Problems faced by Muslims ‘result of political authoritarianism not sectarianism’, say scholars at The Muslim Ummah conference 

Istanbul: The scholars at the ‘The Muslim Ummah’ conference underway in Istanbul noted that the challenge of sectarianism in Muslim societies is shaped by geopolitical interests rather than Islamic theology or Sharia.

Speaking during the 1st session themed ‘The Challenge of Secularism’ at the “fault lines and perils facing Muslim societies’ conference on second day, Prof Nader Hashemi of University of Denver, said that states can never achieve democracy, political order or human rights under a specter of sectarianism.

The conference is being hosted and organized by Centre for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University (IZU).

“Sectarianism is a dark age in Muslim history,” he observed. “Never have we seen such bloodshed, hatred,” he said referring to the rivalry of Iran and Saudi Arabia in Middle East. “Iran has used bad tactics for sectarianism,” he said referring to its Syrian policy. “And then there is Saudi sectarian narrative which was openly embraced by Donald J Trump and over above, Israel has also adopted same sectarian language in the region.”

The scholar explained as how religion is being used as a tool of mobilization to create the binary of Sunni and Shia. “In all this, the authoritarian context is critical,” he said. “And we need to start to think about as how we can de-sectarianize the Middle East.”

It is neither theology nor religious piety but political power which has driven sectarianism, he added. “It is a modern political phenomenon normalized by authoritarian regimes,” he said citing Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE and Bahrain as examples. “But it is important to note that it is political authoritarianism which is responsible for the mess in Middle East and not sectarianism.”

To support his argument, Dr Hashemi cited the civil war of Lebanon in 1962-1970. “Saudi Arabia and Iran were on the same side against Egypt and its allies.”

Identifying 1979, 2003 and 2011 as “key dates” in Middle East political history, he said, “it is the interests of political elite of authoritarian states of Saudi Arabia and Iran which are fueling conflict.”

However, he added that the 1979 revolution in Iran sent shock waves to authoritarian regimes in Middle East. “But it resulted in anti-Shia waves followed by Afghan Jihad and recent statement of Mohammad Bin Salman where in he says that Iran wants to control the Muslim world.”

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Prof Francois Burgat from National Centre for Scientific Research (NCSR), France in his presentation on challenges of secularism to Muslim societies noted as how people in France were criminalizing the Muslim Brotherhood in the name of secularism.

“Fake Muslim elites are being created which are not even representing more than 3 percent (of Muslims) in France,” he reported. “A redline has been created: who is a good or a bad Muslim?”

Citing a report released in France against Daesh or ISIS, Prof Burgat observed “but the report also criminalizes the entire Salfi trend” expressing his discontent.

Young political scientist at IZU, Dr. Ömer Taşgetiren discussed whether secularism could travel to non-Western countries and how Islamic political actors negotiated it in Turkey.

In his powerful presentation, Dr. Taşgetiren described how secularism was an essential element of Turkey’s “authoritarian modernization”. The principle of secularism was added to Turkey’s constitution in 1937, he said. “It is a non-amendable article.”

He cited as how a Turkish constitutional court opened a case against ruling AK Party in 2008 and deprived it from financial support from the Treasury “for violating the principle of laicism”.

“Secularism in Turkey is described as a philosophy of life,” he said referring to the founding father of modern-day republic of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk. “Secularism was set as a pre-condition of democracy. Secularists (in Turkey) believed that religion-based states never guarantee basic rights and liberties.”

Interesting to note in the presentation was when Dr. Taşgetiren said that Kemalism lost at the ballot box “but survived because of Kemalist constitutional court and Turkish army”.

In his commentary on the establishment of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan led AK Party, Dr. Taşgetiren noted that the founding members of the ruling party came from Islamist background “but they did not want to pursue Islamist politics”.

“It was not a sustainable position for them,” he added, “these people argued identity politics creates polarization in Turkey.”

“Hence, they did not call themselves Islamists but at the same time AK Party did not totally embrace liberal order; they did not shed religious values; it defended itself as a conservative party valuing religious tradition of Turkey,” he explained. “There are extensive references to the concept of the civilization, history, religious values in the speeches of AK Party politicians. Also, the education policies of the AK Party indicate conservativism of the party.”

He argued that “all this” shows that some version of secularism “can travel after being transformed with communitarian ideals and sensibilities”.

In his presentation on role of religion in society, Dr Jonathan Brown from Georgetown University United States, raised an alarm. “There is a concerted effort to produce Muslim scholars who will deconstruct elements of Islam which will be distinctive in the United States, so Muslims need to be wary of that.”

Prof Louay Safi from College of Islamic Studies, Hamad Bin Khalifa University Qatar, said that Muslims in earlier periods “never forced non-Muslims to follow Sharia”. “We have to develop critical thinking,” he said while discussing Shariah and The Nation State: Governance, Law and Society.

“We cannot follow everything what our fathers have promoted… we all have moral agency that is what it means to be a Khilafa,” he said while asking, “Are we going to be truthful or corrupt?”

In response to a question, he said, “we don’t studysharia that is why Muslim countries don’t follow Sharia.”

He lamented that Muslim scholars have “stopped producing relevant knowledge and that is why people started looking towards West”. “Sharia calls for accountability of the rule… Everybody is responsible.”

Supporting his argument, Dr Safi said that there is “an element in the west which is human”. “If we come with an alternative which is better for us, that is good.”

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