Reform, religion and the state

The ‘reformist’ project going on Turkey with regards to the hadith has been the subject of much discussion. There are accusations of misreporting directed at the BBC from the Turkish Department of Religious Affairs.

This whole subject of ‘reform’ in Islam is riddled with polemics and misunderstandings (which are not always the fault of ‘outsiders’ it must be said). I have personally never bought into the idea that there was some year in the past when Muslims just decided to stop thinking about Islamic law. It would appear the real ‘battle’ has always been over the extent and scope of any new “reasoning” or “interpretation” (and just who can undertake such a task), rather than merely reasoning and interpretation, per se. (Afterall, do even the most ‘anti-reason’ of religious believers really give up “reasoning”? Highly unlikely.)

That the Turkish state sees it as necessary to involve itself in such questions when it comes to the question hadith material (rightly or wrongly), brings up once again how ‘separation’ of religion from politics (and law) is achieved and worked by different secular states.

In my view, there is never a total severance between religion and the state, but rather a symbiosis or outright domination of one over the other. It so happens that secular states try to tread the path of neutrality by demanding that religion within its borders is controlled by the state itself. Consider how the United States, Britain and France deal with this issue in different ways. (Muslim countries can be just as varied when it comes to the religion-state issue, although not all claim to be secular states. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Malaysia represent quite different approaches on the relationship between religion and state.)

Of course, there are many times which the supposed neutrality of a secular is, almost out of necessity, violated due to different historical and social facts. The state must then involve itself in questions of religion, whether it likes it or not, and by extension (as I was reminded, during an unreflexive moment, thanks to a blogging acquaintance*) of ‘the good’, just as it repeatedly involves itself in questions of ‘culture’ (its production, preservation and defence).

To highlight what I mean when I say I don’t think there is a total ‘separation’, consider the following question: should a secular state pay for the upkeep of religious places of worship? If a secular state does such a thing, is it not supporting and financing one place of worship showing favouritism, and thus violating the ‘wall’ between religion and state or its officially neutral stance on matters of personal belief? What about ‘important’ historical buildings which are also places of worship? Do we apply a test whereby we differentiate merely religious places of worship from those places which are of historical importance? If so, how does this work? There are numerous other privileges granted to religions (schools, tax breaks, etc.) which are not always distributed evenly and appear as favouritism to one or more groups over another (Muslims in Europe, it can be said, provide the most stark example of this).

*Thanks LoA.

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1 Response to “Reform, religion and the state”


  1. 1 Lawrence of Arabia March 22, 2008 at 3:11 am

    i do what i can. 🙂

    all the best,
    LoA.


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