yet another thriving business in town, showed me who the real winner was.

Jan was a member of the small Ismaili sect of Shi’a Islam that recognizes the Aga Khan as a direct descendant of the Prophet Himself. Pictures of the Aga Khan hung throughout his shop and house, including a large life-size portrait that hung in his living room. When in town I made it a point to visit with Jan and his wife to discuss politics, sports – anything really. Jan’s views of his faith were my first direct experience with Islam, and his opinions showed me that the Ismaili view of Islam was not opposed to modernity. His Islam was tolerant of other faiths, treated men and women equally, and didn’t oppose modernity. Perhaps that is why the sect is often persecuted in both Shi’a dominated Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

I never saw Jan Mohamed again, but I think of him often. The embassy that I passed through to report my presence in the country was bombed by al-Qaeda on August 7, 1998, as was the one in Nairobi I had visited four years before on my way to Tanzania. The faith of Jon Mohammed was not antithetical to secular society, but the one that motivated the embassy bombers sure was.


US Embassy in Dar es Salaam Tanzania, August 1998

For most of recorded history, the concept of separation between church and state was unthinkable. The two were so tightly woven together as to be one in the same. In Roman, Egyptian and Chinese civilizations, the political leaders stood as divine figures – the brief period of the Roman Republic being the exception. Later as non-religious state institutions such as parliaments developed, kings ruled by divine right. Even as late as 1945 the state and religion were rolled together as one in the short and squeaky-voiced emperor of Japan, Hirohito.

Secular, non-religious power only became prominent in Great Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 accelerating a century later with the American and French revolutions. Although secular power can be traced through the burghers councils that ruled some cities in central Europe during the Middle Ages to the various experiments in democracy by the ancient Greeks and Romans, secularism didn’t survive until these revolutions occurred and the principles of the divorce between religious and secular life were defined during the Enlightenment.

In a sense the history of the past thousand years can be viewed as the rise of secular institutions and the conflict between secularism and religion. Some religious sects such as protestantism have prospered alongside the separation between the two. Others such as Catholicism have struggled with their loss of authority; still others like Judaism in Israel have yet to work out the arrangement accommodating religious laws in secular society. During that time we have seen religious wars (Crusades, Moorish conquest of Spain) and internecine religious wars (Catholic vs Protestant Christians). But for the past few centuries the nature of wars has been more secularist: nationalist-based or capitalist/communist/socialist strife.

Islam is unique in that it alone has thrived as secularism has been rejected by its adherents in Iran, the Arabian Peninsula, and elsewhere. Where European societies have grown more secular, and American society found a precarious balance between the two, societies in the Islamic world have seen secularism wane, replaced by religious fundamentalism and extremism. Why?

Nations in the Islamic world followed the pattern of growing secularism until the 1970’s when the Iranian Revolution of 1979 saw the overthrow of a secular regime by a religious one. This coincided with an effort by the Saudi regime to use oil money to build religious schools around the world to spread Wahhabism. Although Wahhabism and the Shi’a regime of Iran are religious enemies, the two did work together to undermine secularism in Islamic societies. Add in the massive corruption of the secular governments in these societies to the weakness and self-doubt promoted by the moral relativistic nihilism of “political correctness” doctrine espoused by secular western societies and the result is a “perfect storm” rolling back the separation of church and state in Islamic countries around the world.

This is nowhere more evident than Turkey. Under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) the Turkish government has become increasingly Islamicized, moving away from the secular ideals planted by its founder Kamal Ataturk. On September 12, Turkish voters approved 26 constitutional amendments proposed by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The most important of these allows the AKP to appoint judges to the country’s supreme court without a confirmation process. This completes the takeover of all three branches of government by the AKP, allowing it to rule without the checks and balances western societies take for granted.

When secularism succeeds, religious freedom prospers. There are mosques, temples, churches, and reading rooms throughout the United States and Europe. However the converse of this is not true. There are no churches in Saudi Arabia, no synagogues in Gaza, nor Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. The Jewish community in Iran is under siege, as are the Christian communities in Egypt and Turkey.

Does Islam tolerate secularism? Secularism has proven that it can coexist with Islam, but so far Islam has not demonstrated that it is capable of coexisting with secularism. The nations that had shown the potential for coexistence – Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Indonesia and Pakistan – are now either completely Islamicized or moving towards that end. Even in secular countries Islam is pushing the limits of tolerance by demanding acceptance of the Islamic treatment of women, disregarding freedom of speech by pushing for blasphemy laws, campaigning for the introduction of sharia law, and preaching hatred against Jews and Christians and subversion of democracy.

The challenge for a secular society is to maintain its respect for religion while at the same time recognizing that Islam isn’t the same as Buddhism, and that Muslims aren’t Episcopalians who don’t eat pork.  So far secular institutions such as a colleges and universities, the mass media as well as governments have failed to recognize the uniqueness of Islam and the fact that the faith has shown limited possibility of accepting the separation between church and state anyplace where the religion is in the majority.

The march towards a secular world where people are free to worship – or not – as they please isn’t guaranteed. One can hope that Muslims themselves will recognize the value of secular society and the separation of religious life from civil life in some sort of “Islamic Reformation”, but recent events show the opposite is occurring. Presently the radicals controlling Islam are engaged in a religious war, one which secular societies around the world have not recognized let alone fought back against.

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9 Comments

  1. Watcher of Weasels » Watcher Council Nominations September 22, 2010:

    [...] The Razor – Does Islam Tolerate Secularism? [...]

  2. Hube:

    Great stuff, Scott!

  3. Watcher of Weasels » The Council has Spoken 092610:

    [...] First place with 3 votes! – The Razor – Does Islam Tolerate Secularism? [...]

  4. Bookworm Room » Watcher’s Council winners for 9/26/10:

    [...] First place with 3 votes! – The Razor – Does Islam Tolerate Secularism? [...]

  5. Joseph:

    I agree Hube. Scott, you are a great writer. Thanks for teaching me about the Ismaili sect of Islam.

  6. Shamlal Puri:

    Wonderful piece Scott. I am a London-based journalist, author, broadcaster and photographer. I have a special interest in your piece because I hail from Kigoma and know Jan Mohamed and his family very well. We grew up together! Jan Mohamed was an esteemed citizen of Kigoma and we looked upon him for guidance as we were growing in Kigoma. I recently heard about Jan Mohamed from friends and former school mates now living Dar es salaam. . I also know Gombe quite well because as a journalist I covered many events there including the kidnapping of your colleagues by rebels in the 1970s. I moved to UK in 1975. I have great affection for Kigoma and really appreciate your piece.

  7. Does Islam Tolerate Secularism? « Paderborner 'SJ' Web Blog:

    [...] Does Islam Tolerate Secularism? Posted on September 28, 2010 by paderbornersj Source: The razor org [...]

  8. The Razor » Blog Archive » The Razor Celebrates 10 Years Online:

    [...] to Islam. I had lived and traveled in Africa and Asia and befriended many Muslims including one of the kindest and most inspirational people I have ever met. I believed that Islam was a religion of [...]

  9. The Razor » Blog Archive » Chosen Paths: Why I Don’t Resent People Making More Money Than I Do:

    [...] shoes in my district, you will have to pay me a flat fee every month (that’s how my friend Jan Mohamed was shaken down in Tanzania under [...]

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