The 20th Century: Secularist State-Builders
The aftermath of the first world war consolidated British and French colonialism in the Middle East. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Túrkiye emerged as the first secular republic with a Muslim-majority society. The founders of Türkiye – Mustafa Kemal Paşa, later Atatürk, and his Kemalists considered the Ottoman Westernization reforms to have failed because of the coexistence of secular and Islamic schools, laws and courts. The new republic, in their view, should eliminate this duality.
The Law on the “Unification of Education, which the Turkish parliament passed in 1924, closed 479 madrasas and created a unified secular school system. The Kemalists became increasingly exclusionary towards Islamic education by eliminating religious instruction from the school curricula in 1927, removing Arabic and Persian courses in 1929, closing all recently opened, modern-style Islamic high schools in 1930 and shutting down the only department of theology at Darülfünun (now Istanbul University) in 1933. From that time until 1949, almost any form of Islamic education became illegal. Meanwhile, the entire legal system became secularised, and the roles of the ulema in law-making and the courts were abolished.
In 1924, the Turkish parliament established the Diyanet under the prime minister’s office to replace the old Ministry of Religious Affairs. In the same year, parliament also abolished the caliphate. A year later, a new law shut down the türbes (tombs of Muslim saints) and closed all Sufi lodges. This law made all Muslim religious organizations and positions illegal, except the mosques controlled by the Diyanet and imams who were civil servants. Moreover, the Arabic ezan (call to prayer) was banned and replaced by the Turkified version in 1933. In short, the Kemalists embraced “French-type” assertive secularism, where the state plays an assertive role in excluding religion from the public sphere. This was very different from “American-type” passive secularism, which requires the state to play a passive role by tolerating public visibility of religion.
Turkish raw model exported to other Muslim states
The Kemalists’ secularisation reforms inspired several other state-builders in the Muslim world, including Reza Shah of Iran and President Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia. Shah, like Atatürk, forced men to wear Western hats, and went beyond Atatürk by imposing a widely enforced ban on women’s veils. Other state-builders influenced by Atatürk’s pursuit of modernization policies include Amanullah Shah of Afghanistan and President Sukarno of Indonesia. Regardless of Atatürk’s role, a secular reformist trend clearly took hold among the leaders of newly emerging Muslim countries between the 1920s and the 1970s, including Muhammad Ali Jinnah of Pakistan, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and the Ba’ath regimes in Iraq and Syria. Nationalism and socialism, particularly in Arab countries, were important components of this secularist trend.
Saudi Arabia’s path
Founded in 1932, Saudi Arabia, which was based on the alliance between the Wahhabi ulema and the Saudi royal authority, was a major exception during this secularist period. The Saudi impact on other Muslim countries was marginal: its ideological appeal was dwarfed by Nasserism in the Arab world and its military power was weaker than such neighbours as Türkiye and Iran. It was not until the 1973 oil crisis that Saudi Arabia began to earn a sufficient amount of oil revenues to expand its regional influence.
In sum, the secularist trend, which was dominant between the 1920s and the 1970s, marginalised the ulema in many Muslim countries. The secularist trend dominant between the 1920s and the 1970s marginalised the ulema in many Muslim countries – but the problems of authoritarianism and underdevelopment continued.
Secularism and authoritarianism
Most 20th-century secularist leaders in the Muslim world were former military officers. By the nature of their training and socialization, they were unlikely to truly appreciate the importance of intellectuals and economic entrepreneurs for the development of their countries. Moreover, these secularist leaders were generally under the influence of socialist and fascist ideologies that shaped their modernist projects. They imposed ideological views upon society and established state control over the economy. Most secularist regimes eventually produced various types of ulema-state alliances. The motivation of such transformations was top-down (with the autocrats aiming to use Islam to legitimise their regimes and prove that they were as Muslim as the Islamist opposition), bottom-up (based on the ulema and Islamists’ popularity), or both.
In Türkiye the Kemalists created the Diyanet to keep Islam under state control; thus, Kemalist assertive secularism never aimed a true religion-state separation. After 1950, Türkiye moved to multiparty democracy, although military coups have occurred in almost every decade since. Conservative and Islamist politicians used Islamic discourse to expand and mobilize their constituencies in the second half of the twentieth century. After the 1980 coup, even military generals supported a certain level of Islamic education to contain the “communist threat”. As a result of this process, the Diyanet, which controls over 80,000 mosques, gradually became a central player in Turkish sociopolitical life.
Egypt also faced a gradual process of Islamization. Nasser – like his Turkish counterparts – aimed to place Islamic institutions, particularly Al-Azhar, administratively and financially under state control. Subsequent presidents, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, continued to expand governmental supervision of Islamic institutions. The proportion of state-controlled mosques increased from less than one-fifth in 1962 to more than three-fifths in 1994, while the total number of mosques also increased from fewer than 20,000 to around 70,000. A bureaucratic council was established to decide the Friday sermon topics that would be covered in these state-controlled mosques. All three of these Egyptian presidents benefitted from state control over mosques, as well as their “dominance over Al-Azhar by securing fatwas legitimating their policies”. Though Egyptian presidents did use Islamic institutions for their own political purposes, the institutions themselves benefitted from this relationship because it expanded their sociopolitical and legal influence in Egypt.
In the past four decades, most Muslim countries have experienced social and political Islamization – reflected in their governments, opposition and public discourses – and legal Islamization, seen in their constitutions, other legal codes and courts.
In Muslim countries, the politically oppressive and socioeconomically ineffective policies of secularist regimes were a major reason for this transformation. Three groups of Islamic actors have used the secularists’ policy failures to promote their Islamization agendas. One group is the ulema, who are trained in Islamic disciplines including jurisprudence, the hadith and Quranic exegesis, and in madrasas or their more modernised equivalents. The second group is the Islamists, who engage in electoral or other types of politics through parties and movements. The third group is the Sufi sheikhs, who are mystical and social leaders of Sufi orders. Certain individuals show the blurry boundaries between these groups – Iranian leader Khomeini was a Shia alim and Islamist, while Egyptian scholar al-Qaradawi is a Sunni alim and Islamist.
These three groups have used their resources (the ulema’s mosques and madrasas, Islamists’ parties, and Sufi sheikhs’ lodges) to challenge not only the secular state, but also Western notions of rationalism, gender equality and liberal democracy. These three groups have promoted traditionalist education, opposed gender equality, and supported blasphemy and apostasy laws. The promotion of sharia in their countries’ legal systems has also been a shared agenda. These groups need state power to pursue that agenda – hence they have supported modern versions of the ulema-state alliance by employing post-11th-century interpretations of Islam.
Iran’s Islamist revolution
The most radical Islamisation and ulema-state alliance materialized in Iran as a result of the revolution of 1979. Before the revolution, Khomeini had already articulated his vision of Iran in his “guardianship of the jurist” theory, according to which the ulema would hold not only legislative and judicial but also executive power. Consequently, Iran became an exception as the ulema-state alliance developed into a semi-theocratic regime in which the ulema are supreme.
According to Khomeini, God vested in the ulema – particularly the jurists – the authority to implement sharia. Governance, as Khomeini understood it, was limited simply to the implementation of sharia, particularly in criminal law. From his perspective, human agents had no authority to make the law. Khomeini argued that even if the Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali were alive in modern times, they would have had no more agency than a regular jurist in governance. He explained this assertion with an example: “Now the penalty for the fornicator is one hundred lashes. If the Prophet applies the penalty, is he to inflict one hundred fifty lashes, [Imam Ali] … one hundred, and the faqih [jurist] fifty?” Nonetheless, after becoming the Supreme Leader of Iran, Khomeini contradicted his earlier view by asserting that the needs of the Islamic Republic of Iran should have absolute priority, even if this may involve abrogating “prayer, fasting and pilgrimage”.
In the late 20th century, the ulema, Islamists and Sufi sheikhs effectively used the secularist regimes’ policy failures to promote their own agenda of sociopolitical and legal Islamisation. Contemporary Muslim countries’ constitutions and political regimes today show a variation as a result of the mixed legacies of the old secularization period and the new Islamization process.
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