Islam and the Secular StateAbdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im’s expressed goal in Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a is to convince Muslims on religious grounds that, in order for Islam to flourish, they need to establish secular states based on the protection of human rights. I would say in response that convincing Muslims of this would inflect Islamic politics progressively in a world where most of the forces that shape Islamic politics are not indigenously Islamic.

This book uses case studies of Turkey, India, and Indonesia to describe the failure of modern states to provide fulsome protection of human rights. Though the United States does approximate his secular ideal, it also fails: citing the invasion of Iraq, he says, “When two permanent members of the Security Council violate the charter of the United Nations with impunity, it is difficult to hold other states accountable for their violations of human rights treaties.” Moreover, he sees “a gradual erosion of the importance of human rights in politics … legitimized through electoral processes, as illustrated … by the re-election of President George W. Bush ….”

He argues specifically—on religious grounds—against the popular idea that shari’a should provide a basis for state legislation. In Who Speaks for Islam? John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed use survey data to show this idea represents a majority opinion in Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, and a significant minority view elsewhere.

Why do so many Muslims hold this view? This question provides context for An-Na’im’s book, but is never addressed in its pages. For their part, Esposito and Mogahed jump to the conclusion that the political popularity of shari’a in Muslim countries resembles that of the Bible in the United States. This is a weak and very partial analogy. For the U.S. is an odd Christian country and most have more secular societies and politics, while the ideological embrace of Islam is popular among people of many religious sensibilities and political persuasions in most if not all Muslim countries.

This popularity does not emerge endogenously from Islam. Muslims do not live in a world of their own making, and Islam is only one among many aspects of any particular Muslim culture. What is going on ideologically among Muslims is part of the world history that Muslims inhabit. Islam is not hermetically sealed: it is a dynamic, adaptive, aspect of culture, mingled with many other aspects, including politics.

Modern world history has imposed political meanings on Islam, and on a global scale, Christians are most influential among elites who inflect state building projects with religious meanings. In the 1840s, Bruno Bauer and Karl Marx identified this process with “the Jewish question” in “Christian states” of Europe, and within a few decades, Christian imperialists ruled peoples of all religions around the world. “The Jewish question” became global as Christian discourse suffused religious classifications and stereotypes in Western empires that ruled variously almost all the world’s Muslims, shaping Muslim identities and the modern meanings of Islam.

In 1871, W.W. Hunter’s The Indian Musalmans addressed a question—“Are Muslims bound by their religion to rebel against the Queen?”— which dramatized British imperial anxiety about the threat posed to empire by Islam. Today, imperial fear of Muslims remains a media staple, and Islam remains the most threatening “other” for the Christian West, as reflected by the cover illustration of Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, which puts a star-and-crescent green flag against the U.S. stars and stripes.

As Mahmood Mamdani shows in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, solutions to the Muslim problem also remain the same as in Hunter’s day: Muslims must be educated to be more secular, to be integrated into the cosmopolitan global culture, led by the West. Also as in Hunter’s day, the “war on terror” has in practice been largely a war on Muslims.

Western empires constructed Islam as the animating spirit of Muslim enmity. This imagery remained in place, ready for redeployment, as empires became national states and imperialism took new forms, and as the imperial identification of Islam with opposition to the Christian West inflected the political mobilization of Islam.

Today, most Muslims live in national states that emerged from empires ruled not long ago by Christians for whom Islam was a threat to order, progress, and civilization. Rulers of independent Turkey adopted this same idea as they became more European. A durable discursive opposition—setting Islam against rationality and secularism—emerged inside Western empires and now thrives under neo-liberal globalization.

Partitioning Ottoman, British, and Russian imperial territories also produced modern states where people classified in imperial census traditions as Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu became national majorities. Islam thus became a defining cultural feature of nations where most Muslims live. National sovereignty and dreams of a better future attached themselves to national “imagined communities” defined as Muslim and also as Turkish, Arab, Malay, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and such. Being Muslim became a national trait and Islam acquired national identities.

Islamic modernity emerged as religious idioms acquired political meanings embedded in particular state environs. In this context, answering an opinion poll question so as to argue implicitly that shari’a should be a basis for state law might express a dream or demand for moral justice, a call for resistance to oppression, a cry for unity, or a hope for peace in the face of social conflict and division. Calling for the induction of shari’a into law may broadly indicate disillusionment with so-called secular nation-state rulers.

Such ideas, expressed in religious idioms, are scary for ruling elites, and in modern times, the public expression of Islamic piety has acquired the scary implications in many contexts. In British India, one raja of Kashmir even banned Friday jumma prayers, fearing rebellion. At U.S. airports, wearing Muslim garb today invites “random” security checks. Religious gatherings and architecture attract bombers.

Symbols of Islam are political and the politics of Islam are symbolic, forcing politics to include public piety and imbuing virtually every pious act with political potential. It is therefore unsurprising that shari’a is implicated in the religious mobilization of symbolic authority.

But because wanting shari’a inducted into law can mean many things, the critical question for Islamic politics is how people think about the range of available options. Bible-quoting preachers run the gamut from Quakers, Liberation Theologians, Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson on one end of the political spectrum; to George Wallace, George Bush, and the Ku Klux Klan—with its “message of hope and deliverance to white Christian America, a message of love, not hate”—on the other. So it is with Islam.

Instead of valorizing liberal idealism and trying to purge the state of religion, it seems more realistic to work to make religion a progressive political force. This is what I believe Professor An-Nai’m is actually working on, in his own engagement with what Partha Chatterjee calls “political society,” striving to persuade and motivate Muslims “to accept and implement human rights,” in the name of Islam.