Secular or Non-Secular: Political Leadership in the Muslim World

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Scholars and commentators are more likely now than ever to use the controversial term ‘Islamist’ in place of “non-secular,” in their characterization of democratically elected political leadership in the Muslim world i.e. Egypt, Turkey, Islamic Republic of Iran.

The following news reports are typical of how the term ‘Islamist”, and to a smaller degree “ultraconservative Islamist” and “moderate Islamist” are positioned in western media when describing Egypt’s first freely elected President Mohammed Morsi and Egypt’s freely elected Parliament, dissolved in June by a court dominated by former President Hosni Mubarak appointed judges:

  • Egypt’s constituent assembly Thursday purportedly rushed through approval of a new constitution at the center of a political crisis pitting the nation’s Islamist president against his opposition, which has threaten new protest”.  The Guardian, November 29, 2012
  • The leaders of Egypt’s constitutional assembly prepared a rushed vote on a permanent charter that independent analyst called hasty and ill-defined as the chamber raced to finish ahead of a looming court ruling and escalating political crisis.  The assembly’s chairman began with a vote to replace 11 members who boycotted the session in protest over the Islamist-dominated chamber’s push to shut debate and wrap it.  New York Times, November 29, 2012
  • Egypt’s latest draft of a new constitution was already weakened because of constitutional resignation  by non-Islamist.  Rushing the document to completion could cement that. Christian Science Monitor, by Kristen Chick, Correspondent / November 29, 2012
  • Members of Egypt’s constitution committee meet as the Shura Council for the final vote on Egypt’s new constitution in Cairo November 29, 2012.  An assembly drafting Egypt’s new constitution voted on Thursday to keep the ‘principles of Islamic law as the main source of legislation,’ unchanged from the previous constitution in force under former President Hosni Mubarak.  The issue was the subject of a long dispute between hardline Salafi Islamist and liberals in the assembly which will vote on each of 234 articles in the draft constitution before it is sent to President Mohamed Mursi for approval.  Mohammed Abd El Ghany / Reuters November 29, 2012

The National Salvation Front, a new opposition coalition led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and former Arab League Chief Amr Moussa, are characterized as liberal, leftist, centrist, secular, nationalist, but never Islamist.

Every known political party in Egypt with an economic, social or political orientation that is conservative, right wing, or adhere to ‘the principles of Islamic law’ as the main source of legislation, with the exception of the National Democratic Party of former President Hosni Mubarak, are described as ‘Islamist’.

Observers has given various definitions for Islamism such as: political Islam, enforcement of Islamic law (Sharia), pan-Islamic (political unity); and the elimination of non-Muslim, particularly Western military, economic, political, social or cultural influence in the Muslim world.

Other observers suggest Islamism’s tenets are less strict, and can be defined as a form of identity politics or “support for Muslim identity, authenticity, broader regionalism, revivalism, and revitalization of the community”.

Following the so-called “Arab Spring” at lest one source has described Islamism as “increasingly” interdependent” with democracy in much of the Arab Muslim world such that neither can now survive without the other”.

The concept Islamism is controversial, not just because it posits a political role for Islam, but also because political leaders in the Muslim world portrayed as ‘Islamist’ believe their views merely reflect Islam, while the contrary idea that Islam is, or can be, apolitical is an error.

Scholars and observers who do not believe Islam is a political ideology include Fred Halliday, John Esposito and Muslim intellectuals like Javed Ahmad Ghamidi.

Muslims have asked the question, “If Islam is a way of life, how can we say that those who want to live by its principles in legal, social, political and economic spheres of life are not Muslims, but Islamist and believe in Islamism, not just Islam?”

Similarly, a writer for the International Crisis Group maintains that “the conception of ‘political Islam” is a creation of Americans to explain the Iranian Islamic Revolution.

In reality , apolitical Islam was a historical fluke of the short-lived heyday of secular Arab nationalism between 1945 and 1970,” and it is quietist/non-political, non-Islamism, that requires explanation.

According to historian Barnard Lewis, Islamism, (or as he terms it “activist” Islam), along with “quietism”, form two “particular…. political traditions’ in Islam. The arguments in favor of both are based, as are most early Islamic arguments, on the Holy Book and on the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).  The quietist tradition obviously rest on the Prophet as sovereign, as judge and statesman.  But before the Prophet became head of state, he was a rebel.  Before he travelled from Mecca to Medina, where he became sovereign, he was an opponent of the existing order.  He led an opposition against the pagan oligarchy of Mecca and at a certain point went into exile and formed what in modern language might be called a ‘government in exile” with which he was finally able to return in triumph to his birthplace and establish the Islamic State in Mecca.

The  Prophet as a rebel has provided a sort of paradigm of revolution– opposition and rejection, withdrawal and departure, exile and return.  Time and time again movements of opposition in Islamic history tried to repeat this pattern, a few of them successfully.”  Bernard Lewis – Islamic Revolution


The danger on both sides of the isle, regardless of whether it is between, the secular (non-religious) or non-secular (religious), conservative or liberal, capitalist or socialist, is the power and dominance of the ideologue.

An ideologue is an adherent of an ideology, especially one who is uncompromising and dogmatic, “Nazi ideologue”.  The most common variant of ideologue are conservative and liberal.  Smug and self-satisfied in their certitudes,  ideologue’s opinions are merely a loose collection of intellectual conceits, and is genuinely astonished, bewildered and indignant that his views are not universally embraced as the truth.  He regards the opposing points of view as a form of cognitive dissonance whose only cure is relentless propagandizing and browbeating.  The conservative iteration of ideologue parades himself as a logical, clear thinker, while the liberal version trumpets his higher level of mental, spiritual and social awareness.

The social orientation of Egypt’s 71 known political parties has been variously described as:  ‘Big Tent’ liberal, Conservative, Nasserism, Centrist, Conservative ‘Big Tent’, Moderate, Moderate Islamism Centrism, Anti Globalization, Social Liberal, Social Democracy, Communism, Socialism, Democratic Socialism, Islamic Socialism.

The economic orientation of Egypt’s 71 known political parties has been variously described as:  Center-left, Right Wing, left-Wing, Centrist, Right-Wing (nominally) Left-Wing, Far Right, Far Left, Center Right, Far left.

The political orientation of Egypt’s 71 known political parties has been variously described as:  Secular, Liberal Democracy, Social Democracy, Islamism, Jihadism, Non-secular, Islamist Moderate Salafi, Liberal Democracy, Liberalism Nationalism, Liberal Secular Mainstream, Authoritarian, Nationalist, Militarist, Non-secular Democratic, Secular Democratic, Free Market Capitalist, Non-Secular Islamist (Salafi Islam) (Wahhabism), Non-Secular (Islamist) Moderate Islamic Democracy, Secular Democratic.

Mohamed Morsi’s Political Party: Freedom and Justice Party (Arabic name, Hizb Al-Horriya Wal-Adala), Social orientation: conservative.

The Freedom and Justice Party’s Economic orientation: right.

The Freedom and Justice Party’s Political Orientation: Non-secular (so-called Islamist), Moderate Islamic Democracy.

Legal status: registered.  Founded: February, 21,2011.  Overthrown by military coup June 30, 2013, led by Egyptian General Sisi

The Freedom and Justice Party’s Role in Egyptian Revolution: Youth members joined in early stages and other members refused, but later supported.

The Freedom and Justice Party is supported by: The Muslim Brotherhood.

Mohamed ElBaradei’s Political Party:  the Constitution Party (Arabic name, Hizb el Dostour), Social orientation: ‘Big Tent Liberal.’

The Constitution Party’s Economic Orientation: Centre left.

The Constitution Party’s Political Orientation: secular, liberal democracy, social democracy.

The Constitution Party’s Legal Status: registered September 16, 2012.

The Constitution Party was Founded: April, 28, 2012.

The Constitution Party’s Role in Egyptian Revolution: supported.

The Constitution Party was Founded by: Mohamed ElBaradei.

Amr Moussa’s Political Party: the Conference Party’s (no Arabic name given), Social Orientation: Liberal.

The Conference Party’s Economic Orientation: Centre-left.

The Conference Party’s Political Orientation: Secular, liberal democracy.

The Conference Party is Supported by: Amr Moussa and Ayman Nour.

Former President, Hosni Mubarak’s Political Party: the National Democratic Party, (Arabic name, Al-Hizb al Watany ad Dimugraty), Social Orientation: Conservatism, Big Tent.

The National Democratic Party’s Economic Orientation: Right-wing (nominally left-wing).

The National Democratic Party’s Political Orientation: Authoritarian, Nationalist, Militarist.

The National Democratic Party’s Legal Status: Dissolved by the court on April 16, 2011.

The National Democratic Party was Founded: 1978.

The National Democratic Party’s Role in Egyptian Revolution: Opposed.

The National Democratic Party was Supported by: Egyptian Military, Hosni Mubarak, Western Countries, Arab Countries.

The origin of the term Islamism:

The term Islamism was coined in eighteenth century France as a way of referring to Islam.  The earliest known use of the term identified by Oxford English Dictionary is 1747.

By the turn of the twentieth century it had begun to be displaced  by the shorter and purely Arabic term Islam and by 1938, when Orientalist scholars completed The Encyclopedia of Islam, seems to have virtually disappeared from the English language.

The term Islamism is considered to have first begun to acquire its contemporary connotations in French academia between the late 1970s and 1980s.

From French, it began to migrate to the English language in the mid-1980s, and in recent years has largely displaced the term Islamic Fundamentalism in academic and media circles.

The use of the term Islamism was at first a “marker for scholars more likely to sympathize” with new Islamic movements; however, as the term gained popularity it became more specifically associated with groups such as the Taliban or the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, as well as with highly publicized acts of violence.

Islamic leaders who have spoken out against the use of the term, insisting they are merely “Muslims”, include the Ayatollah Mohammad Fadlallah, spiritual mentor of Hizbullah, and Abbasi Madani, leader of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front.

A 2003 article in Middle Eastern Quarterly states: In summation the term Islamism enjoyed its first run, lasting from Voltaire to the First World War, as a synonym for Islam.  Enlightened scholars and writers generally preferred it to Mohammedanism.  Eventually both terms yielded to Islam, the Arabic name of the faith, and a word free of the pejorative or comparative associations.  There was no need for any other term, until the rise of an ideological and political interpretation of Islam challenged scholars and commentators to come up with an alternative, to distinguish Islam as modern ideology from Islam as faith.


The president of Iran is the head of government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The president is the highest popularly elected official in Iran, although the office is subordinate to the Supreme leader of Iran, who functions as the country’s head of state.

Chapter IX of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran sets forth the qualification for presidential candidates and procedures for elections, as well as the Presidents powers and responsibilities as “functions of the executive”.

These include signing treaties and other agreements with foreign countries and international organizations; administering national planning, budget, and state employment affairs; and appointing ministers, governors, and ambassadors subject to the approval of Parliament.

Unlike the executive in other countries, the President of Iran do not have full control over Iran’s foreign policy, the armed forces, or nuclear policy, as these are ultimately under the control of the Supreme Leader.

The President of Iran is elected for a four-year term by the direct vote of the people and may not serve more than two consecutive terms.

The office of the President of Iran is notable as it is the only President of a state that is not the Head of State. The current President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, recently replaced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who served since the 2005 Iranian presidential election.  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected after a disputed 2009 Iranian presidential election.

After the Iranian Revolution of 1979 a referendum on creating an Islamic Republic was held in Iran on 30 and 31 March 1979.  It was approved by 99.3% of voters (20,146,855).   The new government needed to craft a new constitution.  The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ordered an election for the Assembly of Experts, the body tasked with writing the constitution.  The assembly presented the constitution on October 24, 1979 and the Supreme Leader and Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan approved it.

The 1979 Constitution designated the Supreme Leader as the head of state and the president and the Prime Minister as heads of government. The post of Prime Minister was abolished in 1989.

Iranian Presidential Oath of Office

“I, as President, upon the Holy Qur’an and in the presence of the Iranian nation, do hereby swear in the name of Almighty God to safeguard the ‘official Faith’, the system of the Islamic Republic and the Constitution of the country, to use all my talents and abilities in the discharge of responsibilities undertaken by me; to devote myself to the service of the people, glory of the country, promotion of religion and morality, support of right and propagation of justice; to refrain from being autocratic; to protect the freedom and dignity of individuals and the rights of the Nation recognized by the Constitution; to spare no efforts in safeguarding the frontiers and the political, economic and cultural freedoms of the country; to guard the power entrusted to me by the Nation as a sacred trust like an honest and faithful trustee, by seeking help from God and following the example of the Prophet of Islam and the sacred Imams, peace be upon them, and to entrust it to the one elected by the Nation after me.”


The Justice and Development Party (Turkish: Adelet ve Kalkinma Partis), abbreviated JDP in English and AK PARTI or AKP in Turkish, is a centre-right conservative political party in Turkey.

The party is the largest in Turkey, with 327 members of Parliament.

Its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is Prime Minister, while fellow former party member and PM Abdullah Gul is President.

In Turkish, AK also mean white. Founded in 2001 by members of a number of existing parties.

The Justice and Development Party won a landslide victory in the 2002 election, winning over two-thirds of parliamentary seats.

Abdullah Gul became Prime Minister, but a constitutional amendment in 2003 allowed Erdogan to take his place.

In early general elections in 2007, the AKP increased its share of the vote to 47%; its number of seats fell to 341, but Erdogan  was returned as Prime Minister, while Gul was elected President.

In the general elections held on June 12, 2011, the AKP further increased its share of the popular vote to 49.8% and secured 327 parliamentary seats to form a third consecutive government.

The AKP portrays itself as a pro-Western party in the Turkish political spectrum that advocate a conservative social agenda and a liberal  market economy that includes Turkish membership in the European Union.

In 2005, the party was granted observer membership in the European People’s Party.

The AK Party was established by a wide range of politicians of various political parties and a number of new politicians.

The core of the party was formed from the reformist faction (Turkish: Yenilikciler) of the so-called ‘Islamist’ Virtue Party, including people such as Abdullah Gul and Bulent Annc.

A second founding group consisted of members of the social conservative Motherland Party who had been close to Turgut Ozal, such as Cemil Cicek and Abdulkadir Aksu.

Some members of the Turkish Democratic Party, such as Huseyin Celik and Koksal Toptan, joined the AKP.  Some members, such as Kursad Tuzmen, had nationalist backgrounds while representatives of the nascent ‘Muslim Left’ current were largely excluded.

In addition a large number of people joined a political party for the first time, such as Ali Babacan, Selma Aliye Kavaf, Egeman Bagis and Mevlut Cavusoglu.  All of these people joined Recep Tayyip Erdogan to found the new party.

According to former minister Huseyin Celik, “the AK Party is a conservative demoncratic party but the AK Party’s conservatism is limited to moral and social issues,  “The Economist characterizes the party as “mildly Islamist” while Reuters refers to the AKP as “Islamist rooted” and “Islamic-leaning.”

The party objects to the  frequent descriptions of it in the Western media as ‘Islamist.’

In March of 2010 Celik complained that in the Western press, when the AK party administration… is being named, unfortunately most of the time “Islamic”, “mildly Islamist”, “Islamic orientated”, “Islamic leaning,” “Islamic based” or “with an Islamic agenda,” and similar language is being used.  These characterizations do not reflect the truth and they sadden us.”

State Religion

A state religion (also called an official religion or faith, established church or state church) is a religious body or creed officially indorsed by the state.

A state with an official religion or faith, while not secular, is not necessarily a theocracy.

State religions are official or government-sanctioned establishments of a religion, but neither does the state need to be under the control of the church (as in a theocracy), nor is the state-sanctioned church necessarily under the control of the state.

There is a difference between a “state church” and the broader term of “state religion”.

A “state church” is a state religion created by a state for use exclusively by that state, examples of which include the Church of England (which previously was a Catholic church until it was separated by Henry the VIII in 1534).

An example of a “state religion” that’s not also a “state church”, is Roman Catholicism in Costa Rica which was accepted as the state religion in the 1949 constitution, despite the lack of a national church.

In the case of the former, the state has absolute control over the church, but in the case of the latter the church is ruled by an exterior body (in the case of Catholicism, the Vatican has control over the church).  In either case, the official state religion has some influence over the ruling of the state.

As of 2012, there are only five state churches left:

  • Denmark,
  • Greece,
  • Iceland,
  • Tuvalu
  • United Kingdom

Most countries which once featured state churches have separated church and state, thus downgrading their state churches to “national churches”.  The most recent country to separate church and state was Norway in 2012.

Jurisdictions which recognize Catholicism as their state religion:

  • Alsace-Moselle
  • Costa-Rica
  • Liechtenstein
  • Malta
  • Monaco
  • Vatican City (Theocracy)

Jurisdiction which recognize one of the Eastern Orthodox churches as their state religion:

  • Greece: Church of Greece

Secular State

A secular state is a concept of secularism, whereby a state or country purports to be officially neutral in matters of religion, supporting neither religion nor irreligion.

A secular state claims to treat all its citizens equally regardless of religion, and claims to avoid preferential treatment for a citizen from a particular religion/non-religion over other religions/non-religion.

Secular states do not have a state religion or equivalent, although the absence of a state religion does not guarantee that a state is secular.

A minority of secular, communist or dictatorial nations have historically enforced the extreme of the concept, state atheism, on their populations by way of religious censorship and persecution.

Secular states either upon establishment of the state (e.g. United States of America or India) or upon secularization of the state (e.g. France or Nepal).

Movements for laici’te (a concept denoting the absence of religious involvement in government affairs as well as the absence of government involvement in religious affairs) in France and for the separation of church and state in the United States define modern concepts of secularism.

Historically, the process of secularizing states typically involves granting religious freedom, disestablishing state religions, stopping public funds to be used for a religion, freeing the legal system from religious control, freeing up the education system, tolerating citizens who change religion or abstain from religion, and allowing political leadership to come to power regardless of religious belief.

Not all legally secular states are completely secular in practice.  In France for example, many Christian holy days are official holidays for the public administration, and teachers in Catholic schools are salaried by the state.

In some European states were secularism confronts monoculturalist philanthropy some of the main Christian sects and sects of other religions depend on the state for some of the financial resources for their religious charities.

It is common in Corporate law and Charity law to prohibit them from using those funds to organize religious worship in a separate place of worship or for conversion; the religious body itself must provide the religious content, educated clergy and lay-persons to exercise its own functions and may choose to afford part of their time to the separate charities.

To that effect some of those charities establish secular organizations that manage some of or all of the donations from the main religion(s).  Religious and atheist organizations can apply for equivalent funding from the government and receive subsidies either based on assessed social results where there is indirect religious state funding, sometimes that assessment is simply the number of beneficiaries of those organizations. This resembles Charitable choice in the United States.

Overt direct state funding of religions on the whole is doubtfully in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights though it would not yet appear to have been decided at the supranational level in ECtHR (European Court of Human Rights).

Case law stemming from the rights in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which mandates  non-discrimination in affording its co-listed basic social rights; specifically, funding certain services would not accord non-discriminatory state action.

Many states that nowadays are secular in practice may have legal vestiges of an earlier established religion. Secularism also has various guises which may coincide with some degree of official religiosity.

Thus in the Commonwealth Realms, the head of state is required to take the 1688-enacted Coronation Oath.  Swearing to defend the Anglican faith.

The United Kingdom also maintains positions in its advisory chamber for 26 senior clergymen of the established Church of England known as the Lords Spiritual, Spiritual Peers or Bishops in the House of Lords.


Islam is a verbal noun originating from the trilateral root (s-l-m) which forms a large class of words mostly relating to concepts of wholeness, safeness and peace.  In a religious context it means “voluntary submission to God”.

Muslim, the word for an adherent of Islam, is the active particle of the same verb of which Islam is the infinitive.

Believers demonstrate submission to God by serving God and following His commands, and rejecting polytheism (the worship or belief in multiple deities).

The word Islam sometimes has distinct connotations in its various occurrences in the Qur’an.  In some verses (ayat), there is stress on the quality of Islam as an internal conviction:

“Whomsoever Allah desires to guide.  He expands his breast to Islam”. 

Other verses connect Islam and Din.

Din is an Arabic word commonly associated with Islam, but it is also used in Arab Christian worship.

The term is sometimes translated as “religion”, but as used in the Qur’an, it refer both to the path along which righteous Muslims travel in order to comply with divine law, or Sharia, and to the divine judgment or recompense to which all humanity must inevitably face without intercessors before God.

Thus, although secular Muslims would say that their practical interpretation of Din conforms to “religion” in the restricted sense of something that can be carried out in separation from other areas of life, both mainstream and reformist Muslim writers take the words to mean an all-encompassing way of life carried out under the auspices of Allah’s divine purpose as expressed in the Qur’an and Hadith (authentic and verifiable sayings or an act or tacit approval or disapproval ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad-pbuh).

As one notably progressive Muslim writer puts it, far from being a discrete aspect of life carried out in the Mosque.  “Islam is Din,’ a complete way of life”.    

“Today, I have perfected your religion (Din) for you.”  “I have completed My blessing upon you”.  “I have approved Islam for your religion”. 

Still others describe Islam as an action of returning to God- more than just a verbal affirmation of faith.

In the Hadith of Gabriel (Jibril), Islam is presented as one part of a triad that include iman (faith), ihsan (excellence), where Islam is defined theologically as Tawhid (the doctrine of the Oneness of God) historically by asserting that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, and doctrinally by mandating five basic and fundamental pillars of faith.

The five pillars of faith:

  1. A Muslim must acknowledge that “there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the seal of His Prophets.”
  2. A Muslim must pray five times daily facing Mecca: at dawn, at noon, in the mid-afternoon, at dusk, and after dark.
  3. Each Muslim must pay Zakat (the poor tax).
  4. A Muslim must fast for the entire month of Ramadan, refraining from eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual intercourse from dawn until sunset.
  5. Every adult Muslim who is physically and financially able to do so must make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime.

The greatest test for the ‘democratically elected political leadership,’ in the Muslim world, is its ability to find common ground with the universal principles of ‘equality,’ for all of its citizens i.e., treating all of its citizens equally regardless of religion, nationality, gender, race, creed or color.  Tolerating citizens who change religion or abstain from religion.  Allowing political leadership to come to power regardless of religious belief.

Practice fairness in the use of public funds for the education, housing, employment, health and welfare of all its citizens, without preferential treatment for religion.

“Let there be no compulsion in religion.  Truth has been made clear from falsehood.  Whoever rejects false worship and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold that never break.  And Allah hears and know all things.”  Qur’an 2:256

“If  it had been your Lord’s will, all of the people on Earth would have believed.  Would you then compel the people so to have them believe?” Qur’an 10:99

“So if they dispute with you (Muhammad), say: “I have submitted my whole self  to Allah, and so have those who follow me.”  And say to the People of the Scriptures and the unlearned: “Do you also submit yourselves?”  If they do, then they are on right guidance.  But if they turn away, your duty is only to convey the Message.  And in Allah’s sight are all of His servants.” Qur’an 3:20   



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