Why I Took Part in Hizb ut Tahrir’s Debate on Secularism

This is a guest post by John Holmwood, Professor of Sociology and Head of Department, University of Birmingham. It follows on from this post.

“I was one of us, at ease, so long as I passed/

my voice into theirs”

Daljit Nagra Look We Have Coming to Dover 

Daljit Nagra’s poem eloquently expresses the problem faced by many minority groups seeking to have their own concerns recognised as legitimate within public debates. These concerns are frequently misrepresented, if they require the dominant population to listen carefully and to reconsider their own prejudices. A recent example is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s discussion of how Sharia law can be accommodated within secular civil and family law. This elicited an overwhelmingly negative media response which both misrepresented what was being argued and blamed him for opening the debate. Within Muslim communities this contributed to the idea that the majority population is only at ease when other voices are suppressed.

This was the context in which I agreed to participate in a debate organised by Hizb-ut-Tahrir, to argue forcefully that secularism was positive for Islam, in general, and for Muslims in Britain, in particular. The fact that this debate attracted over a hundred people from the local community should be a clear indication of its significance to the community. Against those that argue that Hizb-ut-Tahrir should be shunned, I simply ask if it would be better that those who came to listen should be denied the opportunity of hearing alternative views. It is not simply a matter of free speech, however, but also a matter of the willingness of secularists like myself to present our views outside our area of ease, or comfort zone.  

Let me say explicitly at the outset that I want to argue that secularism is right. I also want to argue that secularism is frequently misunderstood, and especially by its noisiest proponents. But in saying this, I don’t expect to find it easier to elicit your agreement with what I want to propose from my side in the debate (but then I don’t think dialogue is about reaching agreement, but about reaching a better understanding of where we disagree and why). I want to propose to you that secularism and Islam are not mutually exclusive and, more strongly, that secularism is the condition for Islam to flourish in the modern world. 

Let me now say what I mean by secularism. I want to identify three meanings, in order to quickly get the first out of the way and concentrate on the remaining two as perhaps raising the most important issues for us. These are militant secularism, the idea of the secularisation of society, and a third, which I shall call pragmatic secularism

Militant secularism as a system of belief parallel to that of religious belief, but radically antagonistic to it. This is a form of secularism that I repudiate entirely and it is not what I am proposing. Associated with atheism, it makes a sharp (and to my mind false) separation between science and religion, the rational and the irrational. The primary advocate of this position in contemporary Britain is Richard Dawkins. I don’t want to deny its public significance, but when we present the issue of secularism and Islam it is self-evident that militant secularism is opposed to Islam and its expression in political life and civil society, just as it is opposed to other religions. It is frequently associated with sentiments that there are more wars caused by religion than anything else. This is simply to say that wars are tied up with what people believe and for most of human history most humans have expressed themselves through religion. There is no particular reason to think that wars would not take place without religious motivations for them. More importantly, religious belief is also an important impetus in movements to change the world, relieve suffering etc (Red Cross and Crescent/ Christian Aid/ Islamic relief), and in peace movements. I am far from arguing, then, that religion is a negative influence in public life. 

More important than militant secularism for understanding current dilemmas is what sociologists call the secularisation of society. This is an argument that the rise of modern institutions, in particular the nation-state, rational legal systems and capitalist market economies are associated with the disenchantment of the world, the rise of individualism and the decline of religious observation and organised religion. This is a reasonable description when applied to Britain where, over the last 100 years, attendance at religious services has declined dramatically. 

For a long time, most sociologists thought that this was an inexorable consequence of the development of modern societies, that with modernisation comes secularisation, and a secular population underpins democratic institutions. However, sociologists have become less confident in this trend and now speak of a post-secular age. The collapse of communism has been associated with the re-emergence of religion as a social and political force and along with demographic changes in the world, there is now a higher proportion of the world’s population expressing religious faith despite increased globalisation and modernisation

But the jury is out, because the secularisation thesis also understood that religious belief could be one of the vehicles for protest about the injustices and dislocations associated with the process of modernisation. Indeed, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, is itself a social justice movement as well as an expression of political Islam. The rise, or return, of religious belief might, after all, then, be part and parcel of a longer term secularisation of society, whose first phase is the rise of religiously mediated protest. 

Nonetheless, we have an interesting confluence between this return of religion in the post-communist world and militant secularism. It is precisely their unease about the lack of certainty that secularisation will deliver a world in which religious belief is no longer significant that fuels their anxieties, just as it is a fear among some people of strong religious faith that modernity is corrosive of religious belief that leads them to want to embed what are essentially modern institutions in religious beliefs.  

For the present, and the foreseeable future, we do live in a post-secular world in which religious belief is of fundamental importance to much of the world’s population. There can be no dialogue on the militant secularist assumption that our interlocutors are going to be removed by the forces of history. The idea that they are may give some people personal comfort, but it also gives rise to a dangerous dogmatism. The reality of the modern world is that we increasingly need to live together as people of different religious beliefs and no religious beliefs within one political community. 

But living together with different religious beliefs and no religious beliefs within a political community also confronts what is the most dangerous of all modernist ideologies. This is the idea that a political community needs to be the expression of a unified social community – the ‘people’. This is the ideology of ethnic cleansing, of population exchange between Greece and Turkey at the end of the Ottoman Empire, and of partition in India at the end of British Empire. This is a much more dangerous European legacy than secularism and it is ironic if political Islam should also wish to have political institutions the expression of a unified, social (religious) community.  

This brings me to the third meaning of secularism, pragmatic secularism, and what I want to suggest to you is most relevant to our contemporary dilemmas in a globalised world. Pragmatic secularism is simply the separation of political and legal systems from religious affiliation; in other words, the disestablishment of religion. Here, religious belief is appropriately a matter of organisation in what sociologists call civil society, but it is not enshrined in political institutions. 

The origins of pragmatic secularism do not derive from a sense of the decline of religion, but precisely from the opposite, that it is a live and potentially divisive force and that separation allows people to express their different religious beliefs within a single political community. Secularism in India before and after partition would be an example, or what has been articulated to manage religious divisions between Catholicism and Protestantism in Britain (albeit without the full disestablishment of religion). 

Pragmatic secularism is also a position that has roots within religious traditions, too, in the sense that all religions have traditions of thought that recognise their self-limitation in terms of their relation to others of different faiths – a recognition that other faiths find their space because all religions are mediated by fallible human belief in their relation to their God. This, in part, was the motivation of President Mohammad Khatami’s speech to the United Nations in 1997 calling for dialogue, and his actions as President of Iran to strengthen secular institutions: “in various religious traditions, man speaks with his creator by calling him ‘Thou’ and thereby ascends from an isolated ‘individual’ to personhood.  Likewise, the cultural heritage of various nations, poetic and literary, has benefited from various forms of dialogue in the explication of human, ethical and social themes. From ‘Kalileh va Demneh’ (Panjeh Tantra), which is an ancient book in dialogical style, to the mystical works in the East and West, beautiful and attractive examples of dialogue can be found. Philosophers, mystics and reformers, when seeking to explain the rational, ethical, and social aspects of truth, have turned to dialogue to avoid misunderstanding.” 

I want to suggest to you that this is also consistent with allowing space within the civil law for people to find resolution to disputes within legally recognised conciliation consistent with their religious beliefs –whether that be Sharia Courts or those of Beth Din. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s views on Sharia, then, are entirely consistent with pragmatic secularism and he might even be regarded as providing its best articulation. Similarly, it is something to celebrate that mortgages consistent with Islamic principles are now available. Importantly, a principle of voluntarism is retained. Fully civil courts are available for those who wish to use them, but there is also an articulation of religiously-informed courts for those seeking conciliation directly mediated through religious authorities that they accept. 

I am now in a position to begin to outline a much more robust thesis for why secularism is right for Islam. Secularism, in the pragmatic sense I have outlined, might be the very condition for religious faith to flourish in the modern world, not its antagonist. 

What might be the evidence for this? You are probably struck by the irony that my description of pragmatic secularism has few pure cases (after all, Britain has an established Church). The close approximations are India and the United States. Both are places where religion flourishes. And, the USA has always been the paradox that sociologists have confronted when arguing for the secularisation thesis. It is the country in the West where the separation of religion and the state is most clearcut, yet religious belief and observation remains strong – the secularisation thesis seems least applicable in the ‘lead society of modernity’. I want to suggest to you that this is perhaps precisely because of its paragmatically secular character. 

Why might this be so? Politics is a realm of contestation and disappointment. While religiously-grounded political protest is a powerful feature of the modern world, the association of religion with government potentially serves to delegitimate religious authority, not to secure its legitimacy.  

Building religion into the state also ties religion to the geo-politics of state systems, frequently with disastrous consequences. These disastrous consequences involve not only ethno-religious conflicts between different communities, but also civil war within the community of believers. Frequently co-religionists are not unified by their faith, but divided by it. 

It would be better to harness religion to the resistance to that kind of geo-politics and to movements for social justice? And might there not then be common cause among people of different religious belief, rather than divisions among them. Practically, we can find such examples in the city of Birmingham in community action together by citizens of different (and no) faiths, but also in wider social movements such as ‘make poverty history’, or ‘stop the war’, where religious charities and organisations were fundamental to popular mobilisation across religious differences. Religious belief, then, can be the ground of action in the modern world without seeking to have expression within formal political institutions.  

Might Islam, then, not flourish better if conceived very strictly as ummah – that is, as a community of believers, or, loosely organised (global) civil society of believers – rather than as a caliphate, that is as a political organisation? In this way, secularism would be right for Islam, without Islam being diminished in any way in its moral claims over believers.  


Dialogue within a political community organised on pragmatic secular principles would not need to be secular dialogue, nor would it exclude the expression of fundamental disagreements. We do not need to respect each other’s opinions, but we do need to be willing to listen and to understand, in order to learn from what is being said by those regarded as ‘different’.  This requirement holds for all members of a political community, whatever their ‘identifications’. No ‘voice’ should be passed into that of others, except by the process of open dialogue.