The Controversy of Civil State and Secularism in Yemen 2

A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)

My previous article ended with ‘the Civil State’ argument on Yemeni streets and cyberspace prior to the February 2011 revolution to today. I discussed the shift in this argument since 2015 to ‘an argument about secularism’, and with that other questions and dilemmas appeared. They are not new arguments but continuations of debates between Islamists and secularists from previous decades, which entered the Yemeni arena more recently. Debates surfaced with the Arab Spring revolutions after some Islamists replaced the previous discourse and started understanding their opponents’ real problems and fears, while at the same time some secularists no longer talked about a complete detachment from religion. However, groups of both Islamists and secularists remain steadfast in their positions.

The argument about definitions

The most frequent Yemeni and Arab arguments on secularism concern concept definitions, since there is no consensus about the definition of this term even in Western scholarship. There is the procedural definition aimed at organizing political life, the famous separation of religious institutions (the church) from the political institutions (the state). There is also a wider philosophical and intellectual definition that encompasses different aspects of life including politics and society, most famously articulated by the English newspaper editor George Holyoake in 1851 who defined secularism as “the belief in the possibility of reforming the state of man through material means without confronting the issue of faith neither through acceptance nor rejection”.[1]

Artwork by Haya al-Murtadha

The Yemeni argument about these two concepts of secularism takes place on two levels. The first is the more prevalent: a superficial argument that often takes place between youth with ideological motives. However, this does not move stagnant water and does not push the means of coexistence forward. What it achieves is the illusion of victory for its holders if they are able to make use of the situation or the event to say “secularism is the solution” or “Islam is the solution” without presenting a sufficient study or analysis of the way in which they are the solutions. The solution for complex problems in our societies is not a painkiller pill to be taken to produce instant recovery. On the contrary, it requires complex solutions that are based on in-depth study and an understanding of reality and its problems.

This superficial, populist arguments exist in all societies, but in many societies, especially those in which awareness has grown, are subject to listening to the second level of arguments: the level of knowledge through which the true dilemma around concepts is perceived. Even though this exists in Yemeni society, it remains feeble and has not yet transformed into a phenomenon that shapes society.

The argument at the second level is concentrated on three problems: The first is what is meant by secularism – do we mean the political concept or the philosophical concept? What will be built on either one of these options is very different. ‘Enlightened’ Islamists will not accept the philosophical concept because it eliminates their reference to ethics, politics and sociology, while they will accept conversations and negotiations around the political form that eliminates the influence of religious clerics, sidelining them except through democratic means. The political reference however remains fundamental in all other aspects of life, and the arena for its arguments is civil society and not political struggle. The aim of political struggle is to create a country for opposing parties to have basic rights, leaving society’s beliefs and faith alone. Society has to be open to listening to different discourses. This confusion over the concept of secularism – between what is political and procedural and what is epistemic and philosophical – is what drove the Islamic enlightened party to call for replacing secular with civic, with civic more coherent in terms of procedural and political.

As for the secularists, there are those who clarify what they mean by secularism in the political sense, those who use it to mean the epistemic and philosophical sense, and those who fluctuate between both, depending on the general mood in society or because they deny the existence of the two concepts of secularism. This disagreement between members of this movement deepened the argument between them and increased the distance between their meeting points.

Artwork by Haya al-Murtadha

Problems of translation

Those who study the context of the political-theological conflict in European history from the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity, to the Middle Ages, to the Renaissance, and to the Age of Enlightenment up to the contemporary time will realize why the two concepts of secularism appeared. The Church authority dominated all aspects of life, creating a constant state of war with the political authority until it was empowered to rule absolutely, controlling both religious and political authorities. Revolutions against this absolute power followed and intellectual concepts were formed that then became laws that organize political life.[2] Western terminology may reveal to us part of this. Secularism is a translation of two concepts in Western heritage: le laïcité and secularism. The first loosely translated into French secularism, while the second ‘secularism’ was translated to terms referring to ‘worldliness’, ‘timeliness’ or ‘eternity’, as confirmed by many researchers.[3]

Both concepts were influenced by the European social context. French secularism was established in Catholic societies where the power of the church was strong and authoritative. It came, therefore, as a response to the church’s authority, calling for its segregation. This shaped the concept in a procedural and political way, despite the later disagreement about whether or not it should continue after the weakening of the church, or as called for by the German philosopher Habermas and the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor who said “le laïcité” should be eased and more accepting.

France is the most prominent example of this strict secularism because it was the state that suffered most from the authority of the Catholic church. Secularism as a concept stemmed from Protestant societies, however, where the church does not practice its authority in the same way, but exists in harmony with the political authority and may actually be run by that same political authority. This led to the prominence of the epistemic and philosophical concept of secularism. As well as being flexible in dealing with religion, it excludes its ideas from inhabiting all areas of life and replaces them with new generalities. Britain is the best example of this.

Lately, old Arab Christian documents dating back to the fourteenth century were discovered in which the term ‘secular’ was used. The Eastern Church used this term to distinguish between clergy and the lay population (the church often also used the term ‘the people’). This is different from the current use of the concept ‘secularism’ as an absolute term (to indicate an ideological intellectual movement related to the relationship between religion and the state and other issues). It was not used by the Western or Eastern churches, but by theorizers of this same trend in the nineteenth century.[4]

The choice made by the Egyptian Copt Elias Boktor, in the first Arabic-French dictionary that he authored, to translate secularism as [ Ailmani ] was a connection with the Arab Christian heritage. In choosing this translation he was referring to the lay person as opposed to the clergy in church, and not the worldly sphere as opposed to the other-worldly sphere.

Secularism and science

This leads us to another argument, which concerns secularism and science. Some Arab intellectuals such as Abdalla al-Arwi see that ‘secularism’ [Eilmania] refers to science. Aziz al-Azma does not contradict him, but finds it valid in terms of science and world, believing the science derivative to be an alternative to the religious perspective.[5] Most intellectuals see that it is derived from ‘worldly’, but this argument is the tamest of the arguments in Yemeni society. The greater argument concerning the relationship between religion and science may be related to scientific theories that Islamists and seculars may consider contradictory to religion, which others see as not contradictory. Next to this comes the argument over what is called ‘scientific miraculousness’ [1]that has been adopted by some Islamists.

Secularism and democracy

Among the important arguments about secularism is the relationship with democracy, for while a group of Islamists believes that secularism was undemocratic in countries such as the Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, the secularists believe that these countries are basically non-secular, because they are not democratic. Another group find that the previously mentioned regimes are secular but have violated the rules of democracy and that the relationship between democracy and secularism makes secular discourse contradictory. That is because valuing secularism in itself and not linking it to democracy will implicitly make it supportive of tyranny against religion and religious people. [holders of this view] may also not concern themselves with tyranny and this is seen by enlightened Islamists as carrying bad intentions towards Islamists  while including secularism within democracy as one of its principles is a loss to the slogan of the ‘Secular State’ which it raises in exchange for its opponents, as the slogan will be ‘the Democratic State’, which includes several principles, including secularism, and this is what, in my opinion, what the Arab secular in general and the Yemeni in particular aim for to be more consistent, and more concerned with realizing the content of concepts rather than their formalities, especially in political matters

Artwork by Haya al-Murtadha

Secularism and atheism

Among the arguments of secularism is its relationship to atheism, and this is one of the most frequent arguments between the Islamic and secular public, supported by extremists from both sides that asserted this relationship. The traditional Islamic discourse in previous decades argued that secularism is atheism and a secular person is an atheist, without studying the concepts and contexts, the types and differences between them. Even though all atheists are secular, the reverse is not inevitable. Some people adopt the political concept of secularism despite their faith and still holding onto their religion. These people feel that secularism is a term that is used regarding the state and regime, not the individual; and while this is the Islamic discourse, there used to be a secular one that ridiculed anything religious and connected its ridiculing to its secularism. They even supported any violation of their Islamist opponents’ rights, considering this to be secularism. This is a false state that appeared after the Arab Spring that is not concerned with coexistence as much as it is concerned with punishing their opponents or taking revenge on them. This is a state that applies to all movements, whether Islamic or secular.

Anyone should have the right to choose the religion or sect they want, and should be able to discuss the context of civil society in the way they see as proper or appropriate. In the political-ethical sphere, we have to conserve the basic rights of people: any person, regardless of sect or religion. If rights and citizenship are established equally and on solid ground, it preserves the existence of all of us, so let us preserve them for the epistemological positions and their flexibility in the context of civil society.

These basic values of freedom and equal citizenship will not be contested by the mindful Islamist or the mindful secularist. Enhancing these values will preserve their basic rights in life, and thereafter their political and epistemological arguments remain in their natural frame, away from the language of force and violence. Whether that is violence and terrorism by declaring opponents’ infidels, judging them as apostates and calling for their punishment using the penalties for apostasy – -that is, rejected by other Islamists- or through complying with authoritative regimes and regional policies to marginalize movements of political Islam in the region. Specifically, those movements that believe in democracy and have formed parties and run-in elections against their opponents.

The argument about the of religious manifestations that should be allowed in a secular state has taken a fair share in media. Similar debates took place with regards to the use of the term secularism in constitutions and the extent of rethinking secularism through concentrating on its values, such as the freedom of conscious and equal citizenship, and not through measures of segregation that differ for each society. This is what was called for by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and is accepted by a group of enlightened Islamists. This argument is extensive and cannot be summarized in this article but can be alluded to briefly: it enters into the details that define the boundaries of the concepts clearly, how realistic they are, how social reality affects its amendments and application, and how they are applied in reality putting in mind the difficulties make the opponents more logical and less strict.[6]

[1] scientific miraculousness’ : when Qur’an informs about a scientific fact that has been finally proven by empirical science, and it has proven impossible to comprehend it by human means at the time of the Prophet.

[1] Al Messirii, Abdel Wahab, ‘Secularism Under the Microscope’, p.14.

[2] Allam, Abdel Rahman, ‘Secularism and the Civil State’, p.407.

[3] Ibrahim, Selim, ‘Secularism and the Civil State’, p.30.

[4] Bishara, Azmi (The term ‘secularism’ in the fourteenth century), Arab Center for Political Studies and Research Website.

[5] Al Azma, Aziz, ‘Secularism Under the Microscope’, p156.

[6] Taylor, Charles, ‘Secularism and Freedom of Conscience’, p33.


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Abdullah Al-Qaisi

An academic and a researcher in thought and philosophy. He holds a doctorate in Islamic Thought and is the president of the Tamden Organization for Intellectual Development (Yemen). He writes for a number of magazines and websites, and has published several books on Islamic thought.

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