Secularism, for many of us, is not a terra incognita, and yet it is certainly an improperly defined and unexplained concept. For more than 150 years, intellectuals, politicians, and theologians have used secular and secularism in a rather ambiguous way. These terms therefore need to be clarified. The time has come to rethink our whole approach to the question of secularism. Given the inapplicability of the French model of secularism to the Muslim world, it becomes necessary to find a criterion by which state involvement, when it occurs in the domain of religion, can appear to the members of a religious group as both legitimate and fair. The Indian concept of secularism based on the toleration and equal protection of all religious communities without being supportive of any particular religion can supply this criterion. That said, to pursue a secular politics of rejecting sectarianism and demanding toleration requires that strategic priorities be rearranged without making historical shortcuts. In this case, a secular politics of toleration is a twofold struggle, a resistance to uniformization and an invitation to democratization. If such a strategy is to find any role in the regulation of the lives and activities of Islamic societies today, an alternative concept of secularism, rather than simply an alternative to it, needs to be worked out. The challenge is not to abandon secularism but to formulate it as a philosophy with spiritual values, rather than solely a policy of the state. This is the only way of rethinking our whole approach to the future in Muslim societies to the extent that the pluralist model of a “shared home” can be presented as “a third way” solution to the crisis of political societies in the Middle East and in opposition to the secular authoritarianism of the state and the rise of religious fundamentalism in civil society.
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Ramin Jahanbegloo; Two Concepts of Secularism. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 1 May 2011; 31 (1): 13–22. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/1089201X-2010-047
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