If you think that you have just one life, think again. There's the life you think you have, the life others think you have and the life you really have- three lives!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Secularism in the Middle East- an impossible dream?

I've been checking out some Middle East blogs lately- Sandmonkey, Big Pharoah, Hossam. I have to commend these bloggers on their vision for secularism in the Middle East but at the same time I have to wonder about the ability of Islamic states to embrace secularism.

It's something I've been thinking about lately because I have an upcoming public lecture and my topic for the talk is Islam and secularism in Australia.

The basic premise of secularism is a separation of the private (religion) from the public (affairs of the State). A nice idea but is it really possible? Although countries like the US and Australia define themselves as secular liberal democracies- just how secular are they?

Last night I watched an interview with Rupert Everett, a gay actor, who said that it is very difficult for gay actors in the US because the US is a very Christian nation. In Australia, the right wing Christian presence is becoming increasingly visible in the political arena as witnessed by the recent debate on the abortion drug RU486.

For secularism to be truly successful, religion must be wholly and solely a private affair. There can be no blurring of the boundaries between private and public. The notion of religion upon which secularism is based is one in which religion is defined as a spiritual practice- one that can be confined to the private and separated from the public. But what if a broader notion of religion is present- where religion is seen to be more a way of life than a private practice? This is precisely the dilemma facing Islam and secularism.

Secular Muslims, like myself, have no trouble confining religion to the private realm. Indeed, I have grown up with the notion that my religion was purely a private affair- something between me and God- and I thank my parents for instilling this in me.

But for many other Muslims it seems that Islam cannot be a private practice- it is, for them, a "way of life". Islam is the lens through which they view the world, the lens through which they articulate their needs, their views, their opinions- their world view is "I am Muslim therefore..." They define their identity wholly and solely as religious. But religion has no place in the public sphere of the secular state. So where does that leave them? and more importantly what does that mean for a secular experiment in the Middle East?

Secularism is brought into question where the state favours one religion over another- as Christianity is in both the US and Australia. If countries like the US and Australia are operating as pseudo-secular, how can we expect Islamic states to embrace secular democracy? There is no doubt in my mind that should secularism be introduced anywhere in the Middle East, Islam would be the religion of favour.

Is true secularism in the Mid East a pipe dream?