On Islam: An Interview with Mehdi Kia
by Cihan Aksan
The following interview was conducted via email in November 2005.
Mehdi Kia is a political activist and co-editor of Iran Bulletin-Middle East Forum (http://www.iran-bulletin.org). The journal is a political quarterly in defence of democracy and socialism in the Middle East. It was first published in 1993 under the name of Iran Bulletin and has since been expanded with a new editorial board.
M. Shahid Alam was born in Bangladesh, moved to Pakistan in 1971, and received his PhD in economics from Canada in 1979. He has published three books; his latest, Is There An Islamic Problem, was published by The Other Press, Kuala Lumpur, in 2004. His political essays have been featured in Dawn (Pakistan), The Nation (Pakistan), Al-Ahram (Egypt), The Star (Bangladesh), CounterPunch (USA), Commondreams (USA), Scoop (New Zealand) and others. Currently, Alam teaches economics at Northeastern University in Boston. He may be reached at [email protected]
Q: Islam as a religion holds within it a potent political force. Its message extends to the legal, economic and social organization of the Muslim community. Does this make it incompatible with secularism? Is secularism a deviation from the basic principles of Islam? Is it merely an idea imported from the West to which Islam can never relate? Or is there a place for a secular political order in Islamic countries?
A: Secularism is an idea and a system of governance. The idea seeks to create a secular man who lives his life without reference to God. It believes in the sufficiency of reason as a guide to life. Conversely, it rejects the authority of religion, as a source of meaning and values. As a system of governance, secularism is a bit less ambitious. On the assumption that life divides into a public and a private sphere, each neatly separable, it seeks to exclude religion from the public sphere. The objective is to create a system of laws that does not favor any religion.
The conflict between Islam – any religion, for that matter – and secularism as an idea should be transparent. A Muslim lives his life with reference to God, His Book and His Prophet. A Muslim also reasons because God reasons with him. The Qur’an urges man to use his reason and experience to understand God, His creation and His Book, and based on this understanding to create a just society. The secular idea is not only incompatible with Islam. Indeed, they must oppose each other.
As a system of governance, secularism can be expansive or accommodating. It can marginalize religion or give it greater sway over society. The actual results depend on a variety of factors. Most importantly, perhaps, it depends on the way the boundaries are drawn between the public and private spheres. Is the public sphere large or small? For instance, does it include education? Secondly, how rigorously does the state exclude religion from the public sphere? And what restrictions does it place on the expression of religion in the private sphere?
One can imagine an extreme form of secular governance. In this case, the public sphere is large – extending over education, media, laws of inheritance, relations between sexes, and modes of dress. It legislates religion out of this large public sphere, taking positions which contradict religious values. In addition, it inhibits the practice of religion even in traditionally private spheres. Very likely, this will breed discontent if a majority or even substantial segment of the population is religious. In the event, this form of secularism would also be incompatible with democracy.
On the other hand, secularism can be minimalist. This is a secularism that works within a limited public sphere, allows the democratic expression of widely-held religious values in the public sphere, and even supports religious organizations without discrimination in some activities (say, education or charitable work) provided they contribute to public order and morality. Indeed, variants of this minimalist secularism were the norm in most of the Muslim Sultanates before they were destroyed or restructured, starting in the nineteenth century, under the impact of Western power. If Muslim countries had enjoyed a measure of democracy over the past decades, this is the kind of secularism many of them would have produced.
In the face of colonial erosion of Islamic values and institutions – followed by suppression of Islamic tendencies under corrupt and often militantly secular governments – many Islamic thinkers have sought to recreate Islamic societies. In several instances this re-Islamization is more ambitious than any recent historical model. This reconstituted Islamic society must recognize the Qur’an and the Sunnah as the ultimate source of legislation on all questions. Some Islamic thinkers believe that this cannot be achieved under democratic governance. Others argue that democracy is compatible with Islam if its laws are subject to oversight by a council of Islamic scholars. It would appear that Iran illustrates this second model.