Islam and Liberal Democracy:

The Challenge Of Secularization


By Abdou Filali-Ansary









Journal of Democracy 7.2 (1996) 76-80

Robin Wright and Bernard Lewis both seem to address the question of whether there is an "Islamic Reformation" going on now, and if there is, what content, direction, and influence it is likely to have. The raising of this question betokens an important shift in the way that Western observers view the Islamic world. Wright and Lewis implicitly acknowledge that behind the confrontations and violence that we witness today in many Muslim societies, there lies a situation marked by some kind of pluralism and opposition of ideas. In other words, there is not merely a fight, but a debate. To recognize this is already to take a giant step away from the familiar Western academic and journalistic stereotypes of Muslim societies as places overwhelmed by religious fanaticism, rejection of "the other," and crises of identity.

The dramatic importance of the question under discussion should need no emphasis: Islam, one of the major world religions, may be living through a turning point in its history, one that will bring it face-to-face with the challenges of the human condition at the end of the twentieth century.

Bernard Lewis proceeds according to his well-known "macrohistorical" approach. He casts his gaze across large spans of history, constitutive elements of Islamic faith, and some features of Middle Eastern languages in order to construct a grand schema that explains what is happening now and illuminates its links with the mainstream of Islamic (and also Middle Eastern) history. He draws on a larger arsenal of disciplines (history, theology, linguistics) than does Wright, and discusses a greater variety of subjects (religious beliefs, historical facts, [End Page 76] linguistic usages and concepts) in order to create a highly seductive synthesis of his own.

While Lewis acknowledges that the term "Islam" can be confusing, he himself is not always sufficiently careful in his use of it. He goes back and forth from Islam as a religion to Islam as a historical civilization, from detailed observations to general remarks. He seems to be guided by the "inner logics" that he sees lurking behind the observed data, molding attitudes, behaviors, and ways of understanding. His conclusions about the present situation point to a clash of such logics, one that pits Muslim communities against their Western counterparts. These inner logics are what he considers to be the true core of observed reality; facts, which appear on the surface, manifest the core imperfectly, much as the shadows that flicker on the wall of Plato's cave provide only a crude representation of the realities that give them shape.

Robin Wright, in contrast, adopts an approach at loggerheads with the one prevailing in specialized academic circles. She prefers to try to understand the debate by "listening" to two of its key participants: Iranian philosopher Abdul Karim Soroush and Tunisian political leader Sheikh Rachid al-Ghannouchi. Wright assumes that ideas, not conscious or unconscious determinisms, rule human societies, which simply cannot be understood through external observation or historical reconstruction alone. This, it would seem, is why she has chosen, among living Muslim thinkers, to discuss two prominent and highly controversial figures, each of whom is thought to exert a large (and in all likelihood growing) influence on thoughtful people in the Muslim world.

Strange Companions

This approach, much simpler than Lewis's and apparently without major risks, nonetheless raises a troubling question: How and why did Wright choose her two subjects? In posing this question I intend much more than the usual perfunctory observation, to be completed by remarks about the complexity of the situation, the availability of a large set of potential subjects, and the unavoidable arbitrariness of choice. In no way can one say that the two thinkers presented are minor, ordinary, or random specimens of contemporary Islamic thought. Indeed, they are generally considered to represent something close to opposite extremes on a spectrum: Ghannouchi is a main representative of Islamist attitudes and thought (and faces persecution from his government for that); Soroush is a formidable intellectual opponent of Islamism (for which he, too, faces persecution from his government). These considerations are by no means peripheral; they must be taken into account in any analysis that groups these two men together as workers in a single project. In fact, Wright's surprising decision to group them together is not devoid of logic, but it is a logic that she does not elaborate. [End Page 77]

In what way can we consider both Ghannouchi and Soroush--the Islamist and the critic of Islamism--to be representatives of an ongoing "Islamic Reformation"? Is the opposition between the tendencies that they represent merely apparent, or do we face two opposite ways of reforming Islam?

It should be observed beforehand that many controversies surrounding Islamic thought focus so heavily on semantics, on names for ideas and persons, that the real issues often disappear from sight. Many thinkers who are called or who call themselves "Islamists" make such large concessions to the power of unaided human reason that one may wonder what is left to render their thought Islamic. On the other hand, many secularists, especially nationalists, pay such reverence to Islamic dogmas that one may wonder if reason has any role left to play in their thought. The whole confrontation sometimes seems like so much posturing, where the real choices are never clarified or faced.

Does this apply to Soroush and Ghannouchi? Both, it is true, seem to accept Islam as a point of reference and to concentrate their efforts in an attempt, as Wright says, "to reconcile Islam and modernity by creating a worldview that is compatible with both." There is, however, an important difference masked by their apparent allegiance to the same flag. For Ghannouchi, the principal question is always how to free the community from backwardness and dependence on "the other." However significant his concessions in favor of democracy and freedom of thought, the community--not the individual--remains for him the ultimate reality and objective. Democracy and freedom of thought are instruments that Muslims should use to achieve their community's goals and defend its interests. They are tools for raising the community of Muslims to the level of power and efficiency that Western nations currently enjoy. Muslims can use these tools, argues Ghannouchi, because they work and because they are not opposed to Islamic principles, which remain the ultimate standard.

Soroush is not interested in showing Muslims how to achieve a more advantageous competitive position in the struggle with "the other." For him, the main adversary dwells within Muslims themselves, or rather within a complex of traditions that has long barred Muslims from the free implementation of reason and from direct contact with the sources of their faith. The urgent task is therefore to free Muslims from Islam understood as a social and historical heritage, as a set of overwhelming [End Page 78] external conventions defining views and behavior, or, to use Henri Bergson's __expression, as a "closed religion." 1 Soroush wants to make followers of Islam more inwardly Muslim by enabling them to adopt a piety based on free adherence and personal commitment rather than custom, habit, and conformism. He argues further that this turn toward Islam understood as an "open religion" represents not a radical innovation, but rather a return to the original essence of the faith in its purity. For him, the basic reality and objective is the person, the individual believer. In this, Soroush is closer to modern humanism and is a true reformer. Ghannouchi, by contrast, is not.

Responses to Secularization

Taken together, Soroush and Ghannouchi illustrate the broad alternatives offered by the situation in which Muslim societies now find themselves as they face the inescapable challenges of secularization in the modern world. It should be stressed that secularization is a comparatively recent phenomenon. It began in Western Europe and has spread throughout the world. Its pace and exact form have varied a great deal from place to place, depending on a host of political, sociological, economic, and other variables. The world's religions have adopted varying responses to it, usually featuring some mixture of adaptation and self-defense designed to meet the new conditions. In short, societies have shown different ways of responding to the secularizing tendency.

Muslim societies have not experienced secularization as an internal or autonomous move. (Some scholars believe that such a move did begin within Islamic societies in the eighteenth century, but was never allowed to unfold autonomously.) External influences either started the secularization process or disrupted it (another point on which historians disagree). But secularization is already a reality in the Muslim world. No Muslim society today is governed solely with reference to religious law; religious traditions no longer possess absolute or near-absolute predominance (except perhaps in some remote rural areas); and newly emerging leadership classes are almost everywhere displacing or marginalizing the clerisy of theologico-legal experts who used to control meaning and organization in these societies. Yet even while all this has been happening, Islamic reformation has not yet been accomplished. In the Muslim world, secularization is preceding religious reformation--a reversal of the European experience in which secularization was more or less a consequence of such reformation.

Wright's examination of Soroush and Ghannouchi offers us excellent examples of the responses that this evolution has elicited. These responses point in two opposite directions. There are voices, like Ghannouchi's, calling for a return to the "implicit constitution" 2 that [End Page 79] Islam is supposed to have provided (and which may not be opposed to democracy, or may even find in it a good __expression of some of Islam's requirements). These are typically calls to resist "Westernization" and to return to the original (and never fully implemented) Islamic constitution via a course of general reform that usually involves the moralization of public affairs and of political and social relationships. Appeals like these are reminiscent of the "natural and cyclical reflex" to seek a purified and more forceful version of Islam that the fourteenth-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun observed in Muslim societies whenever rulers exceeded the limits of the tolerable. For all their sincerity and effectiveness in terms of influence on the masses, such appeals grow out of attitudes that are trapped in the past. They can in no way lead to a real democratization of society.

By refusing to make religion the only means of reforming society, the other and opposed response tries to free Muslims from the "Khaldunian" cycle of rigorous reform enforced by an energetic outgroup, followed by the corruption and enervation of the reformers. This view recommends the reform of religious feeling and belief as the best means of making men free and responsible, and of placing them on the surest path to ordered and enduring liberty.

Soroush surely belongs to what Wright describes as "a growing group of Islamic reformers" who "are shaping thought about long-term issues," and whom she contrasts to "reactive and proactive groups [that] address the immediate problems of Islam's diverse and disparate communities." Ghannouchi, clearly, belongs with these latter groups. If we adopt the comparison with what happened in Christendom, the dividing line between Soroush and Ghannouchi is more or less equivalent to the one that separated the Reformation from the Counterreformation.

Abdou Filali-Ansary is director of the King Abdulaziz al-Saoud Foundation for Islamic Studies and Human Sciences in Casablanca, Morocco, and editor of the journal Prologues. He has served as general secretary of Universiti Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco, and writes frequently on cultural topics.


1. Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, trans. R. Ashley Audra (orig. publ. 1932; Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977).

2. See Ernest Gellner's comments on Islam as an "entrenched constitution" in his Postmodernism, Reason, and Religion (London: Routledge, 1992), 12, 16.


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