By A A Khalid
Modern economic theory has come to the consensus that private enterprise can best respond to the demands and preferences of the consumer. It is only when enterprise is divorced from absolute State control that firms and businesses can respond to public tastes, aspirations and desires. A centralised State controlled economy reduces enterprise, competition and breeds a bureaucratic apathy which gives rise to inefficiency and yes even a fall in living standards. The fact that the State controlled economy has failed in the modern world not only to guarantee efficiency but also to uphold the goals it upheld for itself such as equality and justice is testament to the fact that when governments are involved and when power is centralised the results are pitiful and ultimately spill over into tyranny.
This very brief economic intro is a means of constructing an analogy to help us understand the consequences of State owned religion (theocracy – where religious discourse is determined by State appointed clerics or when clerics ally themselves with centres of concentrated power such as the Army in Pakistan). If State owned enterprise is inefficient and actually reduces equality and efficiency then State owned religion actually reduces religious devotion, observance and harms religion by putting people off.
This argument is one of the strongest ones available to secular activists who seek to build bridges with religious traditionalists (not fundamentalists but people who follow the centuries old traditional practices and philosophy of sub-continental Islam).
There is actually empirical data for this claim. This excerpt from an interview with a liberal Arab intellectual is revealing:
Statistics Released By Tehran’s Cultural Affairs Director on Performing Prayers, Sexual Promiscuity, and Drug Addiction Shocked… Observers
“Turning to religious issues, the cultural affairs director of the Tehran municipality, Sheikh Mohammad Ali Zam, recently released data on Iranians’ religious observance, particularly that of students and young people. The statistics he released on performing prayers, and on sexual promiscuity and drug addiction, shocked, astonished and stupefied observers, including Islamists outside the Islamic Republic of Iran – arousing serious concerns over the future of the Islamic experience in the 21st century, and moving them to think and reconsider their strategic plans and programs for governance in the future…
“It was expected that the clerics who came to power in Iran would continue the Islamization of the rest of society, and put an end to the roots of corruption, decay, and delinquency. But the statistics cited by the Iranian cultural official, which he disclosed at a press conference that set a precedent in transparency, openness and self-criticism, indicated a decline in religious observance among the majority of Iranians, especially the young…
“These are truly frightening numbers in a society ruled by an Islamic theocratic government that controls the press, radio and television, and in which there are half a million clerics!
“Despite the care the Islamic government has taken in preparing religious studies programs for young children in primary school and elsewhere, the two-decade-long experiment has resulted in an extremely high degree of estrangement of children and young people from religion… The Islamic Republic may be the first Islamic state to sell abandoned mosques; is there any greater bankruptcy than this?
“In fact, had the opponents of the 1979 Khomeinist revolution been sufficiently logical with themselves, they would have considered this revolution a decisive step toward overcoming traditional and fundamentalist Islam in order to make the transition to modernity, in application of the Hegelian principle of the philosophy of history…”
In another example, the British Muslim intellectual Tim Winter in an interview with ABC said:
‘’ The Anglo Saxon world has, as it were, worked through the experiment of religiously zealous government, and found that it didn’t particularly deliver even religiously. One of the consequences of Cromwell’s period was the unleashing of a long tradition of English scepticism about religion, that it had behaved so badly when in power because of its well-meaning desire to drag everybody into heaven by the scruff of their necks, that many people reacted in the normal human way, by wanting to run away from religion. If you force it down people’s throats, then the danger is many of them will want to vomit it up again. And we’re seeing that in many parts of the Islamic world. If you look at the Iranian experience, after 25 years of Islamic rule, their Ministry of Religious Guidance recently published figures that show that only 3% of Iranians now attend Friday prayers. Before the revolution, it was almost 50%. So what kind of Islamic reformation and revival has that actually delivered? Religion is now identified with a kind of prison, the pan-optican idea of the man at the centre of the State looking at everybody, Calvin’s city of glass, nobody being able to misbehave in a way that annoys the clerics or the mullahs without calling down on them, not just the sanction of heaven, but the repressive capacities of the modern corporate State. So I think that there’s a dawning awareness in the Islamic world that the totalitarian model of Islamic government doesn’t actually deliver, even on its own terms’’
The interesting thing is that the data released about the Iranian experience ( and I choose Iran because even in Pakistan and other parts of the Muslim World, Iran is held as an example by theocratic Islamists as the model to emulate – if we can deflate the illusions about Iran’s ‘’Islamic’’ experiment we can knock a serious pillar in the arguments put forward by theocratic Islamists) , comes from Iranian sources themselves. These are stats and figures released by official Iranian government sources – these are not studies conducted by Western experts or policy think tanks.
Indeed there is now a realization within Iran even among the clerics that the Islamic Revolution has failed to live up to its own expectations. There are now serious divisions within the clergy with many clerics now advocating a separation between religious institutions and political institutions to protect the sanctity of faith.
State owned enterprises fail and State owned religion also fails. The fact is that one cannot merge the mystical, spiritual, ethical and in many ways the idealism of religious experience with the harsh, unrelenting and coercive nature of Statecraft. The conclusion we can take away from the Iranian experience is that without freedom there is no Islam. What a theocracy produces is a crude and insecure religious exhibitionism which fools no one and only satisfies its own ego and lust for power. A theocracy cannot produce a mature and deep religious experience. For that you need freedom.
If you take away freedom from the religious experience then people turn away from faith. That is the challenge and the scary reality for the theocratic Islamists to confront, which even in a theocracy such as Iran people are being put off by religion.
In many ways I have always argued that the strongest arguments for secularism have (even in the experience of Europe and the States) come from within the religious traditions. Sheikh Abdel Raziq’s work for instance in the 20th century is a testament to the Islamic case for secularism. The secular historically speaking paradoxically has always been grounded in the sacred. From John Locke to Roger Williams, we have always seen liberal theologians and religious intellectuals fighting the cause for a secular state to protect religion from power hungry politicians. The religious case for secularism is always grounded in values such as dignity, humility and ethic that human beings are fallible which is why their authority must always be checked and that God should never be used as an excuse to perpetrate tyranny.
Secularism in terms of a division between State and religious institutions is driven by a realization from religious people that it is in the interest of their own faith to keep political power and religious experience separate. Religion can have a moral role in the public sphere in terms of giving ethical inspiration to civil society activity and political discussion but it cannot assume total and absolute political power.
State sponsored religious dogma cannot capture or respond to the spiritual and mystical imagination of the people and inevitably produces a stale, coercive and rigid faith which no one wants to adopt.
The route to secularism will inevitably have to pass through the gates of theology and religious philosophy. The ‘’State’’ and ‘’public sphere (civil/political society)’’ are two different arenas, and we should embrace liked minded religious intellectuals and scholars to further the case for a secular state with a public/social role for faith.