Is Secularism by Any Means Possible? A Reading of the ‘Civil State’ in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s Contemporary Political Statements and Declarations

[This is the fifth in a series of my notes on the 2013 International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Islamic Reform Movements After the Arab Spring held in Herndon, VA.These notes have only been lightly edited and represent my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone. The official proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Names of participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the organizers.]

“Is Secularism by Any Means Possible? A Reading of the ‘Civil State’ in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s Contemporary Political Statements and Declarations”

Najib Awad, Hartford Seminary

I was invited to present this paper by some of the senior leaders of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB), whose political project is online at their website. This is a 9-page summary of 25 page critique published on their website.

Every known application of civil society is secular. Is there any sense of secularity in the SMB understanding of civil society? The “Political Project of the Syria of the Future” is the view of the SMB. This view is both religious and particularist rather than secular or civil. For them Syrian identity is both Arab and Islamic. The articulation of an Arab dimension is a kind of admission of the non-Muslim element of Arab identity, yet the thesis is entirely constructed on Islamic identity. Islam is seen as the one absolute ahistorical premise. By realizing ijtihad the SMB project opens space for individual interpretation of Islam’s rules and principles, but this margin is inescapable narrow and restrained. This is not seen as a door for new thought, but a controlled tolerance that imprisons individual ijtihad into secondary areas  and limits even this ijtihad to subset of society, leaving the main decisions to the ulama’ alone. They have control over the public square. The faqih alone and not the nation determines the course of the nation, and he is to serve the interests of only one group in the community, the “authentic” Muslims.

In part 3, the SMB understanding of the modern state says pluralism is the natural outcome of freedom of thought and belief and conjectures that as Islam offers religious freedom it naturally grants political freedom. “State with authoritative political reference,” a state founded on a single norm or reference, Islam. This impoverishes its pluralism. If Islam permeates Syrians, they are Muslims whether they like it or not. Pluralism is reduced for a society of equals to a toleration of inferior participants. Rather than emancipate religion from the swamp of political games it reduces Islam to a political Islamization of the state.

The social civil society seeks religion as a personal matter. In the SMB view, there is no room for cultural plurality. In this view Islam is not one view among others, not a cultural choice, but a state of beingness. If the SMB wants a genuine pluralism they must embrace completely all the people of Syria regardless of their religious identity. Otherwise they should drop the language of plurality and avoid any form of dissimulation.


Mohamed Mosaad Abdelaziz Mohamed, Northern Arizona University: I agree completely with the paper except that there is both the written and the oral. Someone told me there is huqm and there is fatwa so the land must be all Muslim, but there must be compromise and the Palestinians will get West Bank and Gaza, yet only days later in print he said there will be no compromise with Israel and there must be war to liberate all of Palestine. As an orthopedist I took people’s statements literally. As a psychologist I ask “What do they mean?”As an anthropologist, I don’t care what they say; I watch what they do. Arabs do not exchange statements of truth, they exchange propositions. If you don’t believe me watch Arabs discussing whether they want a cup of coffee. It is true they do not say how to harmonize their goals, but that is because they do not know.

Abadir Ibrahim, St. Thomas University School of Law: I wish the paper had discussed democracy as well and not just secularism. I also would like to see the question “Why secularization?” addressed. It is something produced in European history. Also you did not define civil society.

Awad: I cannot address their political practice because they have not had an opportunity to practice. I do not expect them to speak as a state, not yet, but they have identified this as their political project.  If I discuss democracy as well, I would have written a book and maybe I will one day.  However, they don’t discuss democracy at all. In fact to they use the word secular only once to say their project is not secular. It seems to me their notion of democracy is focused on the right to vote.

Q: People moderate in power. Look at Hamas. Your approach is like an old positivist reading of positivism. If you read post-modern Western scholars they have no concern about pushing religion into the private sphere, they accept public religion as fact whether they like it or not.  I think separation of church and state is a minimum requirement of democracy. I think there was a separation of religion and politics immediately after the Prophet. We are already secularized, and the task is to make it more authentic as you have mentioned.

Awad: In the full version of my paper is a section on civil society that mentions both Charles Taylor and Habermass. I agree on the dangers of mixing ideology and politics and if they would take my advice I would have them revise their paper accordingly.

Q: My test for any statement about Islam is can it be translated into Arabic. Secular, zaman, does not appear in the Qur’an at all but dunya does: Do not forget your share in this world.

Awad: In the Syrian discussion it stands for that society that is pluralist, inclusive, and in which religion is present but is not the only referential idea of what is right or wrong.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad: Why do you think they asked for your comments and why did they publish them on their website? Do they understand secularity?

Q: You know that you cannot understand a document without understanding its context. It seems you may have fallen into pure textuality. When the Prophet went to Medina he established a civil society in Medina.

Awad: I think they seriously value my opinion and that is why I would like IIIT to publish it otherwise I would translate it into Arabic and distribute it to them. I invite them to study new notions of secularity.

I fully agree on the importance of contextuality. There are two basic understandings of context: the practical application of understanding, which I cannot address because I’m waiting—optimistically, really—for them to show that. The other meaning is the setting that the text is written for or about or with respect to. The context here is Syria.

I agree that there is a hate speech in the media and on the streets. One of the things I am involved in is speaking to the Christians and those who do not belong to the Muslim Brotherhood who have begun to use a very aggressive language that you are with us or against us and demonizing the other. But the SMB also doesn’t know the other well. You can’t expect this during a war and we hope that after the war we will start to deal with that.

Mohamed: I would recommend the later work of Habermass when he speaks of the law as a discourse grounded not in reason but in norms.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

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