Why Islamic States Would Be Bad for Muslims

Defining 'sharia' is crucial to finding a healthy place for religion in Muslim nations.

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Around 5,000 people packed the mosque in central Islamabad to hear a recorded message by radical cleric Abdul Aziz who urged thousands of supporters to continue his struggle for Islamic sharia law.

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But An-Na'im goes further. A secular state is best for a Muslim-majority nation, he says, not only because it allows true religion to flourish but also because it fosters bringing universal standards of human rights to the critical task of interpreting and applying sharia. For example, it emboldens the faithful to give greater weight to those parts of the Koran that stress the universality of the faith (the so-called Meccan phase of the Prophet's teaching) rather than those parts of the Koran that came out when Islam was under siege from enemies (the Medina phase) and emphasized rather harsh teachings about non-Muslims and apostates.

An-Na'im is no utopian. He understands that the struggle over the meaning of sharia will not necessarily go the way he thinks and hopes it should. He also knows that in secular states, there will always be a negotiation, and sometimes an open struggle, between those who want to impose their religious beliefs on the entire society and those who want religion completely removed from the public sphere. Between those two groups of fundamentalists—religious and secular—there is a great majority that understands that negotiation among contending ultimate positions is what democracy is really about. To deny that possibility to majority-Muslim nations by acceding too quickly to the agenda of the Islamists would be a mighty blow, An-Na'im believes, not only to the cause of democracy and human rights but also to the future vitality of Islam.