*I would first like to thank the editors at Ikhwanweb for giving a liberal, not belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, the opportunity to express a liberal view on an issue that matters immensely to a lot of Egyptians. This article is a response to their request to translate a piece that I wrote in Arabic describing in detail the value and role of religion in a liberal society.
One of the most contentious points in any debate between liberals and Islamists is that of the role of religion in both the State as well as in Society. Some Islamists think that having a secular State will result in the spreading of immorality and corruption in society. There are liberals who believe that a religious State in Egypt will necessarily end in a regime not too different from the ones in Iran or Afghanistan’s Taliban era. I think that both are mistaken. In this article I will present a liberal position on the separation of Religion and State in its purest form. The reader should be able to see that even then, religion plays an important in shaping society. To me, this seems to be a recipe of conciliation between liberal and Islamist ideologies that is critical to Egypt’s ability in establishing a free democratic society. And that is what we all seek.
Government in a Liberal Regime
Let’s first start with some basics. The State is the entity that regulates the interactions of individuals and institutions in a society. This regulation is done by means of a government. In a democratic system, citizens elect members of the government via free and fair elections. Not every democracy, however, is a liberal democracy. A liberal democracy, as opposed to a simple majoritarian one, is one where the majority rules interactions in the public domain but without the stripping away of any minority’s equal rights. The smallest minority in the liberal view is that of the individual. Hence, in a liberal democracy, individual rights are to be absolutely protected. Each person is a free individual as long as s/he does not violate the same individual rights of others. Ensuring that the democracy is a liberal one is done by means of a constitution that constrains both the State and the majority from infringing on the rights of the individual and on minorities. That condition on individual rights is critical to a healthy society –including a perfectly Islamic one—as I will demonstrate later.
Government has three branches: the legislative, the judiciary and the executive. The legislative branch legislates laws that accurately reflect the desires of the citizens. The executive branch executes these laws and is composed of the president, the cabinet of ministers and other civil servants. The judiciary looks into disputes between members and institutions of society and resolves them according to the legislation passed by the legislative branch. The judiciary also acts as a watchdog on the legislative branch so as to make sure that the latter does not pass laws that violate the constitution. It also acts as a safeguard for all members and institutions of society against any transgressions by the State, especially the executive while implementing the laws.
A State with an “Islamic Background”?
Instead of trying to explain why liberalism is against mixing State and Religion, I will show that what some Islamists are calling for –an Islamic State, or a State of an “Islamic Background”—has no real meaning, and if enforced a priori as a precondition on the constitution, will harm, not just society, but the very idea of an ideal Islamic society.
What does it mean that the State be “Islamic” or have an “Islamic Background”? Let’s take each branch one by one.
What does it mean that the executive branch be Islamic? The executive is nothing but an enforcer of the laws passed by the legislative. Therefore, asking that it be Islamic does not make a whole lot of sense. Members of the executive can be religious or not. What matters is that the group of people who are best able to implement the laws (via fair and free elections) are the ones who get to be in office.
What does it mean that the judiciary be Islamic? Again, the judiciary is nothing but an objective, unbiased interpreter of the law passed by the legislative. There is no room in here for a judge’s personal interpretation of the law (and if there is ambiguity, s/he should do her/his best not to deviate from the intent and spirit of the law as passed). So, again, the judges who are best able to interpret and apply the law, regardless of whether they are religious or not, or Muslim or not, are the ones to take office (directly via fair and free elections, or indirectly via the appointment of elected officials)
So far we have seen that it means very little that the judiciary and the executive be “Islamic”. But there remains the legislative. Is it wise to require that all legislation be compatible with Shari’a a priori? Is it even good for the cause of spreading Islamic values? The answer to both question, as I will show, is a firm “No”!
The Value of Religion in Society
The legislative makes laws that govern the interactions of individuals and institutions in society. Hence, it has to come from society and it has to, as accurately as possible, reflect the true social values in that society. It may be tempting, out of sincere intentions, to impose religious values by the force of law by requiring a priori that all legislation comply with Shari’a.
Will a priori imposition, by force of law as opposed to the force of argument of Shari’a, really make society religious? Or, will we create a hypocritical society that performs religious rituals just to avoid punishment by the State? Won’t we create a society with a foggy, weak sense of morality –a morality based on what is expected of its members as opposed to what these members genuinely want for a moral code? In the midst of this blurred, hazy sense of morality, how will those performing da’wa, seeking to spread the message and ideals of Islam in society, be able to gauge the degree of social religious morality in the first place?
In fact, people performing da’wa will serve themselves best if they insist that laws reflect the true values of society, regardless of whether they are Islamic or not. If laws are in disagreement with Islam,they then have a mechanism to identify where the social shortcomings are. Laws that pass in the legislative would act as signals that reflect society’s true values, as they are. These laws are then a mechanism for people performing da’wa to gauge the public’s true state of morality. They can then go out and “correct” these errors by peaceful preaching and relying on the power of the Islamic argument, as opposed to the power of the State and its implicit use of violence to enforce the law. By requiring that laws be Shari’a compliant a priori, this mechanism of truly spreading the message of Islam gets destroyed.
And let’s not forget that during the legislative process, free of any a priori conditions, as issue is debated openly, which raises awareness of the issue and the foundations and merits of the Islamic solution for it.
Pre-conditioning laws on Shari’a compliance is where we can get a morally corrupt society. During the time I spent in the West, I have met countless Iranians and Saudis who do not want to have anything to do with Islam. Once they leave their home countries, some women take off the burka or head scarf, they engage in extra-marital sexual relations, drink, etc. This is reflection that their moral system is terribly weak, despite the alleged “conservatism” of society in their home countries. Those who are left behind, while many have true and well-founded religious values, many, if not most, do not violate the letter of the (Islamic) law, not out of conviction, but out fear of punishment.
That is the only outcome of a society in which morality is imposed as opposed to taken up voluntarily. Many, and certainly not all, members of such societies are either hypocrites or morally misfit and weak people who cannot contribute anything of true value to the world. After all, the latter live life not according to any moral philosophy that they chose for themselves –they live according to what others tell them how. They will be like obeying sheep that cannot produce or be creative. People who choose their convictions and live by them, on the other hand, can.
As a Muslim, I believe that Islam’s strength is in the power of its arguments. Islam is far better than forcing it by way of a priori laws that completely ignore the reality of society. Those calling for the enforcement of Shari’a express, if anything, the weakness of their own belief in the true power, strength and persuasiveness of the Islamic argument.
What about the role of religion in a liberal society?
In a liberal State, the freedom to worship is granted. So no one will ever have the right to tell the Islamist not to worship the way s/he sees best fit.
Secondly, in a liberal State, individuals have the right to peaceful assembly and association. This implies that Islamic institutions performing da’wa or providing social services will have unrestricted right to work. Islamic political parties, under this freedom of association, will be able to join elections and their members are free to run for public office, even using religious sloganeering.
This last point is very controversial among many “liberals”. I do not agree with fellow liberals who argue that political parties should not use religion as part of their campaigns. In fact, I find that position quite illiberal. Because of freedom of speech, political parties running for office have the right to use whatever moral code or language as the source of their platform. If that right is taken away from them, how can we call that liberalism? I call that betrayal of liberalism, not protecting it. And isn’t all political platforms built on some moral foundation? Isn’t a liberal platform built on some morality as well? Why ours, but not theirs?
That is not to say, however, that the right to religious sloganeering would be wise. In fact, in at least one previous article of mine, I asked that Islamic parties in Egypt refrain from using religious language to call masses to support them. But I cannot in good liberal conscience force them not to exercise their political right to freedom of speech. I would like to mention to the liberal reader that I also doubt that banning is implementable. See, for example, Turkey where banning of parties with religious background has not stopped the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) from reaching power. I also have concerns about the unintended consequences of suppression of political speech even if mixed with religion.
Turkey’s ruling AKP also sets an excellent example for the Islamist to think about: even under Turkey’s extremist form of secularism, the AKP was able to rise to power peacefully and contribute strongly to the betterment of Turkish society. That is testament to liberalism and not a condemnation of it.
With that said, once a political party with an Islamic background participates in the political process, they should allow the same to other secular and non-secular parties to operate freely. All parties have to be equal before the law. Additionally, no party is above criticism. If we are to guarantee the freedom of speech to all, we have to honor that speech unequivocally even if it is speech critical of others. Just because you speak of religion doesn’t mean that you are above criticism. Criticism is for the love of Country and God.
Caveat! The above gives a very clear summary of the very open playing field in which Islamists can exist and can strongly contribute towards creating a healthy society with healthy morality based on conviction, persuasion and freedom of choice. All of these, I remind the reader, are mentioned in the Quran as virtues: “To you be your faith, and to me mine” [Quran, 109:6], “There is no compulsion in religion” [Quran 2:256], “The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve” [Quran, 18:29], “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best” (Quran, 16:125).
So as a liberal, I am not asking for anything that is not in the Quran.
Part of honoring the freedom of the individual to choose is to ensure that the rights of the individual, especially the freedom of belief, thought, and conscience, are respected. This is to ensure that God’s commandment that man be free to believe and choose. In other words, we need a liberal democracy, not just a majoritarian democracy. In such a democracy, the majority decides on the general rules governing the day-to-day interactions in the public domain, yet the rights of the individual are always protected.
Protecting individual rights to choose their belief system is consistent with my argument above against the a priori setting a specific source for law. If the individual’s rights are protected, then s/he will vote based on his/her conviction without fear of reprisal. And if we don’t like the way s/she believes, we would have the right to use the power of persuasion (if they are willing to listen) to change their attitudes. If s/he is not afraid of reprisal when voting in a matter that reflects their conscience, then we can gauge his/her true values and we can exercise our right to use the power of persuasion to change their beliefs, attitudes or the way they vote through the political process.
This will help set a path towards converging to a truly virtuous society –one that is based on true conviction, one whose individuals can contribute to world civilization without fear of a law, and without blindly following what is expected of them instead of what they choose to follow.
** Islam Hussein is an Egyptian blogger. He runs the Arabic language liberal blog libraliyya.org, which you can follow on twitter @libraliyya.