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Secularism… A dirty word?

During a recent discussion with a friend of mine, I was telling her how a secular government might be a decent idea for a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country like Iraq, to which she vehemently protested. “I don’t want to be ruled by atheists, they have no morality!”

Asides from her assumption that atheists have no morals, I was disturbed by the perception that secularist are atheists, and that is a common perception in Iraq too, not only among the masses but even with the new ruling elite. I remember watching an interview before the elections with Mahmoud Al-Mashhadani, former Speaker of Parliament, and he was describing his party as a nationalist non-religious party, at that point the interviewer asked “A secular party?”, Al-Mashhadani quickly retored: “No, we believe in God!”.

Secularism is the separation of religious authorities from government, not the rejection of religion by politicians. It has no link to atheism as many clerics have advocated that approach and many politicians who are believers have  led secular states.

What many people may not know, is that secularism as an idea originated from Islam by the Jurist and Islamic Philosopher Ibn Rushd, or Avveroes as he is known in the West, his ideas were rejected by a corrupt Catholic Church as they were perceived to be a threat. The adoption of secularism in Europe is what ultimately freed them from the shackles of the Church towards a more progressive system, while the people were still religious individually nonetheless.

Since a state is not a person and it cannot pray, fast or worship, it seems non-sensical to give it a religious description. And since Religion is based on solid principles and politics is the art of compromise, it would be demeaning to a religion to drag it down to the level of politics and embroil it in its constant unprincipled interactions. And we have seen examples of that in Iraq where recent events have put people off religion.

Having a secular state and system does not mean it is devoid of any religious principles or religious people, some of the most secular states have religious parties. For example Germany is led by the Christian Democrats and Turkey has an Islamic party in government at the moment. People can still pick religious people in such a state but the framework of government is separated from the authority of religion.

That protects people from the possible oppression of religion and safeguards the religion from the damage it could suffer from politics.

3 Comments on “Secularism… A dirty word?”

  1. Yasir S August 9, 2010 at 8:11 am #

    Good post. I have often been frustrated by this widespread ‘confusion’ amongst Iraqi politicians and Iraqis in general. Another dirty word amongst many Iraqis, especially from the religious parties, is ‘liberal’.

    Just a minor point – there is a difference between a secular state and an anti-religious state. Compare the US or UK, which are secular, with Turkey, whose state structure is anti-religious. Religious parties are not allowed in Turkey (that’s why in the 90s the main religious party kept reforming under different random names and then being banned by the state or removed from power by the military); women are banned from wearing the veil in public office, etc. Whereas in the UK a women with a veil can get elected and get to parliament.

    I think Iraq should strive to become a secular state, not a theocracy nor an anti-religion state. In my discussions with the Shia Islamists in Iraq, as long as you don’t use any of the above dirty words, there is a general consensus with the above.

  2. Sarmad August 10, 2010 at 12:25 am #

    Intreasint artical, i might have an answer or two. To find out why its a dirty word you will need to look at the ‘inventer’ of the word (forgot his name will look for it if needed), he thought that religion was “an extention of human imagination”, he thought that there was not such thing as religion and, by extention, no such thing as God. Hence it is a ‘dirty’ word. Secularisim has taken further dimensions as you have rightly mentioned above.

    Second you mention:

    “Since a state is not a person and it cannot pray, fast or worship, it seems non-sensical to give it a religious description. And since Religion is based on solid principles and politics is the art of compromise,”

    Using that logic, since Mekka cannot pray fast or worship then how can we give it religious description so to speek, the same could be said regarding the Mosques & the Quran. The point of the matter is, if you believe Islam to be the complete way of life then Islam must have some princibles set in politics. It thus becomes our duty as Muslims to uphold them.

    If your the Church and the Mosque then you will run into alot of problems, it will be better to compare the leaders of the islamic world during the Golden age of islam and after and you will relise that the leaders after have lost there spirituality and Islamic princibles thus seculising. Thus one must question is abandoning the Islamic princibles the way fowrad or is trying to re-institude them the way foward?

    Regarding Iraq, the posibility of (or the exisitng of) corruption within religious establishments is due to many reason (including an establishment to regulate). There involvment in politcs need to be scrutinized individually and not collectivley. Though if they are a cause of nusience then the issue becomes different. The courruption, and oppersion, itself is in fact non-religious and you need to safegaurd the people from the harm this non-religious act.


  3. ZAHAR August 16, 2010 at 11:34 pm #


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