If secularism fails against religion

Religion and politics

Dietrich Jung

To person

Dr. phil., born 1959; Senior Research Fellow at the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute (COPRI) and External Associate Professor at the Institute for Political Science, Aarhus University, Denmark.

address: c / o COPRI, Fredericiagade 18, DK-1310 Copenhagen K.E.
e-mail: [email protected]

Publications i.a .: Shadow Globalization, Ethnic Conflicts and New Wars, A Political Economy of Intra-State War, London (i.E.)

"Islam is religion and state!" This claim that the religious and political spheres form an inherent unity in Islam is now being made by Islamic activists and numerous Western analysts alike.

I. Introduction

In his book The political language of Islam the well-known historian and Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis described the attempt of Islamic societies to separate religious and political spheres in accordance with European modernity as a possibly "unnatural wrong path". This had come to an end in Iran. [1] In the meantime, this unity of religion and politics as claimed by Lewis represents an almost irrefutable axiom in the public debate about the Islamic world. Western commentators and Islamist agitators alike orientate themselves on him. A secularization of state rule - as in the Christian world - is therefore not possible in Islam and certainly not desirable from an Islamist perspective. The European model of a democratically constituted, secular constitutional state is contrasted with the ideal type of an Islamic system, the order of which is primarily based on religious foundations.


This harmony between Western and Islamist voices stands in stark contrast to the actual diversity that characterizes the relationship between politics and religion in Europe and the Islamic world. In Europe, different historical development paths have led to a plurality in the relationship between religion and politics, which ranges from the Protestant state church in Scandinavia to French laicism. In the USA, state and religion are clearly legally separated, but political and religious discourses overlap strongly. Linear interpretations of secularization as a kind of zero-sum game between tradition (religion) and modernity are a thing of the past. The debate about politics and religion in western modernity is now being conducted under the heading of post-secular society. What remains as the core of secularization is the political autonomy of the modern state and its monopoly of physical violence. The secular constitution of modern statehood, which establishes the political order not religiously but legally through formal, decision-making procedures.

In principle, the Islamic world "imported" this European state model. [2] Since the decolonization of the international system, the political map of Islam has been characterized by the existence of formally sovereign territorial states. As far as the official regulation of the relationship between state and Islam is concerned, the Islamic world of states also exhibits a high degree of plurality. While Kemalist Turkey has committed itself to rigid secularism, the political order in Iran rests on Shiite-Islamic foundations in terms of personnel and ideology. However, both states follow republican principles which clearly distinguish them from religiously (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco) and non-religiously (Gulf emirates, Brunei) legitimized dynastic forms of rule.

The most populous Muslim state, Indonesia, relied on a religious but not explicitly Islamic foundation in its declaration of independence. This represents all five religions formally recognized in Indonesia - Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Buddhism. In South Asia, with the independence of India and Pakistan (1947), the communalist conflict between the Muslim and Hindu populations of the subcontinent was institutionalized in the form of a nation-state. On the one hand, this "partition compromise" has led to an almost permanent state of war between India and Pakistan. On the other hand, it could not prevent the state disintegration of Pakistan, as the secession of Bangladesh (1971) and a series of internal wars and conflicts in Pakistan showed. The two-nation theory based on religious identities can therefore be regarded as a failure. Obviously, in Pakistan, religious identity could not be transformed linearly into political loyalty. [3]

Even this rough sketch underlines that neither in Europe nor in the Islamic world can we speak of a uniform relationship between politics and religion. Indeed, the two spheres seem to intersect and penetrate in many ways. With a view to the development of modern statehood, which is certainly the institutional epitome, but not the all-encompassing expression of the political, it seems appropriate not to speak of a separation of politics and religion, but of the autonomization of political rule in the modern state. With regard to the Islamic world, the question raised by Bernard Lewis at the beginning can be reformulated as follows: Is an institutional and legal separation of state rule and religious order possible in Islam?

In the following, I will pursue this question in four steps. These result from four variants, which are often used to justify the postulated unity of politics and religion in Islam: First, the social order of the early Islamic community in Medina is to be briefly analyzed, which many contemporary Islamists consider to be the ideal of an Islamic state. In the second step, the question arises whether an Islamic state can be derived from religious sources alone. In addition to the origin myth of the community of Medina and the religious sources, the history of the state formation process in the Islamic world offers a third possibility to prove the incompatibility of the Islamic religion and the political autonomy of the state. Finally, in the fourth step, a brief consideration of the relationship between Islamic law and state rule follows.