Do you prefer a "Secular" or an "Islamic" State?

Al haqid, during a lunch we just had, defied me to defend the idea that an Islamic State would be better than a Secular one, especially in the case of the protection of minority rights. Of course here by “minorities”, I mean any group that derive its imaginary sense of belonging from a different tradition (discursive that is) than the Islamic one. So in the case of Lebanon, most importantly religious minorities. This leads me to first make several claims that I think are crucial before defending my position:

1- There is no basic difference at the theoretical between a Secular and an Islamic state. It is only in terms of the institutions empowered and the repartition of power that difference could arise. there is nothing intrinsically more ‘democratic’ or ‘just’ in one or the other.
2- The conceptualization of an Islamic state is an imaginary one that include a lot of the secular tradition, especially as elaborated by Islamists. Today, the debate between both ‘systems’ is not a normative one because they are not clear cut and one discourse component has penetrated the other, this leads me to the two last points:
3- The question of an Islamic state is mostly tied to a question of belonging to a specific history and not to a form of governance
4- The secular state should not be the point of reference in terms of efficiency. The secular state hides many unresolved questions such as the one of the justification of nationalism, the resulting discourse of difference and the treatment of ‘national’ subjects especially in the age of growing minorities in the West.

So my argument goes as follows. In the case of the Middle East. Or what has been labeled as the Middle East, an Islamic state is not something to outrightly condemn, something that if probably well implemented may be more adequate than a ‘secular’ system. First of all because there no one ‘type’ of Islamic state, second because the claim for an Islamic state has to do more with a ‘national’ configuration of territory (imaginary sense of belonging), drawing on tradition, social practices, etc. And it is my belief that a political system that mirrors and travels well with age old institutions in place will be more efficient than any other. And in terms of minority treatment in the area we call the Middle East, we know for a fact that the Ottoman Empire area was one of the most peaceful between confessions, ‘ethnicities’ etc. So far as I can recall our biggest problems started with the colonialist quests, the subsequent breakup of the region and the formation of the ‘secular-state’.


14 thoughts on “Do you prefer a "Secular" or an "Islamic" State?

  1. couple of quick comments (which will probably be more in the form of questions), because this post was a good read. regardless of how one defines a ‘secular state’, because as you say, normative distinctions are nontrivial, are there any countries in the region that are actually ‘secular states’? And if so, do their problems actually arise because of this ‘secularism’ or because of governmental dictatorial tendencies and other such things?

    Second, regardless of what types of minority rights are ingrained in an ‘Islamic state’, are such rights the result of tolerance that Islam has towards minorities (imagined or non-imagined)? If so, then these rights are not sustainable.

    Also, I think groups such as the Armenians would disagree with your characterization of the Ottomans. Other groups would as well.

  2. are there any countries in the region that are actually ‘secular states’?

    most of them are, in the sense that their constitution stipulates that the institutions of the state are legislated by codes derived from secular state ones.

    do their problems actually arise because of this ‘secularism’ or because of governmental dictatorial tendencies and other such things?

    The main problem is one of defining belonging probably. But that’s a good point. Secularism could work. Today the problem is one of governance, but that’s probably why an Islamic state could work as well.

    I did not get your second point. But yes Islam as a tradition(s) has a specific reference to minorities.

    Also, I think groups such as the Armenians would disagree with your characterization of the Ottomans

    I don’t think so. Armenians never had any problem until colonialism adn problem with the west started. Plus, I never said that there were no crisis happening in the overall history of the Middle East. but never was there a sustained policy of persecution like in Europe.

    Other groups would as well.


  3. yup, and I defend communism very fiercely .. “Theoretically”, it’s beautiful, but when applied, it sucks (I’m sure you wouldn’t necessarily agree with that, with ur “ideas” lately).
    How about the best model is insuring security, economic growth, social health period.


  4. I see ur point; state, laws, institutions should be derived from the population of a certain country (or shaped by lawmakers, thinktanks who truly are part of the population)..and technically would work better if they derive from the collective value-system of the people. belonging and identifying with one’s country/ community is an important element in working for the collective rather than the individual benefit.
    I disagree though that an islamic or for that matter any religiously derived state is better than a secular one. Unless the religious is regulated in a secular way…people who choose not to be religious or who follow a different religion under the state should have the freedom to do so, and have equal rights to people who are religious.
    Having said that I agree that the “knee jerk” refusal reaction when an islamic state is mentionned is not right either. It is at the end one way of governance, and if chosen by the people (NOT enforced or coerced) should be ok.denying people the right to do so, is the same as denying people the right to be in a secular state.
    what makes me nervous about any religious state is not the religion itself, but rather making a certain way of thinking the absolute truth and non-negotiable (of course that can happen in non religious states as well)and the potential limitations on individual freedom.

  5. The NYT had an interesting article some two/three weeks ago about Sharia. Contrary to popular belief, the author pointed out, Sharia is actually all about division of powers. What’s more, even the leaders are all subjected to the rule of God, leaving no one above the law.

    Compare this to the unlimited powers of the average dictator in the Middle East nowadays and one can easily see the benefits of Sharia.

    Assuming full-blown democracy is not a feasible goal in many Arab countries, perhaps Sharia is the best-next-thing to reign in their leaders: if they don’t want to answer to their people, let them at least answer to God.

  6. hum
    The subject have many ramifications the readers of the blog showed, each with his own concerns. I will go with Riemer Brouwer and say that this is what Foucault saw in the Iranian revolution, a system that cannot be unjust because its religious rulers are under the obligation of improving before god. That is, a system who’s leaders follow a discipline of perfection, unbound to ordinary-life “corrupt” concerns of success (through accumulation of wealth and uncontrollable personal power). Those may be the benefits of a sharia inspired shoura council regulated by an ideology that is the Coran: Leaders responsible before god and the council’s surveillance for the benefit of the people. In that sense, this “islamic idea” of a state is an attractive romantic one 😉 and i would go for this kind of leadership if i, at first, agreed with the norms the Coran imposes on both the leader and the council. However, the problem is the “norms”. The Coran strictly formulates, with hadiths and sira nabawiyya back up, that the end-product of the Mohammedan message is a state of governance where some minorities are recognized and take full part in governance except for the chief position in society, that is the khilafa. Now lets say the khilafa was nice, and wise, and all the norms in society on alcohol and fornication (to what some readers long for) were reduced to the least strict obedience, there still be one problem remaining: what about those atheist who believe that religion is the opium of the people? Are they to be considered a milla? The end of the the Islamic state is fist and foremost the establishment of the belief in god on all people on earth.
    This is where the Iranian state becomes shitty (not that the shah was any better). What about all those communist that fought against the shah with the islamists?
    I’m not saying that the soviet communists where any better with Islamic forces in their country, both experiences failed in tolerance. But the fact is, that both failed, for normative reasons of physical exclusion of the “other”. The “minorities” tolerated in the Islamic state, are historical one related to that first time when the norm was fixed, but what about the ones that later history generates?

    What can be a secular state?
    A secular state could be one that permits some to have their own belief on governance etc. but that fix them the ultimate norm: that is not to interfere with other people’s right to have their own norm. It doesn’t exist so far, and it may be a European derived idea that I am suggesting, but who said that the Islamic world was anything else than European in the first place? Or Europe Islamic? Who fixes the frontiers and on what basis?
    Discourse is a great concept: but who can grasp all the structures of a discourse and say that this particular Discourse is entirely “European” or “Islamic”. I am universalistic, and don’t believe in such arguments like a “local” discourse with an absolutist emphasis. Discourse is subject to struggles even locally, and is never fixed. This is why my advice to you is to stop reading Foucaldian bullshit and raise you Bourdieu book high as the new Coran for human kind 😛

    so, for now, i will repeat myself, the best governance for any people, is one elaborated by a wide group who’s first occupation is people’s happiness and freedom, by way of a auto-analyzing-discipline of knowledge. That is the only clergy I will submit too. Its either that normative form, or generalized anarchy that may bring Islamic state if the people wants it, and may overthrow it if the same people change their minds “with experience” and “practice”.

  7. I haven’t read the other comments yet, so I might be repeating something that’s been said.

    First of all, while there might be some truth in claiming that a religious state isn’t necessarily more oppressive or less tolerant of minorities than a secular one (although I’m not sure this is the case when dealing with monotheistic faiths with a claim to universality), that’s neither here nor there when we’re talking about the concrete. Sudan under the NIF, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iran under the Ayatollahs: these are the actually existing religious states that we have to look at, and the people of South Sudan, the Shi’a of Afghanistan and the Bahai and Zoroastrians (not to mention the Sunni Arabs) of Iran would all have qualms with claims of tolerance by the religious state. Can you think of a single contemporary group in the region under whose leadership you’d like to live in an Islamic state?

    Furthermore, the Ottoman Empire is mentioned time and again as an example of Islamic tolerance. This seems strange to me, since the Pax Ottomanica was responsible for at least two instances of genocide or ethnic cleansing against ethno-religious minorities: the Armenians and the Greeks, respectively.

  8. Bech:

    I just read your comments on the Armenians, and I’m sorry, but you’ve got a pretty wrong-headed understanding of the Armenian genocide. How exactly was “colonialism” responsible for the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the anti-Armenian pogroms of 1894-6?

  9. I won’t write you an essay in your comments section, but I have to say that I share your perspective considerably and almost word for word. One of the biggest problems I have when discussing this with many people is overcoming their deep seated auto-reaction to politics in the form “secularism=good/Islamic or religious=bad” when both of these claims are not necessarily true or false.

  10. Friends, as I am overwhelmed by work and want to develop arguments prudently, I will soon answer all of your comments in a new post that will take the discussion to another level by incorporating all your concerns. But I firmly stand by my argument. I will soon explain why.

  11. dear bech, can you please e-mail me some references that talk more about this point:

    “The secular state should not be the point of reference in terms of efficiency. The secular state hides many unresolved questions such as the one of the justification of nationalism, the resulting discourse of difference and the treatment of ‘national’ subjects especially in the age of growing minorities in the West.”

    this reminds me of something very brief hannah arendt wrote on the ‘institution’ of ‘the minority’ and i have always wanted to read something that developed the point further and linked it to western state nationalism..

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