The increasing influence of fundamentalism in the world's major religions seems almost a sign of the times. Islam with its doctrinaire Wahhabist schools and Christianity with its evangelical revivalism aren't the only faiths in which large numbers of believers are turning to faith based literalism. It is happening also in Hinduism with the increasing influence of Shaivite and Vaishnava fundamentalism. It can even be found in branches of Buddhism, such as the Japanese Nichiren sect. The Tibetan New Kadampa Tradition, also arguably exhibits the control and identity compulsions associated with fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism is separatist and oppositional in nature. In the case of Islam there are voices that propose a less radical interpretation of their religion. Some of these thinkers embrace secularism and see it not as the enemy of their religion, but as an equalizer guaranteeing the rights of all.
One such is Soheib Bencheikh, the former Grand Mufti of Marseilles.
Bencheikh was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 1961. He graduated in Islamic theology at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. He holds a Doctorate in Religious Sciences from the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, and in 1995 was nominated Grand Mufti of Marseilles. He is also a member of Conseil Francais du Culte Musulman (Council of French Muslims).
I came across an interview with Bencheikh on the Liberal Islam Network. The interview took place while he was on a trip to Indonesia. I have decided to include excerpts from the interview in this post. Some passages have been edited lightly to improve comprehension since the online English translation is at times is a little challenging.
What is your personal view with regard to secularism?
To me, secularism is not a complicated philosophy. In France, laicite is neither religion nor ideology. It is a simple idea concerning administrative neutrality in managing relations between the state and religion. Once a state declares itself a secular state, it must give every citizen freedom to accept religion or not. In a more concrete sense, secularism is the separation between state and religion. It benefits both religion and the state.
What about theocratic or semi-secular countries?
In countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and other Arab countries there is no hope for an overhaul. The task of these states seems bent on one thing, and that is safeguarding the sacredness of religion and the power of authority. They only want to preserve conservative and backward religiosity and utilize it to maintain their power.
Why do you advocate secularism?
As a Muslim, I can practice Islam proudly in France under the authority of the secular state.
The French constitution guarantees the sustainability of secularism, including protection of the rights of individuals and minorities. Therefore, I suggest that anyone who mocks secularism should live in France and America for about five years. I believe they will prove that secularism protects them from shallow religious sentiments.
The opponents of secularism perceive it as something more than administrative neutrality. They see secularism as an ideology that marginalizes and eliminates religion. What do you think?
It’s a big lie to say that secularism will marginalize religion. Secularism is simply about the administration of the state, therefore it will not be easily influenced by religious sentiments. In the west, it is up to you to embrace a religion or not. One’s obedience or disobedience is a private matter between the believer and god. This is different from what happens in the Arab countries, the secular as well as the theocratic ones.
In Saudi Arabia or Algeria, I feel that the inquisitorial institutional ethos surrounds me. Hence, my prayer, my worship, my life and death isn't for God. Everything I do, is done for the institution that spies upon my every movement and observance. Everything we do is not for God, but for maintaining the authoritarian control and its positive image before the public.
Advocates of the Islamic state claim that the establishment of the Islamic state will guarantee minority rights far better than the secular state does. What do you think?
How can we eliminate the concept of ahlu dzimmah (the protection of non-Muslims in Muslim countries with certain concessions, ed)? Frankly speaking, I and most of the Muslims in France have never wanted to be ahlu dzimmah in relation to the French Catholic majority. We always want to be French citizens whose rights are equal with any other legal citizens. The advocates of the religious state forget that religious barriers have melted in many ways. You can find a Christian Indonesian and a Muslim Swede who live in the same modern secular state. If this positive achievement develops, we will find a state where the majority does not claim special powers just because it is a majority.
You seem to dream about the assimilation of cultures rather than a clash between civilizations. Is this a realistic idea?
Actually, a clash of civilizations does not exist in reality. What happens everywhere is a clash between open groups (munfatihin) and closed ones (munghaliq). There is no clash between West and East. We must remember that the first voice that condemned the American invasion of Iraq was the late Pope John II, while the first who closed his eyes about this tragedy was Sheikh al-Azhar.
Some Muslims think that the ban on wearing veils - niqab (face veil in which woman’s eyes are visible) or burqa (veil covering the whole face) in several Western countries, is an example of the Western secular state’s confrontation with Islam. Is there a clash of values between Muslims in the west and Western culture in general?
My view of civilization as an Arab-Muslim isn't based on the obligation to wear a headscarf, or the niqab and burqa. I have abandoned shallow ideas about standards of civilization based on such artificial matters. I dream about civilization that preserves morality.
The Qu'ranic prescription to "draw their veils over their bosoms" was meant for Arab rural and nomadic women who were already veiled in early Islam but left their bosoms exposed. Hence, we must understand that the verse requires Muslims to dress in a modest fashion.
So, you do not regard this as primary Islamic teaching?
Everyone knows that this matter is not a primary Islamic teaching because it is not one of the five pillars of Islam nor one of the six pillars of Iman. It is a branch of Islamic injunctions, namely to behave decently. Furthermore, there are many ways to behave decently in the modern era. For the nomadic Arab women, the way of obtaining respect and honor was based on the physical aspect. But most Muslim women in France and England today place the emphasis on attaining as much knowledge and expertise as possible.
Do you think that supporters of wearing the niqab and burqa in Western countries have failed to adjust to Western Islamic culture?
In general, they have difficulty interacting positively with contemporary civilization. A French intellectual who wrote a lot about Islam, Roger Garaudy, reminded Muslims about the necessity to free themselves from Islamic Saudinization (masyru`us sa’wadatil Islam). He observed that this tendency arises among many Muslims. To my way of thinking, it would be very miserable if the clash with the West came down to issues of the headscarf and niqab, rather than substantial issues.
Are you frustrated with Muslims’ failure to adapt Islam to local traditions?
Adjustment is our right. What's the point in coercing French Muslims to apply a particular prototype of Islam, which will keep them alienated from the French cultural milieu? They have the right to determine their own Islam ala French, with certain minimum requirements such as belief in God and the prophecy of Muhammad. Why should they change their names to Arabic ones or change their dress? Abu Bakr, Omar, Khadija and Ayesha did not change their names when they embraced Islam.
It is not necessary to create a separation between Eastern and Western civilization. These boundaries were determined by European countries in the colonial era - which Edward Said referred to as imaginary geographic boundaries. Talking about the roots of Islamic classical thought, we find philosophy that originated from Greek, state administration from Persian tradition, the adoption of ‘urf principle (adat/tradition) from the Roman law. That is civilization, which we share in common.
Are you concerned on the rise of ideological Islam in France?
I am worried about the prototype of Islam which most young French Muslims adhere to nowadays. They waste their time by adhering to an understanding of Islam, which impedes them from building better social relationships with their neighbors. They waste their time by discussing the length of beards, the size of trousers etc.
They forget that the prophet Muhammad utilized the best things in his period just as we should in the modern era. In order to honor the Prophetic tradition, we must not act discordantly in the present day, particularly in pointless matters. Muslims must not deviate from the existing social order.
In my dealings with young extremist Muslims, some dialogues ended in a deadlock, some had more positive outcomes. I advised French decision makers to be wise when dealing with these young people. I explained that their attitude didn't derive from their deep understanding of Islam, but from their shallow understanding. They weren't immune to the virus of fanaticism. They invited fundamentalist Muslims to teach them about Islam and that is why they failed to build positive social relationships with French society and became marginalized.