May 19, 2005 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 222

Tunisian Reformist Thinker: Secularism is Vital for the Future of the Arab and Muslim World

May 19, 2005 | By Aluma Dankowitz*
North Africa, Tunisia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 222

On several reformist Arabic-language websites, Tunisian thinker Lafif Lakhdar posted an in-depth analysis of the necessary reforms needed in the Arab and Muslim world concluding that secularism is vital for its future. [1] Secularization and modernization, he writes, are global historic processes that cannot be avoided in the long run. He also explains secularism is the key to full citizenship for men, women, Muslims, and non-Muslims, as well as to proper relations among all elements of society.

According to Lafif Lakhdar analysis, Islamist thought is primitive and is incapable of accepting human thought over divine decree. He says that Islamists are seeking to prevent the modernization of the Arab and Islamic world, and are struggling against secularism as a manifestation of modernization. While their struggle is doomed to fail, he explains, it may nevertheless be impossible to skip stages of history, and Islamic countries may have to experience Islamic rule before finally despairing of its false promises to eventually adopt a secular regime.

Lafif Lakhdar rejects the argument that secularism is anti-religious, and maintains that there is nothing to prevent a secular state from allowing religious education – providing that it is modern religious education that has undergone reform. As an example of a country that has instituted educational reform and now teaches modern philosophy alongside Islamic philosophy, he cites Tunisia.

He also explains that secularism will lead to a disconnect from negative phenomena in Islam, such as autocracy and theocracy, yet at the same time will renew the connection with positive Islamic phenomena such as rationalist and philosophical thought. Additionally, Lafif Lakhdar finds elements of secularism in the cultural heritage of Islam, and claims that in nearly 1,400 years of Muslim history, clerics and rulers (caliphs) had a de facto division of roles and authorities between them.

Clarifying that in practical terms, the secularization process will be adapted to the conditions of each Muslim country, Lafif Lakhdar adds that women and minorities will be the promoters of the process since they are the main victims of Muslim theocracies. He also calls upon the world to condemn the Islamist education and media, and calls for a U.N. Security Council resolution sanctioning military intervention if Islamists use force against the weaker elements of society or take over a regime against the will of the country's citizens.

The following are excerpts from Lafif Lakhdar analysis:

"Most Islamic Countries Are in Transition from Theocracy to Secularism"

Lafif Lakhdar begins his analysis by defining "secularism" as separation of religion and politics. He sets out three types of countries: the theocracy, the secular state, and the state in transition between the two. Theocracy was widespread during the Middle Ages and remained today in the Christian world only in the Vatican. In the Islamic world, however, there are several theocracies: the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, and, until 2002, the Taliban state. Most Islamic countries, he says, are now in transition from a theocracy to a secular state.

Nine out of every ten countries in the world today, he says, restrict religion to the personal and spiritual spheres, and leave the political sphere to the state which is run by institutions, laws, and human values. According to his analysis: "A state in transition from theocracy to secularism is one whose constitution determines that the Shari'a [Islamic religious law] is the first source of legislation. It grants no equal civil rights and duties to men, women, Muslims and non-Muslims.

"Women and non-Muslims in this state of transition are partial citizens, and sometimes even class-zero citizens. For example, a woman is forbidden to run for the presidency or even for a less lofty office, because in many Islamic countries women are still considered as lacking the intelligence needed for governing, and lacking the religious standing needed to perform religious ritual. Non-Muslim citizens are still treated as dhimmi s [non-Muslims under Muslim rule and protection]… The state in transition implements man-made laws in certain areas, and [divine] Shari'a laws in other areas."

Muslims are Destined to Adopt Modernity

Arab and Muslim countries cannot escape becoming secular, says Lafif Lakhdar: "History teaches us that secularism, which is widespread in the world, will not stop at the border of the Arab and Muslim world, which has no future other than the future of the rest of humanity. History has no cultural exception that managed to struggle against its contemporary historic trend for a long time. Thus, the Muslims are destined - just like the rest of humanity - to adopt modernity, and, as a result, secularism."

Separation of religion and politics, Lafif Lakhdar explains, is the consequence of modernity. He adds, Islamists still think in a primitive way that is incapable of distinguishing between the two: "The contradiction between scientific logic and religious logic, between an individual's rights (that is, man's freedoms) and Allah's rights with regard to man (that is, Allah's rituals, commandments, and prohibitions) is what led the West – and later, the entire world – to secularism, to separation of the religious and the mundane - a separation which is a precondition for human civilization’s progress…

"The separation of the sacred and the mundane is a consequence of modernity. The farther back we go in history, the more we see that the separation of the two is the rare exception, while the rule is that they are tied together, particularly among primitive tribes, who consider everything as sacred: The tribe’s history is sacred; its forefathers are sacred; its pregnancy, birth, mating, and hunting rites are sacred; and the daily behavior of the tribe members is sacred… and violation is punished by death. Why? Because the idea that sacred is a relative concept is accepted only by developed logic… while the mind of primitive people has not yet sufficiently developed to be able to… accept the dominance of human logic over divine logic…

"The Islamists' psychological slavery to their forefathers – that is, to the Prophet, his Companions, and their followers – paralyzes their minds no less than the worship of forefathers [paralyzes] the mind of the primitives. The divine logic brought by the forefathers is everything, while the human logic of our minds is nothing…"

"Every time we go back in history, we discover that the sacred covers everything… Everything is sacred and man is a game in the hands of the gods, who arbitrarily rule all, large and small. Why? Because the human logic, based on science and technology, was still in its early developmental stages, and was incapable of understanding, interpreting, and changing the world…

"However, the historical trend has always sought to open the human mind to broader spheres… When human logic limited the absolute rule of the kings, it also limited the absolute rule of the divine logic – so as to restrict it to spiritual matters…

"How did human logic reach these secular achievements in our modern world? By means of science and technology, that helped human logic understand and interpret [in a scientific way] what previously seemed to human beings to be a [religious] miracle…"

Islam Has Still Not Undergone the Reform that Judaism and Christianity Have

Secularism as a complete political system has never entered the Arab world, Lafif Lakhdar explains. The Arab world's encounter with Europe, via colonialism, has brought a degree of modernity to it, and has led it to relinquish several aspects of the theocratic Islamic state – corporal punishment, for example, and the poll tax [ jizya ] on non-Muslims. [In Saudi Arabia, which was never colonized, corporal punishment is still used:]

"So far, secularism has failed in the attempt to enter the Arab world, because Islam has not yet undergone the necessary religious reform that Judaism and Christianity underwent in Europe. A religion that has undergone reform is a modern religion that recognizes the separation of religion and state, and agrees to restrict itself to the religious sphere, with the state being responsible for mundane matters.

"The second reason for the failure of secularism to enter [the Arab world] as a complete political system is the cowardice of the political leaders. Islam did not undergo reform in Turkey… and despite this, with the leadership of the Muslim Kamal Ataturk, the end of the Ottoman theocracy – the Caliphate – came, and on its ruins arose a secular state that is not ashamed of its secular identity."

Secularism is Not Anti-Religious

Lafif Lakhdar rejects the argument that secularism is anti-religious: "To say that secularism is anti-religious, a person must be an ignoramus on the definition of secularism in the dictionaries of Europe, the homeland of secularism – or must have evil intentions, such as many leaders of political Islam." Thus, he adds, the approach of secular France to religion does not prevent the construction of mosques there. Similarly, he reasons that the secularism of the future Arab state will not prevent it from helping all its citizens equally; it will act like secular Turkey, whose constitution provides for the establishment of houses of worship for citizens of all religions.

By the same token, he states that there is nothing to prevent the secular state from offering religious education – provided that it is modern religious education that has undergone reform. For religious education to be modern and reformed, he adds that: "the pupil must study religion with the help of modern sciences: comparative history of religions, sociology of religions, psychology, religious anthropology, interpretation of sacred texts, and philosophy – in order to develop critical thought in the next generations.

"In Tunisia," he explains, "students at the religious Al-Zaitouna University learn Islamic and modern philosophy throughout all four years of study. Those studying the sciences, including medical students, learn modern philosophy throughout their studies. There is nothing like philosophy and the humanities to strengthen thought against the Islamists' religious-political propaganda. This kind of reformed, modern religious education is not merely desirable for the secular state in the Arab and Islamic region – it is an obligation, because the secular state must reconsolidate the traditional Islamic awareness, and must strengthen the awareness of the coming generations against fanaticism, terrorism, and religious discrimination…"

Secularism Disconnects from the Negative Aspects of Islam, Renews Connection with Positive Aspects

In addressing the question whether secularism means disconnection from Islam, Lafif Lakhdarexplains that it is disconnection from the negative autocracy and theocracy in the Muslim world, but is also a revival of the connection with other elements in Islam – such as mu'atazila [rationalist] and philosophical thought that subjected the holy writings on which the religion is based to interpretation by the human mind - and like Sufi and Druze Islam, which by the Middle Ages had abolished corporal punishment and separated religion and state.

According to Al-Akhdar, Muslim heritage has traditions separating religion from mundane matters, and the elements of secularism can be found in it. By way of example, he mentions the tradition about the Prophet Muhammad seeing date-grove owners pollinating their trees, and suggesting that they stop doing so. They listened to his advice and the palm trees were damaged. When they complained to the Prophet, he answered: "I am your Prophet for religious matters only. In matters of this world, you and I are equal." Lafif Lakhdar clarifies that this meant that the Prophet recognized the separation of religion and agriculture.

Another example he cites is that of the Prophet asking his army, in the Battle of Badr [624 C.E.], to encamp in a particular place that he thought was fortified. A military expert who was among his companions asked him whether his request was based on divine inspiration or military strategy. The Prophet admitted that his suggestion was for military reasons, whereupon the military expert told him that they must choose another path, to guarantee that they would have access to the water source, while the enemy would not. The Prophet accepted his suggestion, and indeed, the Quraysh tribe's lack of water was one of the main causes of their defeat. Thus, concludes Al-Akhdar, the Prophet recognized the separation between religion and strategy.

Since the days of the first Umayyad Caliph, Mu'awiyya [661-680 C.E], Lafif Lakhdar adds, the caliphs no longer led prayers, and appointed an imam instead – except in religious Iran, where the presidents of the Islamic Republic still lead prayers. Lafif Lakhdar explains that for 1,400 years there had been a division of roles between the clerics, who were responsible for the religious affairs of the Muslim nation, and the caliphs, who were responsible for mundane affairs – except in Wahhabi Islam, which does not recognize the natural separation between religion and politics, and in political Islam, as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, which established a religious political party that aims to restore the caliphate and to establish a regime of clerics for the first time in the history of Sunni Islam.

The Islamists are the Ones Who [Inadvertently] May Bring Secularism to the Arab World

The Islamists, according to Al-Akhdar, are fighting modernity and see secularism as heresy because it is "one of the elements of modernity, which is the pinnacle of democratic rationalism." The Islamists fear global modernization and its infiltration of Islamic countries; in Lafif Lakhdar view, their fears are justified because "today, modernization is an historic trend that cannot be stopped, and it will reach us just as it reached the Eskimo tribes." Moreover, says Al-Akhdar, the Islamists are the ones who may bring secularism to Islamic lands, noting that in Iran, after 25 years of the Islamic Republic, 75% of the people and 86% of the students have stopped attending prayers.... Today, only 2% fast during Ramadhan, while many more did so before the Islamic Revolution. Thus, Lafif Lakhdar concludes: "The secular need not fear an Islamic takeover of the regime in Islamic countries… Some countries will not [be able] to become secular within a reasonable time – that is, [they will not be able] to skip the stage of political jihadist and fundamentalist Islam unless they [first] implement it and taste its bitter flavor, and then despair of it."

Only Secularism Will Ensure Peaceful Coexistence of All Elements of Society

Secularism is essential for Arab societies, says Lafif Lakhdar, because it enables all elements of society to coexist: "Most of the societies in the world are composed of a large number of religions, ethnic groups, and religious schools of thought that contradict, and sometimes fight, each other. If the country adopts the religion, ethnic group, or school of thought of a particular group of its citizens, the rest of the citizens will feel distanced and disappointed, because they will not be able to find themselves or their identity in the religion of the state or in its ethnic group. Thus, they will remain outside the framework of full citizenship.

"The way out of this dead end – a dead end which sparks religious wars – is for the country to be secular. In a secular country, a citizen's connection [to the state] will be based not upon religion, ethnic group, or school of thought, but upon a social link – that is, it will draw upon human logic and upon the citizens' best interest… Thus, the secular country draws its legitimacy from the social connection, not from religion, in organizing the life of the society, and in attaining domestic peace amongst its religions and cultures… Logic, that is, the common interest, is what can form the basis for public life, in both national society and global society…

"The secular state intervenes when individuals or groups violate man-made laws in the name of their beliefs. It does not permit circumcising girls in the name of Pharaonic traditions, nor the stoning of adulterers or other barbaric punishments in the name of Shari'a. The implementation of Islamic Shari'a… will doubtless spark protest among the followers of other religions, and civil war will ensue. Furthermore, the laws and penalties of Shari'a are ancient, and clash with the spirit of the modern laws that are against corporal punishment, such as beating, amputating a hand, and stoning and murdering the apostate.

"Accordingly, there is no escape from turning to man-made laws to prevent such dangers. When the government chooses traditional jihadist Islamic education, it provokes the non-Muslim citizens, and the secular and enlightened Muslims. The adoption of ancient 'Shari'a sciences' instead of modern education is a kind of masochism, of pleasure in self-punishment by remaining at the lowest level… There is no way around the adoption of the global moral approach…"

On the Need for Modern Education and Secular Media

"Secularism is the key to political modernity… The faith of the believer belongs to him and his private conscience alone, and is unconnected to his rights and obligations as a citizen. The believer practices his private belief in the mosque, the synagogue, or the church, while the citizen actualizes his citizenship, with his rights and obligations, within the borders of the entire homeland…

"The question is, how can we reach the vital separation between the believer and the citizen – that is, how to attain modern citizenship that recognizes only belonging to the homeland? How can we ensure that the countries in the Arab and Islamic region will judge their citizens with man-made laws and in accordance with international criteria? There are many means for achieving this, and first and foremost: modern education and reform in Islam by means of reform in religious education… Second, an effort to acquire a secular satellite channel to compete with the Islamic jihadist Al-Jazeera TV… [and] while waiting for that [idea] to be implemented, we must make frequent use of all the media outlets and the internet…

"The first major task is reform in Islam though reform in religious education and religious discourse… The second task is to destroy the religious narcissism that sees Islam as the only religion in the world. [According to this narcissism,] Judaism and Christianity are merely two religious laws that preceded Islamic law, and Islam abrogated them and replaced them... This attitude… is one of the most important religious reasons for Islamic terrorism and for the resistance of a broad sector of Muslims in the West to becoming adapted to the secular societies with Christian traditions in which they live. [Making] inter-religious dialogue compulsory … is a basic task of any religious school that promotes reform…

"[Another task is] the deepening of the [Muslim] discourse with Judaism and Christianity via religious and scientific conferences and through satellite TV channels, and joint discussions via the media. This would guarantee the establishment of an inter-religious dialogue that would increase Muslim awareness of the fact that Islam is merely one religion among many – not the only religion, which abrogates all previous religions and religious law. Translating studies about other religions... will expand the Muslim's religious horizons, and will make him understand his own religion in an historical and relativist way, as part of a global religious phenomenon…

The Secularization Process Will Be Adapted to the Different Conditions of Each Muslim Country

In his discussion of secularization, Lafif Lakhdar does not ignore the differences between Islamic countries, and explains that the secularization process will take them into account: "Every Muslim country will acquire secular principles in accordance with its own social and cultural reality, while preserving the basic characteristics of these principles.

"The first principle is the recognition of full citizenship that will enable women to run for an office that includes ruling men, and will also enable a non-Muslim to run for an office that includes ruling Muslims. At first this may be a token right, but as secularism seeps into the Islamic awareness, it will become an actual right…

"The second principle is the right of all citizens to practice their religious rituals… and recognition for building their mosques, churches, and places of worship without discrimination… The third principle is the implementation of man-made laws in all spheres…

"Furthermore, I suggest that intellectuals in the Arab world demand that global civil society, the U.N., the world media, and international diplomacy treat Islamic corporal punishment as a crime. This is what I demanded in 2001, appearing on Al-Jazeera TV, and as a result of this Amir Khaled bin Sultan gave an order to stop me from writing in Al-Hayat, [which he owns].

"The fourth principle is establishing freedom of conscience and the freedom to choose a religion. Freedom of conscience means that the individual has the right to belong to any religion or to no religion…

"The fifth principle is reforming religious education...

"The implementation of these five principles, in addition to the study of human rights, as takes place in Tunisia… is the content of secularism in the Islamic countries…"

Those Harmed by Muslim Theocracy Will Promote Secularism in the Arab World

Addressing the question who could promote secularism in the Arab world, Lafif Lakhdarexplains that the Arab regimes could not be trusted to do so, but rather only those who have a vested interest in it. Those with the greatest interest in the separation of religion and state and in the separation of religion from science are "the national minorities, the religious minorities, and women, who are denied full citizen's rights by theocracy.

"To this list should be added writers, scientists, researchers, artists, inventors, and the people who listen to them – that is, the educated and enlightened sector of Arab and Islamic societies."

Lafif Lakhdar does not ignore the fact that these forces are still weak in Muslim society, and thus attaches great importance to the establishment of "a world front for spreading secularism in the Islamic countries." He stresses that the entire world has an interest in doing so, because it is interested in "drying up the wellsprings of terrorism."

Thus, Lafif Lakhdar calls on international bodies "to view the religious education widespread in most Arab and Islamic countries as incitement to terrorism, and to view the widespread religious media as incitement to hatred and religious discrimination." In addition, he suggests that "the association agreements between Europe and the Arabs and between the U.S. and the Arabs should include sections banning religious discrimination against women and against non-Muslims."

In order to change the reality in the Islamic countries and to promote their secularization, Lafif Lakhdar calls for a U.N. Security Council resolution for military intervention in Muslim countries in four cases: a) if the Islamists start stoning women; b) if they organize massacres of religious and national minorities, c) if they disband the civilian military and replace it with Islamic militias, and d) if they resist peacefully handing over the regime to others.

*Aluma Dankowitz is Director of MEMRI's Reform Project.


[1], April 24, 2005;, April 25, 2005; Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribiyya (Morocco), April 25, 2005.

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