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The secularization debate in Indonesia and Egypt


Literature on the secularization debate seldom alludes to Muslim discussions of the issue. Among sociologists of religion, secularization theory used to be considered as part of conventional sociological wisdom, but has since been increasingly disputed and discredited. Scholars like Harvey Cox and Peter Berger are often cited as examples of those who have “repented” from ascribing to secularization theory. “After reviewing these developments,” Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart wrote, “Peter L. Berger, one of the foremost advocates of secularization during the 1960s, recanted his earlier claims” (Norris and Inglehart, 2004:4). One should note that there are also opponents of secularization, such as David Martin, who later recanted their earlier position and became its proponents. Both camps often make their case by referring to the “Islamic phenomenon”, albeit without delving into Muslim engagements with this secularization debate.

The secularization debate in Indonesia

During the 1970s and 1980s Indonesia and Egypt witnessed public debates involving both proponents and opponents of secularization. When the late Nurcholish Madjid delivered an influential speech to a gathering of major Islamic organizations on January 2, 1970, in Jakarta, it soon engendered a wide controversy in the country. Madjid called for the liberation of Muslim minds from stagnation in religious thinking caused by an inability to differentiate between values that are transcendental and those which are temporal. The vast majority of Muslims, he observed, reject the necessity of Islamic renewal and reform because they perceive “everything as transcendental and therefore, without exception, valued as divine” (Madjid, 1987:207). It is in this context that he called for secularization to make what was temporal stay temporal and liberate the Muslim community from the tendency to spiritualize it.

At the time, Madjid was serving a second term as the General Chairman of the Association of Muslim Students – a modernist, urban Muslim student organization, known as HMI. He went on to earn his PhD in 1984 from the University of Chicago under the supervision of Fazlur Rahman, a Pakistani-born scholar whose progressive ideas caused storm in Pakistan, forcing him to live in exile. Madjid launched his “secularization” idea before he studied under Rahman’s tutelage. However, his engagement with Western scholarship at the University of Chicago led him to refine his approach to the secularization debate.

Madjid’s idea of Islamic renewal received mixed responses from Indonesian Muslim intellectuals, initiating a vibrant and exciting discourse surrounding secularization. Reactions to Madjid’s ideas took the forms of public debates, Friday sermons, and newspaper articles. Unfortunately, most such discussions focused on debates surrounding terminology, particularly focusing on “secularization” and “secularism”, which is understandable given the fact that such terms have yet to become popularized in intellectual discourse in Indonesia. Madjid used the terms along the same lines as Harvey Cox who defined secularization as the liberation of man from religious and metaphysical tutelage, and the turning of his attention away from other worlds and toward this one. As such, Cox argued, “it should be carefully distinguished from secularism” (Cox, 1965:18). Drawing on this distinction between secularism and secularization, Madjid argued that the latter is meant as a form of liberating development, and is “not to convert Muslims to become secularists.”

While he employed the terms from a sociological perspective, his opponents, including Dr. HM Rasyidi, understood secularization from philosophical point of view, suggesting that secularism is the logical consequence of secularization. Two years after Madjid’s electrifying speech, Rasyidi published a book entitled Koreksi terhadap Drs. Nurcholish Madjid tentang Sekularisasi (Correction to Drs. Nurcholish Madjid on Secularization). By referring to Alan Richardson’s Religion in Contemporary Debate, he contended that secularization and secularism are integral parts of Western history which uphold the separation between religion and state. Perhaps, Madjid was then aware that a Coxian conception of secularization was likely to evoke a storm of criticisms. Following his return from the University of Chicago, he no longer referred to Cox to justify the sociological meaning of secularization, but rather to other sociologists like Talcott Parsons and Robert Bellah who called such a type of secularization “radical devaluation” or “desacralization.” As Robert Hefner has rightly noted, “Madjid himself expressed misgivings at his choice of terms, commenting publicly that his reference to ‘secularization’ had invited misinterpretation” (Hefner, 2000:118).

The secularization debate in Egypt

Viewing secularism as a Western (European) experience that is alien to Islam has been prevalent historically among opponents of secularism in Egypt. Such opponents argue that secularism was born in pre-modern Christian Europe out of the necessity to fight the crippling dominance of the church over the political realm and over intellectual life. It is this claim of the specificity of the European experience that scholars like Fouad Zakaria have bluntly rejected. Like Madjid, in the 1980s Zakaria took part in several public debates about secularization, including one involving influential preachers such as Muhammad al-Ghazali and Yusuf al-Qaradawi. It is worth noting that Zakaria stood up in defense of secularism against such respected Ulama in front of unfriendly audiences. As described by Nancy Gallagher (1989: 108-215), during his presentation he was greeted with rumbling and threatening protests. The audience increasingly became restless even though the moderator continually called for silence and kept asking the highly partisan audience to show respect to the speakers.

Zakaria was born in Port Said in Egypt in 1927. He studied at Cairo university (BA) and ‘Ayn Shams university (MA, PhD). He is one of the prominent Arab thinkers who have consistently offered a sustained critique of the intellectual, political, and social foundations and contemporary manifestations of Islamism in the Arab and Muslim world. Even before the public debate in Cairo, the famed Muslim scholar Qaradawi wrote a book devoted to rebutting Zakaria’s idea of secularism, entitled al-Islam wa al-‘almaniyya wajhan bi-wajhin: Radd ‘ilmi ‘ala Fuad Zakaria wa jama‘a al-‘almaniyyin (Islam and Secularism Face to Face: Scientific refutation of Fouad Zakaria and Secularist Groups).

Of course, Zakaria was not the first to introduce the secularization debate to Egyptian intellectual discourse. The debate on this issue had taken place since the middle of the nineteenth century and culminated in the controversial work of Ali Abd al-Raziq, al-Islam wa-usul al-hukm (Islam and the principles of governance), published in 1925. Zakaria inherited this perennial controversy from his predecessors who had first encountered the tangible impact of European cultural and intellectual influences in the Arab region. This explains why, in contrast to the Indonesian context, reactions to Zakaria did not merely revolve around questions of terminology, but the broader question of whether secularism is a solution or problem for the Muslim world today.

Contrary to his critics, Zakaria argued that secularism is not the product of a particular society in specific times and places. Rather, it is a necessary requirement for any society threatened by the oppression of an authoritarian mode of thinking which prohibits people from questioning, criticizing, and thinking about their future. “The reasons that pushed Europe in the direction of secularism,” he asserts, “are cropping up in our present Islamic world, and therefore the widespread idea that secularism is the result of specifically European conditions in a certain stage of its development is baseless” (Zakaria, 1989:66). Zakaria rejects the accusation that his view of secularism is antithetical to Islam, saying that “arguments of most secularists against the interpretations of Islamists are also derived from Islam itself” (2005:21).

Madjid and Zakaria lived in different social and political contexts, yet both used the discourse on secularization and secularism as a starting point to discuss important issues facing the Muslim community in their respective countries. It is difficult to assess, however, the extent to which they have succeeded in their intellectual endeavors. It seems that the Indonesian soil is more fertile than that of Egypt for this modern idea to take root. What accounts for this different reception in both countries needs a further analysis. The point here is that this complexity of Muslim discussions of secularization in Islamic lands, and their engagements with Western scholarship, should not be overlooked.

Mun’im Sirry is a postdoctoral research fellow for the Qur’an Seminar Project at the Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame. He earned his PhD in Islamic Studies from the Divinity School, University of Chicago. In August he will join the Notre Dame faculty in the Theology department with additional responsibilities for Contending Modernities.


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