Heiner Bielefeldt

Two Forms of Secularism

In his reply to Bahmanpour, Heiner Bielefeldt distinguishes between two forms of secularism. Only one of them questions religious values.

In response, I would like to take up two points, one about secularism, and the other about the idea of ‘Islamic human rights’. First, I think we have to distinguish between two concepts of secularism: ideological and political. This is a huge difference, of principle and not only of degree.

Your comments on secularism seemed to assume that it is a sort of post-religious creed, a belief system in itself, maybe based on science. There is no doubt that such a form of secularism used to exist. It was very typical of nineteenth century European intellectuals such as George Holyoake, who in England formed the Secular Society. This society was a perfect example of a secular creed, because it had its own form of religious slogan: ‘science is the providence of man’. It had its own dogma, places of worship, liturgy and rituals. One could add more examples of secularism as a post-religious creed, made and intended to replace religions. Of course, religions could never espouse this sort of secularism.

But, when we speak about secularism today, we mostly refer to an institutional device to safeguard religious liberty as a human right. Because, if you take religious liberty systematically, it means that everybody in a country should be entitled to equal respect for religious beliefs. The state is not permitted to identify with one particular religion at the expense of others, because that would lead to a discrimination against those who differ from the dominant creed. And in order to implement religious liberty as a universal human right, European societies have in many different forms established what I call political secularism. This can in some cases even be combined with the preservation of symbolic traditions such as the Church of England. But the consequence must be that the legal status of the citizen is independent of religious adherence.

We tend to mix the two secularisms. But even the Christian churches have, after a long time and bitter resistance, espoused the principles of political secularism. It took generations for them to realise that this is not a manifestation of an ideological, post-religious creed. So my question to you is whether you think it is possible that this form of secularism, which I have termed ‘political’, can be subscribed to from an Islamic standpoint.

There has of course been a debate about political secularism in Arab countries since the beginning of the twentieth century. A famous Egyptian author, Ali Abd al-Raziq, wrote a book, Islam and the Basis of Power, in 1925, in which he sketched an Islamic appreciation of political secularism. He was banned from his chair in the University of Cairo, but his book was nevertheless printed over and over again.

The second point I would like to raise is about your reference to an Islamic concept of human rights. What might that be? Such an idea is embodied in documents such as the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the foreign ministers of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in June 1990. But this is a problematic document because it puts all human rights under the proviso that they should comply with Islamic sharia. So, it reads like this:

‘The right to life is safeguarded, provided it is in the framework of the sharia. The right to physical security is guaranteed unless it contravenes the sharia. Freedom of opinion – in the framework of sharia.’

Religious liberty does not appear in the document, equality of women and men is confined to a vague equality of dignity – there is no sense of their ‘equal rights’.

So my question to you is: what do you mean by Islamic human rights? Do you refer to these ideological constructs whose purpose – in my opinion – is to undermine the existing standards adopted by the United Nations; or to efforts to make sense, from an Islamic standpoint, of those international standards? I would support the latter usage. It must be possible for people from various religious standpoints to reconcile universal human rights with their practices and beliefs. But such documents as the Cairo Declaration get us no further forward, because they tend to undermine the very validity of universal rights.

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