In In the Shadow of the Prophet: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam, Milton Viorst interviews Hassan Al-Turabi:
“The real secularization of public life in Islam came about with Western imperialism. For Christians, religion had already been reduced to a hobby. The Westerners disestablished Islam in the Muslim world and, in the place of the shari’a, they installed positive laws, French or English or whatever, and secular institutions, like the army, the civil service, the economic system.”
“The current Islamic revival is the response. I remember those early days, the 1940s, when the most important thing about Islamic movements was the slogan din wa dawla, ‘Islam is a state and a religion.’ People suddenly became aware of what they had forgotten. Din wa dawla became our essential theme.”
The association of secularization with Western imperialism helps explain why the Islamic reaction against all things secular is often simultaneously a reaction against all things Western. It is unfortunate that people’s reactions against the West has also colored their reaction to even basic secularization, but right now there appears to be little that can be done. Not until a home-grown secular movement that appeals to Muslim traditions does it seem likely that secularism will make inroads in much of the Arab Muslim world.
“Islamic government is not total because it is Islam that is total. To reduce Islam to government is not Islamic. An omnipotent state is not Islamic. Government has no business interfering in one’s worship or prayer or fasting — except, of course, someone’s public challenge to fasting. The Prophet himself used strong words against those who didn’t come to the prayers but he did nothing to them. In things like dress, for example, there are moral injunctions for women and men, but they are not part of the law. We don’t confuse what is moral with what is legal.”
This is a good example, I think, of how secularism might begin to be built on traditional Muslim foundations. It may seem odd at first to think that secularism could be founded on religious traditions, but it’s not: secularism is given room by the acceptance of devout believers that their religion traditionally creates a civil, secular realm not under the control of religious leaders. This is what Hassan Al-Turabi is acknowledging. This is also part of the reason why secularism got its start in the West.
Once secularism is acknowledged as having a role in society, there is a chance that its role can be expanded. Experience of the freedom which secular institutions and values may, over time, embolden people to argue for greater limitations on how religion can be imposed on people. This, too, is much how things progressed in the Christian West. It required centuries and still isn’t finished, but the project has been generally successful. Perhaps Muslim extremists recognize this danger and this is part of what drives their unrelenting attacks on secularism.