Secularism is viewed in the Arab and Eastern world, as a minorities’ intellectual, religious and cultural issue. Secularism is a solution to those who consider that for a group to be ruled by another group without guarantees poses a risk of injustice to it and to its cultural identity.
Muslims, however, are suspicious of the idea of secularism, and this definitely needs a deep study, but what makes matters worse here perhaps are the positions of some secularists who are hostile to either religion in general, or to the Islamic religion and Muslims in particular, which offends the concept of secularism and makes it prejudiced towards Muslims.
This is the prevailing general trend today, which, if it indicates anything, it is that we are all living in crises of morality and values, and at the same time a crisis of trust between the religious and secular camps.
In theory, things seem clear when we say that secularism only means that the state stands neutral towards everyone’s beliefs and that it has no religion, but at the same time it guarantees freedom of belief for everyone. In practice, however, the reality is different, as secularism practically takes different forms and practices from one country to another in the countries that are considered secular.
Secularism in Europe began as a result of stages of development of relations between religious sects and communities coexisting with each other. The peoples in those countries went through several stages of development before reaching secularism, during which historical pacts were signed that gradually established relations between the sects.
Although civilized nations have achieved a secular approach, every people and culture in these countries has different visions of the concept of secularism.
In federal Switzerland, for example, the national constitution begins with the phrase “In the name of God Almighty,” as well as the Swiss national anthem which clearly refers to the Christian religion, but in practice this does not negate the secularism of the state, with its practices and impartiality. What makes it easier is the adoption of decentralization, where the cantons leave a large margin of freedoms for citizens. On a fundamental level, the state and the constitution guarantee the right of every individual to belief or lack thereof, and no one is allowed to force others to do something they don’t want to. There are real controls that allowed this peaceful Swiss environment to exist.
We find more deep contradictions regarding the concept of secularism when we compare Latin culture to Anglo-Saxon culture, and this is due to the intellectual history of each of the countries belonging to these two cultures. If a simple comparison was made between American secularism and French secularism, we will see deep differences that may help us to be aware of how the elites in the Arab world are influenced by French colonialism.
The French concept of secularism generally takes a position strictly and suspiciously hostile to religions, and this matter has historical reasons that go back to the relationship of the French state with the Church, and also to the history of the establishment of the French state, which united, through wars, states and peoples with different languages and cultures such as Breton, Occitan, and others. In France there have been also issues that caused an intellectual revolution that deserve careful research. One example is the Dreyfus Affair, which refers to the racism experienced by Jews of France from Protestants at the time. In short, France went through many stages that led to the contradictions we see now.
Today, there is a real crisis of concepts and dealing with the other, which is worsened by the increasing percentage of French Muslim citizens.
If the new crisis is between the French State the Islamic religion, then it urgently needs to be solved, as it is currently causing a state of convulsion and illogical reactions by the both sides.
Compared to the American or even the English experience, Anglo-Saxon secularism is practiced in a completely different way. American secularism is clear, as the first article of the American Constitution earnestly separates church and state and affirms that the state guarantees the freedom of belief or unbelief. We do not find a single word referring to God in the entire constitution, and the motto of the United States is national unity, as it says “God Bless America,” which means God protects America, and we find no reference here to any particular religion or deity.
American presidents swear by the book they see proper, although it has been the custom since the time of President George Washington to swear the oath on the Bible, this is not exclusive. John Quincy Adams swore on the book of Roosevelt’s Law and did not swear on any other book.
Thus, the Americans align better than the French with secular values that guarantee equality, freedom of cultural identity, and the right to be different for every citizen. This is because of serious social policies that pushed towards cultural coexistence more and deeply entered into the values of American culture.
The credit for this is due to research and sociological work on cultures, immigration and pluralism, especially the contributions of the Chicago School of Modernism on sociological renewal.
Thus, we clearly see today how the Anglo-Saxon mentality has advanced tools to deal with pluralism more than France and other countries, and herein lies the qualitative difference between the American view and the French one of secularism and pluralism.
However, despite this conclusion, France relies on the general intellectual atmosphere that will inevitably allow the development of general concepts, unlike the countries of the East, which despite the multiplicity of religions and cultures, the general intellectual climate does not allow for the development of concepts easily. Consequently, we can say that secularism in the Arab world is currently not introduced in a healthy and objective manner. It is presented as two camps, the first is for a class of atheists who are hostile to the other and do not respect the simplest moral values, and the second is for religious people who view religion as a moral guarantee as it was seen in the nineteenth century in Europe, that is, it is the only guarantee for building a society with a minimum level of morals and values.
To be objective, we must take the causes of anti-secularism seriously, and ask whether there is a crisis of morals and values in our societies that pushes them to this convulsion? Then, we wonder how we can explain to advocates of a non-secular religious state that values and morals are not exclusive to believers or religious people, and that the best interest may require that secular and religious people cooperate to find solutions to the moral crises that our societies experience.
In depth, however, the most important crisis is the one of trust between the secular and religious camps at the moment. We must ask how we can build this absent trust between the two parties in order to engage in a constructive dialogue that would enable us to rise towards a society that has values and morals agreed upon, humanly, globally and religiously at the same time. A society that allows a margin of freedom for the individual and accepts even more than pluralism.
If the history of secularism in the West shows that the acceptance of secularism is preceded by the acceptance of religious pluralism and that we cannot simply skip the stages, then the question is, can our societies really come to the stage of acceptance of religious pluralism?.. We may not yet have reached the level of the National Multilateral Pact.