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Halal secularism

by İhsan Yılmaz, Today's Zaman on . Posted in Columns

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I am in the US to chair a panel and also present a paper at the Third International Conference on Islam at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This year’s theme is Islam and democracy.

My paper reflects my recent studies on Islam-secularism-democracy issues that I have also touched upon in this column from time to time. I have been trying to analyze if and to what extent an Islamic secularism or “halal secularism,” as it were, is possible. The issue does not, of course, concern Turkey, and given the fact that the Middle Eastern Islamic nations are hopefully entering a phase of democracy, it is crucial to understand how Islam will accommodate different ethnicities and, more importantly, religions.

Older versions of Islamic “multiculturalist, multireligious” political schemes cannot obviously be applied in a similar fashion in the 21st century where religious minorities will not be content with the status of dhimmi or politico-legal arrangement of a legally pluralist millet system. They will not settle for less than being equal citizens. It is crystal clear that a new ijtihad (independent decision making with regard to Islamic law) is needed on this issue. Then, the vital question is how Muslim democrats will conceptualize new Islamic political theories that will enable very citizen -- regardless of faith -- to be equal citizens, without making any ethnic or religious group superior to or privileged over the others. With regards to ethnicity and race, Islam does not have a problem. Nevertheless, as I said, a new ijtihad is needed on how to accommodate different faiths and religions constitutionally equal in the public sphere and also in legislative activity. I argue in my paper that Fethullah Gülen’s new ijtihad on state-religion issues could be beneficial to study. The Turkish case may be unique in several aspects, so it may not be a model for the Muslim world. However, it is obvious that ijtihads that are normative politico-philosophical formulations could easily be transplanted and applied in different localities and contexts.

I try to show that in Gülen’s thinking one can find a convergence of Habermasian and Shatibian ideas with regards to human rights, primarily freedom of conscience and religion. John Rawls argued that “reasonable comprehensive doctrines, religious or non-religious, may be introduced in public political discussion at any time, provided that in due course proper political reasons -- and not reasons given solely by comprehensive doctrines -- are presented that are sufficient to support whatever the comprehensive doctrines are said to support.” In response, Habermas puts that this epistemic burden -- that each time religious communities and movements have to “find an equivalent in a universally accessible language for every religious statement they pronounce” as part of the duty of civility -- results in a sort of self-censorship. Instead, Habermas argues that this strict demand can only be laid at the door of politicians, who within state institutions are subject to the obligation to remain neutral in the face of competing worldviews. Thus, religious citizens and actors can express and justify their convictions in a religious language if they cannot find secular “translations” for them. It is the legislators’ duty to translate these demands into a secular language.

Gülen’s conception of Islam-friendly democracy is key to understanding his approach to sacred and secular relations. Gülen does not see a contradiction between Islam and democracy. With regards to state-society-religion issues, he has argued, unlike the Islamists, that passive Anglo-Saxon secularism -- which guarantees human rights and freedoms, including freedom of religion -- could provide a wider framework for Muslims to practice their religion comfortably and for other religious minorities to also benefit from human rights. In his view, the faithful can comfortably live in secular environments if secularism is religion-friendly and understood as the state not being founded on religion, and hence not interfering with religion or religious life, as well as remaining equidistant to all religions in a neutral manner. It can be argued that Gülen’s approach to sacred-secular relations is similar to the First Amendment of the US Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” since he has highlighted that Islam does not need a state to survive and that civil society or a civilian realm in liberal-democratic settings is sufficient for its individual and social practice.