'Islam and the Secular State' Offers Universal Messages

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By April L. Bogle

A new book by Emory Law Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im offers a formula for nations and peoples of the world – including the United States and its current presidential candidates -- struggling with the separation of religion and politics.

“The American Constitution got it right on the separation of church and state, but there isn’t much clarity of the relationship between religion and politics,” said An-Na`im, a senior fellow in the Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR) at Emory University. “You can’t separate religion and politics even if you try. Believers will act politically as believers.”

An-Na`im wrote Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a (Harvard University Press, 2008) to help countries navigate this tricky and treacherous plane, no matter the religion, no matter the geography. The book was first published in Indonesia last year and is available on the Internet in eight languages spoken by Muslims. It is a product of An-Na`im’s role in the CSLR’s Islamic Legal Studies research project and was funded in part by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

“I want to help clarify the role of religion in society so that it is seen as a positive, humanizing force, not as a bigoted, narrow-minded, destructive force,” he said. “The state is the institutional continuity. Countries must be able to keep this alive while allowing elected officials to lead, but without allowing them to take over the state.”

An-Na`im, who serves as Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory, pointed to the Bush Administration’s dismissal of federal prosecutors as an abuse of political power. “President Bush used the Justice Department to further his own agenda – he tried to take over the department, he didn’t just lead,” he said.

One of the ways An-Na`im proposes to keep religion and politics in balance is by using civic reason. “Law and public policy can’t be adopted based on religious convictions alone. Non-religious reasons that can be appreciated by all people, including non-believers, should be the basis of adopting a law,” he said.

An-Na`im said the abortion issue is a prime example. “Don’t say it should be eliminated because it is a sin, because God says so. Give reasons beyond religious convictions so we can all share in the debate.”

Another major purpose of the book, says An-Na`im, is to “rehabilitate” Islam. “I worry about the demonization of Islam, which is driven by fear of what the extremists have done and threaten to do. What I speak of in my book is closer to Islam as a religion than what the extremists talk about.” 

An-Na`im will have help spreading his messages. The Ford Foundation has provided a new, $100,000 grant, this one to hire a public relations firm to promote the book throughout the United States.

“I hope to help people clarify what they already know and accept about the separation of religion and politics. They know this balance is important, but they should know more about defending and working with it,” he said.

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