Are Islamists secularising society?
My op-ed in The News:
Last year Humeira Iqtidar’s book ‘Secularizing Islamists?: Jama'at-e-Islami and Jama'at-ud-Da'wa in Urban Pakistan’ ruffled many feathers in the Pakistani liberal intelligentsia, where her work was generally perceived and dismissed as rationalizing Jihadi discourse and as being anti-secular. However, these responses, in my opinion, failed to engage with the crux of her argument and instead focused on implications of her thesis, which weren't exactly spelled out by the author but were assumed by her critics to be in accordance with their alarming apprehensions.
Last month Ms Iqtidar restated her position again in an article titled ‘Secularism and Secularisation’ published in Economic and Political Weekly, which has helped me gain a better understanding of her views and has stimulated the writing of this article. The key to comprehending Ms Iqtidar’s case lies in grasping that the sense in which she uses Secularization is different from the conventional sense in which the word is employed.
In contrast to Secularism, which is a political doctrine of the separation of religion and the state, Secularization is a sociological process, which is generally understood to be a decrease in the religiosity of public sphere, a privatization of religion, and, in Max Weber’s words, a rationalization and ‘disenchantment of the world’. Ms Iqtidar challenges each of these aspects, maintaining that secularization is not a change in the quantity of religiosity but a change in its quality, that the public-private distinction is problematic, and underscores Weber by contending that while rationalization is a characteristic feature of the process, disenchantment is not. Rationalization of religion, for her, is a homogenization of religious practice and the easing out of its internal contradictions, such that while the local and folk religious practices are wiped out, at the same time religion becomes a matter of conscious, individual choice and no longer remains a matter of following norms unthinkingly. In addition, she claims that the secularization is characterized by ‘objectification’, a process in which believers at large become conscious of basic questions such as ‘What is my religion?’ ‘Why is it important to my life?’ and ‘How do my beliefs guide my conduct’. This is related to a fragmentation of religious authority, in which the role of clergy is minimized and there is an increased individualized responsibility to follow the scripture.
All this is relatively unproblematic, even if one disagrees with it. The problem arises when Ms Iqtidar goes further to propose that Islamists (Jama'at-e-Islami and Jama'at-ud-Da'wa, her examples) are the agents of this secularization in Muslim societies, in a process that is similar to, but not the same as, the secularization experienced by Christian societies at hands of German Protestants. She makes sure to clarify that the outcome of Islamist secularization is not likely to be the same as Protestant one, that her intention is not ‘apologetic’, that Islamists cannot be seen as ‘liberals or progressives’, and that secularization, as she defines it, is neither the ‘unadulterated good nor the sole preserve of progressive politics’. All these are clarifications that her critics would be wise to take note of.
My concern with her thesis is the exclusive focus on Islamists as the agents of secularization, while there may well be other agents involved. Especially, I am concerned with the whole gamut of scholars and supporters of the so-called Liberal Islam, who have been rationalizing Islam as much as Islamists, but in the opposite ethical direction of liberal and progressive values. Crucially, the contact and the exposure to the West has been to my mind one of the driving forces, in part through the liberal scholars and in part through the atheists and free thinkers whose critiques of religion push the believers, willingly or reluctantly, in the direction of reform. In the subcontinent Sir Syed was one of the early forerunners and his interpretation of the Quran was a remarkable attempt at a rationalization of religion. Later we have Allama Iqbal who refined Ijtehad into a legislative process of elected assemblies. For a while, one of the chief ideological rivals of Maududi were Ghullam Ahmed Perwez and others Quranists, whose rationalization attempts led them to the abandonment of hadiths and a drastic re-reading of Quran. It would do us no good to ignore these liberal voices and declare the Islamists as the sole secularizers of the society. The fact that the Islamist secularization may well lead to an increased fanaticism, radicalism, militancy, intolerance, and human rights violations is a glaring possibility that must never be discounted. And it is a possibility that is rapidly becoming a reality. Islamists may well be secularizing the society, and a proper understanding of its sociological dynamics is no doubt a necessity (which is the practical value of Ms Iqtidar’s thesis) but it would be naive to suppose that the outcome would be something benign. To my mind, the liberal sections are justified in being wary of such a secularization.