Stand up for secularism -- or is it too late?

Amazing as it may seem, the "single most influential religious leader in the Muslim world" today is a genuine moderate Muslim -- former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid:

A former president of Indonesia, he is the spiritual leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), an Islamic organization of some 40 million members. Indonesians know him universally as Gus Dur, a title of affection and respect for this descendant of Javanese kings. In the U.S. and Europe he is barely spoken of at all -- which is both odd and unfortunate, seeing as he is easily the most important ally the West has in the ideological struggle against Islamic radicalism.
As to why he is barely spoken of at all, I don't know. Perhaps he doesn't fit any of the radical agendas or isms which are the driving forces of conventional politics.

Not only has he voiced support for Israel, but he also supported Ibrahim Anwar, Malaysian dissident imprisoned for years on trumped up "sodomy" charges. (The latter is described as sharing Wahid's "cosmopolitan and democratic" view of Islamic politics.)

Wahid (known as "Gus Dur") sheds some light on the mechanism which causes young people to choose radical Islam:

"The globalization of ethics is always frightening to people, particularly Islamic radicals," he says in reference to a question about the so-called pornoaksi legislation. For the past three years Indonesian politics have been roiled by an Islamist attempt to label anything they deem sexually arousing to be a form of "porno-action." Mr. Wahid sees this as an assault on pancasila, Indonesia's secularist state philosophy from the time of its founding. He also sees it as an assault on common sense. "Young people like to kiss each other," he says, throwing his hands in the air. "Why not? Just because old people don't do it doesn't mean it's wrong."

Mr. Wahid is equally relaxed about some of the controversies that have recently erupted between Muslims and the West. Pope Benedict's Regensburg speech from last September was "a good speech, though as usual he pointed to the wrong times and the wrong cases." As for the furor over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, he asks "why should we be angry?" And he dismisses Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the al-Jazeera preacher who helped incite the cartoon riots, as an "angry, conventional" thinker.

An "angry conventional" thinker?

Well put. I'm starting to like this guy.

He seems to dislike the choices being presented to young people -- a false dichotomy which forces them to choose between what he calls "conventional" Islam and what he sees as science without a soul. (IMO, the false choice seems to be presented as fundamentalism versus materialism.)

What really concerns Mr. Wahid is what he sees as the increasingly degraded state of the Muslim mind. That problem is becoming especially acute at Indonesian universities and in the pesantren -- the religious boarding schools that graduate hundreds of thousands of students every year. "We are experiencing the shallowing of religion," he says, bemoaning the fact that the boarding schools persist in teaching "conventional" -- that word again -- Islam.

But Mr. Wahid's critique is not just of formal Islamic education. He also attacks the West's philosophy of positivism, which, he says, "relies too much on the idea of conquering knowledge and mastering scientific principles alone." This purely empirical and essentially soulless view of things, broadly adopted by Indonesia's secular state universities, gives its students a bleak choice: "Either they follow the process or they are outside the process."

As a result, Western-style education in Indonesia has come to represent not just secularism but the negation of religion, to which too many students have responded by embracing fundamentalism. At the University of Indonesia, for example, an estimated three in four students are members or sympathizers of the "Prosperous Justice Party," or PKS, an ultra-radical Islamic party.

This is a tragedy, and I wonder whether a similar process is responsible for the increasing outbursts of religious tyranny in places like Pakistan.

Which leads me to return to an unpleasant but necessary question. Is this false dichotomy (fundamentalism versus materialism) what Dinesh D'Souza reduced to a formula of "homos and porn" on the one hand versus "traditional Islam" on the other?

Again, here's D'Souza:

Our concern should be with the traditional Muslims, who are the majority in the Muslim world. These people are also religious and socially conservative, and they are our natural allies. In fact, since the cultural Left in America is de facto allied with the radical Muslims, we as conservatives have no choice but to ally with the traditional Muslims.
And here:
...Muslims must rise up in defensive jihad against America because their religion and their values are under attack. This aspect of Bin Laden's critique has been totally ignored, and it's one that resonates with a lot of traditional Muslims and traditional people around the world.
D'Souza also proclaims that "secularism is not the solution" -- which apparently means that the governments of at least Turkey, Indonesia, and Pakistan should be more Islamic.

I think D'Souza is cherry picking, and his entire critique ignores the fact that radical Islam is not merely at war with secularism, but with all Western religions -- especially Judaism and Christianity. Indeed, according to Ayman al Zawahiri, the principal enemies are "Zionists" and "Crusaders."

But don't believe me. Let Zawahiri speak for himself:

[Video link to above.]

Yes, I know that he's also against pornography and homosexuality and Hollywood. He is against the West, and all things he considers Western.

But by claiming that radical Islam is at war primarily with secularism, D'Souza represents the inverse of another mistaken view -- that radical Islam is solely at war with Judeo-Christianity. To me it's painfully obvious that the Islamists are at war with both, which is why I proposed a Judeo-Christian Atheist Alliance in defense of the West.

OTOH, D'Souza sees secularism and Western entertainment as a common enemy of Christian conservatives and "traditional Muslims," and he proposes an alliance. But what would that alliance do? How would it work in practice?

Would D'Souza support this Muslim activist campaign against Playboy?

A leader of the Islamic Defenders Front, Irwan Asidi, warned his organisation would "declare war" on Playboy. "We will attack the Playboy office and sweep up copies of the magazine, which will destroy the morals of Indonesian children."
Via Glenn Reynolds, who seems so hell-bent on forcing Muslims to hear Western music that he linked this story and made it quite clear he was on the side of the store owners:
Shiraz Ahmed was tending his music store in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, when a group of 15 bearded young men walked in bearing bamboo poles and a chilling message. Politely but firmly, they instructed him to take down the colourful array of Bollywood and bhangradance tunes on display and to restrict his business to Islamic music. "They told me I had to change my business," said Mr Ahmed, 25, whose family has run the store for 15 years. "I am so confused. I don't know what to do." Until last week he might not have worried about these men from Islamabad's Lal Masjid (Red Mosque). After all, his shop is legal and within walking distance of Pervez Musharraf's presidential palace. But this was just one of several signs in the past ten days that a creeping campaign to "Talebanise" Pakistan has spread from tribal areas on the Afghan border right to the heart of the capital. And to judge from the Government's response, even here it is reluctant to confront the radical clerics who openly preach jihad (holy war) and defy the writ of the state.
There was a similar story in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"This is porno material and blue films. This is destroying our society," Ghazi said. Crowds shouted, "God is great!" when the pile, doused in gasoline, caught fire with a whoosh.

The DVDs included films from neighboring India and some Western titles, including a romantic comedy called "Dirty, Filthy Love," but also children's movies such as "Home Alone 4" and "Free Willy."

Scores of female students in black burqas listened to the sermon and watched the video bonfire from the roof of their neighboring seminary, where Ghazi is vice principal.

Muslim hard-liners, who have gained influence by tapping popular opposition to Pakistan's support for Washington's war on terrorism , have pressed steadily for curbs on "un-Islamic" behavior such as distributing Western movies.

Most of the agitation for Taliban-style social controls has been in the conservative northwest, along the Afghan border, where sympathies run high for the fundamentalist Taliban militia that ruled Afghanistan before a U.S.-led invasion in 2001. The Taliban banned TV and largely confined women to their homes.

I'm inclined to agree with Glenn's reaction:
PLACING THEIR SEVERED HEADS on those bamboo poles would seem a preferable response...
Yes. And save "Free Willy!"

Back to Wahid's point about secularism. The Indonesian, Pakistani, and Turkish governments had once all shared a similar secular approach, but in Pakistan, secularism seems endangered. I think secularism is a good thing, and I think it's been given a black eye by assorted demagogues and activists (on both sides, unfortunately) who seem to be in agreement that secularism means atheism and materialism. In the government sense, the word simply means "not ecclesiastical or clerical." Over time, the word has been so frequently misdefined as atheism and materialism -- by fundamentalists and atheists in collusion -- that it has lost its original meaning.

I'm glad to see that at least one leading Muslim cleric does not see an inherent incompatibility between Islam and secularism (or for that matter, Islam and Israel).

Secularism is not evil, nor is it atheist, nor does anything about it "force" pornography, atheism, materialism, or homosexuality (or Hollywood) on anyone. Secularism has a long tradition of moderation and respect for (just not advocacy of) religion, and it's too bad that activists have made it a dirty word.

At the risk of sounding like an extremist, I don't think the loss of secularism would bode well for the future of Western civilization.

UPDATE: Thank you, Glenn Reynolds for the link.

Welcome all, and HAPPY EASTER!

posted by Eric on 04.07.07 at 10:41 AM


What we do forget is that secularism is held within the confines of this container known as the Nation State. Seems that some pretty nasty wars on religion got fought, with large percentages of the population dead, because of this idea that religion should be above Nations. So if the ruler changed religious outlook, the State had to follow... nothing to worry about if the world is homogeneous that way, but when it isn't the body count tends to go upwards.

Thus the invention of the Nation State as a concept in the Peace of Westphalia, in which Nations could have religious outlook, but individuals were free to worship what they chose. Nations were Sovereign and the representatives of their peoples. They could make whatever laws they liked, so long as the religious rights were respected. Of course there were only three brands then, and anything else got marginalized, often with violence. That very foundation of respect *inside* Nations and having tolerance formed the basis for the secular Nation State as a concept.

Looks to be some folks that would like us to all join hands, remove the Nation State and then get a nice, new Empire going. And then there are the Islamic Terrorists! A secular outlook for common government is something that grew out of 1648, but took centuries of bloody writing to finally get it to something a bit more recognizeable... for all the problems of the Nation State system, it had generally removed totalitarianism based on expansionist religion from the table. Until folks started getting cute with the concept and put forward that some sort of 'international order above States' was a *good* idea. Well once you re-open that can of worms, is it any wonder that religious intolerance and religion above the State comes back to haunt us?

Looks like the idea of Nation State isn't the problem... not sticking to it and *meaning it* is the problem. This has, apparently, been going on for decades, to no good end. This time around getting *back* to Westphalia may cost all of us for decades to come if we succeed, and lose us a State that can uphold liberty if we fail. A revolutionary idea of 1648 that looks just as revolutionary today as it did then. And needed more now, than ever.

ajacksonian   ·  April 7, 2007 7:05 PM

On this Easter Sunday, these words are apropos:

"Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's."

doc   ·  April 8, 2007 4:05 PM

Your article is thought provoking. It reminds me once again of the treason I feel by American "secular" media and leftists, who apparently feel it more important to attack the Theocratic/fascist Bush Administration than to support such an administration in its war on throat slitting, children bombing anti-gay, anti-artist, anti-everything except fundamentalist islam.

This inverse triangulation has three "enemies" with each playing "the enemy of my enemy is my friend: The secular left in this country has decided that the "weaker enemy" the radical islamists are thier friend as they will be easier to defeat after the Bush Administration (aka conservative christian republicans) are defeated domestically.

This is the dynamic that dinesh is trying to crash, however hamhandedly. But if an alliance of fundamental christians and islamists could rise to enough power in this country to cause the secular left to pee thier panties, you would see a media/democrat pr campaign in support of our global war on terror and domestic religious participation in every level of government from city through county to national, that would make the world war II pr campaign look like a bunch of amatuers.

Joel Mackey   ·  April 8, 2007 5:01 PM

Secularism is the only option. I wonder why a "moderate" Muslim or Christian wouldn't just see the hypocrisy of not following the words in the books they claim to follow.

disaffiliates   ·  April 9, 2007 1:52 AM

Joel, if a Muslim follows the words in the book he claims to follow, then you are due for a Daniel Pearl moment the minute he decides to do that. Your words can only have been written by someone who has never read the Koran.

SDN   ·  April 9, 2007 8:15 AM

SDN, You are attributing a post to me, which was made by disaffiliates, fyi.

Joel Mackey   ·  April 9, 2007 9:10 AM

capital one credit card >credit capital one card

capital one card credit   ·  April 10, 2007 10:31 PM

Interesting post.

I think there is a marketing issue when talking about secularism in the Muslim world.

If you re-couch the argument as "separation of mosque and state" you'll be far better off.

Check out:;sid=2007/4/7/141443/8892

ali eteraz   ·  April 11, 2007 6:49 PM

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