Are secularism and Islam cousins?

JakartaRecent events suggest that Muslim theologians may appeal more strongly to European university students than do their Christian counterparts. While Pope Benedict XVI had to cancel a lecture he had been invited to give in January at La Sapienza, in Rome, because of protests from students and faculty, Tariq Ramandan, a well-known Swiss Muslim academic and theologian, grandson of Hassan al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and currently on a Visiting Fellowship at Oxford University, is constantly giving lectures in various European institutions. In January, he was even invited to speak at Université libre de Bruxelles ("Free University of Brussels"), generally considered an intellectual fortress of Freemasonry, where he was given a warm reception. According to media reports, even the Cercle du libre examen ("Circle of free thought") appeared prominently on the list of organizations sponsoring his lecture.

This raises the question of what might cause institutions generally known for their strict secularism to show such sympathy for someone who has become an icon of Islam.

We usually view Islam and secularism as two antagonistic systems of beliefs, one based on an alleged Revelation, the other on the refusal to admit of any such Revelation, one claiming total submission to God’s will, the other to reason’s dictates. Yet, what these two systems have in common is perhaps much more important that what separates them. They are in effect profoundly united in their common denial of any link between faith and reason. That is also what distinguishes them from Catholicism, which has always thought that reason is enlightened by faith, and vice-versa.

Secularism claims that religion is a strictly private affair and that God has no place in public life. This claim is based on the premise that there is no true knowledge other than scientific. Any statement not lending itself to the scientific method is deemed subjective, ie, mere opinion. Thus, it is assumed, there is no moral law whose truthfulness is guaranteed by reason. In short, faith and morality lie outside the realm of reason.

There is an important body of evidence showing that Islam also believes in a total divorce between faith and reason. For example, according to French Islamist R. Arnaldez, whom Pope Benedict XVI referred to in his Regensburg speech of September 2006, the 11th century Muslim philosopher Ibn Hazn thought "that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us".

Islam’s move away from rationality was pushed further in the 11th century when Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, considered by some as the most important Muslim authority after Mohammed, lamented the influence of Greek philosophers. In a book entitled The Incoherence of the Philosophers, he argued that God is not bound by reason, that "natural" links between causes and effects are illusory and that there is no rationality in the universe, thus denying the very possibility of scientific investigation. Al-Ghazali also thought that reason was darkened by passions and, hence, could not be trusted. Thus morality could be known solely through Revelation. "No obligations flow from reason but from the Shariah (the divinely ordained path)".

The upshot of it all is that both secularism and Islam deny any possible link between religion and reason, but for different reasons : the former because it denies reason’s capacity to know anything other than what is captured by our senses, the second because it denies that God is constrained by reason.

This common denominator helps to understand many other similarities between secularism and Islam. For example, both systems are incapable of admitting of a harmonious coordinated relationship between Church and State based on a distinction between their respective roles. What secularism calls separation of Church and State is, in effect, subordination of the former to the latter. The Church is only one other interest group amongst many others. In the case of Islam, the State’s role is to enforce the divine law, ie, the Shariah, as interpreted by the mullahs. Thus, in both systems, there is subordination rather than coordination between State and religious authorities. In secularism, religious authorities are subordinated to State authorities. In Islam, it is the other way around.

Another similarity is that both systems are deterministic, ie, they deny human capacity to make free choices. Because it admits of no true knowledge other than empirical, secularism assumes that human conduct can be explained solely by observable causes and ignores any other possible cause. Thus, any human action based on disinterestedness is associated with irrational or pathological behavior. That is tantamount to denying free will and explains the emphasis of secularism on social controls rather than character formation. As for Islam, by asserting that what God wants is what he decides and that what he decides is what happens, it leaves no room for human choice either. Both systems thus deny free will, albeit for different reasons.

It is also clear that both systems are prone to legitimize the use of violence to enforce beliefs. In the case of Islam, a quick look at the Mediterranean world during the 1000 years that followed its birth in the 7th century shows that it was largely spread through the power of the sword. Muslim armies conquered all of what is now the Middle-East and North Africa, wiping out all traces of Christianity, and then moved on into the Iberian peninsula and, later, the Balkans. As for secularism, it has always been violent in all its forms, whether Marxist, Nazi, Maoist or even "Liberal" -- the latter admitting of the killing of unborn babies and of assisted suicide.

Secularism and Islam also share a common intolerance towards those who do not adhere to their respective beliefs. In Islam, this translates into dhimmitude, ie, the imposition of an inferior social and legal status for non-Muslims. In secularism, it translates into various forms of discrimination against all who refuse to exclude God from public life and can take extreme forms, such as "labor camps" such as the Gulag described by Alexander Solzhenitxyn.

Thus, from the point of view of reason, Islam and secularism have important similarities: both admit of its use only in the pursuit of utilitarian purposes and reject it in the pursuit of philosophical or theological knowledge. Consequently, neither can explain rationally why open dialogue is preferable to violence in the search for such knowledge.

In a book entitled Unholy Alliance, David Horowitz, a former radical socialist, argues that the American Left, which is the political expression of secularism in the United States, and radical Islam, both seek to destroy the great "evil" of our day, American capitalism, although for entirely different reasons. The American Left wants to emancipate the oppressed by abolishing inequality, poverty and war by ushering in a utopian communism, from which God would be officially banished. Radical Islam wants to destroy American influence and conquer the world for God alone by enforcing Sharia law worldwide. Islamic fundamentalism, notes Horowitz, was first hostile to Communism but its leaders soon discovered that there were genuine benefits in sharing the same totalitarian political structures and spreading the revolution.

Horowitz assumes that radical Islam and the American Left (ie, the most important segment of American secularism) agree on who the enemy is but diverge on why it must be fought and what should replace it. However, in light of the intellectual kinship between Islam and secularism described above, it might well be that these disagreements are not so important after all. Radical Islam and the leftist segment of American secularism use different terminologies that perhaps serve to hide a deeper philosophical unity. More specifically, while secularism likes to picture itself as radically a-religious or anti-religious, it may be useful to think of it in terms of a religious system with its own set of dogmas.

Richard Bastien is an Ottawa-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Égards, a French-language quarterly journal.


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