The Future of Shari'a
An interview with Muslim reformer Abdullahi an-Na'im
by Michel Hoebink Radio Netherlands
Islamic shari'a is best off in a secular state. That is what Sudanese Muslim reformer Abdullahi an-Na'im argues in lectures and seminars all over the Muslim world. And the response he gets is surprisingly positive.
Originally a law professor at Khartoum University, he fled his home country Sudan after his mentor, the Sudanese mystic and reformer Mahmoud Taha, was hanged as an apostate in 1985. Today, Professor an-Na'im teaches at Emory University in the USA and is an internationally recognized expert on human rights in cross-cultural perspectives.
His latest project brings him back to the Muslim world: he travels Muslim countries arguing that the future of shari'a is most secure in the framework of a secular state. That begs for an explanation.
RN: What is your project 'The Future of Shari'a' about?
Since the 1950s, the Islamists have hijacked the debate about shari'a in the Muslim world and defined it in their own terms. They made Muslims believe that they have to chose between a secular state and an Islamic state in which shari'a is applied. I dispute this: in my view, shari'a is best off in a secular state.
In the past two years I have toured Muslim countries advocating this view. I travelled to Indonesia, Central Asia, Pakistan, India, Egypt, Sudan and Nigeria. Everywhere I gave lectures and seminars. The reactions of people are surprising. You would perhaps expect them to be angry and even violent, but no: Most people find what I say new and strange, but not objectionable. I believe that most Muslims in fact agree with what I'm saying. The issues of shari'a and an Islamic state, however, are so emotional and intimidating that people are unable to speak out or even to develop their thoughts. My hope is that this project will give Muslims confidence and provide them with the intellectual tools to articulate their objections.
RN: So what exactly do you tell them?
I challenge the way the Islamists define shari'a and secularism. Shari'a, for a start, can never be enacted by the state. Shari'a is a moral code rather than a fixed set of legal rules. It has to be interpreted in order to be applied. When it is enacted by the state, it simply ceases to be shari'a. It becomes the political will of the ruling elite imposing its own religious interpretation on society. An Islamic state is always a state in which one group imposes its interpretation of Islam on others. Take for instance Sunni Muslims in Iran or non-Wahhabi Muslims in Saudi Arabia: They cannot live according to their beliefs because the state holds a different view.
RN: And therefore Shari'a is best off in a secular state...?
Yes. But also here I challenge the Islamist view. Because a secular state is not an anti-religious state, as the Islamists want us to believe. It is not a state that suppresses religion. On the contrary, a secular state is a state that is neutral towards religion. It protects the right of all religious and non-religious groups to manifest themselves in public life and politics, but without one group imposing its views on the others.
RN: Countries like Turkey and Tunisia are considered the champions of secularism in the Muslim world. But it seems they do not fit in with your definition of a secular state...
Abdullahi an-Na'im encourages Muslims to react to his views on the project's website.
He explains his views on the Future of Shari'a in a book that is available on his website in no less than nine languages: Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Bengali, Bahasa, Russian, French and English.
Turkey and Tunisia hold a view of secularism that strives to remove all traces of religion from public life. They are not neutral towards religion but rather seek to control it. That makes them a mirror image of the Islamic state: This time a secular elite is imposing its anti-religious views on the religious majority. In my view, the state should be secular and separate from religion, but not society. It is an illusion to think that society can be secular. Religion and politics can never be separated anywhere, not in Egypt or Turkey, nor in France or the Netherlands. Because believers, whether they are Muslims, Christians, Jews or Hindus, will always seek to manifest themselves in politics as believers.
RN: In many Muslim countries with democratic structures there are fears that a religious group, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, will first use the democratic system to gain power and then abolish democracy…
That problem is not solved by suppressing religious political parties. If you look at Tunisia, Egypt or Turkey you see that the effort to suppress Islamist parties in fact increases their popularity and makes them more radical and dangerous for the democratic process. It is better to make them part of the official political process. That will domesticate them and turn them more moderate. Their participation in the political process also makes it more likely that their dreams of an Islamic state and the application of shari'a are exposed as false and unrealistic.
RN: In your country, Sudan, Islamists have been in power since 1989. What can we learn from the Sudanese experience with an Islamic state?
The Sudanese experience clearly demonstrates that an Islamic state can never work. To the Sudanese themselves it is now perfectly clear that the Islamic project has utterly failed. Everybody understands that, after all, there was nothing religious about it; it was just a group of people trying to gain power in the name of religion. But the price has been high, in terms of suffering for the Sudanese people. All the instability and violence you see today in Darfur and the South is the result of it. When I was in Nigeria, I told my audience: the situation in your country is very similar to that in Sudan two decades ago. Please learn from our mistake. An Islamic state is a dangerous illusion and Sudan paid the price for it. You do not have to pay this same price! I hope that the rest of the Muslim World can benefit from the lesson of Sudan instead of having to go through the same hell.