”The problem is not Islam. It’s politics”
Hassan Hanafi with Giancarlo Bosetti 19 September 2006

Bosetti: One issue that wasn’t clear enough after the last conference in Cairo, about dialogue beyond Orientalism and Occidentalism, was the relation between secular liberalism and the role of religion and religious people in reforming and modernizing Muslim societies. These roles are not clearly defined in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt. Someone like Yassin said that he was secular and that Egypt was a secular state. But Mr. Salmawy, in a more realistic way, said that Egypt was more secular than other Arab and Muslim states but was less secular than Western ones. In other words, the way we define secular West European states has a different meaning and shows a difference in the level of secularism. Salmawy would also like to avoid the term “secular” and instead prefers the term “civil”. What is your opinion about this? I’m sure you wouldn’t define yourself as secular.

Hanafi: The word secular has been derived from the Latin word saeculum that means concerning the century and concerning the time. In the West, secularism means the separation of the church and state. In Islam, since there is no church, de jure, (there are some ulema of Al-Azhar who have gained certain authority) we do not have a religious authority with power over society. In Islam, we don’t have a theocracy and there is no distinction between the sacred and the profane. For instance a beautiful mosque inside a slum is against religion because it is considered more pious to reconstruct slums than to build a marble mosque in their midst. We have many popular proverbs such as if a family needs something then it is not allowed to give it to the mosque or to God because priority is given to the civil and to the secular. The spirit of Islam is life, not religion. Religion is only a tool to implement a good life, to create a perfect man and a perfect society.

Bosetti: I understand, but you have a theocracy in Iran which is a Muslim country and you also have other Muslim countries like Algeria where legislation is consistent with a rigid and severe interpretation of the Quran; so the condition of women is not acceptable by human rights standards.

Hanafi: Yes, but that depends on a historical political power. In every society there is a power which bases itself on conservatism and which is an obstacle for social change. In any effort to promulgate a new family law or law for women, conservatism acts as a barrier. It is not religion but a political, conservatist power in every society that uses religion as its legitimising device. Religion has room for social change within itself as law is temporary and can change according to social change. Since liberalism, secularism and progressive forces in our society, in this historical moment, are not so strong they are swimming against the tide. The overwhelming force seems to be conservatism, in the state apparatus, in institutions and in the mass media. In Iran conservatism is also a political power, as modernism did not make big gains during Khatami’s government. Antagonism between the East and the US has made people seek refuge in conservatism, as a defence mechanism against an external threat.

Bosetti: You are saying that conservatism is not dependent on religious reasons but this kind of conservatism, theocratic conservatism, has roots in a certain use of the Quran.

Hanafi: Yes, but it is exactly like the new kind of conservatism in the USA, which takes some religious devices from the Gospel or the Old Testament to justify its political strategy. Liberation theology is doing the same but for the different cause, for social change, for de-colonization and for liberation. Since, till now religion is in the hearts and minds of the masses it plays the role of political ideology. But once people are educated, once they know that political ideology is based on a blueprint to defend public welfare then the return to religion will be minimised.

Bosetti: But it’s true that religion, or a certain use and interpretation of the Quran, can offer means to conservatives and to those who have a theocratic outlook about politics. However, we can also find in religion a different interpretation of the tradition to open the way to democracy, to social reform and liberal progress.

Hanafi: Exactly. Religion is a double edged sword. Every religious book can be interpreted either way. It can be used for conservatism and it can also be used for social mobility. In Islam you can interpret certain texts to defend political authority or to defend a certain kind of authoritarianism, like Al-Ghazali did in the old days to strengthen the central power of the state. By the same religious scared texts you can also select some verses which promote social change, liberalism and secularism. Since the era in which we are living is dominated by conservatism this second interpretation is not very visible. The same thing is happening in Christianity. People who are interpreting Christianity for the sake of the poor and the oppressed people are less visible than the others. The same thing in Judaism: you have the conservatives who are defending more or less Zionism, a trend very typical of the history of Judaism especially in the 19th century and of Romanticism. But you also have a universalistic and anti-dogmatic tradition represented by Phylo of Alexandria and Spinoza and many intellectuals of today. In every religion there are these two trends which express socio-political forces: one defending stability, which is the state, and the other defending social change, which is the political opposition.

Bosetti: That means that you accept secularism as something positive, especially in terms of separation between the religious dimension and the political one, as a perspective to be pursued?

Hanafi: There is a question of terminology here because I would not call it secularism. The masses confuse the separation of religious authority from political authority with the separation of religion from social life. Separation of religion from social life would be very difficult because our family law is based on religion and our family law is really the cornerstone of our social life. But we can find better words than secularism and liberalism within Islam itself. Such as the priority of reality on the text, the priority of public welfare and that Islamic law is based essentially to defend life, reason, honour, dignity, and public wealth. Then secularism is already built in Islam without any need to inject it from the outside, from the West or the East. This is the tactical way by which I can defend the major intentions of Islam which are secular, without using the word secularism.

Bosetti: How would you define this perspective? As liberal reformism?

Hanafi: Unfortunately our modern political terminology comes from the West. It is difficult to find indigenous terms but I am trying to do this all the time. For instance, public welfare or Maslaha which means what is useful for the world is given even if it is not useful for religion. Also on the day of judgement God will judge us not only according to rituals and the cult but also on how much we have been useful to ourselves, to our societies and how far we defended social justice, freedom, progress. But it is a challenge for modern Islamic political philosophy to invent new words expressing the same goals like secularism, and liberalism but with indigenous terminology rather than with Western one. I’m trying to defend all the big secular, liberal, social causes but with my indigenous language, with my indigenous sources, in order not to be surrounded by conservatists marginalizing me as a Westerner.

Bosetti: And now let’s try to situate this discussion in the Egyptian public sphere. The perspective you are supporting now with your works, is it closer to that of the majority party in Egypt now or that of the opposition in the parliament, represented by the new comers, the Muslim Brotherhood?

Hanafi: I am trying to do my best. Conservatives selectively use certain Quranic verses and sayings of the Prophet. I use other verses and other prophetic traditions to defend my liberalism, my secularism, which expresses the spirit of Islamic law. I use instances from history, showing that Islam is the respect for life without any distinction between Muslims and Jews and Christians, it’s for social justice, it’s for freedom and for elections of rulers. I take my ideas from the same sources from which conservatives take their ideas. Plus I also try to ask seculars to refrain from speaking of the Western experience all the time. They have to return to indigenous sources in order to protect themselves against the accusations of Westernization. For instance, if I would like to defend reason why should I go to Kant when I can go to Mutazilism?

Bosetti: In order to have a better understanding between Western and Arab scholars in political science and in the social view, another important issue to be clarified is that of mutual defamation and its several causes. One of the reasons for this is the tradition of Orientalism on the one side and Occidentalism on the other. You are vindicating in a way the function of Occidentalism as a free and critical view of the West by the East/South. But you seem to be willing to go beyond Occidentalism as a situation characterized by resentment. Can you help us understand the ways in which Arab culture can come out of this situation of resentment?

Hanafi: We have to make a double effort, from both sides. The worst thing is really unilateralism, which means a certain kind of unilateral paradigm. Till now, scholars in the West use one paradigm. There is only one model of modernization which is the Western one based on the separation of church and the state and of rationalism, secularism and liberalism and all what you know from the Western experience of modernization. Although the West is now criticising this in post-modernism and de-constructivism, till now scholars have been victims of this unilateral paradigm. In addition, we are the victims of a reaction based on self-defence, a desire to reject the Western paradigm and make our own model contrary to the Western paradigm. So is it possible for each group of scholars belonging to the West or to Islam to multiply their system of references? Rationalism is not a monopoly of Kant and its tradition of thinking. Humanism is not only the monopoly of Erasmus and of the Western experience. Confucianism presented a certain kind of humanism in relation to the old Chinese religion, Buddhism presented a certain kind of humanism and so did Hinduism. Islamic law in Maliki also represented a certain kind of humanism. If we can multiply the system of references we can universalise the high ideals of human beings concerning reason, humanism, nature, science, social justice, fraternity and equality. This will lead to a certain kind of cooperation and more justice in studying comparative cultures. Nowadays Occidentalism is a natural reaction to Orientalism, the changing of roles. In Orientalism, it is the West who is playing the role of the knowing subject and the non-West is playing the role of the knowable subject. In order to continue in the process of de-colonization on the intellectual level, and on the scientific academic level, we have to change roles and the East can play the role of the observer and the West of the observed. This will allow a certain kind of an equal partnership, a certain kind of equality and reciprocity between subject and object. Once we arrive at that stage we can create a kind of universal community of scholars who are very impartial and neutral in studying the relation between the West and the East. And I think the Mediterranean can play a key role in going beyond Occidentalism and Orientalism. We are living around the same basin, we play together the role of master and disciple. Greece and Rome were the masters of Islam and then the Muslims in Spain were the masters of the Europeans and now modern Europeans are the masters of the Muslim world. We can shoot for a future era where we are for the immigration of Muslims to Europe and for Islam becoming the second religion of Europe. We can shoot for a certain kind of complementarity between the northern shore and the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Islam can be a plus to the Europeans, giving new ideas of fraternity and brotherhood. Europe can be in the Muslim world too, as a plus not a minus. The ideals which the West defended during the enlightenment in the 18th century, reason, fraternity, equality, justice is what we admired in the 19th century and we based our renaissance in the Arab world on this Western enlightenment. Maybe we didn’t succeed enough because of special circumstances and the hegemony of the West, the failure of the nation state or a certain kind of authoritarianism. We marginalised our freedom for the sake of social justice and then we lost social justice and we lost our freedom.



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)