Why Secularism Is Compatible with the Quran and Sunnah — And an ‘Islamic State’ Is Not
By Akbar Ganji
Extremist Islamic groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda and the al-Nusra Front in Syria, have transformed the holy Quran into a manifesto for war, terrorism and bloodshed. These groups use the most modern weaponry and technology, and their crimes have created worldwide concerns. Their goal is to return the Islamic world to the medieval age.
At the same time, the corrupt dictatorial Arab regimes in the Middle East, particularly the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf, have transformed the democratic Arab Spring into a sectarian war between the Shiites and Sunnis, in order to prevent democracy from taking roots in their own nations.
Simultaneous with such developments, a Western-made “industry” called Islamophobia not only presents the Holy Quran as the manifesto of fundamentalist warmongers (that claim to represent Islam) and their rigid interpretation of its teachings, it also reduces Islam to its skewed “interpretations.” This reductionist approach has been popular among the Orientalists. The approach also claims that formation of an Islamic government is a necessary condition for a society to be Islamic.
As I will argue in this essay, these claims are false.
Islam and secularism are completely compatible. What I call “secular Islam” is thus the best antidote for Islamic terrorism. “Secular Islam” means that the collection of beliefs, moral values and teachings which comprise Islam do not confer on Muslims a mission to form a government or state.
The idea of establishing an Islamic state based on the Quran and the Sunnah is incorrect, as neither presents a model for such a state.
Definitions: The State, Secularism And Islam
In his book, Philosophical Investigations, the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgensteinstates that words have no meaning other than their “applications.” Thus, to prevent any confusion, we must first define what we mean by the key concepts that are employed here.
The state is an organized structure that is impersonal, has well-defined boundaries, rules a specific population and has the exclusive right to use legitimate violence. Paul Dragos Aligica, a senior research fellow at George Mason University, puts it this way:
The state is an organization monopolizing the legitimate use of force or claiming a monopoly on the use of coercion in a given geographic area and over a political entity, and possessing internal and external sovereignty. Recognition of the state by other states, and thus its ability to enter into international agreements, is often considered a crucial element of its nature.
The term secularism has been defined in three distinct ways. One is atheism. Karl Marx, French sociologist Emile Durkheim and German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber believed that, through functional differentiation, scientific knowledge and de-mystification, the world moves toward atheism and disbelieving in God. Their view has, of course, turned out to be false.
Secularism has also been believed to mean limiting religion to the private domain. This is impossible, because religion is not like special clothes that we can set aside as soon as we leave home. Such eminent sociologists as Robert Bellah, Charles Taylor, Jürgen Habermas and José Casanovabelieve that the presence of religion in the public domain is useful and desirable. But explaining and justifying any claim in the public domain must be done by resorting to reasoning, not religious texts and holy people.
The third meaning of secularism, and the one that we use in this article, is separation of church and state, or religion from government — not atheism or elimination of religion from the public discourse.
By Islam we mean its text (the Holy Quran) and the Sunnah (the speeches and conduct of Prophet Muhammad, although some Shiites such as the Twelvers also consider the Sunnah of their 12 Imams as well). Although Islam has firm positions regarding justice and oppression, it does not have any model for an “Islamic State.” It is left to Muslims to run their societies based on their collective wisdom and consultation.
A secular Muslim is thus someone who not only believes in the separation of religion from the state, but also believes that such a separation is compatible with Islam.
“A secular Muslim is thus someone who not only believes in the separation of religion from the state, but also believes that such a separation is compatible with Islam.”
Based on the Quran, the Sunnah, and religious texts, my argument is that a union between Islam and secularism is possible and justifiable. Fundamentalist interpretations of the Quranic teachings and the Sunnahin order to justify their “Islamic State” are not credible if one actually examines these texts.
Medieval Times Vs. The Modern Era
(Muhammad (top, veiled) and the first four Caliphs. From the Subhat al-Akhbar.)
One important fact is often overlooked. In medieval times, especially in the 7th century in the Arabian Peninsula, state/government, as we recognize them today, did not exist. Societies of those eras were tribal, sparsely populated and simple. There was tribal authority, but it was due to patronage and family relations, not the existence of a government which, as we understand it today, did not exist. The processes of social division of labor, work and its bureaucratization, and consolidation of power give rise to an organized, non-personal entity called government that possesses specific boundaries, population, etc. In his book, Coercion, Capital and European States, A.D .990-1990, Charles Tilly states that up until the 10th century “nothing like a centralized national state existed anywhere in Europe.” Similarly, Bernard Lewis in his What Went Wrong argues that in the medieval times governments did not have borders but civilian centers. The British political theorist David Heldand many sociologists have supported such assertions about formation of government. Perry Anderson, the British historian also believes that the phenomenon of modern governments or states began in the 16th century.
“In medieval times, especially in the 7th century in the Arabian Peninsula, state/government, as we recognize them today, did not exist. Societies of those eras were tribal, sparsely populated and simple.”
In his book Theories of the State, Andrew Vincent argues that government is a relatively recent phenomenon that goes back only to the 16th century. If Europe did not have governments up until the 16th century, how can one expect Medina — the town in the Arabian Peninsula with a small population in which Prophet Muhammad lived — to have had a government? The Arabian Peninsula did not have a government for the same reason that it did not have representative democracy, and respect for human rights and feminism — because the people had not yet founded them.
The Quran And Islamic State
Another important, but overlooked point is that in the Prophet Muhammad era (the 7th century) there was no such thing as a “society.” What existed was ummah, a community of Muslim masses. As German sociologist and philosopherFerdinand Tönnies put it, the medieval “societies” must be considered as “Gemeinschaft“ (German word for community), to be distinguished from modern societies that are called “Gesellschaft“ (German word for society).The audience of the Prophet and the Quran were the believers that made up the ummah. The jurisprudence or Sharia were also for the ummah and not for the modern societies or era. Society is the invention of the modern era.
Prophet Muhammad led the people in a simple tribal framework. The era was a tribal one with a small population, not the type of modern societies we have now. Hence, there is no teaching in the Quran on how to form an Islamic government after the death of the Prophet. Even if there are verses in the Quran, they would all be subject to various interpretations. The Quran is explicit in not specifying any successor to the Prophet.
In his book, al-Osmanieh, Muslim scholar Haroon Abdolsalaam Mohammad Jahiz says that “We have scrutinized the Quran, from beginning to end, and there is no verse or incontrovertibly explicit passage, and not even a verse to be found which may be construed upon reflection as proving the view on the Imamat” [succession of the Prophet’s progeny as Shiites believe].
The Quran orders the Prophet to address the collective problems of the people through consultation with them:
“Consult them in the affairs” (al-e-Imran 159).
Interpreting this verse of Quran in his book, Tafsir Kashaf, Abolghasem Mahmoud-ibn Khwarizmi Zamakhshari, also known as Jar Allah Zamakhashri Mo’tazeli, the medieval Iranian Muslim scholar, states that the consulting that the Quran ordered includes everything except those affairs that are related to God’s revelations to the Prophet. In Tafsir-e Mafaatih ol-Ghayb (also known as Tafsir al-Kabir, or the Great Commentary), Iranian Muslim scholar and philosopher Imam Fakhruddin Razi (1149-1210) proposes that although the Prophet was wiser than all the people, the world always has many problems, and it is quite possible that in many cases the people know better.
He then quoted the Prophet himself:
“You know your life’s affairs and I know your religious affairs.”
Zamakhshari also quotes the Prophet saying,
“Those who consult with and seek advice from others find the best path.”
And, the Quran says,
“They [the believers] employ consultations among themselves” (ash-Shura 38).
What Does The Sunnah Say?
After the Prophet passed away, his followers chose, through the elite, Abu Bakr As-Siddiq as their ruler, which is why the Sunnis believe that electing the ruler must be done by the elite . Muslim scholar Qazi Abduljabbar Mo’tazeli (who lived about a thousand years ago), said,
“The elite, as the people who signed on the Imamat, consult other Muslims” (al-Moqni) and, “Make sure that everyone has been consented upon.”
The Twelver Shiites believe that, through the Prophet, God chose Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, to succeed him. He is the Shiites’ first Imam, and they believe that his children Hassan and Hussein and their descendants were the next eleven Imams who were all sinless and had divine power. Throughout history such claims have been rejected by a majority of Muslims.
The Quran states explicitly that God sent the prophets so that the people would not have any arguments against Him [regarding lack of knowledge].
In other words, the people need only the prophets and their own wisdom. The Quran states, “Messengers [Prophets] were as bearers of glad tidings [for the believers] as well as warners [for the disbelievers] in order that mankind should not have argument against Allah after sending the messengers” (Surat An-Nisa’).
If after sending the prophets the people had still needed other arguments, the Quran would have emphasized that God sent both the prophets and the Shiites’ Imams, so as the people could not have had any argument against Him [for lack of knowledge], but the Quran has mentioned only the prophets (Surahs Taha (verse 134) and al-Israa (15)).
What Does ‘Authentic’ Shi’ism Say?
The current Shiite-Sunni confrontation has nothing to do with what the close companions and supporters of the Prophet did. The rift was born much later. Ali, the Shiites’ first Imam and the Sunnis’ fourth Caliph after the Prophet, praised the three Caliphs before him, who are revered by the Sunnis. He also attributed his own rule and those of the other three Caliphs to the people’s selection and consent, not God or the Prophet.
Thus, the issue of electing a ruler is addressed by the people, not by God or the Prophet.
To prove their claim regarding Ali, Shiites invoke what the Prophet said, “Whoever considers me as the master, should do the same with Ali,” during the Ghadeer Khumm. The Sunni claim that the Prophet did not mean “master,” but meant, “Whoever likes and respects me, should do the same with Ali,” where the Prophet supposedly announced to the people that his son-in-law would be his successor, and all those who believed in him should also believe in Imam Ali. But, one cannot find any credible historical document or evidence that Imam Ali himself invoked Ghadeer Khumm in order to justify his rule.
In Nahj al-Balagha,the most famous collection of sermons, letters, and narrations attributed to him, Imam Ali attributes the legitimacy of the rules of the three Caliphs before him, namely, Abu Bakr, Umar ibn Khattab, and Uthman ibn Affan, to allegiance of the people with them. In other words, he confirms what the Sunnis claim about the successors to the Prophet. He states in (Nahj al-Balagha, letter 6):
Verily, those who pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman have also pledged allegiance to me on the same basis that they swore allegiance to them. He who was present cannot choose another Caliph, and he who was absent has no right to reject; consultation is confined to the Muhajirun [immigrants from Mecca to Medina] and the Ansar [close supporters and companions of the Prophet]. If they agree on an individual and take him to be their Imam, it will be deemed to please Allah.
A person who was supposedly appointed by God could not have spoken in that manner because, otherwise, he would have disobeyed God. Ali also states (ibid. sermon 205, p. 239):
By Allah, I had no desire for the Caliphate, nor any need to rule, but you made me to accept it and burdened me with its consequent duties.
If God had appointed Ali as the caliph, he would have been neither reluctant nor would he have made any reference to people electing him to be his ruler. Did Prophet Muhammad ever tell the people that they had selected him? No, he did not. If God and Prophet Muhammad had chosen Imam Ali, there would have been no room for his reluctance. Ali talks about people’s huge wave of support for him and his reluctance to accept it (ibid. sermons 135 and 137):
You [the people] ran towards me shouting, ‘Allegiance, allegiance, allegiance,’ like female camels advancing their calves. I held back my hand, you pulled it towards yourselves. I drew back my hand but you dragged it.
How was it possible that God and the Prophet had chosen Ali, but even after people had turned to him, he tried to turn them down, saying (ibid. sermon 93, p. 85):
Leave me and seek someone else… If you leave me, I am one like you, and will listen to and obey whomsoever you put in charge of your affairs. I am better for you as a counselor than as your chief.
Imam Ali accepted Umar as his son-in-law, allowing him to marry his daughter, Umm Kulthum. He named his children after the caliphs before him and called them “Abu Bakr ibn Ali,” “Umar ibn Ali,” and “Uthman ibn Ali.” If they had violated his God-given rights and rules, Ali would not have behaved that way. He said, “Abu Bakr assumed leadership with goodwill and reigned with justice,” and, “Umar undertook the charge of leadership, was well-behaved and auspicious and pious.” He considered the rules of Abu Bakr and Umar as “good and just” and said, “Their deeds were laudable and they ruled over the Ummahjustly.”
Ali believed that election of Abu Bakr and Umar were “worthy choices” (History of Al-Tabari, volume 3, p. 550):
After the Prophet manifested whatever he was commanded to and conveyed the messages of His Lord, Allah the Glorified, took his soul, may Allah’s greetings and blessings be upon him.Then, Muslims elected two eminent successors to him and the two ruled in compliance with the Quran and Sunnah, adopted his model and did not deviate from it. Allah, then, took their souls, May Allah be satisfied with them.
Regarding Umar, Ali said (Nahj al-Balagha, sermon 228, p. 262):
May Allah reward Umar who straightened the deviated, cured the disease, abandoned mischief and established the Sunnah. He departed [from this world] with untarnished clothes and little shortcomings. He achieved good of this world and remained safe from its evils. He offered obeyed Allah and feared Him as He deserved.
If Imam Ali had been chosen by God and the Prophet as the successor, and Abu Bakr and Umar had violated God’s and the Prophet’s will and had usurped his rights, would he had spoken about them like the above?
The historic Ghadeer Khumm event took place a few months before the Prophet passed away. How was it possible that the Prophet’s best and closest supporters, whom the Quran has repeatedly praised, violated his explicit and clear order regarding Ali as his successor? And, if they had, would Ali have judged them so positively?
When the dissidents staged an uprising against Uthman and surrendered his home, they asked Imam Ali to speak to him as their envoy. He went to Uthman and told him (ibid., sermon 164, pp. 167 and 168):
The people are behind me and they have made me an arbiter between you and themselves; but by Allah, I do not know what to say to you. I know nothing [about this matter] that you do not know, nor can I lead you to any matter of which you are not aware. You certainly know what we know; we have not come to know anything before you that we could tell you; nor did we learn anything in secret that we should convey to you. You have seen as we have seen and you have heard as we have. You sat in the company of the Prophet of Allah as we did. Abu Bakr and Umar were no more responsible for acting righteously than you, since you were closer than both of them to the Prophet of Allah through kinship, and you also hold relationship to him by marriage, which they did not hold.
Thus, Imam Ali considered Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman as legitimate, not usurpers. Uthman was being toppled, and was not in a position of power that would compel the Imam to praise him and, most importantly, appoint his beloved sons, Hassan and Hussein, as Uthman’s protectors. In Nahj al-Balagha he presents himself as someone who liked Uthman. He wrote that A’isha[the Prophet’s wife], Talha and Zubair [two prominent companions of the Prophet] were the main provocateurs against Uthman, adding that people were satisfied with his election [as Uthman’s successor] (ibid., letter 1, p. 271):
I am appraising you of what befell Uthman so [correctly] that its hearing may be like its seeing: People criticized him, and I was the only man from amongst the Muhajirun who asked him to seek satisfying the Muslims most and to offend them the least. As for Talha and as Zubair, their lightest step about him was hard and their softest voice was strong. A’isha too was in a rage with him [Uthman]. Consequently, a group overpowered him and killed him. Then, people pledged allegiance to me, not by force or compulsion, but obediently and out of free will.
Ali’s rationale is that of one who had been elected by the people (expressed through the pledge of allegiance by the tribal leaders), not someone chosen by God. He states (ibid., letter 7, p. 275):
Caliphate is allegiance only once. It is not open to reconsideration, nor is there any scope for fresh proceedings of elections. He who remains out of it is fussy [seeking faults], and he who is ambivalent upon it is a hypocrite.
In letter 28 of Nahj al-Balagha (pp. 292 and 293) to Muawiyah, the second Caliph of the Umayyad Dynasty, Ali explains to him why he is qualified to rule the Muslims. He mentions his obedience to God and the fact that he is a relative of the Prophet, saying, “No one was closer to the Prophet than me.” But, he never claims that he had been appointed by the Prophet as his successor. Clearly, if that had had happened, Imam Ali would not have forgotten it. In the same letter he emphasized that when the uprising against Uthman began, he did everything he could to help Uthman. In sermon 67 (ibid., p. 52), Ali supports the arguments of Muhajirun against the Ansar, but still emphasizes that he was the closest person to the Prophet. In his letter to Talha and Zubair, Ali’s entire argument is that he was elected by the people, not by God and the Prophet (ibid., letter 54, pp. 341 and 342):
I did not pursue the people till they approached me, and I did not ask them to pledge their allegiance to me till they themselves did so; and both of you were among those who approached me and swore allegiance to me. Certainly, the people did not swear allegiance to me due to any force exerted on them or for any reward given to them. If you two pledged your allegiance to me obediently, come back and offer repentance to Allah soon, but if you swore allegiance to me reluctantly, you have certainly given me a reason for action by pretending obedience and concealing your disobedience. By my life, you were not more entitled than other Muhajirun to conceal and hide the matter. Your refusing allegiance before entering into it would have been easier than getting out of it after having accepted it.
We see that, (a) Ali makes no mentions of having been appointed by the Prophet as his successor; (b) he speaks about declaring allegiance by free will; (c) he does not condemn non-allegiance to him, by swearing to it and then breaking it, and (d) if he had been chosen by God to rule, there would have been no need for any argument.
Note: Ali was elected by the people, but the Shiites generally believe that he was chosen by God, and that is the part that this article is critiquing.
The Umayyad And Abbasid Dynasties
(A leaf from a Quran written in Kufic script, Abbasid dynasty /9th century, Iraq.)
So far, we resorted to religious texts, such as the Quran and Nahj al-Balagha, and we critiqued and rejected the notion of a divine and Islamic government. But, one can also critique the notion of an “Islamic government” from a historical perspective. Some have referred to the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties as the “Islamic empires,” but what does that mean? Ibn Khaldun, renowned Muslim historian, has described the process of transformation of the caliphate to monarchy. At the end of chapter 25 of his book, the Muqaddamih: an Introduction to History, he considers religion as the steward of “people’s other worldly affairs…Whereas political laws govern the expediencies of this world.” Such a definition and distinction is necessarily a kind of secularism, particularly because Ibn Khaldun speaks about “religious politics” as opposed to “secular politics.” In chapter 26 of his book he reasons that running the collective lives of the human being is possible without religion and prophets, and has also been experienced. In chapter 30 of his book, Ibn Khaldun critiques the Shiites’ claim that the imamat is one of the principal pillars of Islam and states that governance is “a public expediency that has been left to the views of the people.” Chapter 28 of his book is entirely about the transformation of caliphate to monarchy. Ibn Khaldun writes that while the four original caliphs considered religion in their rules, the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties transformed the caliphate to “absolute monarchy” and were after enriching themselves, conquering the world, concentrating more powers in their hands and lasciviousness. Ibn Khaldun did not mean that the two dynasties formed Islamic governments, rather he was comparing them with the kings of his own era.
“Ibn Khaldun considered religion as the steward of ‘people’s otherworldly affairs, whereas political laws govern the expediencies of this world.’”
The Shiites, Khawarij and Mu’tazila viewed the Umayyad as corrupt, usurpatory, and apostate. As Duncan Black McDonald states in his book, Development of Muslim Theology, Jurisprudence and Constitutional Theory, even the “Murjites — a group of early Muslims that believed that only God has the authority to judge who is a true Muslim and who is not — did not deny the corrupt nature of the Umayyad kings, but they also believed that because the people had pledged their allegiance to the Umayyad, obeying them was a religious duty; only apostasy would necessitate uprising against them.
In his book, al-Milal wa al-Nihal, the influential Iranian historian of Islam, Muhammad ibn Abdul Karim Shahrestani writes that,
“The Suleimanieh branch of Zeidieh, the Mu’tazila, [both Shiite groups] and the followers of hadith and Sunnah believe that it is not necessary for the Imam [ruler] to be a religious scholar, “because emaamat is not a religious affair that we need in order to understand God and His unitary nature. It would suffice for him to have access to religious scholars that can address his religious issues. What is necessary for him is having strong thoughts and correct insight into analyzing what is happening.”
As already mentioned, Ibn Khaldun analyzed the process of transformation of the caliphate to absolute monarchy. In his book, Arab Political Reason, Mohammed Abed al-Jabri, the Moroccan critic and professor of philosophy and Islamic thoughts (1936-2010) explains clearly that the basis for selecting the four caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali was tribal interests, not beliefs, whereas Islam’s message is having faith in God and rejection of tribalism. Thus, Abed al-Jabi also did not consider the rules of the caliphs as Islamic government. He also showed that right after the death of the Prophet the tribal wars, which had stopped during the Prophet, began again. The tribes were used as a criterion for choosing the ruler, as well as tribal discriminating against others. That is who Ali was isolated.
God Is Not A Head Of State
The concept of electing a ruler by the elite has been expanded in the modern era. Just as everyone can cast a vote in Western societies, Muslims in Islamic countries (although the people of the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf do not yet have such a right) have gradually gained the right to vote. Thus, what does it mean to run a nation by an Islamic government? Running a nation requires four ingredients:
The first is management, which consists of knowledge and skills. Knowledge is the result of natural and experimental sciences. Skills come about as a result of practice. None of these has anything to do with religion and Islam.
The second is planning, which is done by knowledge and science. No religion, including Islam, has anything to offer to its adherents about planning.
The third is societal and moral values. Although all religions, including Islam, support moral precepts, they are in fact independent of religion and do not rely on it. Muslim scholars refer to values as the “rational autonomies.” Good and bad, just and unjust, and other values provide an independent base for assessing all the actions and reactions by the people. Justice is not religious; it is religion that must be just. Peace is not a religious affair; it is religion that must defend peace. Freedom (of thought, expression and behavior) is not religious; religion must recognize freedom. Development is not a religious affair; it is religion that must defend development. Being a good human being is not a religious teaching; although religions also recognize the dignity of the people. If a religion does not respect the people, it will not receive respect from them.
The fourth is the Fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] or Sharia. The only aspect of any religion, including Islam, which has anything to do with managing a society, is its jurisprudence, which in modern society is referred to as the laws. But, they are not necessarily religious or Islamic for the following reasons: (a) they include laws concerning worship and provisions that have nothing to do with religion and have nothing to do with running a society; (b) 99 percent of non-worshiping laws are of ratifying type, i.e. they are the product of the culture and lore of the people of the Arabian Peninsula before the Prophet. The mission of the Prophet was not to destroy the infrastructure of the society, including its culture. He modified many of the existing laws and then ratified them. They had evolved among the Arab people before and during the Prophet’s era, not by God or Muhammad. Just as the Prophet ratified the traditions and common laws of his time, Muslims of the modern era also ratify the current traditions and common laws for running a nation, namely, democracy, respect for human rights, and pluralism. Neither the Prophet ratifying the common laws of his time, nor modern Muslims doing the same about the current common laws and traditions make them Islamic. (c) Religious jurisprudence is not the law; claiming otherwise is unjustified.
“The Prophet modified many of the existing laws and then ratified them. They had evolved among the Arab people before and during the Prophet’s era, not by God or Muhammad.”
Based on all these arguments above, I am confident to state that “Islamic government” is not an acceptable idea, because Islam lacks the aforementioned four main resources and ingredients for an Islamic government. Thus, for example, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and ISIS cannot be considered as Islamic governments. This is not because, for example, they are not democratic states, but because Islam itself does not have any prescription for a government. Thus, secularism is completely compatible with Islam and Muslims. In other words, “Islam is secular,” as it has never presented any model for governance, and has left it to the Muslims to run their societies based on their collective wisdom and consultation.
Muslims are, of course, free to espouse what they believe in the society, but to make their beliefs the laws of the land, there is no way other than collective consent of the people. Making abortion, homosexuality, capital punishment, etc., legal or illegal is a function of the collective discussion and wisdom and cannot be ruled in or out by invoking the Quran or the Sunnah, even if there is an explicit law in Islam for such issues. Thus, if, for example, Muslims are opposed to abortion, they must explain their rational and moral reasons and convince the public.
Conclusion: The Strategy To Confront The Islamic Extremists
Given these facts, what is the best strategy to confront Islamic radicals, such as the Islamic State? In my opinion, the eight pillars of an effective strategy are as follows.
First, the corrupt dictatorial regimes in Islamic countries that are supported by the West give rise to Islamic groups as an alternative. Ending discrimination, setting up the democratic process and respecting the fundamental human rights of the citizens must be the focus of the opposition to such regimes. Ethnic, gender and religious discrimination represent the most important social background for the growth of the fundamentalist terrorists.
Second, confronting the Islamic extremist groups that supposedly want to establish an “Islamic Caliphate” cannot be done by military means only, because defeating them militarily does not put an end to the claim that it is the Muslims’ duty to set up an Islamic government. This is evident everyday as more recruits join ISIS despite the protracted military campaign against them. Islamist groups are even more radical today than when the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan after 9/11.
“One must demonstrate to 1.5 billion moderate Muslims that the interpretations of the Quranic teachings and the Prophet’s Sunnah by the Islamic extremists are pathetically wrong.”
At the same time, one must demonstrate to 1.5 billion moderate Muslims that the interpretations of the Qur’anic teachings and the Prophet’s Sunnah (tradition) by the Islamic extremists are pathetically wrong, so that one can prevent, for example, the European, American, Canadian and Australian Muslims from joining the terrorist groups. It has been estimated that over 12,000 of such Muslims are fighting alongside the terrorist groups.
Third, it must be emphasized that the claim that there is such a thing as Islamic government is baseless. The Quran and Sunnah have not obliged Muslims to establish such a chimera as the Islamic government, but have taught them to use wisdom, justice, consultation, and innate human dignity to organize their collective lives and their society. Similar to all other religions, Islam does not have provisions for forming a state, particularly modern states as we understand them now. Religious government is an absurd notion, and if a government is formed under Islamic banner, it will only serve the interests of a special group of the people, not an entire Islamic society. Thus, if Muslims form a government, it will be a secular, not a religious one.
Fourth, the reductionist approach to Islam can be deadly, as it will only increase the power of the conservative and reactionary clerics. It also transforms the kind and forgiving God to a warmongering king that constantly issues orders for more bloodshed. As the Iranian Muslim theologian and jurist Muhammad al-Ghazali put it, scientific religious laws are for materialistic issues; they do not represent true religion.
Fifth, we must keep in mind that we have many versions of liberalism, Marxism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Islamic fundamentalism is only one version of Islam. There are other versions of Islam that are based on enlightened and moral interpretation of the Islamic teachings and the Prophet’s traditions, adjusting itself to be compatible with democracy, human rights, freedom, and pluralism. and views everyone, regardless of religion, ethnicity and gender, as free and equal citizens.
The defenders of this version of Islam view al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, the al-Nusra Front, Boko Haram and similar groups as the most important threat to Muslims and true Islam.
Sixth, it must be emphasized that true secularism is not opposed to religion, and a secular democratic state will not only eliminate ethnic and religious discrimination, such as pitting Shiites against Sunnis, but will also create the conditions for the religious people to practice their beliefs free of the government. The regimes that claim to be based on religion have, in fact, transformed religion to something akin to governmental orders and intervene in the moral relation between the pious people and their God. At the same time though, “fundamentalist secularism” also intervenes in people’s religion because it is anti-religion. A true secular democracy only separates religion from governance.
Seventh, the West must not approach the Islamic world in a way that is threatening to Muslims, giving them feeling of humiliation, discrimination, and threat of military attacks. This has often been done by the support that the West has provided to the corrupt dictatorial regimes in the Islamic world. Such support has always been a prime factor in the attraction of some Muslims to radical groups.
Eighth, it is morally unjustifiable if a religious, ethnic or gender-based minority is systematically discriminated against while their beliefs are mocked by those invoking “freedom of expression.” As an example, consider the plight of Muslims in France that representabout 10 percent of the population.
As the French Premier Manuel Valls acknowledged, there is a sort of “apartheid” in France with respect to its Muslim community.
Liberal Jewish American philosopher Jason Stanley distinguishes mocking the Prophet of the majority — the Christ — and that of the minority — Prophet Muhammad and correctly rejects the latter. The only “fruit” of such mocking and insults is a deepening rift between Muslims and the West and the growth of Islamic terrorist groups.
Instead of widening the fissures, we must move toward healing, mutual understanding and respect. Within the Islamic world, that starts with embracing secularism.
This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei.