Why The Muslim World Needs To Embrace Secularism

Written by Ammar Anwer

Secularism is a political ideology according to which religion must be kept apart from state affairs. Secularism posts that government should remain neutral in the matter of belief and not one faith should be privileged over the other.

By sidelining religion from the matters of state, secularism ensures that people of all faiths are treated equally in the eyes of the law. Hence, by restricting religion to the private sphere, it actually promotes communal harmony and interfaith dialogue.

It is impossible for a theocratic state to treat all faiths equally because the moment we assign a certain faith as the state religion amongst others, it automatically yields hostility. No community would want its faith to be treated second or last. Therefore, in order to establish peace, prosperity and harmony in any region, it is important to first establish a neutral state which has no involvement with one's personal beliefs. It is only secularism that actually ensures that there is no state-sponsored prejudice against any particular community.

I come from a Muslim background, so I am aware of some of the common misconceptions that we Muslims tend to associate with secularism. One such misconception holds that secularism is against religion. Secularism is certainly against religious rule and monopoly, but it does not oppose the concept of religion nor does it seek to abolish religion. It is merely a political ideology that believes in divorcing religion from the government policies.

Primarily, secularism is freedom of religion rather than freedom from religion. It does not intend to apostatize people nor is apostasy part of its tenets. It, however, holds that people should be allowed to follow or abandon any religion. By guaranteeing equal freedom for all religions, it actually protects instead of undermines them. People who seek to argue that secularism confronts religion do not seem to realize that unlike theocracies, where a certain religion governs the lives of all people, secularism benefits and safeguards all religions. To realize this fact we do not need to look too far nor do we require plenty of research, in fact, only one glimpse at the Muslim world is sufficient.

The International Human Rights Rank Indicator (IHRRI), which combines scores for a wide range of human rights, is produced by the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD). As of 11 October 2014, all Muslim countries have a human rights rating less than 53 percent, with the notable exception of the UAE, whose rating is 71.74 percent.

Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, was recently elected as the mayor of London, the largest and the most populous city of United Kingdom; in many Muslim countries minorities do not even have equal rights. Many Pakistanis were celebrating the victory of Sadiq Khan, not realizing this was not their victory. Sadiq Khan is a Brit and this is the victory of secular democracy, where people can hold important positions while being from a minority. We have no right to celebrate because in our country minorities are treated like second-class citizens. Recently an old Hindu man was beaten up in Pakistan by the police for eating in the month of Ramadan.

So whenever the West elects a Muslim representative, there is no need to gloat about it because it is not something to feel proud of — rather it is an occasion to weep and to reflect that if the West can elect Muslim representatives then why can’t non-Muslims occupy important positions in our societies? This is the thing that distinguishes the West from us. While we continue to judge people on the basis of their faiths, the West has moved beyond religious discrimination.

The West is great not because it is the “West” but because the West respects fundamental human rights and liberties. If the East starts doing the same, there is no reason why we cannot prosper.

In most Muslim countries, religious discrimination is not restricted to the people professing other faiths than Islam; even those Islamic sects which constitute a minority suffer discrimination. For instance, in Saudi Arabia Shias have very limited freedom. In Iran Sunnis do not enjoy the same rights as Shias.

When you cannot even treat all sects of Islam equally, then how could you claim other religious minorities in an Islamic state would be regarded as equal citizens? Considering the present situation where Islam is divided in many different sects, which version of Sharia would be universally accepted by all Muslims? It is inevitable that Sharia law would open the doors to more religious differences and strife among Muslims.

At such a critical time when Muslims are divided into so many sects, with each sect claiming to be following the only true Islam, it is secularism alone which can ensure neutrality in the affairs of the state. Thus, secularism will benefit Muslim communities. It is secularism alone which can guarantee that each sect may continue to practice its rituals without any apprehension and without interference. Therefore, secularism is the need of the hour and our only hope out of this mess.


Ammar Anwer is a student and blogger based in Pakistan. The writer is a student with an interest in Theology, Social Sciences and History. He blogs for The Nation.

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