[email protected]

January 21, 2013, Monday

Modernization, Westernization and secularism (1)

A Turkish intellectual, Mehmet Altan, in his review of the aftermath of Hafez al-Assad's death in Syria in 2000, said that the problem in such military republican regimes is between the “mosque” and “military barracks.”

He added: “The Muslim Brotherhood, whose members were the main victims in the Hama and Homs massacres, where Hafez al-Assad ordered the killing of thousands of people, is considered the most ardent opponent of the Baath regime. The Muslim Brotherhood movement is strongly opposed to modernization and secularization. It wants to reestablish an Islamic state under the guidance of the Quran and Sunnah for an Islamic society. But the game is played between the barracks and the mosque there, too. The choices the country has represent a dilemma between secularism and Shariah. However, the choice offered Egypt should be for democracy and Shariah [not secularism and Shariah] because democracy is inherently secular. With the recent uprising in Syria, this discussion has re-emerged.

These views require further review from different aspects. First, it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood is opposed to Westernization. Their relationship to secularism could be considered problematic with respect to the unique perceptions of Arab political culture. However, it is wrong to argue that they oppose modernization.

Let us start with secularism. Secularism, as understood and defined in the cultural perception of Arab politics and the Arab world, does not correspond to the concrete, philosophical meaning the concept holds in Turkey. Secularism is considered to be the separation of public affairs from religious affairs in Turkey, but for Arabs it refers to the preference of findings and data for the regulation of the daily life, including the administration of the state, based on scientific principles. For this reason, Arabs refer to secularism as “al-'ilmaniyya,” which is derived from “ilm,” literally meaning knowledge and science. Roughly translated, it means “scientific approach and consideration.” If we are to look for its counterpart in the mental perceptions of Turkey, we may find traces of it in Mustafa Kemal's statement that “science is the most righteous guide in life,” a reference to positivist philosophy.

Regardless of whether or not it is true, the view that even religious rituals could be reinterpreted with reference to modern scientific methods has become widespread thanks to the efforts of at least some first-generation Islamists in the early 20th century up to the present day. Some, like Islamic scholar Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, even authored exegeses of the Quran based on the findings of positive sciences; the leading representative of this approach is former Egyptian Mufti Sheikh Muhammad Abduh, who has strongly influenced all Islamist movements. From this perspective, secularism has never been a problem or a matter of social tension in official or civil society circles. It is obvious that there is some sort of mental confusion and ambiguity on this matter.


One of the major reasons is the failure to clarify the differences between the legal attitude of the state with regards to religions, sects and faiths and the removal of religious symbols from daily life. Because of this ambiguity, it is possible to find strongly secular elements and statements in a piece written by an Islamist. With that being said, there are serious differences between the two because their functional contexts are separate from each other.

The perception of modernity and modernization held by the Muslim Brotherhood is a major issue, as is the case of Islamists in Turkey. I will continue discussing this matter next week.

Previous articles of the columnist