Secular State and Civic Reason
Abdullahi An-Na'im 13 October 2011

When we talk about the Arab 1989 or the Arab Spring, we use a metaphor referencing to the East European transformations and democratization. But my worry is that when we use it to describe the unfolding of the events in Tunisia or Egypt, the metaphor may be unrealistic and even patronizing if not offensive. I’d rather opt for some caution: we all do tend to be comparative in our analysis, but we must be aware that it is only a comparison and not a retelling or reinventing, or re-enacting of certain events somewhere else. We should take democratic transformations seriously on their own terms and in their own processes. We should not assume they must go in a certain way or have to come out with certain results: briefly, we should not expect the Arabs to do exactly what we’d like them to do. They may not, and that is the point: they have to do it in their own way and according to their own priorities. I live in the Us and I see there is a sort of obsession about the issue: “Is this turning into some Islamic regime?” So what? If that’s what people living there want that’s what they should have. What I assume for “patronizing” is that we pretend we can protect the Arabs from themselves or prescribe what they should do so they won’t harm themselves and harm us neither: that is what really matters.

All revolutions start as revolts, sometimes they become revolutions over time and sometimes they don’t. The American Revolution started as a rebellion against the English Crown, then it developed according its own dynamics and it is only in retrospect that we get to see it as a revolution. The Christian reformation, for the people doing it, wasn’t considered to be like that. It is fundamental to stress this, since it is related to the proprieties of human agency, that is the ability to act the way we do because it is right at the time and not because it is prescribed somewhere. These Arab revolts may become revolutions or not, they are going to follow their own dynamics, there’s no need for obsessing about it.

I’m from Sudan and I suffered from the illusion of an Islamic State according to the notion of sharia reinforced by the State. Being through that, having suffered from it, I still say that if that’s what people want to experiment let them do so: it’s their right as citizens of their country. As I expected, the people in Sudan realized that that was a dead end, but they had to discover it on their own; I hope people from closer regions will benefit from that experience, but I would not prescribe anything.

When I speak of process and context in the way I do I don’t mean to be deterministic, as if I couldn’t do anything anyway. There is much I can do: but I do it as an agent among other agents because I’m committed to human right principles, I see myself as a concerned actor and even a subject of these transformations, not only because I’m close to the Arab region but especially as a human being who shares solidarity and concern. This means I feel obliged to make my contribution but in a sensitive and respectful way. This is why I don’t accept a dichotomy between internal and external actors; each one of us has a role to play according to his own terms.

Concerned human beings should be engaged in the process but should not presume to take on the role of the people who are of primary concern. From this perspective – “I have a role to play”– I will pose the issue of the religion and political power, the role of Islam and sharia within the State which is the crucial issue even if people are uneasy to talk about it. Whatever risks people are worried about if they engage with this issue are multiplied if they don’t.

Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution – the one saying Islam is the religion of the State and Sharia is the primary source of legislation – was kept out of the referendum but is totally incoherent to say Islam is the religion of the State since a State cannot “have” a religion. Sharia cannot be the state law neither, so that Article 2 it is a total contradiction with article 1 saying that citizenship is the basis of the Egyptian State. By definition, if you say citizenship is the basis of a society, you cannot consider Sharia as the primary source of legislation since that contradicts citizenship itself. The Tunisian constitution was the first one to mention Islam as the religion of the State, but the Egyptian one in 1923 was the first to introduce Sharia as a source of legislation which eventually turned out to be the only source of law. It is a myth which has no substance to it but still it is very dangerous, especially when we see Copts and Muslims killing each other in the streets of Alexandria. It is foolish to still talk about Islam as the religion of the State.

When I say this cannot be possible I speak from an Islamic point of view: the State has to be secular for the possibility to be Muslim. I think there is a religious obligation for a Muslim which is to resist the idea of an Islamic State, which undermines the possibility to be Muslim by choice and conviction. The option of an Islamic State is incoherent, historically unrecorded and practically untenable: it is a lie, it can’t be true, neither in Saudi Arabia or Iran.

Imposing the State to be neutral about religion doesn’t take a position on religion but at the same time it does not necessarily say religion has nothing to do in the public space: I believe religion has a public role, we cannot really exclude it from politics. I simply make a distinction between State and politics: religion and State are to be separate, but religion and politics can’t and shouldn’t be separated. Believers will act politically as believers, and we have to confront with the paradox to keep State and religion separated in a reality where religion and politics are interconnected. This is why I introduce the notion of civic reason to distinguish it from John Rawl’s “public reason” which is too prescriptive and also too limited in the side of participation. I would like to keep the religious discourse as possible candidate for civic reason in the public square, provided it’s limited and framed by the constitution. It is a struggle and a paradox but we must engage with it.



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