The Secularization of the Muslim Mind

This piece is part one of a three part policy report on the secularization of the Muslim mind. You can read part two here and part three here.

This report aims to highlight a subtle yet existential threat to the Muslim community in America: an assault on the Muslim mind, in other words, the Secularization of the Muslim mind. In contrast to the right-wing’s physical and verbal attacks on the Muslim community, the desire to secularize the Muslim mind comes from across the political spectrum. In transforming the Muslim mind, both conservatives and liberals seek to define and produce a ‘Good Muslim’ that is to say a ‘Secular Muslim,’ one who is  committed to a ‘Secular Islam’ that is willingly subservient to an increasingly unrestrained State and its ideology.

A Secular Muslim is defined as a Muslim subject who limits Islam to certain morals and ethics and eviscerates Islam of its political, economic, and social dimensions. A Secular Islam stripped of its liberating praxis and worldview poses no challenge to the State’s ideological, political, social, and economic hegemony. In this new scheme, the Muslim becomes an object, an instrument to be fashioned and utilized by the State. As this report demonstrates, the State’s engagement in ‘religion-building’ is not exclusive to a post-9/11 era or a certain administration. Religion-building is part-and-parcel of secular ideology and the self-declared sovereignty of the state. Far from being ‘neutral’, the secular state in America is committed to transforming Islam to a state-sanctioned ‘American Islam.’

Following 9/11, the secularization agenda amplified, with legitimization from Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiatives. The attested objective of these initiatives is countering radicalization and appropriating members and groups within the Muslim community to do so. In turn, secularization narratives arbitrarily associate radicalism and the propensity for violence with characteristics such as political grievances, an ideological identification with Islam, and a connection with the global Ummah. Government policies combined with secular liberal narratives link normative Islamic ideas like the Khilafah (Caliphate) as being part of a radical violent political ideology of Islam.

The ensuing threat is therefore not only political and social–it is intellectual. A response to the intellectual threat must then also be an intellectual one. However, the problem we face is even more threatening. The problem is not only the assault. The real problem is a lack of awareness among Muslims that such an assault even exists. Without such awareness, the Muslim community remains unable to engage in a collective and Islamic response to the assault on the Muslim mind. In mapping a way forward, this report proposes three policies for the Muslim community in America:

  1. Empower the community by reclaiming the space of our mosques as platforms for public communal dialogue on the public affairs of Muslims in America and beyond.
  2. Create an informed and politically aware Muslim community. This awareness necessitates that we ground our political thoughts, actions, and visions on an Islamic basis and embrace global perspectives and horizons.
  3. Expose, critique, and abstain from secularization initiatives that subvert Muslims to ill-defined security and anti-terror narratives.

In proposing these policies, we seek to provide the community with alternative strategies in countering the assault on the Muslim mind and to move beyond reactionary and self-subverting tactics of secularization towards the realization of new courses of action. We aim to create a dialogue within the Muslim community, to suggest critical policies for the community leaders, and to engage and incorporate the youth in building awareness and articulating a collective and Islamic course of action.

Origins of the Assault

Dominant narratives that analyze the State’s engagement in ‘religion-building’ claim that such engagement contradicts secularism’s golden-rule: neutrality. According to this narrative, these incursions into the religious space are deviations from the principles of the secular state. In other words, the problem is not with secularism, but rather with a misapplication of secularism in practice. The solution is thus more secularism, not less. The problem with this narrative is that it remains committed to the myth that the secular state is neutral and non-ideological.

Secularism, however, is not neutral. In both theory and practice, secularism is just one of many ideologies competing to dominate the public mind. The only difference is that the secular state’s pursuit of power is masqueraded under the veneer of tolerance or in American parlance, the giant melting pot. As an ideology, the secular state is committed to its own worldview, values, and vision for society.

As such, the state must then engage in secularization, indoctrination of its citizens, and the need to transform religions to render them compatible with secular doctrine. Religion-building is evident in three functions of the State:

  1. Its self-determined ability to define what constitutes a religion
  2. Which beliefs and actions are deemed religious or alternatively secular
  3. Which of those religious beliefs and actions are acceptable to and tolerated by the State

An example of how the State intervenes in managing religions is apparent in the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) by the United States Congress that

illustrates how the exercise of sovereign power tends to subsume the secular principle of religious freedom. The IRFA was signed into law under President Clinton in 1998 and gives unprecedented powers to the U.S. federal government to expand its regulation of religious life on an international scale in the name of enforcing and protecting religious freedoms.¹

The secular state emerges as the sovereign that not only determines the doctrinal commitments of the public but also proclaims the right to refashion the public – religions included – in its own image.

When it comes to Islam, the desire to transform it is not exclusive to a particular epoch or administration. Negative representations of Islam are institutionally and ideologically embedded in American politics. The assault on the Muslim mind dates back long before ISIS announced its Caliphate, Al-Qaeda declared a Jihad against the United States, or the emergence of so-called Islamic extremism. Islam and the Muslims were part-and-parcel of American discourse as early as the 1800’s. Representations of Islam created by early Protestant missionaries as being the religion of the “antichristian darkness and political tyranny” played a major role in the construction of the American national identity. These include famous missionaries like Pliny Fisk, Jonas King, and Levi Parsons who warned their fellow Christians of the “great empire of sin [Ottoman Caliphate].”² Additionally, the United States’ interventions in the Mediterranean had a formative effect on shaping the American collective identity, including the disputes between the United States and Algiers between 1785 and 1815, the Tripolitan War of 1801-1805, and the Greek War of Independence. Furthermore, the Naturalization Act of 1790 and the Immigration Act of 1891 racialized immigration into America by mandating whiteness as a prerequisite for citizenship and excluded persons who believed in polygamy, respectively. Long before the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, or ISIS emerged; President Theodore Roosevelt stated, “it is impossible to expect moral, intellectual and material well-being where Mohammadanism is supreme.”² Such sentiments have been part of the popular stigmatization of Muslims throughout American history.

We must understand that the origins of the assaults on the Muslim mind are rooted in Secular ideology that acts as a doctrine and how the Secular State acts as a new sovereign. This framework elucidates the glaring fact that the assault is not merely one of many government agendas limited to a particular administration, but rather it is a deeply-embedded ideological and institutional phenomenon.

What is at Stake: Domestic Policy, Global Struggle

An assault on the Muslim mind is part of a long-standing effort to reshape and transform Islam from within – an effort that has come to shape much of the United States’ domestic and foreign policy towards Muslims. American domestic and foreign policy is not only involved in nation-building, but also religion-building. Much is at stake, for both the United States and the Muslim community.

Religion-building or the pursuit of an American Islam is part-and-parcel of a programmatic campaign to promote American exceptionalism – an ideology that subverts religious subjects to its political order under the veneer of tolerance and religious freedoms. The ‘American Muslim’ comes to serve as an embodiment and representation of American exceptionalism. Thus, policies targeting Muslims in America are in reality part of a discourse and project that the United States is actively promoting globally. The battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims in America, far from being a domestic issue, is just one – albeit a critical – battle in a global ideological war to transform Islam. Hence, Islam itself is at stake.

The thrust of this effort is driven by an ideological conviction that political and moral authority ought-to be vested within the State and the West’s own historical representations of Islam and its own confrontation with the religious establishments predating the enlightenment. A Secular state, such as the United States, comes to attain a sovereign, God-like status, as the authority that defines the boundaries between religious and political. Accordingly, it defines what ought-to be tolerated and what religious practices or beliefs lay outside the pale of tolerance, for example Hijab, gender relations, Shar’iah, and the Caliphate all 5 fall under the authority and boundaries of the state’s secular narratives on Islam. In other words, we should realize that Secularism is not about the toleration or exclusion of religion but rather it is the transformation and remaking of religions to render them compliant with Western liberal political rule. Hence, a new Islam – a ‘reformed’ Islam becomes a project of the Secular state with a desired outcome of producing a secular, politically impotent, and localized (American) version of Islam that molds itself to secular liberal paradigms.

Works Cited:

  1. Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation.” Public Culture 18, no. 2 (2006): 323-347
  2. Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman. The Politics of Secularism in International Relations. Princeton University Press, (2009)

About the Authors: Ali Harfouch is a guest contributor. He is a Beirut-based lecturer and has a Masters in Political Science. His interests are Islamic politics, metaphysics, and epistemology. You can follow him on Twitter here

Dr. Abdur-Rafay is a guest contributor. He is a physician by profession and his interests are Islamic politics and activism. You can follow him on Facebook here.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

6 thoughts on “The Secularization of the Muslim Mind

  1. No it does not. That is a misnderstanding of how an Islamic “state” works, or rather has worked. A state as understood today does not work well with Islam, and today submission to a state is more so than ever before, an Islamic caliphate cannot be more.

    Islam is more so about submission to God. And their are conditions and such when relating to loyalty to caliph, however due to how the society was structured, in a non nation state manner, to claim what you do is a mis-characterization.

  2. So the details are fine here, but I’m a bit uncomfortable with the focus on “submission to the State”, as something that “real Islam” intrinsically subverts.

    Islam after all, calls for even greater submission to the state than most modern-liberal countries today. The only difference is this state is the idealized “Islamic State”.

    1. No it does not. That is a misnderstanding of how an Islamic “state” works, or rather has worked. A state as understood today does not work well with Islam, and today submission to a state is more so than ever before, an Islamic caliphate cannot be more.

      Islam is more so about submission to God. And their are conditions and such when relating to loyalty to caliph, however due to how the society was structured, in a non nation state manner, to claim what you do is a mis-characterization.

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