Can Secularism Save the Islamic World?

What the Muslim world needs is not Western-style secularization that stresses the privatization of religion, but a form of authentic faith at ease with modernity

For the past fifty years, Western Europe has been gripped by secularization, a process where society is separated into “discrete spheres of inner and outer, private and public, holy and profane.” Now imagine a world where the prevailing cultural momentum moves in the opposite direction; where instead of delimiting the sacred, the sacred is allowed to spill out into the streets, sometimes creating a mess. This is the portrait Dan Diner paints of the Muslim world in his new book, Lost in the Sacred: Why the Muslim World Stood Still.

Lost in the Sacred, first published in German in 2005 and appearing in English translation earlier this spring, attributes the crisis of the Middle East to an “overflow of the sacred.” For Diner, “the sacred” is not a strictly religious category; it refers to “the burning omnipresence of transcendence in all areas of life.” Drawing examples from modern-day Baghdad, Istanbul at the time of Suleiman the Magnificent, and Medina under Mohammad, Diner shows how divinity permeates spaces that the Western tradition never sees as “sacred”: from language and financial transactions, to conceptions of political authority and the home.

We often speak about a “crisis” in the Muslim world, but rarely define our terms. Diner sums it up by examining the groundbreaking U.N. Arab Human Development Report (AHDR), which Time magazine named “Book of the Year” in 2002. Though not written in response to 9-11, the AHDR seemed to provide a comprehensive diagnosis of the Middle East’s many social ills. It described a region destabilized by low technological development, authoritarian states, the absence of democratic institutions, the deliberate exclusion of women from public life, and a lethal hostility to the outside world—the sorts of problems that sustained rogue regimes in countries such as Libya, and allowed more virulent cancers like al-Qaeda to spread through the region.

But the report, written largely by social scientists from the Middle East, said nothing about religion or secularity. For Diner, this is a worrying sign. From his point of view, secularity is the engine of change in a dynamic society: It allows us to decode the world by human reason, respond to change, and rise to new challenges. He claims the certain brands of religion hamper this process. Especially in the case of Islam, a religion that professes to regulate all areas of life through a divine law, there can be no negotiation with an ever-changing modern world. As long as religion wins the day, Diner argues, the crisis of the Muslim world will result from “a deficit of secularization.”

Diner’s argument often depends on a dichotomous and simplistic portrait of “Islam” and “the West.” He juxtaposes a Muslim world consumed with the otherworldly and the past versus a West anchored in science and progress. We live in an age when such simplistic readings of the Middle East can have profound political consequences: We recall the American failure to court Arab public opinion after 9-11 and the post-invasion mishaps in Iraq as two glaring examples of how misreading the region can actually widen chasms between “us” and “them.”

It doesn’t help that Diner often uses untidy categories when he talks about the Muslim world. He gives a brief caveat about this in his introduction, but it would have been worth emphasizing throughout the book that not every Muslim is an Arab, nor every Arab a Muslim, nor every Muslim deeply religious. Even if Diner understands these distinctions himself, most readers do not. We tend to see the Middle East as a cultural, religious, and political monolith, a view specialists should work to dispel.

Diner’s analysis of the AHDR introduces a particularly controversial thesis. In it, he argues that the problems of the Middle East derive from cultural and religious characteristics. Obvious socio-economic factors like income inequality or repressive governments are pushed to the side; they are treated as symptoms of a deeper crisis, the failure to delineate sacred and secular space. Embedded in this argument is a more general suspicion of religion itself. According to Diner’s view of the Middle East, religion can only retard, never stimulate progress. But even as Diner condemns a “deficit of secularization” in the Muslim world, he forgets that the historical apogee of Muslim culture—the so-called “renaissance” of the ninth and tenth centuries, which fertilized the European renaissance—was ultimately a religious enterprise.

To identify the “deficit of secularization,” Diner wanders far and wide. One “problem” he cites is that of the Arabic language. On the one hand, Arabic exists in the form of “Fusha,” the classical, quasi-Qur’anic dialect used in mosque sermons, political speeches, newspaper articles, and other formal settings; on the other, it exists as “Amiyya,” the colloquial dialect of everyday life. Even in a secular context, Fusha is infused with a sacred quality, and as a sacred language, it responds slowly to changing cultural circumstances. It is also inaccessible to vast sections of the Arab public, who speak and experience life through local dialects. According to Diner, the tension between these “registers” hampers intellectual growth, since the real language of cultural and social change is not sanctioned as intellectually respectable, while the intellectually respectable language is somewhat archaic.

The sacred also permeates literary culture in the Muslim world. For centuries, literary culture was tied to the Qur’an. But the Qur’an is largely an oral text—heard aloud in a mosque—and due to its sacred, unchanging quality, huge taboos originally surrounded its printing. Indeed, the first printed Qur’ans appeared in sizeable numbers a full three centuries after Europe’s presses began printing Bibles. And unlike the Bible, whose translation and mass production prepared a European public to consume other genres of printed literature, the slow appearance of the Qur’an in print form stunted access and interest in other kinds of written material. To this day, most written materials are in Fusha (as opposed to the more widely-understood colloquial), and forms of literature such as novels still have tiny followings in the Arab world. The statistics bear this out: In 1991, there were 102,000 new books published in North America. In the entire Arab world, 6,500 books were published (on mostly religious or technical subjects): 1.1% of the world’s book production for 5% of its population. The transmission of outside knowledge into Arabic is equally abysmal.

Diner’s argument about language and reading is interesting, but it leaves a few questions unanswered: How does a diglossic language like Arabic compare to something like Japanese, which has succeeded as a modern language despite rigid distinctions among “honorific,” “written,” and “colloquial” forms? How does book production in the Arab world compare to other regions at similar developmental stages? Surely there are places in the world where written culture is even more embryonic, yet where the Qur’an exercises no special influence. And what about forms of literature, such as poetry, that remain wildly popular in the Arab world? Do they not count as “suitably enriched” forms of writing?

For most readers, the biggest problems in today’s Muslim world are not language and books, but the marriage of religion and political authority. Perhaps because these issues typically receive the most attention, Diner does not devote much space to discussing them. But if we want to engage in the dangerous dance of identifying “intrinsic qualities” in Muslim culture that blur the line between “sacred” and the “secular,” this is the place to focus.

One relevant issue Diner does discuss is the famous Qur’anic exhortation “to command the right and forbid the wrong.” Throughout the history of Islam, it has served as a mandate for each individual to obey the law, and when necessary, ensure that others do the same. After all, Islam has never been comfortable ensuring the salvation of the individual in isolation from his community. Communal salvation depends on the shari’a—an all-encompassing divine law taken from the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet and his followers. It theoretically imbues even the most secular spaces with a sense of the sacred, for in everything Muslims do, from performing the Hajj to taking out bank loans, they are theoretically supposed to act out a particular obligation to God.

This is certainly true in classical Islam, but in much of today’s Muslim world—even in theocratic states like Saudi Arabia, which profess to enforce shari’a—civil law has displaced divine law. Diner acknowledges this, but fails to demonstrate in concrete terms how an ancient legal ethos that blurred “secular” and “sacred” still affects a modern Muslim world where God is no longer lawgiver except in certain jurisdictions, like family or inheritance law, where shari’a holds undisputed sway.

Throughout Lost in the Sacred, we see a few key weaknesses surface time and again. The most obvious remains the unresolved tension over responsibility: Do the problems of the Muslim world come principally from religion and culture or politics and economics? Skeptical readers will rightly wonder why Diner must seek elusive explanations for the “9-11 world” when the obvious suffices in so many cases. Chronic food shortages, ferocious censorship laws, and income inequality are among the unambiguous factors that have contributed to the crisis of the modern Middle East, none of which have anything to do with religion. But Diner argues it must be something older, embedded in the fabric of society. It is a theory difficult to prove, and whatever its merits, Diner must discount the more obvious explanations before he can substantiate his subtler claims.

Secondly, if Islam is the “x-factor” in the crisis of the Middle East, how does Diner explain the existence of similar, perhaps worse conditions in places like sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, where Islam has no foothold? Could the Middle East’s problems simply be the growing pains of an average developing society?

Thirdly, Diner often resorts to broad caricatures of the Muslim world—a realm that stretches from the suburbs of Detroit to Morocco, Iran and the Philippines. Its inhabitants speak Arabic, Farsi, French, Urdu and dozens of other languages. If we can still speak of a single “Muslim world” and not a diverse collection of cultures that practice Islam, Diner needs to tell us why.

As a final reflection, Diner takes a fairly pessimistic stance toward the central role of religion in Muslim countries. The only way out of the crisis, he writes, is to delimit the sacred through Western-style secularization. But Diner forgets that the fallout of secularization is not always pretty—in the West, the removal of religion from the public sphere has caused an erosion of public values, the collapse of the family, and a bitter string of culture wars, to name a few negative consequences. Lost in the Sacred fails to identify these corrosive side effects, and in the process, finds it hard to sympathize with the positive role religion can play in an individual’s life and in the welfare of a nation. What the Muslim world needs is not Western-style secularization that stresses the privatization of religion, but a form of authentic faith at ease with modernity—one which encourages peace, equality among men and women, engagement with the outside world, and an openness to change. This is the challenge: to identify traditions that preserve Islam but which allow it to speak the language of modernity, and in turn, help modernity speak the language of religion.

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