Over the last centuries, proponents of secular ideals have claimed that as societies modernise, the role of religion in public and private life diminishes.
For them, rational thought, science and the ideal of representative governments as sovereign replace religion as a source of authority, regulation and security.
Now, it is being claimed that religion is necessary for us, not despite modernity but precisely because of it. Religion is required in the public space because only faith can alleviate the pain caused by modern life. Since the 1970s, the secularisation thesis went on the defensive as a tide of religiosity — often ‘fundamentalist’ in nature — gained influence in the major traditions, including Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. Religion thus returned to overtly public and political matters.
But how closely can sacred teachings inform politics and governance? A look at Muslim West Asia shows how the public role of religion has varied over time. The late 19th century saw several religious movements emerge in response to Islam’s encounter with European colonialism and modernity. Traditionalists like the Wahhabis sought to preserve their Islamic heritage. Modernism advocated an evolving Islam that would flourish within this emerging modernity. Some others demanded separating Islam from the State.
West Asian public life has been the site of rivalry between a minority wanting to entirely secularise their society and Islamic fundamentalists who oppose many of these modern ideas. Ordinary people, meanwhile, have tried marrying their aspirations for basic rights and better material lives with their religious traditions.
The 1970s revived aggressive religious engagement in society and politics. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran bolstered a new era of religious politics by offering a tangible model of Islamic rule. That same year, Islamic militants seized the Grand Mosque at Mecca in a failed effort to dislodge the Saudi rulers. The shocking assault accelerated the rivalry between the Wahhabi and Salafi trends. By the mid-1990s, the public space in West Asia was dominated by Islamic movements, institutions and sensibilities — in mosques, media, NGOs, education apparatus, judiciary and on the streets. Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran became Islamic states.
But an Islamic State carries seeds of its own decline. History shows that a faith-based state inevitably leads to the secularisation of theology, for leaders, religious or otherwise, must respond to the exigencies of governance. Sacred injunctions are bent, revised or cast aside to accommodate the requisites of governance or merely justify power. As in Iran, authorities ignore laws or proscribe people’s religious obligations, if deemed necessary to secure the ‘religious’ state. Religion thus becomes a pliable instrument to serve secular objectives.
Cynical secularisation of the sacred by ‘Islamic’ states is alienating many Muslim citizens. Even members of the ulema have pleaded for the separation of religion from the State, in order to restore both the sanctity of religion and the rationality of the State. A post-Islamist trajectory is being sought, where faith is merged with freedom and Islam with democracy, where a civil democratic State can work within a pious society.
For Muslim societies, not modernising is no longer an option. Only a secular democratic State respecting human rights for all can provide good and modern governance for the faithful and secular alike, where religion can flourish while the non-religious and religious minorities remain secure.
Asef Bayat is a professor of sociology and Middle East Studies, University of Illinois. His latest book, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (2010), is published by Stanford University Press
The views expressed by the author are personal
This is part of the Religion and Public Space series in collaboration with the UN Alliance of Civilisations and its
Global Experts project