03 - January 18th thru January 24th
1999, Vol IX
Secularism & Civil Society
This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes
a FOCUS on a pertinent issue!
Ahmed Mohammad Al-Garady
A teacher of English, Taiz
The connection between religion, secularism and civil society is still
controversial in the Islamic culture. There have evolved two attitudes
or even schools regarding this matter.
The first tends to be hostile. It sees secularism as a revolutionary
philosophy which seeks to unseat religion in the life of society. Proponents
of this attitude claim that secularism is not connected to civil society.
They believe that secularism is against Islamic culture because it separates
religion from social and political life. In addition, they say that the
concept and formation of civil society pre-dates the coming of secularism.
That is to say the civil society is connected to urban and industrial life.
The second school believes that secularism is not against Islamic teaching.
They insist that secular thoughts liberate reason which is restrained by
the current misunderstanding of the Islamic heritage. They focus on the
rational dimensions of Islamic thought which fits with modern secular values.
Furthermore, this group believes that institutionalized religion - like
the Church of medieval times - seeks to reap political, economic and social
influence and affluence by marginalizing other groups to the extent that
many Arab/Muslim intellectuals have become scared of being labelled secular.
In order to be objective, it is logical to go back to historical developments
and influences of the relationship between secularism and civil society.
At the same time, one should study systematically the nature of conflict
in our society. Though this is not my objectie in this short essay, it
has a strong bearing on the controversy between secularism and civil society.
The inter-relation between civil society and the secularist movement
came into existence during the end of the 17th century in Europe. The ideology
is connected to the ruling system and the sovereignty of the state. The
sovereignty of the state was the main principle to control and regulate
the interaction among people. Therefore, the principle of sovereignty moved
through many significant stages.
It began in the familial authority of early human history. The family was
the natural power base of human beings. The father used to possess 'sovereign'
powers as he played the role of the ruler and children were the public.
Children were raised to abide by the law of the family in order to ensure
peace, harmony, and protection.
Nobody could violate this law in order to protect his/her place and
rights in the family. Besides, no one can rebel against this rules. All
the members of the family are in need for each other.
But, even this limited and early societal arrangement was colored by man's
nature - the urge for freedom, ownership, and all other innate needs. So,
even the powers of the head of the family were gradually toned down to
allow some room for the natural urges and innate needs.
Then, the principle of sovereignty acquired a new nature, because the
sacerdotal system replaced the blood relationship. Priests and clergymen
claimed to be mediators between God and mankind. This gave the 'right'
or rather power to regulate the affairs of man.
The mediators and representatives of God claimed to have divine and sacred
authority. Thus, they exercised monopoly and absolute responsibility to
legislate and make laws to rule the people. The common people did not have
the right to even select their own legislators and legislative body. If
some people decided to rebel or even compete with the divine authority
of religious circles, they were presented as standing against the will
of God. In Christianity, there are excommunicated. In Islam, they are beheaded.
The clergymen, 'knowing' full well what God wants, pass the judgement.
Consequently, people who seek more freedom from the clergymen act on behalf
of the devil! The theological class is given this absolute power by their
understanding and explanation of the texts of the holy books. They are
given this sacred privilege to apply the rules of God. If the will of the
people - even if a majority - contradicts with this, it is a fight against
the will of God.
This dark stage of humanity was the main reason behind the mind's revolution.
It is called the "Reformation".
Religious circles claim authority is granted to them from God. This kind
of authority was later bestowed to the political ruler or the state. In
return, the sovereign provides the public with security which is most essential
to man. But more importantly, the sovereign bestows this security to the
worshipers of God, for which he deserves allegiance, support and power.
The most critical stage of historic evolution in the concept of sovereignty
of the state was the period of "social contracts". That is the age
of forming laws and constitutions.
There were many factors which paved the way for the rise of social
contract leading the way to civil society. But the most important among
these was scientific discoveries. The world was almost daily inundated
with new knowledge that wrecked the old structure and data base.
Scientists, thinkers, philosophers and others were working to form
new thoughts about the universe, mankind, nature, and God. This approach
depended on reasoning rather than on believing. The natural expectation
was for this new direction to collide with the old concepts.
Scientists did not have a strong power to replace the old traditions
of the cultural heritage. Thus, in the early stages of this great human
transformation, the scientists suffered.
We know just too well what happened to the Italian scientist, Galileo.
He carried out experiments leading to inventions of many instruments such
as the pendulum, the thermometer, the famous telescope and many other equipment
Galileo was convinced that the old world's knowledge was important, but
he needed to verify most of it. He concluded most of it was untrue. People
interacted with lots of concepts and thoughts in a dogmatic way. They accepted
inherited knowledge as accurate. And they were not allowed to prove them
or even think about them.
Another example is that of Copernicus, a great scientist from Poland.
He concluded that our earth actually goes around the sun and not the other
way round, as the church teachings stated. Also, Copernicus discovered
that the our earth is one of many planets, and it was not the largest.
He named five of these planets - Mars, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn.
In his book "How things move in the sky", he numerated many scientific
facts which were against the religious and traditional beliefs.
He expected human beings to discover many other planets in future. But
the church was dogmatically attached to the old facts. One of the church
beliefs was about planets. It believed that the planets could not be more
than seven because the days of the week are seven and God made the world
in seven days. The church's proof was very telling - that man has only
seven holes in his/her head - two ears, two eyes, two holes in the two
side of the nose and one hole in the mouth.
Galileo moved in many universities to prove the Copernican discoveries.
As a result, he was faced with hostile attitudes and many enemies who spoke
in the name of religion and the public interest.
Isaac Newton, an English Scientist added new facts about gravity and the
horizons and orbits of the planets. The enemies of the new scientific direction
- the church authority - put these scientists and their books on the blacklist.
They put lots of them in prison. They executed some of them. They ex-communicated
church members who supported and allowed these new thoughts to reach the
hands of the common readers.
In short, there was a frantic conflict between the men and women who
brought to us the age of enlightenment and the religious circles who insisted
on the age of darkness.
The church's medieval position does look ridiculous today in hindsight,
as will the position of today's clergies in the future.
The fight has really little to do with God or religion or truth. It
is a fight for influence and power. It is the same thing today.
In our lives here today, there is urgent need, and there are outcries
for reforms. We are in a period which calls for establishing a new social
contract which will lead to a democratic and civil society. We must apply
reason to address the changes of many new values and concepts such as citizenship,
separation of the three authorities (legislative, judicial and executive)
and the rule of secularism in this regard.
Then we can move our nation to the spotlight and take our rightful
place among the world nations.
This conflict has nothing to do with Islam and does not belittle Islam.
It will belittle those who use Islam to ride high. It will allow us to
focus on the real issues in our lives.