Johnston: Secularlism foreign to Islam

Recent debate in these pages concerning the nature of secularism reflects a fundamental uncertainty within the Christian intellectual tradition. Though modern Christians are often wary of a secularism that precludes religious discourse in the public sphere, it cannot be denied that the development of the modern notion of secularism was made possible by the history of Christian theory and practice.

The distinction between the City of God and the City of Man laid the foundation for the Catholic Church’s cession of temporal power to the emerging European state, which in turn placed limits upon the Church’s temporal response to the Reformation. When states used the schism to justify their temporal pursuits, the obvious and effective rejoinder was the doctrine of religious tolerance. Once applied to domestic policy, tolerance gave rise to the separation of church and state. And since the public sphere is not far from the state in a democracy, the separation of church and state naturally gives rise to secularism.

Now it may be true, from the point of view of Christianity, that the modern understanding of secularism has taken the distinction between the City of God and the City of Man too far. Thus the continuous debate in America on the proper role of religion in the public sphere. But at the very least, Christians have a history that requires them to grapple with secularism as something of their own kin. Secularism cannot be completely rejected as “other,” as an imposition of a rival faith.

The situation is much different for Muslims. Islamic theory describes a proper ordering of the civil community. Secularism is as foreign to Islamic theory as is Sharia law to Americans. Thus it was surprising when Prime Minister Blair, at his talk last weekend, suggested a parallel between tensions relating to Ireland in Great Britain and the tensions in the Middle East. Tensions in the Middle East are only partially caused by internal sectarian conflict. They are also caused, and perhaps to a much larger extent, by the prospect of globalization.

Globalization does not simply mean the development of third-world countries, the spread of efficient communication and transportation systems, or the increasing mobility of capital. Rather, globalization also entails the progress of Western ideals, secularism foremost among them. While it is possible, therefore, that globalization will strengthen Christian faith, it is not possible for it to strengthen Muslim faith.

The anxiety of the Middle East in general, and of Islamic terrorism in particular, is thus placed in sharp relief. Since the West and the Islamic world cannot communicate on the same terms, globalization seems to foreshadow a clash of civilizations. While some advocates of globalization distract themselves from this truth, heralding only the economic benefits of globalization, others embrace it with gusto, advocating the triumph of Western ideals through pitched battle — whether military, economic or diplomatic — on the world stage.

American public discourse is dominated by a debate between these two forces. Perhaps this debate obscures another plausible position — the desire to avoid a clash of civilizations. Certainly, Christians who are wary of secularism because it tends to limit religious discourse in the public sphere ought to worry. For the clash of civilizations is not a reasoned debate. It represent the final wages of secularism and the end of the belief that discourse can give rise to truth that matters in human lives.


  • Karen

    Excellent article in that it accurately depicts the root cause of Islamic radicalism in the Middle East. Secularism is inherently opposed to Islamic fundamentalism. Muslims must develop their theology to embrace secularism as a beneficial concept for all persons and adapt their faith to flourish within its confines.

  • Dear Peter and Karen

    Ummmm … Islamic communities in the United States. Question Mark? That is, tolerant faith-based communities who are involved in political processes without subverting them?

    This article was a lot of hackneyed nonsense, conventional wisdom about Islam by someone with no knowledge of Islam (and who clearly has never traveled to Abu Dhabi or Dubai.)

    But Karen is right on one point. "Secularism is inherently opposed to Islamic fundamentalism." Amen, and the same goes to Christian fundamentalists who think prayer should be mandatory and public, that the earth was created in six days, and that evolution should be ousted from high school science curriculums. The difference is NOT theology; it's which groups have supremacy politically in the various countries.

    You all seem to forget that while Europe muddled through its Dark Ages, the Middle East was the center for learning and cosmopolitanism. Or were you both so busy with Western Civ that you didn't take a world history course? Algebra … can you perhaps tell me the linguistic origins of that word, and perhaps why that matters? I think Ibn Battuta might be better versed on this history than you are.

    But as long as you all see globalization as a Western crusade to eradicate Islam and its roots, there will always be violent fundamentalism, and the secularist you claim you wish existed — they will be shouted down and shut out of the political process.

    Case in point: since 2000, since the Iraq War, since Bush's maniacal crusade began, secularists and reformers have lost political power both in Turkey (see the rise of AK) and Iran (Ahkmadinejad's election, increased exercise of authority by the Guardian Council), and a rise of fundamentalist violence in Pakistan.


  • Kurosh

    Dear commenter#2

    I respect your thoughts, but I wouldn't be as quick as you to dismiss this article as 'hackneyed nonsense'.
    It reveals your ignorance of the world.
    You are right about Christian fundamentalists and their incessant anti evolution,pro abortion, rant.

    However, your argument on the world post 2000 is specious. 9/11 happened before the Iraq war, not after. I'm not a fan of the Iraq war, but Iran and Pakistan have been religiously intolerant and very Islamic for a while.

    And Dubai or Abu Dhabi aren't exactly bastions of secularism even though foreigners comprise the majority of their populations.

    The origins of the word Algebra doesn't really tell us much about secularism, does it? It may come from an Arabic word and the West may have heard of it from the Arabs but that doesn't mean it was a product of Arabia or Islam. If anything it is thanks to the Babylonians, Persians and Indians. I recommend you Wikipedia Algebra first.

    It indeed is disheartening to see people like you relate Persian contributions to Islam. Persia was a great civilation in the ancient world lost to Islam. In spite of having our society and script destroyed, we contributed to the world and Islam had ridden on that.

    It was a great Persian emperor (Cyrus) before Islam who gave his people the idea of secularism. We were at the forefront of human progess.

    Look where Islam has brought us (Persia) now.

  • Kurosh

    And for the record, being neither a Christian nor a Muslim any more, I would any day live in a Christian majority country than a Muslim country. Because in countries like America, I can truly see that secularism exists.

  • Simon

    Christian fundamentalism is totally different from Muslim fundamentalism. No one can deny that Christian fundamentalists heavily influenced the culture and government of the United States and Great Britain. Christian fundamentalism stresses the non-violent philosophy of Jesus Christ and the freedom choose a religion, which can be traced to the idea of orignal sin and the choice God gave to Adam and Eve between right and wrong. The liberty to make individual religious choices is fundamental to Christianity. Islam, on the other hand, advocates sharia law and establishment of Muslim states in which ifidels are coerced to comply with Sharia law. Islam fundamentalism calls for violent jihad against infidels while Jesus asked his discipes to put the sword away. One cannot be intellectually honest and claim that all religious fundamentalism is equivalent. While religions have some common tenants, not all religions are alike. One only has to look at the treatment of religious minorities in Islamic states and compare that to the treatment of religious minorities in the United States and Great Britain to understand the difference.

  • Eric Green

    A further distinction: Christianity has consistently permitted and encouraged exegesis; Islamic exegesis (ijtihad) ceased ~1000CE. What we are left with the is absolute, immutable word of the Islamic god. So, quite apart from violence against the khufar sanctioned by the canonical texts of Islam (the Qur'an and ahadith), more violence against the modern West may be expected as Islam's anti-modern fundamentalists lash out at the threat against the Islamic belief system posed by globalization.