Dr. Shaker Al-Nabulsi: Secularism Will Triumph in the Arab World

December 11, 2008 | Special Dispatch No.2148

Liberal Author Dr. Shaker Al-Nabulsi: Secularism Will Triumph in the Arab World; Terrorism’s Crimes Are ‘The Death Struggle of Fundamentalism’

On May 15, 2008, the liberal Arab website Aafaq.org published an interview with prominent Jordanian-American liberal author Dr. Shaker Al-Nabulsi. In the interview, Al-Nabulsi discussed the meaning of secularism and its importance to the future of the Arab world.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

“‘Secularism’… [Is] In the Interest of Religion – To Keep the Sacred (Religion) Apart from the Profane (Politics)”

Interviewer: “What is your concept of secularism?”

Nabulsi: “‘Secularism’ means the separation of religion from the state, excluding the clergy from politics, and not permitting religious political parties. These measures are all in the interest of religion, to keep the sacred – religion – apart from the profane – politics.

“This is because when, throughout the ages, politics made use of religion, the joining of religion and politics was to religion’s detriment. Politics gained, and religion lost. And likewise, this separation [exists] in order to hold the politician accountable for his political activity, and not [let him] take refuge under the umbrella of religion to avoid accountability and punishment. It is difficult to oppose or hold to account the clergy who combine religion and politics.

“In fact, the separation of religion from politics is easier for the Shi’a than for the Sunnis. Shi’ite institutions evolved like the Church, and the Shi’ite hierarchy resembled the ecclesiastical hierarchy, so that both hierarchies remained separate from the state.

“This is in contrast with the Sunni institutions, which were incorporated into the state from the time of Caliph Mu’awiya ibn Abi Sufyan, [the first caliph of the Umayyad Dynasty]. The state made use of Sunni institutions more than the Shi’ite institutions, which remained outside the domain of the Arab Islamic state.

“Thus, it seems to me that the separation of religion from the state in the Sunni school, where [religion] is incorporated entirely into the state, has become nearly impossible, as a result of the merger of religion with politics and politics with religion, and the disappearance of the boundaries between the two. It has come to where we do not distinguish between what belongs to religion and what belongs to politics.

“And that is the stratagem at which Arab rulers have excelled, from the era of Mu’awiya ibn Abi Sufyan up until today. This was manifested in the conversion of the ruler into the ‘shadow of Allah on Earth,’ and the conversion of ‘the treasury of the Muslims’ into ‘the treasury of Allah,’ from which the ruler only disburses by the order of Allah. And the only one to receive the order of Allah is Allah’s Caliph, his Prophet’s successor on Earth, as Mu’awiya ibn Abi Sufyan said 1400 years ago…

“The Arabic word for ‘secular’ (‘almaniyya)… is new in Arab political literature. It is derived from the word for “world” (‘alam) and not from the word for “science” (‘ilm) – that is, [it refers] to the world we live in.

“There is not one single secularism, but many secularisms – much like the case with democracy. French secularism differs from German, from English, and likewise from American, and from Kemalist Turkish secularism.”

“There is No Enmity Between Secularism and Religion – The Enmity is Between Secularism and the Clerics”

“…The most important [point] is that there is no enmity between secularism and religion. The enmity is between secularism and the clerics. It is the clerics, and not religion, who have called secularism unbelief and atheism.

“Sheikh Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi said, ‘The meaning of the call for secularism among Muslims is atheism and apostasy from Islam.’ (The Islamic Awakening, between Ossification and Extremism, 1984, p. 112). And he repeats this charge in another of his books, The Islamic Solution is a Duty and Necessity. The clerics who oppose secularism have realized that it would deprive them of many political, social, financial, and cultural perquisites, and limit their importance to just religious preaching and guidance within the walls of the mosque.

“Then the clerics would no longer be political and media stars, issuing fatwas on all matters small and large, as they do today, and they would be deprived of the privileges they receive from those in power.

“As for religion, it will continue. Religion continues in France, in all parts of Europe, and in America, except that the number of churches has increased, even if the worshipers have decreased. Secularism does not deny God, and does not hold itself above the monotheistic religions. While there are some secularist philosophers and thinkers, in the West and in the East, who repudiate divinity, that is their own matter, and no one is forced to follow them…”

Interviewer: “Is it possible for there to be a real partnership between secularists and Islamists in the government of a state? Is coexistence between the two parties possible?”

Nabulsi: “It would be difficult to achieve such a partnership in light of the Islamist quest to establish a theocratic state. But if they abandoned this demand, the partnership would be productive.

“The religious state is the state of ‘Allah’s sovereignty’ propounded by the Indo-Pakistani thinker Sayyid Abul A’laa Al-Mawdudi (founder of the Jamaat e Islami party in Pakistan), which was then taken up by Sayyid Qutb and Muhammad Qutb.

“The meaning of this is that it is Allah who establishes the constitution of this state and all of its regulations and laws. That is, the clerics – who are the jurisprudents of religion and its protectors, and the religious scholars who are the heirs of the prophets – are the only ones who govern, because they are the only ones who know and are able to interpret and distinguish the religious precepts.

“Therefore, the Islamists do not recognize the multiparty system and pluralism, and contend that the ‘party of God’ (‘hizb Allah‘), namely, their party, is the sole party permitted to function politically…

“There is a fatwa by Iran’s religious ruler, Sayyid Ali Khamenei, which states that ‘opposition to the Islamic government is apostasy.'”

“There Is No Democracy Without Secularism –Because It Is Secularism That Accords Equality of Rights and Obligations Among All Citizens…”

“Therefore, the Islamists reject [the principle of] not distinguishing between citizen and believer. They insist on this distinction, and maintain that only Muslims are citizens.

“Secularists reject these principles, believing that society and the state only become democratic under a secular regime. The precondition for democracy is secularism. There is no democracy without secularism, because it is secularism that accords equality of rights and duties to all citizens, without regard to their sex, their denomination, their faith, or their ethnic origin. That is the core of democracy, and its rationale…”

“Terrorism in the Arab World Has Not Arisen Because of Religious Objectives – But Because of Political Ones”

Interviewer: “Do you see in the establishment of the principles of the secular state the solution to the problem of combating terrorism and extremism? And how will it be possible for secularism to preserve the principles of religion without prejudice to [religious] rules and laws, when it controls the levers of government?”

Nabulsi: “Terrorism in the Arab world has not arisen because of religious objectives, but because of political ones. And the terrorists do not want through their terrorism to implement Islam, as Islam is [already] implemented well in many Arab countries. The terrorists want political power, but are totally unqualified to exercise it.

“Do you think that Osama bin Laden or Ayman Al-Zawahiri is qualified to be the ruler of a state in the modern era? Perhaps they would be qualified to rule a state like that of the Taliban, or a state in the Middle Ages. And what are the Islamists in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, and other countries striving for, except the desire to rule?

“Islam would suffer much through their coming to power. The news from Gaza, which has been and is being ruled by Hamas, tells us of rising crime rates, thefts, abduction of women, attacks on property, reduced attendance at mosques, increasing unemployment, and widespread smuggling.”

“The Current Crimes of Terrorism [Are] But the Death Struggle of Fundamentalism”

Interviewer: “You stated in one of your publications that the 21st century will witness a contest between the advocates of the theocratic state and the advocates of the secular state. And you expressed your conviction that the secular tendency will ultimately prevail. Do you still believe this, and on what do you base your belief in the triumph of secularism?”

Nabulsi: “The reason for this contest is the gradual approach of the Arab world to unannounced secularism, or what I call ‘masked secularism.’…

“This has been put into force in many parts of the Arab world, as well as in some of the Gulf countries. And the reason for the ultimate victory of the secular trend in the Arab world is the historical inevitability of secularism, a cup that must be drunk, even if it is bitter – even very bitter – to the Islamists. The world, as a whole, is globalizing, and fundamentalism in the world, as a whole, is shrinking. The 21st century is the century of globalization in the Arab world.

“The current crimes of terrorism are but the death struggle of fundamentalism and evidence of the tide of secularism and its principles that are sweeping over the Arab world. Since the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, until now – that is, 80 years – this organization has not been able to establish a theocratic government except in the Gaza Strip. And look at the world’s attitude toward it, and what it has come to.

“Also, the Arab world has become secularized to a large extent. The shari’a punishments for crimes – despite all of the squawking and drumming of the fundamentalists – are not enforced, except in one Arab country alone, out of over 20 countries. And the proportion of women who are veiled in the Arab world does not exceed 10%, and the proportion of men who have taken four wives does not exceed 5%.

“In most of the Arab world there is equality between men and women, even in the Gulf states – even if this is not yet the complete equality that we want. [This is] apart from one country, due to its religious, historical, and political conditions, which do not permit women to cross certain ‘red lines’…”

There Can Be Secularism without Democracy – “But There Can Be No Democracy Without Secularism”

“In the Arab world there are countries that are secularist but not democratic. Therefore, their secularism is counterfeit, like gold plating on a zinc ring, whose fraudulent character is revealed at the first scratch.

“There can be industrial and scientific modernization under a dictatorial, secular system, as took place in France in the era of Napoleon III, in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Stalinist Russia, and it is possible to establish secular dictatorships hostile to religion, as happened in Mexico, the Soviet Union, and Cuba. [So there can be secularism without democracy,] but there can be no democracy without secularism.”

“Only One Theocratic State in the World [Iran]… Governs [Its] People with Steel, Fire, and Oppression”

Interviewer: “You wrote in one of your articles, ‘No theocratic political regime can govern and prevail in this secular world, since the world has undergone secularization.’ How can you say that the world is moving in the direction of secularism, despite the fact that there are theocratic countries, and fundamentalist organizations able to come to power through general elections?”

Nabulsi: “There is only one theocratic state in the world, and one only – Iran. But this theocratic state governs the people of Iran with steel, fire, and oppression. The religious Revolutionary Guard of Iran (the Pasdaran) is the real ruler of Iran. It comprises – according to the estimates of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London – 350,000 members. It oppresses the people of Iran to the extent that under it, the people of Iran have become the world’s largest consumers of hashish and opium in the world. That is a result of the magnitude of injustice and oppression of the theocratic state represented by the Revolutionary Guard.

“According to the World Drug Report for 2005, issued by the United Nations, Iran has the largest proportion of opium addicts in the world: 2.8% of Iranian residents over 15 years of age are addicted to some form of drug. Besides Iran, there are only two countries whose proportion of addicts exceeds 2%: Mauritius and Kyrgyzstan.

“If we bear in mind that the population of Iran is 70 million, and that some directorates in the Iranian government believe that the number of addicts reaches 4 million, Iran leads the world in the number of narcotics addicts, including heroin. And this is the theocratic state that religious terrorist factions are seeking to replicate.”

Statistics Released By Tehran’s Cultural Affairs Director on Performing Prayers, Sexual Promiscuity, and Drug Addiction Shocked… Observers

“Turning to religious issues, the cultural affairs director of the Tehran municipality, Sheikh Mohammad Ali Zam, recently released data on Iranians’ religious observance, particularly that of students and young people. The statistics he released on performing prayers, and on sexual promiscuity and drug addiction, shocked, astonished and stupefied observers, including Islamists outside the Islamic Republic of Iran – arousing serious concerns over the future of the Islamic experience in the 21st century, and moving them to think and reconsider their strategic plans and programs for governance in the future…

“It was expected that the clerics who came to power in Iran would continue the Islamization of the rest of society, and put an end to the roots of corruption, decay, and delinquency. But the statistics cited by the Iranian cultural official, which he disclosed at a press conference that set a precedent in transparency, openness and self-criticism, indicated a decline in religious observance among the majority of Iranians, especially the young…

“These are truly frightening numbers in a society ruled by an Islamic theocratic government that controls the press, radio and television, and in which there are half a million clerics!

“Despite the care the Islamic government has taken in preparing religious studies programs for young children in primary school and elsewhere, the two-decade-long experiment has resulted in an extremely high degree of estrangement of children and young people from religion… The Islamic Republic may be the first Islamic state to sell abandoned mosques; is there any greater bankruptcy than this?

“In fact, had the opponents of the 1979 Khomeinist revolution been sufficiently logical with themselves, they would have considered this revolution a decisive step toward overcoming traditional and fundamentalist Islam in order to make the transition to modernity, in application of the Hegelian principle of the philosophy of history…”

“The Theocratic Government[s in Iran and Gaza]… Are a Condition for the… Transition to Secular Government”

Interviewer: “What is the future of the existing Islamic states? Will they be able to withstand what you have called the ‘secularist tide?'”

Nabulsi: “I have already answered this question. The theocratic government now existing in Iran, and the one in Gaza, are a condition for the realization of the transition to secular government…. We must pass through the theocratic stage in order to pass beyond it to the secular state.

“I am eagerly awaiting the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and elsewhere, so that we can go beyond the state that they establish to the secular state – and without that, we will not achieve the desired result.”

“Fundamentalism Cannot Respond to Thought with Thought… They Respond… with Bullets…”

Interviewer: “There are those who criticize you, and have [even] directed bitter criticism at you, sometimes going beyond what is appropriate. In your view, does this criticism stem from rivalry, or from the struggle against secularist thought?”

Nabulsi: “The criticisms that you consider bitter are the least of fundamentalism’s evils. And they are less than the evils of the fundamentalist criticisms that have been directed at the liberals before us. Read what the fundamentalists said and did to Taha Hussein, Abdulaziz Al-Tha’alibi (founder of the National Movement in Tunis), Mansour Fahmi, Ali ‘Abd Al-Razzaq, Khalid Muhammad Khalid, Farag Foda, Hussein Marwa, Farah Antoun, and others.

“The Sudanese fundamentalists, under the leadership of Hassan Turabi, executed the Islamic thinker Mahmoud Muhammad Taha in 1992, in the era of the ‘Commander of the Faithful’ [Sudanese President] Gaafar Al-Nimeiri, because he denied the possibility of a theocratic state. And the Egyptian fundamentalists murdered Farag Foda, author of ‘The Hidden Truth,’ in 1992, because of the intellectual debate he engaged in with Muhammad Imara at the Cairo International Book Fair, during which Foda denied the possibility of a theocratic state. Egyptian fundamentalists tried to murder Naguib Mahfouz in 1994. And, recently, Saudi fundamentalists excommunicated and called for the trial of two Saudi liberal writers (Abdullah bin Bjad Al-Otaibi and Yousuf Aba Al-Khail). So we are well off indeed now, if the fundamentalist attacks stop at insults, vulgar curses, and false accusations.

“In fact, these accusations are the result of the bankruptcy of fundamentalism, its inability to contest thought with thought, and its complete ignorance of the reality of contemporary human thought.

“In the Arab world there is no cleric or expounder of religion who can stand up to any philosopher, East or West. The Tunisian thinker Lafif Lakhdar challenged Sheikh Rashed Al-Ghanushi, the secretary-general of the Nahdah Islamic movement in Tunisia, to a dialogue on one of the satellite television stations, or in a university seminar room. But Ghanushi refused, fearing that the superficiality and nonsense of fundamentalist thought would be revealed, and that fundamentalism cannot respond to thought with thought – because they do not have any thought. They respond to thought with bullets [and] explosive belts; [by] muffling voices [and] flogging; [by using] the knife, car bombs, curses, declarations of apostasy, accusations of atheism – and this betrays a lack of faith indeed.”


www.aafaq.org, May 15, 2008.

Source: Liberal Author Dr. Shaker Al-Nabulsi: Secularism Will Triumph in the Arab World

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