On liberalism and Islamism: Responding to the Arguments of Secular Liberalists

On liberalism and Islamism: Responding to the Arguments of Secular Liberalists

"Role of Religion in Liberal Society" is the title of the article by Islam Hussein published on ikhwaweb on October 29, 2011. The article is part of the debate of liberals versus Islamists about the role of religion in the State and in society.

Hussein’s arguments were clear and his call for secularizing the current Islamist discourse on the issue of the State was also clear.

Read More I – myself – first wondered if I could call myself liberalist as I defend freedoms, rights and liberty of mankind and have always had all throughout my life.

The "Liberalists" who are not "Liberal"!

Firstly, "calling for "freedom" and "liberty" does not make you – necessarily – a liberalist". That argument is quite obvious, and I agree. I am an advocate of liberty, freedom and human rights, and yet, I do not label myself as liberalist… I also assume that the people who are calling for human freedom and liberty do not – and should not – necessarily call themselves "the liberalists"; as liberalism and liberalists cannot "monopolize" the call for freedom. And this is the first point of departure with Hussein. I wonder if he could acknowledge other forms and ways that are not necessarily western secular liberal, carrying the bitter experience of the western society with the "Church" and extending the conclusions of such particular historic experience as the global standard that all humans should follow.

Still, it seems that this is the case for the current newly-established secular liberalists in Egypt and other parts of the Arab World. They have one western ideology or the other to judge the world by it. The other astonishing fact is that many of our Egyptian and Arab liberal secularists – especially the elder ones – come from Marxist and socialist backgrounds that had no problem with criticizing, rejecting and even insulting religion on the bases of their progressive secularist Marxist or socialist ideologies that see religion as "the opium of the masses". With the fall of the Soviet Union and the great retraction and diminishing affinity and popularity of the socialist Marxist ideas, some of those people either were true to themselves and named themselves as mere socialists and Marxists only, while others were more cunning and came to call themselves "liberals", defending secular ideas, while at the same time, abandoning the least shred of accepting "the other" or recognizing other ideas, ideologies or points of reference (influenced – of course – with the dogmatic, deterministic and totalitarianist features of Marxism). Therefore, the real and genuine liberalists in our Arab world are a minority among the one claiming to be liberalists.

Such introduction was elementary to point how Islam Hussein, who is a genuine liberalists, attempted to negate, neglect or oversee the core politico-ideological debate that the "liberalists" and "secularists" are engaged in while debating Islam and the Islamists (and basically the Islamic movement of the Muslim Brotherhood to be more specific) at this moment.

The Post-Secular Experience of the Egyptian Revolution

The call for freedom, liberty, social justice and dignity during the Egyptian revolution was not initiated or carried out by basically a liberalist ideology or the liberal political leaders. The share of "the liberal" in this revolution have had been actually less than other more populist grass-root-based ideologies e.g. the Islamist, the Nasserist and the nationalist ones. Groups such as Kefaya and April 6 as well as the masses of the Egyptian people in Tahrir Square never called themselves as the liberalists or claimed to advocate any liberalistic secular ideology during that revolution. That is why the revolution against the tyranny of Mubarak and his western-backed and tear-gas and sniper-guns providing regime surprised the "liberal free world" (US – UK – France and many others). There was hardly any "secular" loud voicing in the chants of this revolution, while committed Muslim and Christians alike called for freedom, dignity and social justice. It was basically a post-secular revolution. The "secular" authoritarian post-independence state since Nasser – or even since the 1919 revolution – simply did not deliver. The "secular" state’s evolution, from Mohamed Ali till Mubarak, had emphasized nothing but more one-man rule, military domination in politics, corruption and claim for democracy and development that is never fulfilled. Hence, the question is valid: Would the secular (could be called liberal) Ataturk be a model to follow now for modernization, westernization and to achieve progress? I guess not. The fact stands that the authoritarian rule that claims knowing the secret path to modernity and modernization cannot be propagated or marketed any more. It has failed more than once, and the Arab Spring post-secular revolutions are nothing but a proof that this model has no legitimacy any more no matter the claims or the justifications that would claim that [the "people" are "ignorant" and they should not be allowed to choose whatever ideology or reference they want to regulate their lives (even an Islamist one) because the secular liberal or socialist "elite" knows best and should choose for the people].

The sheer Ataturkism being advocated now by the so-called "liberalists" in Egypt is bluntly calling for giving the Army (one of the most loyal institutions to dictatorship and authoritarianism) the final say to "guard" the values of the "civil state" (i.e. to stop the Islamists from being more popular or more invasive in the state, society or street operations than what the "Army" or the secularists would allow! (See Ali el-Selmy’s document – articles 9 and 10 in particular). Therefore, the liberalists and the secularists are basically joining the counter-revolution or the stream that could be called "abort and reverse the revolution" as they want to defend the last pillar of Mubarak’s regime; the Army, and would not mind bringing us a military-ruled state that they would call a ‘civil state’ anyway!

Benign Liberalism Advocated to Block the Road for Islamism

Islam Hussein tries to present a very benign liberalism, i.e. the version which should not be questioned regarding the anti-human imperialist and colonialist history of the liberal imperial nations and the liberal nation-states that once concord the whole world, e.g. Britain, France and the US. The flag of the western allies, hailing and spreading the "liberal" and "democratic" values, was the one under which millions of citizens were burned alive with nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a crime that never was met with punishment. Impunity sustained because the "act" was that of the winners, who were humane enough to help the defeated after massacring them. Could Hussein stand in defense for this barbarian liberalism (seated in the UN and steering it unilaterally right now) or the more barbarian economic neo-liberalism that has wrecked the world economy, impoverished many nation and still continues to rule the world through the World Bank and IMF.

For this reason and more, I claim to be fighting for freedom, liberty and dignity without calling myself a liberalist or secularist.

Islamism as Ideology for National Liberation, Civilizational Renaissance and Cultural Identity

In this sense, I defiantly believe that ‘Islam’ is a divine religion, and it is my chosen faith (after examining every other possible religious and philosophical doctrine I could find). And I believe that Islamism is what the human being brings as thought, values and even ideology out of Islam and the Islamic divine texts. Therefore, Islamism has always been open to new interpretations and innovative introductions (also known as Ijtihad) in all walks of life, including politics and state affairs. This mode of Islamism as an ideology for national liberation, civilizational renaissance and cultural identity could be adopted by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I could give Dr. Rafiq Habeeb, the deputy head of the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, as a living example for that "Islamist". He is the person whose core identity is that he is an Egyptian Islamist, and his sub-identity is defined as an Egyptian Christian.

Consequently, let us now admit that secularism has had its share of tyranny and autocratic rule since the post-colonial independent state we had in the 20th century, and let us remember that the Islamists have had their share of agony (including torture and mistreatment) by various liberalistic and nationalistic or socialistic secular regimes all over the Muslim world throughout the previous century and till today in many places. This fact has to be taken into consideration when debating Islamism or the state and religion in the current post-revolution context.

Let us remember that opposing or criticizing secularism has been a crime met with harsh and extra-ordinary punishment from Turkey under Ataturk till Tunisia under Bin Ali. Therefore, it is most strange how Islam Hussein is attempting to put the old wine ‘of secularism’ in the new bottles ‘of liberalism’ by presenting a static and benign version of liberalism that is so detached from the history of the so-called "the free world" and the modernist regime we had including that of Mubarak.
This kind of secular liberalism presented by Hussein still falls behind accepting the mere existence (let alone recognizing the validity) of Islamism. This newer version of liberalism is in itself ideological and value-loaded as it tries to get the Islamists to abandon the natural connection between Islam and the realm of politics, while not trying to convince the liberalists – who take liberalism as an ideology – to be sincere to the notion of accepting the other, advocating the other’s freedom of expression and celebrating diversity and pluralism instead of the elitist attitude by Hussein and the others that wish to measure everyone else (including basically the Islamists) with the standards and frames of secular liberalism.
The irony here is that Hussein wants the Islamists to be ‘secular’ because his definition of liberalism allows only secular ideologies to exist. Being liberal (not liberalist) could include Islamists, nationalists and even socialists who advocate liberty, freedom and rights for all human without necessarily asking the people to "liberalize" or to become "liberalists", just the same way totalitarian ideologies impose themselves on people to force them to adopt a certain ideology.

Therefore, there is no way to cover for the criminal history of secularism in the Arab and Muslim worlds under the liberalist regimes (such as those in Egypt between 1920’s and early 1950’s) and those socialist ones (such as Nasser’s regime 1954 till 1970). There is no way what-so-ever to cover for the criminal consequent ones that accumulated dirty wealth and integrated corrupted capitalism, privatization, authoritarianism and violations to human rights in the everyday’s life of our people. In this context, Islamism has struggled and survived as ‘the alternative’ that is non-secular and the one that represents the culture and civilization of the people of this region (Muslims, Christians and Jews alike) against colonial domination and authoritarian western-backed regimes that put Islamism as a red-line and a forbidden belief. It was fine for these regimes – and even welcomed and appreciated – if people would be religions, but never question the ideology being imposed or the model of practice implemented by such military or quasi-military regimes. The ‘State religion’ and state-manipulated religious institutions were the tools to impose a certain mode of religiosity that would not cross boundaries or question the red-lines. This is exactly ‘the secularization of Islam’, and it is highly similar to what Hussein is advocating in his article.

In this sense, the dear friend Hussein is backing (whether aware of that or not) the same ideology that Mubarak regime adopted, nourished, practiced, and marketed in the liberal west (US, UK, France and everywhere in the ‘free world’). This liberal free world was never liberal enough to stand against the dictatorships of Mubarak, Gaddafi or Bin Ali as long as they served as buffer and barrier against Islamism. The same goes for Obama and his fancy speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, which proved to be nothing but hollow words when it comes to Israel’s security and the American position against an independent Palestinian state or the mere membership of Palestine in the UNESCO.

Religion and State in Judaism and Christianity, and the Different Islamic Perspective

Maybe the issue does not require much investigation and giving enormous details to point that the experience of non-matching between liberal notions and the religious state is quite apparent in the Jewish and Christian experience compared to Islam. In the traditional Jewish State (such as in the case of Israel), the Jewish interpretation of the Jewish community versus the Gentiles (the non-Jews) allows no room for accepting the other or any kind of a societal liberal notion such as diversity, coexistence and pluralism. These values cannot survive in a Jewish State (and Israel is the proof). The state of Israel is a clear example of how a state is built over a certain religious interpretation (a Zionist one) that gives a natural birth for fascism, sectarianism and an apartheid system.

Also, the old Christian experience – during the so-called the dark medieval ages – was not only anti-liberal, but also anti-scientific, anti-reason, and anti-human par excellence. The state of the Roman Church that lasted for centuries was the one whose practices ignited a revolution against the State, the Church, the aristocracy and ‘religion’ itself. The more secular and anti-human evolution resulting from the industrial revolution had led to the impoverishment of the human labor as well as the suppression of the working masses. This has led to another socialist revolution that had a more aggressive position against religion, state and the aristocracy. Hence, there is no way what-so-ever to establish any liberal notion or liberalism within a Jewish or a Christian State. The state had to be secularized so as it becomes more human at one point, and liberal enough to become more accepting the different human beings in the same state as citizens (though this was not easy for the slaves in the free world, especially America, till 20th century). Should I here compare how Islam gradually abolished slavery and how the new world (US and others) hunted the free non-white people from Africa and other parts of the world so as to enslave them to create the industrial capitalist world that we know and the white American dream and the nightmare of the blacks)? I would invite Hussein to read Alex Healy’s novel "Roots" to learn more…

The way is different with Islam in case Islamism is allowed to present, innovate and function new human interpretations of the divine text to operationally work the divine in the various walks of life for the sake of better life for the human beings (be them Muslims or non-Muslims, because the Islamic experience could be useful and utilizable even by non-Muslims if they see it fit).

Hussein’s Automated Reference-Free, Ideology-Free Government

The notion of government in the liberal regime presented by Hussein has been surprisingly simplistic and highly irrational. The way Hussein interprets the functions, interactions and processes of state executive, legislative and judicial branches seems to be very automated, mechanical and void of any value-content or even a human touch. Hussein describes the functions of each branch of his government as something that has nothing to do with reference, ideology or even political view-points, just to tell the Islamists that there is no point to talk about any relevance between reference and government. As I read Hussein’s description of how the state regulates the interactions of individuals and institutions in a society and how the three branches of the government function, I wondered: If that was the case, why should people bother debating ideology, presenting political and economic programs or even debate anything if the government’s branches would function in the way described by Hussein on merely structural functionalist bases?

It looks like the humans or the personnel, who work in each of these branches as proposed by Hussein, are mere ‘robots’, functioning with no thoughts or feelings, no ideology or value-system.

This irrational robot-like interpretation of the human action and interaction is one of the most characteristic features of the narrow-minded materialistic way of thinking of a typical modernist, as if the human history is progressing towards this utterly automated processing of State functions and administration of human life. I would recommend to Hussein to read the works of the late Egyptian Islamist thinker Abdel-Wahab Al-Messeri, who excelled in criticizing the modernist secular rationalization and secularization notions that would lead to the "death of man" as he calls it. From that point, Al-Messeri presented a very early criticism to the notion of ‘end of history’ and the ‘final man’ presented by Francis Fokoyama as a celebration for the wining of the American capitalist liberalism after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Since that early time, the argument of Al-Messeri proved true; i.e. that Islamism comes to save the current human being in this post-modern world from the agonies of secularism that assassinated value from the human mind and tortured the human soul.

In the end, I would ask Hussein to see the whole spectrum of the human life and all the various aspects of the human condition. Even when talking about politics, we should be talking about human life in general, not merely the issues of ‘power’ and ‘state’. State is not an end on its own; it is rather a tool for better human life, or else, it is nothing but a ferrous gurgle-like competition over power and resources, even with liberal democratic means.

I wish to point that I am absolutely ready for any open and public debate with Islam Hussein over these issues and anything else he wants to raise, in Arabic or English, at any time and place convenient to him…

*Hazem Khayrat  is a researcher at Ikhwanweb.com