>Abdullahi An-Na‘im, Meet Mario Rizzo


Charles Kurzman of The Immanent Frame blog writes, in his post “An Islamic Case for a Secular State”, that
If the state is going to enforce any principle from Islamic sources, according to Abdullahi An-Na‘im, then it should implement the principle that the state should not enforce Islamic principles. This is the crux of An-Na‘im’s new book, Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari‘a. An-Na‘im, a renowned Islamic scholar and human rights activist, is a leading member of the generation of Muslim intellectuals that came to prominence in the 1980s as critics of both Islamist revolutionaries and post-colonial dictators. According to An-Na‘im, the secular state is not just a good thing on public-policy grounds; it is also justified on Islamic grounds.
Why is this? Because the Islamic intellectual tradition is a heterodox one. If Muslims are to be intellectually honest with themselves they must acknowledge this and uphold the tradition. Given this fact of jurisprudential diversity, the danger of placing in the hands of the state the ultimate power of interpretation becomes evident. In a bold move, he claims that a country like Turkey has actually done a better job (though quite inadvertently) of maintaining Islamic vibrancy and activity in civil society than the officially Islamic countries of Iran or Saudi Arabia.
An-Na‘im weaves these Islamic discourses together with case studies of three secular states — Turkey, India, and Indonesia — where Islamic faith is, if anything, on the rise. An-Na‘im notes some of the drawbacks of these secular regimes. In Turkey, the Kemalist version of secularism inhibits the free expression of religiosity (most famously women’s desire to wear headscarves in public institutions). In India, the post-colonial state has largely endorsed the colonial-era Anglo-Mohammedan system of personal and family law, to the detriment of Islamic reformist movements. In Indonesia, the government forces citizens to register as members of one of the five official religions. Still, these secular governments have not undermined religion, as some devout Muslims fear. If anything, Muslims’ religious freedom may be greater under these regimes than under so-called Islamic regimes, which favor certain sects and interpretations and impose barriers on others.

I disagree with the claim that Turkey, in particular, has not undermined religion. In fact Turkey has one of the most vigorously intrusive secular regimes in the quasi-free world. Turkey’s military oligarchy certainly doesn’t mean to bolster religion in a backhanded way, and this matters. I’m hopeful that An-Naim would not say that as a rule, the intentional, eliminative actions vis-a-vis religion by a country like Turkey results in stronger religious conviction and greater religious activity. The Soviet experience in Russia proper would be an obvious case of the intention matching the result.

As another blogger at The Immanent Frame has pointed out, Turkey surpasses France by some order of magnitude in its doctrine of church/state separation:

In a 1997 decision, the Turkish Constitutional Court stresses that secularism does not mean separation of religion and the state, but it implies “separation of religion and worldly affairs, [such as] social life, education, family, economy, law, manners, dress codes, etc.” This is an extreme version of assertive secularism, even more radical than the dominant understanding of secularism in France.

Indeed. Essentially the strict separation of religion from…everything.

Getting back to this post’s title, I’m reminded of the work of NYU Economics Professor Mario Rizzo in this discussion of morality and the state, and the efficacy of their admixture. In “The Problem of Moral Dirigisme: A New Argument Against Moralistic Legislation“, Rizzo writes in the summary,

Because the State’s access to knowledge of the personal and local circumstances of the actor is inferior to the knowledge available to the actor himself, the State does not possess a necessary instrument for the compulsion of morality. It does not have adequate concrete knowledge to know what is good. We conclude that the State cannot make people moral, because even when all members of society accept the same moral framework, it does not and usually cannot have the specific knowledge needed to determine the concrete manifestations of morality.

Now some counter examples, not so easily amenable to what Rizzo essentially claims is an argument of marginalism – the individualized and particular balance of tradeoffs within a moral (in this case religious) framework that need be reached for any actor – come to mind. Sex with an animal, for instance, or homosexual relations (two things that violate the conservative sense of “purity“). Unlike lying, stealing or the neglect of measures to help your fellow (wo)man (“good samaritan laws”), all sins which must be weighed against possible countervailing forces in any discrete case, bestiality and the routine of sleeping with those of the same sex don’t seem to apply to the problem of moral dirigisme. Or at least not as easily. In these cases a wholly qualitative argument must me made for modernist individualism. (Bestiality a subset of modernist individualism? Ok, perhaps not, really.)

Getting back to An-Naim, his perspective takes it a conceptual step further. For Rizzo, he assumes only one moral framework within society, not multiple, competing ones. An-Naim posits the reality of a multiplicity of moral frameworks, all of which should be accommodated a priori, as a kind of humble and open minded predecessor to the project of transforming the middle east away from authoritarian regimes of all kinds. This accommodation would take the form of rejection of a centralized enforcement of just one variation on the overall Islamic narrative, and instead a secular enforcement of only those principles that broadly apply to all Muslims. Questions arise: What about non-Muslims? Is this simply Rawls redux? Read further on your own, though I’ll just say that Rawls, relative to An-Naim, relegated religion to the existential periphery.


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