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The Islamic Case For A Secular State -I-

[Originally published in Turkish Daily News] One reason why Turkey's secularist elite is so obsessed with religious practice is their concern about the secularity of the state. If a society becomes more religious, they believe, then the secular system will be less secure. If more Turks follow God's orders in daily life, they ask themselves, why shouldn't they impose them on others using state power? There is, to be frank, some justification for this worry. There are religious tyrannies in the Muslim world which impose their narrow interpretation of Islam to their citizens. Moreover, there have been groups and individuals in Turkey who talk about doing the same thing. But there is another crucial fact that most secularists are missing: A pretty valid Islamic argument for a secular state exists, and it is gaining ground in Turkey. The state of the Prophet First let me summarize what the argument is. It has become an oft-repeated dictum to say that Islam is a religion which defines not only the heavenly matters but also the earthly ones, and thus it is impossible to reconcile it with a secular system. But this is a half-truth. Yes, Islam defines earthly matters for the individual Muslim and the community of the faithful — but not necessarily for the state. The distinction goes back to none other than the first Muslim. In the first 13 years of his ministry in Mecca, Prophet Muhammad was only a spiritual guide who relentlessly preached faith in God. Yet when he migrated to Medina, in the face of persecution with fellow believers in 622 AD, he also became a political leader. In the city, there were two distinct groups besides the Muslims: Jews and the polytheists. Soon Prophet Muhammad prepared a document which the other two groups accepted to sign. The charter, known as the Medina Constitution, recognized the separate communities in the city and guaranteed everybody a life according to his or her faith. Jewish tribes were "one community with the believers," the document emphasized, while they "have their religion and the Muslims have theirs." What is striking is that the Prophet of Islam founded not an Islamic polity but a pluralistic one. Under that charter, three faiths existed in the city-state of Medina, but Medina itself did not possess a faith. It was, to risk being a bit anachronistic, a secular state. The Pax Medina did not last long because the Jews chose to ally with the Meccan pagans who were willing to annihilate the Muslims, and wars broke loose. But the founding idea, at least partly, remained. That's why under Islamic states such as the Ottoman Empire, faiths other than Islam were recognized and given their own space. The shariah (Islamic law) was not the law of the land; it was only the law of the Muslim community while others had their own. An interesting point to note here is the deviation of contemporary Islamist states from this traditional pluralism of Islam. When Saudi Arabia or the Taliban's Afghanistan impose what they see as Islamic law to virtually anybody within their borders, including non-Muslims, they are imposing the shariah on those who don't accept it in the first place. They are in fact taking a modern position, but that's a modernity of a totalitarian kind. And, moreover, their version of shariah is so harsh, bigoted and misogynist that most Muslims find it simply disgusting. The Ottoman origins of secularism To see a better example, let's look at how the Ottomans adopted to modernity. Until the 19th century, they did well with the multiple legal systems. Muslim had their owns courts, Jew and Christians had theirs. But as the empire modernized, interaction between religious groups increased and it became very impractical to keep multiple legal codes. What would happen when a Muslim sued a Christian or vice versa? This was a rare event in the 16th century perhaps, but a growingly common one with the rise of modern economy. Moreover Christians of the empire were being influenced by the novel ideas of equality and liberty. That's why the Ottoman state founded the secular nizamiye courts and introduced a new law that would appeal equally to all Ottoman citizens regardless of their faith. Under the auspices of the Sultan/Caliph Abdulhamid II, Ahmet Cevdet Paşa, an Islamic scholar and a top bureaucrat, prepared the Mecelle, which was a civil code that included some Islamic elements, especially in family code, but also was secular to quite an extent. Cevdet Paşa referred to the juristic rule, as time changes, laws should change, too in order to update Islamic codes and bring in modern elements. Turkey abandoned Mecelle in 1926, but it remained in practice in many post-Ottoman states — even in Israel, at least formally, until 1984. What the Ottomans did with Mecelle was to create a law for all citizens regardless of their creed. Yet they did this not by extending the sphere of Islamic law to non-Muslims, but rather by minimizing that sphere and extending that of the secular one. That's why Italian legalist Rossella Bottoni regards it as an important step in her article on The Origins of Secularism in Turkey. What is striking is that these Ottoman origins of secularity were also Islamically justified ones. Neither Ahmet Cevdet Paşa nor other Ottoman reformers were bringing in secular law because they had a problem with Islam. They are just faithful Muslims who were adapting to temporal realities. But there were other people who did have a problem with Islam, or with any religion, because of their commitment to philosophical materialism. And their secularism would be quite different from the secularity of the believers. COMING NEXT: How the idea of secularity flourished among Turkey's Muslim intellectuals.
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