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Khan is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Adrian College in Michigan.
He is a Visiting Fellow at Brookings Institution and a Fellow of the
Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
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Posted January 01, 2004
is a chapter of a book on Faith in Politics forthcoming in Summer 2004
from Pew-Brookings forum on Religion in Public Life. The chapter is a
reflection on a discussion involving Governor Mario Cuomo (Democrat and
Catholic) and Congressman Mark Souder (Republican and Conservative
Christian) on religion and politics. The transcript of the entire
discussion can be read in PDF
by clicking here and in
html format by clicking here.
Myth of Secularism:
A. Muqtedar Khan
Allah willed He could have made you all one community? But He made you as
you are (diverse) as a test. So vie one with another in good works. Unto
Allah you will all return, and He will then inform you of the meaning of
differences within you.
and Politics are Inseparable
As a Muslim
intellectual living in the West, researching and teaching political theory
and political philosophy, I have always marveled at the durability of the
idea of secularism. For a civilization that boasts considerable
sophistication in most areas, to assume that politics and religion
constitute two separate realms or that the two can be separated is
uncharacteristically naïve. This belief, not in separation of church and
state, but in the separability of church and State, in my opinion
is one of the enduring myths of modernity. This myth rests on the false
assumptions of pure politics and pure religion. Secularism
is a device that seeks to protect religion from the corruption of politics
and politics from becoming usurped by religion.
All core issues are
not only normative in nature but also impinge on individual and collective
identities. Neither the conception of the individual self nor the
construction of the collective self is free from political or religious
considerations. Even in societies that were anti-religious such as the
former Soviet Union and present day China, or more secular than the US,
such as France and Turkey, religion remained an important political issue
and politics shaped the way religion was practiced. Christianity played a
significant role in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and
Islamists found a way to come to power in secular fundamentalist Turkey.
The place of religious symbols in public sphere, whether it is Hijaab
(Muslim headscarf) in French public schools or the Ten Commandments in
American courts, remains contested primarily because there is no consensus
on the exclusion of religion from public sphere anywhere.
Not only does religion play a role in politics, but politicization of religion is also a common occurrence. Notice how some Republicans are relishing the idea of taking Howard Dean to cleaners, if he were to become the democratic nominee in the coming Presidential elections, by painting him as an advocate of gay marriages. This would be a clear case of exploiting religious sentiments (that marriage is a divine institution) for political gains. I have noticed that often, American politicians try to couch their religious motivations in secular terms while advocating specific policies. A very good example is the unyielding support for Israel and Israel’s occupation of West Bank and Gaza among certain Republican politicians with evangelical connections. While they support it for Biblical reasons they justify it by arguing that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East.” I often wonder if their support for Israel will stop if Israel became less democratic, or it can be shown that some people within its borders do not enjoy basic democratic rights?
In the Muslim world
on the contrary, legitimacy comes from Islam and therefore many
politicians justify material motivations using Islamic cover. While
religious politicians in the West often use secular discourse for
legitimacy, Muslim politicians deliberately Islamize mundane issues for
the same reason. Notice the Islamization of Saddam Hussein’s rhetoric in
the first Gulf War. Religion in the West lacks legitimacy in the public
sphere and must therefore be concealed, in the Muslim World all legitimacy
derives from Islam hence Islam is used as a justification for politics.
There are two
reasons why religion and politics are intertwined. The first is the
increasing use of complex discourses for the purpose of legitimization.
Today all politicians seem to follow the Machiavellian dictum – it is
not important to be just, it is important to be seen to be just –
and therefore politicians and political parties and regimes produce
discourses to legitimize their goals and strategies. It is in the
production of these discourses that religion either underpins political
logic are camouflages politic motivations, depending upon the cultural
The second reason and perhaps the most important reason why religion will always play a role in crucial issues is the important role that religion plays in identity formation. All political issues that are important eventually affect individual and collective identity and in the process trigger religious sentiments. As long as religion plays a role in the identities of people, it will play a role in politics.
Both Governor Mario
Cuomo and Congressman Mark Souder link religion with private and public
morality. They both agree that it is difficult for a believer to divest
herself of her religious values while also serving in a public capacity.
However, it is interesting to see how each of them uses separate
mechanisms to limit the impact of religion in public policy. Governor
Cuomo argues that politicians must exercise self-restraint and only allow
those religious values that are universal in nature to influence their
politics and abstain from allowing particularist values to shape their
agenda. Congressman Souder rejects the notion of a natural God and common
religious values by suggesting that the uncommon is more important
than common ground between religions. This is an interesting contrast
between identity and difference. Cuomo seeks to overcomes
differences by seeking the identity of all faiths while Souder celebrates
difference in search of identity.
What if they do
agree upon some basic issues, what if the Christian Coalition does manage
to construct a broad coalition to deprive Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism the
same legal protections as Christianity (for example in England blasphemy
laws protect Jesus but not Muhammad)? When Muslims repeatedly requested
President Bush to condemn anti-Islam (Islamophoebia)[i]
bigotry from prominent Christian figures such as Rev. Pat Robertson, Rev.
Franklin Graham, and Rev. Jerry Falwell, the President hedged for weeks,
because these individuals have a large following that translates directly
into political power at the ballot and in campaign fund raising.
In an era when
religious minorities in America are becoming extremely nervous about the
relations between Christian Right and the Republican establishment which
controls both the White House and the Congress, a plain, unequivocal
statement -- “we will not impose Christian beliefs on non-Christians,”
– would have gone a long way. Congressman Souder makes the point that as
a Christian politician he is conscientious enough to fulfill his
constitutional obligations. He will abide by the constitution since he has
sworn to protect and abide by it. After listening to Governor Cuomo’s
eloquent argument for self-restrain, I wish someone had asked Congressman
Souder would he self-consciously abstain from advocating the amendment of
the constitution to make his religious beliefs the law of the land. In a
democracy what stands between minority rights and majority domination are
constitutional guarantees, which are themselves at the mercy of good
intentions of the majority.
The Muslim World
today is experiencing deeply divisive and traumatic religious resurgence.
This is not a venue to discuss them, but I think it is important to draw
an interesting parallel that is prompted by Congressman Souder’s claim
that his faith is a worldview. The Islamists too make this claim. They
argue that Islam is not a religion, it is a worldview and they even
compared it to other ideologies and worldviews such as capitalism and
communism. Islamists’ have penned tons of books comparing Islam with
communism, socialism, capitalism, liberalism and democracy to prove that
Islam not only has something to say about every aspect of life, but also
whatever it may have to say on any subject is necessarily superior to what
other ideologies have to say on the same subject. This for them is an
article of faith. Claims about religious creeds as an all-encompassing
worldview have the potential to blossom into totalitarian ideologies.
The two politicians demonstrate contrasting models. Governor Cuomo is a model of statesmanship as he chooses wisdom over parochialism and seeks to exercise self-restraint on personal beliefs in search of common public values. In doing so he chose to become a generic religious politician and not just a Catholic politician. Congressman Souder on the other hand is a model of citizenship where his commitment to the US constitution proscribes the role of his religion in politics. But his view that his faith is a worldview and a true worldview, including those elements that question the authenticity of other faiths, places the constitution in jeopardy. I fear that his citizenship will prompt him to uphold the constitution, but his Christianity will compel him to change the constitution whenever possible to accommodate his beliefs. The statesman will always be the ally of religious minorities in pluralist democracies, but the Christian citizen is an imminent threat to constitutional guarantees of freedom from religions.
humanity! We have indeed created you from one man and one woman, and have
made you into various nations and tribes so that you may know one
let there be amongst you a group of people who invite to goodness,
encouraging that which is right and forbidding that which is wrong; it is
they who are the successful
The two verses from
the Quran cited above and the one with which I began this chapter make two
important points: 1). Diversity is a consequence of divine designs and 2).
Muslims have an ethical role to play in the public sphere. The verses
3:104 in the opinion of some Muslims scholars is a Quranic call for
political parties to emerge and play a normative role in the public
sphere. I have argued that the mission of Islam/Muslims in the West can be
to become the moral conscience of free societies. The objective of Muslim
participation in Western, particularly American politics should be to
encourage what is right and forbid what is wrong rather than seeking to
advance the geopolitical agendas of the Muslim World.[ii]
who believe (in the Qur'an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures),
and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in God and the Last
Day, and do good deeds, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them
shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve (Quran
2:62 and 5:69).
if one seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted from
him; and he is among the losers in the Hereafter (Quran 3:85).
Today liberal and
radical Muslims are divided over which of the above two verses should
determine Muslim relations with other faith communities. The first verse
is inclusive and clearly indicates that those who are good people have
nothing to worry. And if one treats the word “and” as separating sets
of people, Muslims and Christians… and those who do good deeds, one
could even argue that atheists who do good deeds, such as stand up for
justice, help the poor etc, may have nothing to fear. This status of fundamental moral equality of all
people can become the basis for political equality in a multicultural,
But radical Muslims
who believe that only Islam has the Truth and only good Muslims are good
people, rely on 3:85 exclusively arguing that it is not only the ultimate
source for defining Muslim-non-Muslim relations but also abrogates both
2:62 and 5:69. Some Muslim leaders in Dallas, Texas now object to my
speaking there because I once rejected this idea of abrogation of Quranic
sources that radicals do not like by arguing that, the only reason why God
repeated 2:62 in 5:69 was to ensure that bigots did not use 3:85 to annul
2:62. How can one verse abrogate two verses from the same sources was my
point. Muslims must realize that not only does Islam influence politics,
but politics too shapes what Islam is.
Today Islam has once again become the ethical language of the Muslim World. Islam will not only guide Muslim public discourse but also Muslim conception of what is ethical politics. The Iraqis today have managed to make President Bush an advocate of Islamic democracy. European Muslims are making sure that Europe’s foreign policy balances US’ pro-Israeli stance in the Middle East. As Muslims become a political force in America, they will most certainly seek to redefine the role of religion in American politics. I only hope that an inclusivist rather than an exclusivist understanding of Islam shapes American Muslim politics. I hope 2:62 prevails over 3:85 and that Muslims seek to emulate Governor Cuomo and not Congressman Souder.
The reason why the myth of secularism is so precious to modernity is not its potential to separate religion and politics but its potential to advance a framework for dealing with religious diversity under conditions of unequal power. In perfectly homogenous societies, it does not matter if the state is influenced by religion or not. It is only when there are other faith communities, or other interpretations of the same faith that the state can become an instrument of religious oppression in the hands of the majority. But religion disguised as national interest or secular reason can play havoc with minority rights.
As religion becomes more assertive, and religious zealots become more adept at “playing the system” then constitutional guarantees become meaningless if even the constitution of the Supreme Court can be rigged. In the modern West, the best examples of freedom and protection of religious minorities has come under the reign of secular democracies, in the Muslim experience the same has happened under the reign of Islam. Today as all religions experience revivals we must find a ways to guarantee religious freedom without proscribing the scope of religion. Ultimately the plight of the minorities is at the mercy of those who are enlightened among the majority and are willing to break ranks with their kind to stand up for equality and justice for all. Systems are safe only as long as we strive everyday to keep them safe.
A. Muqtedar Khan is a Visiting Fellow at Brookings Institution and
Director of International Studies at Adrian College. He is also a fellow
at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding. He is the author of American
Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom (2002) and Jihad for Jerusalem:
Identity and Strategy in International Politics (2004). He writes and
Posted January 01, 2004
Muslims hope that one day this word will become as powerful as the
term anti-Semitism in calling attention to prejudice.
[ii] See M. A. Muqtedar Khan, American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom (Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications, 2002).
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