Humantrustees.org aims to foster understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians so as to empower them to live up to their God-given calling as “trustees of the earth.” This Christian initiative seeks to accomplish this goal through scholarship, teaching, news commentary, and networking between scholars, members of both communities, and with anyone else who is passionate about peace and human flourishing.
David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

In the second half of this blog post I make three points. After an introduction to Christian mission (and Islamic da’wa), I first argue that Pope Francis in his first encyclical is intentionally engaging in Christian mission. In fact, by addressing all humanity on an issue that impacts the whole planet with potentially disastrous consequences, he is leveraging his influence to promote dialogue for the common good. This for him is to shine the light of Jesus’ gospel.

My second point is to briefly show how evangelical mission thinking has been evolving in similar directions. I will illustrate this by looking at the most important recent evangelical global document on mission, the Lausanne Cape Town Commitment.

Finally – with even fewer words – I will contend that despite the troubling history of Muslim-Christian interaction in this area of mission, environmental education and activism, which goes hand in hand with poverty reduction, represents a fertile field of common witness today.


Christian mission and Muslim da’wa

Unlike other faiths, Islam and Christianity are “missionary” traditions, that is, both call on their adherents to spread their faith and bring others into the fold. The gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus giving his last charge to the disciples before ascending into heaven, including this central command, “go and make disciples of all the nations” (Mat. 28:19). In Luke-Acts, and in parallel fashion, before his ascension Jesus tells them,


“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere – in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the world” (Acts 1:8).


Many mosques in the English-speaking world are called “Islamic Dawah Center,” like this one in Houston, TX. The Arabic word da’wa (or dawah, or da’wah), means “to invite” and is used in several Qur’anic verses, notably:


“[Prophet] call [people] to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good teaching. Argue with them in the most courteous way …” (Q. 16:125)

“Who speaks better than someone who calls people to God, does what is right, and says, ‘I am one of the those devoted to God’?” (Q. 41:33).


Thus Muslims consider that da’wa is a duty, if not of every individual, at least of the ummah as a whole (Muslim community worldwide). The Texan convert to Islam, Yusuf Estes, in his answer to a query about this on his website (islamtomorrow.com) includes advice that Christians often use on this topic. First, he mentions that “Islam has the proof for everything that it teaches. Our sources [Qur’an and Sunna] are authentic and original.” Then this advice:


"Your actions are observed by others through your behavior and manners. You become the role model for what Islam is all about.

Both methods (dawah by words and actions) were used by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) when delivering the message of Islam. He was the perfect example of what he was calling the people to do. Ayesah, may Allah be pleased with her, said that if you would like to see a living example of the Quran walking, then simply look to Muhammad, peace be upon him. His life was the best example of the noble teachings and principles set forth in the Quran."

Muslims are supposed to advise everyone by using a gentle and simple approach to attract the hungry souls to the Way of Allah. For sure today more than ever, people need to know about Islam and be able to put it into practice. We all need an example to follow.


The shaykh here was beginning to engage in “a theology of mission.” Christian scholars of mission are called “missiologists.” One of the greatests in the last century was the South African David Bosch. As quoted by Scott Sunquist in his 2014 groundbreaking work, Understanding Christian Mission: Participating in Suffering and Glory (p. 11), Bosch described the Christian mission in these words:


“Mission is, quite simply, the participation of Christians in the liberating mission of Jesus, wagering on a future that verifiable experience seems to belie. It is the good news of God’s love, incarnated in the witness of a community, for the sake of the world” (Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, p. 518).


For the uninitiated, allow me to highlight several points:

  1. This is God’s mission – Jesus continues his “liberating mission” through his followers today. The Latin phrase is often used to capture this work of God: mission dei.
  2. God seeks to “liberate” people; first from sin (hence Christ’s redemption through the cross); but too, in following Jesus’ example in his healings and ministry to the poor and marginalized, this involves care for the poor and an effort to dismantle the unjust structures that keep them oppressed.
  3. Mission involves both proclamation (articulating the “good news”) and acts of mercy and justice
  4. It is the witness of a community, not just individuals
  5. It is global in scope (“all the nations,” in Jesus’ words). Today, we have come to realize that mission also involves action to protect the environment from human degradation, because all are affected by this “bad news.”


In the very beginning of his encyclical, Pope Francis wrote this:

“In my Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I wrote to all the members of the Church with the aim of encouraging ongoing missionary renewal. In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (3).


I made clear in my commentary on his Apostolic Exhortation that Pope Francis was calling his people (all Christians, actually) to be joyful missionaries (joy was in the title and throughout the text), heralds of good news for the world. So after spelling out in his first chapter all the dangers and devastation visited by humankind on their common planet, he turns to “The Gospel of Creation” in his next chapter. In his own words:


“Why should this document, addressed to all people of good will, include a chapter dealing with the convictions of believers? I am well aware that in the areas of politics and philosophy there are those who firmly reject the idea of a Creator, or consider it irrelevant, and consequently dismiss as irrational the rich contribution which religions can make towards an integral ecology and the full development of humanity. Others view religions simply as a subculture to be tolerated. Nonetheless, science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into an intense dialogue fruitful for both” (45).


This pope is keenly aware of his great responsibility as the leader of about half of all the 2.2 billion Christians on earth and it is significant that he has chosen creation care as the topic of his first major document. For one thing, it is the first encyclical (the most official and weighty of all papal pronouncements) on this topic. For another, scientific evidence from all over the globe has been pouring in about the potentially catastrophic consequences of the rate at which the earth is heating up.

I believe a third reason is present here. Pope Francis wants Christians as Christians to make such a statement before the whole world. In other words, after calling his people to joyful witness, he leads by example by addressing all people of good will and by exhorting them to unite in caring for their common home. This also allows him to tie in some of the consistent themes of Catholic social doctrine, and in particular the dangers of a culture of consumerism that increases in many ways the oppression of the poor.

Who is he addressing in particular? People of faith of all stripes, and particularly the followers of the three monotheistic traditions, who believe in a Creator – in fact, in a Creator who calls his people to manage well the bounty with which he has blessed them. He also talks about the necessary dialog between science and religion, of which his encyclical is a great example. He takes all the sciences seriously, quoting scientists throughout, including also the social sciences. People of faith must be clear-eyed and informed about the latest research on all the issues that bear upon our life together on this Earth.

Here is a good summary of his position:


“Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself. When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature” (87-8).


Having discussed the issues of environmental, economic, social, and cultural ecology, Pope Francis wants to emphasize the interconnected nature of all these aspects of human existence. What is more, they also connect all of Earth's inhabitants in an increasingly globalized world. So the theme of solidarity comes up again, and with it the theme of the “common good”:


“In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters. This option entails recog­nizing the implications of the universal destination of the world’s goods, but, as I mentioned in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, it demands before all else an appreciation of the immense dignity of the poor in the light of our deepest convictions as believers” (117).


If social justice is at the core of loving our neighbor, then so is environmental justice, which disproportionately impacts the poor as well as future generations -- the most powerless of all in this area. What kind of a planet will we pass on to them?

I have no space to detail all the practical prescriptions and suggestions the pope offers to his readers. But perhaps they can best be summarized in the word “dialog” – continuing dialog among the international community (so let’s strengthen the process agreed upon in the Paris Agreement); but also dialog about local, national and international politics, so as to eradicate the corruption of money and power and to foster a more just economic system that works for all. Politics matter too, but they begin and finally depend on conversations and solidarities at the grassroots. This will necessarily involve robust environmental education, and who is better equipped for this than religious institutions? In the first quote, Pope Francis targets education across the board; in the second, Christians, who need a “conversion” in this area:


“Environmental education should facilitate making the leap towards the transcendent which gives ecological ethics its deepest meaning. It needs educators capable of developing an ethics of ecology, and helping people, through effective pedagogy, to grow in solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care” (154).

“It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (158-9).


This last statement about “ecological conversion” provides an apt transition to our section on the Lausanne Cape Town Commitment.


Evangelical mission: the Lausanne Cape Town Commitment

Founded in 1846, the World Evangelical Alliance is the oldest and most influential of organizations seeking to represent over 600 million evangelicals around the world. And because it is in the “evangelical tradition,” “it looks to the future with vision to accomplish God’s purposes in discipling the nations for Jesus Christ.” But the most influential evangelical organization seeking to coordinate specifically missional concerns is the Lausanne Movement.

The evangelist Billy Graham, whose passion was to “unite all evangelicals in the common task of the total evangelization of the world,” convened a world congress in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974. Over 2,400 leaders came from 150 nations to the first International Congress on World Evangelization. Since then, many other international congresses, regional gatherings, and more specialized conferences have taken place. The last great congress was the one held in Cape Town, South Africa in 2010. The Lausanne Movement website calls it “the widest and most ethnically diverse gathering of evangelical Christian leaders ever … carefully assembled to depict an accurate demographic of the global church, giving particular voice to the church in the majority world.”

The result was a broad and rich document, the first part of which serves as a kind of creed entitled, “For the Lord we love,” and the word “love” appears in each of the subsection titles. The last one is “We love the mission of God.” It lays out the mission to which God calls the church in two dimensions. Notice here the word “call,” similar to the Islamic da’wa (my emphasis):


    • God commands us to make known to all nations the truth of God’s revelation and the gospel of God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ, calling all people to repentance, faith, baptism and obedient discipleship.
    • God commands us to reflect his own character through compassionate care for the needy, and to demonstrate the values and the power of the kingdom of God in striving for justice and peace and in caring for God’s creation.


The second half of the Commitment is entitled, “For the World we serve: the Cape Town call to action.” The second of six sections is entitled, “Building the peace of Christ in our divided and broken world.” In effect, the theme of reconciliation covers individual redemption, peace in ethnic conflict, Christ for the poor and oppressed (dealing also with slavery and human trafficking, and people with disabilities and with HIV), and then “Christ’s peace for a suffering creation.” This is where we read:


“All human beings are to be stewards of the rich abundance of God’s good creation. We are authorized to exercise godly dominion in using it for the sake of human welfare and needs, for example in farming, fishing, mining, energy generation, engineering, construction, trade, medicine. As we do so, we are also commanded to care for the earth and all its creatures, because the earth belongs to God, not to us. We do this for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ who is the creator, owner, sustainer, redeemer and heir of all creation.”


The three recommendations dovetail nicely with Pope Francis’ Laudate Si, including the first one: “Adopt lifestyles that renounce habits of consumption that are destructive or polluting.” Moreover, as a follow-up to the Cape Town Congress, the Lausanne Movement called a special conference on creation care which was held in Jamaica in 2012 and out of which came the edited book, Creation Care and the Gospel (2016).


Muslims and Christians as trustees of creation

I know from experience that just bringing up the topic of Christian mission is painful for my Muslim readers. It conjures up the image of arrogant and oppressive colonial powers, or more recently the use of relief aid to target the poor and powerless with Christian literature and proselytizing efforts. This is not to ignore the Saudis’ similar use of their petrodollars in Africa and elsewhere, but it is to emphasize that after many Muslim-Christian dialog events over the last forty years or so there is now a recognition on both sides that faithful witness to one’s faith must follow ethical guidelines. The Cape Town Commitment recognizes this:


“We are called to share good news in evangelism, but not to engage in unworthy proselytizing. Evangelism, which includes persuasive rational argument following the example of the Apostle Paul, is ‘to make an honest and open statement of the gospel which leaves the hearers entirely free to make up their own minds about it. We wish to be sensitive to those of other faiths, and we reject any approach that seeks to force conversion on them.’[67] Proselytizing, by contrast, is the attempt to compel others to become ‘one of us’, to ‘accept our religion’, or indeed to ‘join our denomination’.”


So my conclusion to this two-part blog on Pope Francis’ Laudate Si encyclical is the following. The pope has channeled his 13th-century mentor St. Francis of Assisi in a most commendable way for this 21st-century context. He has made amply clear that to follow the mission of Jesus today is to participate in his work of redeeming the whole of creation – people and their social and physical environment. Caring for the poor and dispossessed is also to preach against consumerism, fight causes of pollution and the spewing of greenhouse gases; and it is to increase global solidarity for these cause at the grassroots and international levels.

More than anything, for me this is to reaffirm the mission of this blog – to galvanize common action among Christians and Muslims especially, because they recognize each other respectively as trustees of God’s good creation, for the purpose of fostering justice and love for our common home and all of the people that inhabit it.

*** For the last five months a combination of projects, teaching, and family affairs have forced me to neglect my blog. I hope to get back to at least a monthly post by January, once the first draft of the Ghannouchi book translation is finally completed.


Like many others, I’ve been reeling under the shock of a Trump presidency and its potential impact on a host of issues, and the Paris Agreement in particular – in essence “the first international climate agreement” (see some of the dire consequence should the Trump administration choose to walk away from it in this Atlantic article). World peace is intimately connected to both to healthy trade practices and a global effort to mitigate the environmental crisis already bearing down on us as citizens of this planet Earth. Just today I read that sea and air temperatures in the Arctic portend a dramatic loss of sea ice next year

In this post I turn to a topic high on my “to-write about list.” It concerns Pope Francis’ first encyclical Laudate Si (“Praise be to you”). It is all about what Protestants, and evangelicals in particular, call “creation care.” His own subtitle is similar: “On care for our common home,” but the Latin “laudate si” is part of a prayer/canticle penned by St. Francis, whom this pope has chosen as his “guide and inspiration”:


“Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.”


The earth’s condition is in urgent need of repair and we are the culprits. This is a call to all of humanity to repent and change their ways, as the next paragraph makes clear:


“This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22).


I have written on faith and ecology at some length before. This blog post is one of two on this topic. Here I’ll briefly present the encyclical and comment particularly on Pope Francis’ theological framework. The second and last installment will go more in depth on the issue of mission – how this pope sees the missionary role of the Roman Catholic Church in the second decade of this new millennium. I will compare this to the 2010 evangelical document, the “Lausanne Cape Town Commitment,” and show that Christians are more united on these issues than might first appear. Naturally, since this blog is about increasing Muslim-Christian understanding, I will also comment on Muslim da’wa, the qur’anic imperative for Muslims to call others to their faith in much the same way as Christians.


Francis’ theology of planet care

What does Saint Francis have to teach us, the pope asks? “He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity, and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (9-10). He leads us beyond the categories of mathematics and biology, Pope Francis says, to an integrated, holistic ecology, because it embraces communion with all of creation with an attitude of constant awe and gratitude to the Creator.

This is an embodied theology, a way of being in the world which led him to name every creature, however big or small, “brother” or “sister.” No romanticism was this. Rather, by choosing the posture and discourse of “fraternity and beauty” in our relationship with the world, we too deliberately refuse to be “masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on [our] immediate needs” (11). “By contrast,” he adds, “if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.” Yes, Saint Francis lived intentionally as a pauper, but this was more radical than simply choosing asceticism. It was “a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled” (11).

Additionally, the beloved friar saw this through the lens of scripture. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wisdom13:5). And as Saint Paul noted, “[God’s] eternal power and divinity have been made known through his words through the creation of the world” (Rom. 1:20).

Then the pope makes his “appeal” to humanity as a whole:


“The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral [a better translation, I think, is “holistic”] development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home … Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded” (12).


Pope Francis sees this document as a call for all to engage in a “new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet” (12). He expresses gratitude for the global environmental movement in its many forms. Many groups and organization forge ahead, despite the indifference of many and the opposition of vested interests. All of us everywhere are needed “as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her culture, experience, involvement and talents” (12).

His first chapter then lists some of the damages we humans are inflicting on our common home: pollution of all kinds and even more alarming, the sudden acceleration of global warming caused to a large extent by human selfishness and unbridled greed. Climate change represents “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day,” (20) and its affects the world’s poor disproportionately. Coupled with the disaster caused by wanton deforestation, a changing climate is multiplying refugees whose status is not yet recognized by international conventions. Symptoms can be tackled here and there, but the root cause needs to be squarely addressed: “our current models of production and consumption.” We must substitute renewable energy for that of fossil fuels, and make these new technologies available to those most impoverished.

The other urgent issue of our day is the depletion of the planet’s resources, with water as the forefront, and especially clean drinking water for the poor. Yet with water becoming more and more scarce, in some instances it has been turned into a commodity ruled by the laws of the market. Notice here Pope Francis’ use of the discourse of rights:


“Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, it is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity” (23, his emphasis).


There is much more in this first chapter (loss of biodiversity, declining quality of life in human society, global inequality, and the weak responses), but allow me to offer a couple of comments on the next chapter, “The Gospel of Creation.”

Starting with a substantial section on “The wisdom of the biblical accounts” (9 pages), Francis develops a theology of creation according to which the Holy Spirit seeks to guide all people in the task of protecting and creatively developing their common heritage (“The mystery of the universe”). Then follows a meditation on God’s love as the force behind all that exists. “Every creature is thus the object of the Father’s tenderness” (56). In that sense too, creation as a whole and each part of it is the receptacle of the divine. Therefore, its very fragility reminds us that as trustees of this awesome gift, we are challenged “to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing, and limiting our power” (57).

From this perspective, then, we cannot view nature “solely as a source of profit and gain”:


“This vision of ‘might is right’ has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus. As he said of the powers of his own age, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant’” (Mat. 20: 25-26).


The next section returns to the theme of awe and wonder, but this time in praise of the Creator (“The message of each creature in the harmony of creation”). Every rock, hill, lake, seashore and flower speaks to the boundless love of the Father of all. Special places in our own experience remind us of his meeting us there in the past. But it’s not just about us. This is about our connection to everything that lives and has being, because it was breathed by the God of love, and because each piece depends on the other and the whole forms a breathtaking tapestry in praise of his holy name.

Now for the last two sections of this chapter on the theology of creation and of ecology. The first, “The common destination of goods,” was a central theme of his pastoral letter of 2013, Gaudium Evangelii (“The Joy of the Gospel,” see my own blog on this). In Catholic social doctrine (and certainly in the prophetic stream of the Bible) the “golden rule of social conduct is this: “the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods” (69). Therefore, “The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of all” (70). He offers this forceful illustration:


“That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ means when ‘twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive” (71).


Jesus and a theology of ecology

Pope Francis ends the chapter with “The gaze of Jesus.” Jesus, after all, worked with his hands a good fifteen to twenty years, most likely chiseling wood, cutting stone and laying brick for the booming construction industry in nearby Sepphoris. He obviously loved to admire the beauty of creation, as his Sermon on the Mount attests, “Look at the birds of the air … See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon was dressed like one of these” (Mat. 6:26, 28). His parables too often drew the attention of his listeners to mustard seeds, the farmer sowing his field, the reapers at harvest time, the fig tree and more.

Jesus also was a man in tune with people around him, one who could enjoy with others the pleasant things of life. He said of himself, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard!’” (Mat. 11:19). But his connection to nature was also at times a source of wonder and even terror for his disciples, “What sort of man is this, when even the winds and sea obey him?” (Mat. 8:27).

For the Christian, “the destiny of all creation is bound up with the mystery of Christ, present from the beginning: ‘All things were created by him and for him’” (Col. 1:16). He is the eternal Word of God (the logos in John’s prologue), who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). And when in the presence of his disciples he had just ascended to heaven after his resurrection, an angel appeared saying to them, “This same Jesus … will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Jesus had just risen up to heaven in his human, resurrected body, to rejoin the Father once again. We know from several gospel narratives that this new body had new properties, like going through walls and appearing anywhere at will. Most of all, it is the prototype of the bodies we will inhabit when he returns. As the Apostle Paul wrote,


"For our dying bodies must be tranformed into bodies that will never die, and our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies" (I Cor. 15:53).


Thus the ascension of Jesus and his resurrection gloriously linked heaven with earth, and the age to come stepped into our present age, guaranteeing that at his second coming he would usher in the New Heavens and the New Earth (Rev. 21:1). This has manifest implications for our natural environment, as Pope Francis concludes,


“Thus, the creatures of this world no longer appear to us under merely natural guise because the Risen One is mysteriously holding them to himself and directing them towards fullness as their end. The very flowers of the field and the birds which his human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with his radiant presence” (74).

We now come full circle in this trilogy on the “impossible Islamic state.” Two months have elapsed since the second installment and only a couple of weeks ago a dramatic event took place that “puts the icing on the cake” in a way that I could never have anticipated. Ghannouchi himself in his opening speech to his party’s (Ennahda) Tenth Congress declared that political Islam was no longer needed for their party to contribute to the welfare of Tunisia. Ennahda was no longer a religious party but a democratic party among others, whose members nevertheless found inspiration in the ethical values of their Islamic faith.

The dream of an Islamic state seems to have come and gone.

So was Wael Hallaq right in arguing that the traditional Islamic state was conceptually and practically impossible to establish today (see blog 1)? No he was not, we argued, and following Andrew March’s critique we decided that Hallaq’s view of the “Islamic state” was more theoretical and ideological than connected with the actual facts of history. In particular, the various kinds of state powers (from imperial dynasties, to kings, to warlords) inevitably interfered to some extent between the ulama (scholars/jurists) and the people. Politics and religion invariably intermingled, but in many different configurations, depending on local conditions.

Reality is always messier than ideology.

 Then in the second blog, while reviewing Jocelyne Césari’s The Awakening of Muslim Democracy, we discovered that “political Islam” started with postcolonial Muslim states imposing their own form of institutionalized Islam. Despite all the posturing of these “secular” regimes (pan-Arab, socialist, and often in the hands of the military), they well knew to what extent Islam was an integral part of their peoples’ identity. So in order to keep it at bay, they decided to regiment the religious sphere. Each nation had some form of Ministry of Religious Affairs and the state mostly took over the religious endowments that had hitherto been owned privately. Nasser nationalized the Al-Azhar University, and I remember well from my nine years in Algeria (1978-87) that the ruling party (FLN) had three pillars: Arabic, Islam and socialism.

Starting with the blistering Arab defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967, however, the genie which had been indelicately shoved into the bottle had now slipped out. From just about every mosque in the Arab, Persian and Turkish mosques the refrain began to arise, “God has punished Islam’s umma with humiliation. He’s calling us back to Islam, and if we repent and obey, he will restore us to greatness once again.”

Egypt’s Nasser, the father of socialist pan-Arabism, died in 1970, leaving behind a vacuum that the growing wave of Islamic revivalism soon came to fill. So with a tight lid in place over the institutions of Islam, it was only natural that political opposition adopted the mantle, symbols and fervor of religion. As Césari demonstrated, this was not about belonging to Islam or even believing in it – everyone did, at least in principle. It was about how to “practice” it. Members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood were now coming into their own again, but this time on college campuses and in the professional syndicates, where they were now winning election after election. Societies all over the region were adopting this more conservative, and in some cases puritanical (in the case of Salafism) form of religiosity, and creating “political battles over Islamically correct behaviors.”

This is where Césari’s concept of secularity is so helpful. Whereas with the Enlightenment in Europe religious institutions detached from the political sphere, that kind of secularism is not likely to form in Muslim-majority nations, at least in the near future. So she chooses the term “secularity,” defining it thus: (1) “equality of all religions in public spaces” and (2) “political neutrality of the state vis-à-vis all religions.”

This is precisely the direction Ghannouchi’s thought has taken him. Let me offer you a very short synopsis of this trajectory, in three main installments.


Ghannouchi’s The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State

In this volume, started in prison and finished in 1993 in the second year of his London exile, Ghannouchi's view of the Islamic state, for all of its progressive democratic features, still fits into what Césari calls the traditional “hegemonic form of Islam.”

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, conducted a series of interviews with Ennahda cadres in Tunis, which fed into a chapter of his 2014 book, Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East. His overall thesis is that, contrary to popular belief, islamist parties moderate under political oppression and gravitate toward the more conservative positions of the rank and file members when in power. This is certainly what happened to the Muslim Brotherhood parties in Egypt and Jordan since the 1980s, as he so aptly documents his case. The title for his chapter on Tunisia tellingly reads, “A Tunisian Exception?”

In essence, Hamid uses the same caution Césari does about Ghanouchi in her book of the same year. Both see the Tunisian experiment with Ennahda as the most promising Islamic project in the wake of the “Arab Spring.” And both, while noting two contending currents within Ennahda, expect its version of political Islam to remain somewhat “hegemonic,” or “illiberal.”

Hamid offers a valuable précis of Ghannouchi in this context:


“In Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda had a towering figure, an intellectual, a strategist, and a symbol, all wrapped into one. But what held the party together more than an individual was an ideology. This – along with a commitment to democracy – is what allowed Ennahda, unlike some of its counterparts, to remain a truly big-tent party.”


As I said, then, The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State presents the most moderate version of a government that is “Islamic.” Here in his last chapter, “The Basic Principles for Combatting Injustice in the Islamic State” (over 200 double-spaced pages in my translation!), he deals with the thorny questions of citizenship. The bottom line is this: non-Muslims do not have the same rights as Muslims and the state is not politically neutral vis-à-vis all religions. In his words,


“As previously stated, no matter what a person’s religious or ethnic background, each person in the Islamic state possesses inalienable rights for leading a dignified life. But he also has the right to choose whether to believe or not in the purposes of the state, in the foundations on which it is built, and in Islam which is its backbone. If he believes in these, he’s a Muslim, and there is nothing that sets him apart from his Muslim brethren, except for his qualifications. If he chooses not to believe, then in order for him to receive citizenship, he must support the state, recognize its legitimacy, and not threaten its public organization either by raising a weapon against it or by his loyalty to its enemies.

Still, his citizenship remains at a lower status, unless he converts to Islam. Yet he continues to enjoy more freedom than his Muslim counterpart in his private life, like in what he eats or drinks, or in his marital life. Further, he is stripped of some of the rights owned by Muslims, like being able to hold the highest offices in the state, wherein the identity of the holder is particularly sensitive (especially the head of state). But from another angle he is excused from some of the duties incumbent upon Muslims, like abstaining from forbidden things. Those represent a few exceptions and do not infringe upon the principle of equality, which is the principal value observed by the Islamic state”


Ghannouchi after Ennahda had ceded power

While Mohamed Morsi was president of Egypt (June 2012-July 3, 2012), he backed the meeting of a surprisingly diverse spectrum of Arab intellectuals, islamists and secularists, in Alexandria. The proceedings of this conference was published in Arabic the next year under the title, Religion and the State in the Arab Homeland: Research and Debates from the Conference Organized by the Center for the Studies on Arab Unity at the Suwaydi Institute in Alexandria.

Ghannouchi’s contribution takes up only ten of the more than 700 pages in this hefty volume (pp. 100-10), but it’s an extremely valuable indication of how his thought on the Islamic state was evolving. His title is, “Religion and State in the Islamic Sources and Contemporary Interpretation.” In fact, he is beginning to deconstruct the traditional “religion and state” synthesis (din wa-dawla) at the heart of political Islam.

The context is clear from the first sentence. Ghannouchi has managed to coax his party to leave power in 2013 and join other political forces – and mostly, the civil society “Quartet” which was to be awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize:


“The topic of the relationship between religion and the state is among the most important challenges we face now in Tunisia, as we are in the process of drawing up a new constitution and political system. Our wish is that it be a democratic system that respects human rights.”


It’s a thorny and complex issue, Ghannouchi writes, which raises the relationship between Islam and secularism – Islam and political power, Islam and the law (qaanuun). There is nothing clear-cut here, as there are several “secularisms” and several “Islams.” Though Europe’s version of secularism arose because of the Protestant Reformation and the resulting religious wars in the 16th and 17th centuries, it nonetheless developed organizational measures that favored the emergence of a neutral state.

This is a mechanism we need as well, intimates Ghannouchi, “the neutrality of the state, that is, the state must remain neutral in the face of various religious traditions [diyaanaat] and not intervene in the conscience of its people. The state’s orbit is the ‘public’ sphere, whereas religion’s orbit is the ‘private’ sphere” (p. 102).

The key word in Ghannouchi’s argument is the “distinction” [tamaayuz] between the religious and public spheres. Obviously, he’s not comfortable with the word “separation.” But that is the point about the American system, he remarks approvingly. Religion impacts politics a great deal, and never more obviously than in political campaigns. Issues like prayer in the schools and abortion touch on religion, and this is because the US was founded by English immigrants who had come to escape Catholic persecution in Europe. They were coming to “the Promised Land, where the dreams found in the Torah and Gospel could be fulfilled” (102).

Quoting from De Tocqueville, he avers that “The biggest party in America is the church, because of the great influence it enjoys among the American people.” Yet secularism looks different in Europe and within various European countries. France and Britain operate quite differently in this respect. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, the British Queen has both political and religious authority. In France, by contrast, its fiercely anti-clerical tradition inherited from revolutionary days polices a total separation between church and state. There are other forms of secularism in the West as well.

French colonialism left its mark on Tunisia, he adds, in that the Tunisian political elites have endeavored to rid the public sphere of all religious symbols. Then he comes back to the idea of secularism as a useful political mechanism:


“Perhaps the most important element pioneered by the secular perspective on this level is the neutrality of the state, in that the state is the guarantor of all religious and political freedoms, and it may not intervene on behalf of this or that group. We ask ourselves whether Islam is in need of this kind of measure, that is, the neutrality of the state with regard to religious traditions [diyaanaat].”


I have no space here to go into the details of his argument. Some of them are present in The Public freedoms (like the Prophet’s “distinction” between his political work in Medina and his religious calling) and some are new, like in his sixth and last section. Throughout, however, the one theme that seems to bring all the various strands together is his assertion that in Islam there is no “state church,” as was the case in Europe, which led to so much bloodshed. This is so, he argues, because religion and politics have different goals. He explains,


“Religion’s basic domain is personal contentment, not the instruments of state. As for the state, its mission is above all to provide services to people as citizens, like employment, good health, and quality education, whereas God’s domain is people’s hearts and religious practice, since the highest value in Islam is freedom” (p. 109)


Then in a footnote explaining why there should be no civil punishment for apostasy (someone choosing to leave Islam), he asserts the following (the bold is in his text):


Therefore the state belongs to Islam to the extent that it is vigilant in its adoption of Islamic values without any supervision from a religious institution, since there is nothing like this in Islam, but only a people and an umma that both decide for themselves by means of their institutions what religion is.”


This is my first time to witness in his writing a distinction between people [sha’ab] and umma. I take it he means by "people" all the citizens, assuming that not all are actually Muslim. This seems to leave room for people of other faiths to determine how to regulate their own religious lives. He is clear too that there are many “Islams” – this has never been more obvious than today. A state may not step in and decide what the “true Islam” is.

I’ll close this section with the last paragraph of his essay, which he has all in bold. I will try to pursue this thought in a separate academic article, but it seems to me this is exactly what the Sudanese American scholar Ahmed An-Na’im was arguing in his 2008 book, Islam and the Secular State:


“We must therefore accept the concept of citizenship and the fact that the country is not the private possession of Zayd or Amr (Paul or John), nor of this or that political party, but it belongs to all of its citizens. Islam grants to each one of them, whatever their religious convictions or ethnicity, male or female, the right to be citizens who enjoy the same rights. One of those rights is for them to believe whatever they choose to believe as long as they respect one another and they behave in accordance with the law that they have enacted through their representatives in parliament.”


Ghannouchi’s speech and reelection at Ennahda’s Tenth Congress

The above photo shows the two men who co-founded Ennahda (though with a different name at that stage) in 1981, Abdelfattah Mourou and Rached Ghannouchi. You witness a teary-eyed Ghannouchi acknowledging the crowd of party faithful and their overwhelming support by just reelecting him as their party leader. The New York Times writes that Ghannouchi was vindicated “for his effort to move the party away from its Islamist roots and stay in tune with the country’s five-year-old democratic revolution.” In an interview with the French paper Le Monde, Ghannouchi surmised, “There is no more justification for political Islam in Tunisia.”

Why is this so? The answers are clear in his opening speech to the Tenth Congress of his party. First, he salutes the Tunisian state and its winning battle against the forces of terrorism: “As we reaffirm Nahdha's absolute support for the state in its war against ISIS and takfiri extremists, we say to them that Tunisia, despite all the sacrifices, is stronger than their hatred, and it will, God willing, defeat them.” Then this proud revolutionary manifesto:


“The path of the revolution, therefore, is one of political successes, re-establishing security, and strengthening international solidarity, culminating in Tunisia being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the National Dialogue Quartet. Tunisia remains the shining candle among countries of the Arab Spring, having sparked the revolutions, demonstrating that democracy in the Arab world is possible.”


The second reason is that Ghannouchi is plainly advocating the “neutral state” and making sure that Ennahda is committed first and foremost to the stability and prosperity of the Tunisian state: “Tunisia’s ship can only sail safely if carries all Tunisians.” Then this crucial statement, which underscores again the necessity of a state being for all of its citizens:


“Thus we have said repeatedly, we are for a comprehensive national reconciliation and for cooperation and consensus-building with all those who recognize the revolution and its martyrs and respect the Constitution, a partnership with all those who regard the revolution as an opportunity for all of us - islamists, destourians, leftists, and all intellectual and political trends, so we can all go forward steadily towards a future that is free from grudges and exclusion.

Nor is it a 'deal under the table' but rather a national vision of reconciliation between the state and citizens, between the state and deprived regions, between opposing political elites, between the past and the present - because Nahdha is a force of unification not one of division.”


Then finally, political Islam has no more role to play in Tunisia because as a result of the revolution civil liberties and human rights are now guaranteed for all citizens. Religion when manipulated by politics becomes divisive, whereas its main vocation is to unite its followers. So I end with this earlier part of his speech, which seeks to explain this “distinction” between the religious and political spheres to the party rank and file:


“The specialization and distinction between the political and other religious or social activities is not a sudden decision or a capitulation to temporary pressures, but rather the culmination of a historical evolution in which the political field and the social, cultural and religious fields were distinct in practice in our movement.

We are keen to keep religion far from political struggles and conflicts, and we call for the complete neutrality of mosques away from political disputes and partisan utilization, so that they play a role of unification rather than division.”


In the end, we can only join Ghannouchi with our own wishes and prayers that Tunisia’s democratic experiment succeeds, and that it be emulated by all the surrounding states of the region, for the peace and prosperity of all its people, Muslims, Shia and Sunni, Christians of many stripes, Yazidis and other religious minorities. Let our faith in the One Creator God truly inspire and translate into action our conviction that each and every human being is worthy of our respect and love. On that basis, then, each nation can forge its own path of democratic governance.

And yes, maybe today an Islamic (or Christian, or Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist) state is an impossibility.


Shadi Hamid is senior fellow a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and regularly contributes to The Atlantic. The book I review here was named a Foreign Affairs Best Book of 2014:

Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

This review will appear in the next issue of Sociology of Islam (Brill) 4, 3-4, 2016. This text is a bit longer than the published version.

In the first installment of this blog we looked at Wael Hallaq’s The Impossible State (2013) and in following the assessment of two reviewers, Lama Abu-Odeh and Andrew March, we felt Hallaq helpfully highlighted some of the challenges of pressing traditional Islamic legal norms into the service of a modern nation-state.

On the other hand, his rather rigid and dogmatic portrayal of the “normative” Islamic state painted an ideal picture of the privileged relationship between the ulama (Islamic scholars and jurists) and the people, as if the political powers never interfered with the ulama’s role as the umma’s moral guardians in God’s name.

In fact the rulers, in the name of Shari’a politics, set up their own norms in several crucial areas, like controlling the markets, setting up their own courts for a variety of criminal offenses, and enacting regulations in the name of public utility (maslaha). This happened to such a degree that under the Mamluks and Ottomans it was the jurists who had to adapt to the rulers, and not the other way around.

Before getting to Ghannouchi in our third installment of this trilogy, I look at another recent book, one without which we cannot make sense of what happened after the 2011 Arab uprisings, French scholar Jocelyne Césari’s The Awakening of Muslim Democracy (Cambridge U. Press, 2014; here she is, lecturing on her book).


Césari’s Wider Definition of Political Islam

In a sense, Césari’s analysis builds on Hallaq’s view of the modern state but takes it in a much more constructive direction (Hallaq’s Impossible State is in her bibliography, but she makes no mention of him in her text). She can do this, partly because she has a more sophisticated understanding of the sociology of religion. Drawing mostly from Talal Asad’s landmark book Geneologies of Religion: Disciplines of Power in Christianity and Islam (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1993), she points to the useful distinction in modern religiosity between believing, belonging, and behaving (practicing religious rituals and the like).

Asad argued that in medieval European society Christianity possessed an “all-embracing capacity” to define the full spectrum of a person’s identity as both a king’s subject and a believer. It was the “great cloak” that “disciplined a religious subject and nurtured certain virtues” (p. 116, note 12). People’s faith completely colored their worldview. On the heels of the Enlightenment, however, the French Revolution and the rise of modern nation-states, religious institutions detached from the political realm, and the state created a legal order that (mostly) guaranteed the freedom to believe or not to believe. From then on, some form of secularism became part of Western nations’ political ideology.

In the Muslim-majority nations that were born in the postcolonial era, however, secularization played out very differently, with the almighty state welding the notion of “belonging to the state” to that of “belonging to Islam.” In parallel fashion, Césari describes how in different ways countries like Pakistan, Egypt and even Turkey and Iraq all implemented from above a “hegemonic form of Islam” (see below). Practices, which until then had been personal, now were becoming public ones. But the imposition of a certain form of Islam meant that from the 1950s to 1970s Muslims were gradually adopting a more secularized form of dress code and gender relations, and that with greater urbanization, industrialization, and education, Muslim societies were undergoing radical change. (For a graphic picture on how this played out with regard to women’s bodies, and the veil in particular, see my two blogs on Leila Ahmed’s The Quiet Revolution)

Notice too that the institutionalization of religion was now in the hands of a powerful state. This marked the beginning of political Islam. Among other things, it controlled what aspects of traditional Islam would be kept in the laws and the courts, what could be taught in Islamic institutions, and how popular piety could be expressed. Thus it not only created for the first time a disjunction in Islamic societies between believing, belonging and practicing religion, but it also forced many opposition groups to resort to Islamic symbols and discourse in order to register their discontent.

Yet these political tensions that arose from the late 1970s on had nothing to do with belonging. The state had by now inextricably linked politics and Islam in such a way that to be a citizen was to belong to Islam, making life more difficult for minority groups like Christians and others. In fact, the rise of islamist parties had everything to do with a wave of conservative religiosity that swept over the globe at that time (see my blog on fundamentalism). It was not about belonging or believing, but about how to “practice.” This led to a social movement from the bottom up of “Islamically correct” behavior and dress, which especially affected women’s dress and social segregation.

In turn, this dynamic interaction of belonging and practicing helps to explain how secular projects initiated by states created such “political battles over Islamically correct behaviors.” People’s religious beliefs weren’t necessarily becoming stronger. Rather, they were renegotiating their belonging to state and religion through different practices. It also means today that “collective identifications and public norms are reshaped by Islamic values or principles and vice-versa, even in the case of secular regimes such as Turkey, Tunisia, or Pakistan” (117).


Césari’s Concept of Secularity

Césari contends that this back and forth dynamic between religious and political belonging is not so much about secularism, at least as it evolved in Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That is why she prefers to use the term “secularity,” which includes two basic principles: “equality of all religions in public spaces and political neutrality of the state vis-à-vis all religions.” Western nations implement these through a variety of legal means. Because of its prior experience with religious persecution, the American nation, for instance, moved from an early principle of toleration to a later stage in which all individuals had the freedom to believe what they liked, or not to believe. Césari continues,


“European democracies, on the other hand, are characterized by more ‘invasive’ forms of secularism, exemplified in multiple forms of cooperation between state and religion and religion at the institutional level, different degrees of social illegitimacy of religion [think of Islam in Europe nowadays] and restricted forms of religious expression at the individual level” (119).


This is not the case in Muslim-majority nations, which have all instituted some form of “hegemonic Islam.” Turkey is usually defined as “secular,” but “the status of citizens, family life, and the definition of the nation involve a dominant religious element imposed on all members of the political community, Muslims and non-Muslims alike” (6). So in all Muslim countries we witness a “lack of institutional separation, exclusive social role of one religion, and limited recognition of religious pluralism at the individual level” (119). That said, this is also the case with “Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the Orthodox Church in Greece, and Judaism in Israel.”

So this standard of secularity has to apply to all three levels – the institutional, the social and the individual. While most islamists are now comfortable with some form of religious equality at the institutional level, they and other factions fight over the expansion of secularity at the social and individual level. Put otherwise, “how to belong as a believer or a nonbeliever to the nation and how to act politically and religiously in the public sphere have become crucial to the evolution of both secularity and religiosity across Muslim countries” (119). How so?


The Rise of “Unsecular Democraties”

Building on the typology of political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, Césari distinguishes between “competitive authoritarianism” and praetorian regimes. The former exhibit the classic four domains of democratic governance,


“(1) open, free, and fair elections; (2) all adults possess the right to vote; (3) political rights and civil liberties, including freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom to criticize the government without reprisal, are broadly protected; and (4) elected authorities possess real authority to govern, in that they are not subject to tutelary control of military or clerical leaders” (238).


The problem is, however, that they frequently violate one of these domains, “especially when it comes to independence of the judiciary, independence of executive and legislative power, and/or freedom of the press and political opposition.” Césari adds that Turkey and Iraq nicely illustrate this aspect of competitive authoritarianism (consider President Ergogan’s recent seizure of opposition newspapers and TV channels and his incarceration of at least 13 journalists).

On the other hand, Egypt and Pakistan are examples of praetorian regimes, in which “military rulers overturn the legal and political rule of elected institutions through the application of emergency laws” (238).

Only Tunisia seems to be on a path leading to democracy, and Rached Ghannouchi’s Ennahda deserves much credit for that. As mentioned in previous blogs, it was his party, still only half way into its term as the ruling party in 2013, which in negotiating with the powerful Union of Tunisian Workers (backbone of the Quartet awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize) relinquished power and joined the other political forces to help draw up a new constitution.

Still, we come back to the issue of the quasi-universal hegemonic role of Islam in these nations. If democratic secularity calls for a level playing field for all religions, legally and institutionally, and for their equidistance from the state, then nations like Tunisia and Indonesia at some point will have to dismantle the scaffolding that props up Islam above other faiths. Or they might choose to remain “unsecular democracies.”

Think too about the “inclusion-moderation paradigm” that is now generally accepted in the political science literature. It is now proven, Césari states, that “greater inclusion of religious parties in the political system leads to greater moderation” (240). But this doesn’t automatically entail an expansion of rights for women or greater religious freedom for all. Whether it be at the level of a political party or inscribed in the constitution and in the law of the land, the “boundaries of public space” can be drawn up to the advantage of one religious tradition. This again is an unsecular democracy.

This happens anywhere, notes Césari, and in particular in the United States where, for example, “the rise of religious claims to prohibit abortion or same-sex marriage” trumps more secular claims. This can also be seen in Poland, Mexico, or Argentina, where the right to abortion and contraception is denied. So the “defining feature of an unsecular democracy is not the rejection of all civil liberties but of some that are seen as a threat to the national community” (240). Whereas most political and civil rights are recognized in Muslim-majority countries (at least on paper), “the rights granted to the person, from sexual freedom to the right to exit or criticize Islam” are not. Liberties are curtailed in the name of religion.


What about Ghannouchi?

In the last installment of our discussion about the “impossible Islamic state,” I will contrast Ghannouchi’s position on the Islamic state in his classic book (“Public Freedoms in the Islamic State”) with the position he puts forward in a 2013 text published in a compendium of papers presented a year earlier at a conference in Alexandria that drew a fairly wide spectrum of Arab political thinkers together (the book is entitled, “Religion and State in the Arab Homeland”). In that piece, Ghannouchi argues for the necessity of a “neutral” state that makes no religious determinations favoring one sect over another, one religious tradition over another. Has he given up on the Islamic state? This merits a closer look.

Translating Ghannouchi’s book (“The Public Freedoms in the Islamic State”), as I stated before, has forced me to delve into political theory. Keep in mind that if you want to get a handle on the contemporary islamist movement in all its variety, you will have to think about issues related to the modern nation-state and democracy.

My title here comes from the most prolific contemporary author on Islamic law (at least in English), Wael Hallaq’s 2014 book, The Impossible State (see picture above).

Hallaq argues that the islamist call for the application of Islamic law within the context of a modern state is an impossible task. Of course, various elements of traditional Islamic fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence as laid out in the five main Islamic legal schools, which has accumulated over the centuries), especially in family law, can be incorporated within the legal codes of a state. But this is to betray the central impulse and moral intuition of the classical (he writes “normative”) Islamic state – that is, a state in which the political authorities provide only the most basic legal framework, while allowing the bulk of laws to be drawn up by the Islamic jurists, who are the primary guardians of the people (the umma, as defined religiously).

Lama Abu-Odeh in her review of Hallaq’s book, summarizes his thesis this way:


“The world of Islam is moral by excellence that rejects the separation between fact and norm, for whom the ‘political’ is confined to executive rulers of rotating dynasties that remain external to the embryonic tight embrace between jurists and community, whose role is to tax, organize armies, and regulate on the margins. In this universe, the ‘the care of the self’ by the individual Muslim to fashion oneself as moral according to the dictates of the Sharia is the organizing principle of life, which is in contradistinction to the pitiable plight of the modern Western citizen whose subjectivity is fashioned by the state for its own selfish utilitarian ends.”


There is a lot packed into that quote and I have no space to go into all the details, but only to say that a more recent review of Hallaq’s book by Yale political scientist Andrew March agrees with Abu-Odeh’s assessment. They both praise Hallaq’s erudition but deplore his ideological agenda, which leads him to ignore the historical-critical tools he uses with such vigor and devastating effect on the modern state when in turn he writes about the “normative” Islamic state.

Let me continue with some of the specifics of March’s objections to Hallaq’s blanket statements that the political never intruded on the privileged relationship between the ulama (Islamic scholars and jurists) and the people. This will then lead into how I see Ghannouchi’s conundrum on the “Islamic movement’s” objective to set up Islamic states (and even a caliphate, ideally). That topic will get fuller treatment in the second installment of this blog.


March’s critique of Hallaq

First, argues March, Hallaq seems to ignore the historical tug-of-war between ulama and rulers of Islamic states. This is a topic I have mentioned in several past blogs, and at greater length in the one entitled, "Islam Today: Who Calls the Shots?"

On the one hand, March recognizes Hallaq’s contribution to our understanding of the islamist project. In his words, “To be sure, Hallaq focuses attention on a real problem. No one will think about terms like ‘an Islamic state’ or ‘applying the shariʿa’ un-self-consciously after reading this book.” Yet if he had contented himself with pointing out the problematic relation between the mechanisms of the modern state and the islamist impulse to use them as a tool to apply Islamic law to modern society, this book would have been a wonderful addition to the existing literature.

On the other hand, says March, “the polemical rationale of the book overwhelms its scholarly aims.” This is because his main argument is stated much too strongly and remains vulnerable to quite a few counterexamples. Here is the argument in its two main clauses. Hallaq contends that:


(1) positive law, acquiring its authoritative force from the will of the sovereign state, is radically incompatible with Islamic law and …

(2) that the disciplinary and regulatory technologies of the modern state are un-Islamic, things never done in the Muslim past and things Muslim authorities may not do.


For Hallaq, the ruler was not sovereign. Only God was, as He was the only rightful Lawgiver. There is some truth to this, at least in theory. In practice, however, there was a whole area of the law called “political Shari’a,” or “Shari’a politics” (siyasa shar’iyya), which was distinct from the fiqh of the Islamic jurists, the ulama. In fact, “there are many areas of public, social and economic life for which no specific Islamic religious rules exist, but where Muslim authorities are permitted to act within broad moral constraints as long as their actions are justifiable as advancing communal welfare (maslaha).” The Ottoman Empire, already in the seventeenth century, enacted specific legal codes within these areas and declared that their legitimacy flowed out of the sultan’s will.

Islamic governance, then, was in practice a lot more than just “to tax, organize armies, and regulate on the margins,” while the ulama fleshed out all the “paradigmatic” norms within the religious law that regulated the people’s daily lives. March adds, “As ideal-theory this may be true, but legal historians have shown in great detail that under such regimes as the Mamluks and the Ottomans it was the religious jurists accommodating the rulers’ desires and prerogatives and not the other way around.”

Second, Hallaq’s contention that “that the disciplinary and regulatory technologies of the modern state are un-Islamic” flies in the face of what a good number of contemporary “Islamic scholars, intellectuals and pious believers” actually believe. For them, believers have a God-given and timeless obligation to apply the norms and objectives of divine law within the sociopolitical sphere in any possible way. This means interacting creatively and faithfully within the new circumstances of modernity and postmodernity, however one defines them.

Hallaq’s agenda, according to March, is to show that pre-modern Islamic societies were harmonious and just, and that by contrast under conditions of modernity the state rules with an amoral iron fist, systematically barring any input from religion, and from Islamic law in particular. What is more, he offers no solution. So what is to gain from such an absolutist, black and white declaration? Why not recognize, along with Rached Ghannouchi and many islamists who have struggled with these issues, not just theoretically, but also in the trenches of real-life politics that …


“…in modernity Islamic law just is this messy amalgam of what is found in the classical texts and what is pronounced by public shariʿa counsels, legislatures, shariʿa-compatibility courts, civil courts and independent religious authorities?”


In essence, this is Ghannouchi's thesis. Applying the ethical (relative to individuals) and moral (relative to creating a just society) imperatives of Islam to the changing circumstances of every nation – politically, economically, culturally, and socially – will require a patchwork of creative solutions, which always remain tentative, susceptible to modification and improvement. And the source of the authority to carry this out, he strongly maintains, is the people’s delegated authority from God – their trusteeship. That is why democracy is the only possible tool to fulfill this mission today.


Ghannouchi’s dilemma, as I see it

Ghannouchi’s book, mostly written within four prison walls in the 1980s, eloquently voices his ardent desire to see Islamic governance fleshed out within Muslim-majority nations in the postcolonial period. That is, after all, the basic definition of an islamist.

Establishing an Islamic polity is not in the sacred texts, he admits, but near the beginning of his mammoth Chapter 4 (over 100 pages), he offers three “proofs” for the necessity of the Islamic state: a) the historical argument (Medina and beyond); b) the consensus argument (the ulama have assumed this over the centuries); c) the social argument (people are social by nature; they need God’s guidance for establishing a God-fearing society). Here’s one quote under the last point:


“So the Islamic state is an indispensable means – as long as human beings are social by nature and Islam is a comprehensive system of life – to provide a social environment in which the greatest possible number of its people can live in spiritual and physical harmony with the nature that God gave humankind at creation, that is, Islam.”


And then this long sentence (typical in Arabic; I’ll probably have to shorten it in my translation):


“For the Islamic state is nothing but a political apparatus meant to fulfill the highest ideals of Islam in producing a people that naturally stands up for goodness and justice, confirms truth and dismisses falsehood throughout the earth, so that the worship of God and closeness to Him through obedience to His commands, the performance of good deeds and the establishment of justice become goals that people desire, and find easy and rewarding, and that the opposition to unbelief and rebellion, the violation of sacred rules, the spreading of evil and the committing of injustice become things that are loathed, difficult to do, and terrifying – at least on a social level.”


The “Islamic movements” (read “islamist groups” that arose in the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood from the 1970s on) are the logical political extension of the postcolonial struggle for complete independence, culturally and politically. What remains to be achieved by Muslim nations, he writes, is unity (he mentions a caliphate, but for him that remains a distant ideal), democratization, and the regaining of territories still under occupation, with Palestine in the forefront.

As I explain in the next two blogs of this trilogy, the actual experience of governing in post-revolutionary Tunisia has led Ghannouchi to tone down his calls for an Islamic state, almost to the point of saying that as long as the people enjoy their civil liberties and are able to thrive as a Muslim-majority nation, then that is “Islamic” enough … for now, or in absolute terms? This we will discuss further.

Now using the 2008 edition of Ghannouchi’s book (The Public Freedoms in the Islamic State, Damascus), I’m behind in my translation (plenty of changes, plus new material), but I’m still close to three quarters done. Also, it’s plunged me into political theory – hence this blog!

Keep reading – this is more fascinating than you might think. I’m using a paper by James Dorsey and Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario that opens up a whole new understanding of the Middle East and Southeast Asia. It will also pave the way for a later blog on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.


The Dorsey-Rosario thesis

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you’ve read blogs on soccer in the Middle East by James Dorsey. In fact, his landmark book, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer (Oxford U. Press, 2016) comes out next month. Among other distinctions, this award-winning journalist is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, and Co-Director of the University of Würzburg's Institute of Fan Culture.

Here Dorsey teams up with Rosario to examine and compare the role of the military in the democratization process of various states in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) and Southeast Asia: “To Shoot or not to Shoot? Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern Militaries Respond Differently.” This is part of a book they’ve written together, which will also be published this year.

They argue that if you compare these nations’ militaries and their impact on political change in both regions, you discover that although all these countries came out of the colonial period with similar regimes – “The military was either the government or propped up a dominant political party” – the Asian nations succeeded for the most part in transitioning from military-backed (or security force-backed) regimes to democratic ones, whereas after the popular uprisings of 2011, apart from Tunisia, the MENA states failed to do so.


Military regimes in Southeast Asia

Indonesia and the Philippines succeeded in creating a process by which “political power changes hands as a results of free and fair elections”:


1) Indonesia: in the wake of a violent coup General Suharto mounted against the communist regime of President Sukarno in 1965. In turn, Suharto’s military regime was upended in a popular uprising in 1998. The key factor, however, was that a faction in the Indonesian army intervened to oust the president and secure a democratic transition that is now firmly in place. These officers worked in tandem with key leaders of civil society to make this happen (as it also happened in Tunisia). As Dorsey & Rosario see it,

“Indonesia is possibly the only country in both regions in which the civilian government succeeded in asserting control of the armed forces on the back of a series of well-sequenced reforms that unequivocally returned the military to the barracks.”


2) Philippines: in a similar manner, President Ferdinand Marcos managed to run an oppressive martial-law regime for 21 years, but was toppled and forced into exile in 1986 by “a group of disgruntled military officers” who defected and backed the popular uprising. The transition to democracy in this country has fared well generally, but challenges remain: “The Philippines achieved a degree of civilian control despite several failed coup attempts but institutionalisation remains a tenuous and challenged process.”


3) Myanmar, three years after the military’s declared transition toward democracy, “remains locked in a power struggle between the military and civilian forces with the armed forces continuing to exert their weight behind a veneer of democratic reforms.” Still, like in Indonesia and the Philippines, the Burmese military has decided that political opening is in its best interest and is willing to partner, at least to some extent, with influential leaders of civil society. After the November 8, 2015 parliamentary elections, Nobel Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won an absolute majority. This bodes well for the future Burmese politics. Dorsey & Rosario’s cautious phrase above was written before these elections. Still, democratic transitions take years to work out and there will likely be more ups and downs.


4) Thailand: “Thailand is Southeast Asia’s odd man out. Its military supported a popular uprising in 1992 that led to the restoration of democracy, yet intervened again in 2006 and 2014 to topple two democratically-elected regimes.” In effect, “Thailand is experiencing its 13th period of military rule in 80 years.” Nevertheless, they have tasted democratic rule, and that should make it easier to restore it in the future.


Military regimes in the MENA region

1) Turkey: as the only non-Arab ex-military-backed regime in the region, it is also its best success story (Tunisia is a close second). Yet its experience differs from the military states in both regions: “Its assertion of civilian control occurred in a pluralistic, democratic environment in which the government could rely on the European Union, which demanded civilian control of the military as a pre-condition for accession to the EU.”

That said, the Turkish military intervened four times in politics (including three coup d’états: 1960, 1971, 1980; in 1997, it was a “memorandum”). Thus it took decades to wrest power from a military that saw itself in control of the state so as to protect its Kemalist secular heritage. Amazingly (and yes, EU pressure no doubt helped), it is the current Erdogan regime led by the moderate islamist AKP Party that has done the most to expand the scope of civilian rule.

Like Egypt, Turkey has had to wrestle for decades against the structures of the “deep state,” defined by Dorsey & Rosario as “a network of vested political, military and business interests.” The difference is that Turkey’s struggle is mostly behind it, while Egypt is still in the thick of it.

I write "mostly behind," because President Erdogan has been in power for over eleven years and with his soft islamist party (AKP) has been able to muzzle much of the opposition and the press (over a dozen journalists are in prison for their views and he took over by force the most popular opposition newspaper), there are concerns about the future of democracy in Turkey. Still (now inserting this remark in June 2016), the rise of the center-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and especially with the possible leadership of Turkey's "iron lady" Meral Aksener, Erdogan may not be able to proceed with a change of Turkey's constitution in favor of an executive presidency.


2) Egypt: this nation has historically been seen as the Arab trend-setting state. President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ideology of Arab secular and socialist nationalism sparked a wave of similar regimes in the region. This section of Dorsey & Rosario’s opening paragraph is worth quoting:

“By the time of his death in 1970, Nasser’s brand of nationalism had informed various related military and security force-backed regimes across the region. These included those of the rival wings of the Arab socialist Baath Party in Syria and Iraq, the revolutionary government that emerged in Algeria from a bitter, anti-colonial war, and that of 27 year old Libyan army colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who overthrew the Libyan monarchy with the intention of molding his country’s in Nasser’s image. Regimes reliant on the military and/or security forces became the norm for Arab nations.”

Though the Arab popular uprisings of 2011 started in Tunisia, the fate of the Egyptian “January 25 Revolution” has had enormous consequences for the region – especially for what happened two years later: “Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was ousted in a military coup in 2013 that brought to power general-turned president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi and a regime more brutal than that of former president, Hosni Mubarak.”

Now we come back to the “deep state,” because that reality is at the root of Egypt’s severe dysfunction today. But a little background is necessary:

“In Egypt, successive military-turned-political leaders secured the loyalty of the armed forces by giving it control of national as opposed to homeland security, allowing it to build a commercial empire of its own and establish an independent relationship with its U.S. counterparts that enabled it to create a military industrial complex, granting it immunity, and shielding it from civilian oversight. Egyptian military attitudes towards the popular revolt against Mubarak as well as Morsi were shaped by a desire to preserve these prerogatives as well as the right to intervene in politics to protect national unity and the secular character of the state. In effect, the military was willing to enter a bargain in which it would neither rule nor govern but at the same time would not be ruled or governed – a deal it ultimately failed to clinch in part because of its political ineptitude.”

Naturally Sisi, by trading his uniform for a president’s 3-piece suit, came to power by portraying himself as the only one who could save the nation from the islamist specter. But in order to accumulate more power he decided to strengthen the security and intelligence forces at the expense of the army. Still, the military theoretically retains veto power over any civilian government, and for the time being it sees President Sisi as its ally – and especially in the brutal war now being waged in Sinai against insurgents allied with the Islamic State.

In the next blog on the Muslim Brotherhood I will have more to say about Egypt, but now I must move on.


The three “Arab Spring” nightmares: Libya, Yemen and Syria

These tragedies bleed into the pages of your daily news – and they are much more complicated than I have the space to explain. I will only quote Dorsey & Rosario. Here they have just cited political scientist Philippe Vincent Droz who contends that the Arab militaries all acted as the “tipping point” in bringing down the regimes in place. Then this:


“The picture in Libya and Yemen - where the military split or suffered from significant defections and where the fall of the autocratic leader led to mayhem, insurgency, civil war and/or foreign intervention - is more complex. The popular revolt in Bahrain was thwarted by brutal government repression and the Saudi-led military intervention by friendly Gulf states. In Syria, Gulf states for differing reasons saw the fall of the regime as in their interests but increasingly funded and supplied arms to anti-regime forces that did not see greater freedom and accountability as cornerstones of transition but their own religiously-inspired version of autocracy as an alternative to the ruthless regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.”


All three nations (excluding Bahrain) are now engulfed in brutal civil wars with the interference and collusion of outside forces, including the Islamic State in Syria and Libya. The war in Syria was sparked originally in March/April 2011 by a series of peaceful protests, but to which Asad responded “with military force and brutality.” Violence bred violence, and almost five years later over 200,000 people have died.


Tunisia: like in Egypt just days after, it was the military as an institution that saw a change of political leadership as in its interest. But the reasons were different: “The Tunisian military which had been defanged and sidelined by the country’s ousted autocrat, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a product of the security rather than the armed forces, was the one Arab military with a vested interest in political transition. That eased the establishment of civilian control.” Later on, Dorsey and Rosario put it even more clearly:


“Tunisia is in a class of its own, being the only country where the autocrat, Ben Ali, in one of his first moves after coming to power, decimated the military and ensured that unlike the Egyptian armed forces, it had no stake in the system he built. As a result, the Tunisian force had no reason to obstruct real change; indeed, if anything, it was likely to benefit from reform that leads to a democratic system, in which it would have a legitimate role under civilian supervision.”


So what are the key ingredients for a transition to democracy?

The conclusion, then, is that the kind of political reform that took place most notably in Indonesia and Turkey will need to be initiated and followed through in Egypt. Further, after Syria, Yemen and Libya somehow are able to achieve a form of national reconciliation and embark on a political path that brings together all the vital forces of their respective nations, then they too will have to tackle the drawing up of constitutions that redress the military/civilian balance of power, professionalize the military institution, which includes breaking up the “deep state,” and finally, strengthen all sectors of civil society.

That last point is something that Ghannouchi in his book emphasizes again and again. But I’ll give the last word to Dorsey & Rosario, who explain the needed transition in this way:


“The record shows that successful transitions depend on participation of at least one faction of the military as well as on civil society engagement in line with game theory that postulates that democratisation is possible when moderates in the ruling elite cooperate with civil society and/or opposition forces to fend off advances by hardliners. It often involves the military increasingly viewing the cost of governing rather than ruling as too high and seeing controlled liberalisation as the solution” (emphasis mine).


If some of this is a bit technical for some of you, take heart. This will really help to explain how in Egypt a democratically elected president could be shaken by a popular revolt one year later, and then be removed within days by the army, spurred on by the security forces. And, by the way, if you noticed in this blog, nothing was said about religion, whether in Southeast Asia or in the MENA. That is part of my point. The turmoil surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is all about the swirling and crashing of political forces. In fact, when religious symbols are manipulated for political purposes, almost inevitably religion gets hijacked and then betrayed. Ghannouchi, the islamist, is very anxious about this. In the trilogy of blogs that follow ("The Impossible Islamic State?"), we’ll see his solutions to this dilemma. We'll also establish a better foundation in political theory to understand his evolving positions.



This was one of my earliest articles, published in the The Maghreb Review:

“The Fuzzy boundaries between Reformism and Islamism: Malik Bennabi and Rashid al-Ghannushi on Civilization.” The Maghreb Review 29, 1-2 (2004):123-52.

If you want to go into Bennabi's thought in greater depth and discover how he influenced a whole generation of thinkers, including Rachid Ghannouchi and his Ennahda Movement, this will be worth your time! In particular, long before the 1990s theory of the "Clash of Civilizations" (Samuel Huntington), Bennabi was theorizing about the rise and fall of civilizations, about the pathology and diagnosis of civilizations. His thought also falls within the postcolonial thought of French Caribbean thinker Aimé Césaire. In the end, Ghannouchi borrows much of his mentor's framework but adapts it adroitely to his particularly aims in Tunisia.

Two events have taken place since I wrote the second installment of this trilogy of blogs on Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi.

That said, the Quartet’s work could not have succeeded had their advocacy with Ennahda, the ruling party, not borne fruit. Ennahda did what rarely any party has done anywhere else, by stepping down from power before their mandate had come to an end. True, the country had been shaken by the assassinations of two secular opposition politicians that year. Still, the fact that Ghannouchi’s Ennahda willingly gave up power to join the other political forces of Tunisia in drawing up a new constitution and reconvene a new set of parliamentary elections in the next year is nothing short of phenomenal.

Ennahda, among all other political currents, was justified in taking some credit for this honor. Thanks to all the political factions, the so-called Arab Spring would continue to live on – with all its ups and downs – in the land where it was born.

The second event was more personal. Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi addressed a packed conference room (I know, as I was sitting on the floor in the overflow room!) at the Washington, DC United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on the theme “Democratizing under Fire: Can Tunisia Show the Way?” His presentation was followed by a panel with two USIP scholars, and questions from the floor. Even though it took a lot of effort to drive there and back on a rainy day from Philadelphia, it was very rewarding – both the content of the seminar and the opportunity to meet him and several of his aides, including one of his daughters who will coordinate with me on the translation of her father’s book. Sheikh Rachid, as he is affectionately called, is indeed a gracious man, and I certainly felt privileged to have met him in person.


Ghannouchi on the emergence of human rights in the West

In the previous blog post, I quoted from his Chapter 3, “Basic Democratic Principles.” Here I back up to the previous chapter, “The Islamic Perspective on Freedom and Human Rights.” Here is the first paragraph:


“Since the declarations of human rights on civic freedoms were only guarantees for the bourgeoisie against the feudal lords and the papacy, in the end their deceitful nature and partiality betrayed them. Then came the various socialist currents aiming to expose their empty rhetoric and emphasize social rights for humanity – while acting in fact as another set of tyrants.”


Let me unpack this a bit. Ghannouchi is saying that the 18th-century Enlightenment philosophy was a declaration of independence from the absolute reign of Europe’s feudal kings (an idea violently carried out in the French Revolution), just as the papal grip on much of Europe had been gradually eroded by the Protestant Reformation two centuries earlier. Following thinkers like John Locke, the beginning of human rights discourse was mostly about individual rights against the encroachment of political rulers, and much more about the elites than about poor peasants and the growing urban poor.

So who benefited from the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries? It was largely Europe’s urban middle classes, says Ghannouchi, who were able to maintain their power over a largely disenfranchised working class employed in often sub-human conditions within the coalmines and factories of the day.

Marxism in its various shades built upon the reality of this class struggle and defined freedom as the downtrodden overthrowing the monopoly of the bourgeoisie over the means of production, which then would lead to a transitional dictatorship of this proletariat. In the end this process would create a utopian, classless society. The reality, as alluded to in his above quote, was the complete opposite.

Still, European colonialism and its attendant ideologies had an enormous impact on Muslim nations, for instance in the 19th century in places like Egypt and even in the heart of the Ottoman Empire (today’s Turkey), where many of the elites had been educated in the West and chose to adopt Western ideas and implement political, legal and economic reforms.


Shari’a and freedom

Ghannouchi mostly wrote his book, The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State, from a prison cell. He knew the underbelly of state repression first-hand. What is more, in the 1980s his generation was the first one raised in the postcolonial era, when the nations’ “right of self-determination” had become the main paradigm of human freedom (still to be achieved by Palestinians). It was also a time when global condemnation and boycotting of the Apartheid regime of South Africa was beginning to mount. Further – and Ghannouchi would not have known this – a movement of both Catholic and Protestant theologians in Latin America (and South Africa) were developing a “liberation theology” leaning on the teaching and practice of Jesus to launch a grassroots (mostly) nonviolent movement designed to empower the poor who were often brutally exploited by the capitalist elites propped up by US political and economic interests in their region.

That is the context, I believe, in which this paragraph makes the most sense:


“Since Islam is a comprehensive revolution seeking to overthrow tyranny and darkness, freeing the human will from all subjection to what is not God, it would be possible for those who study Islam to summarize it in the words, ‘a comprehensive revolution of liberation.’ One should not understand from the common usage of ‘freedom’ that it’s simply about permission or permissiveness. The logic of truth cannot entertain that the liberational message of Islam – brought to humankind from creation by thousands of prophets and messengers, in addition to their successors in the general announcement to people – would be summarized as God allowing you to do what you desire. No, Islam’s conception is quite the opposite. God created you and he forbids you to follow your every ignorant whim, and he commands you to follow – as a conscious decision of your own will and design – the path that pleases Him for your life, the only one in which you will find happiness and development in this life and the next. But if you turn your back on it, you will find eternal calamity.”


“The path that pleases Him for your life” – quite literally – is the Shari’a. Etymologically, it’s the desert path that leads to the watering hole, or the path that guides people to a full life in this world and the next.

Still, that sounds like a very different definition of “freedom,” you might say. Yes, but it’s no different than in Judaism (replace Shari’a by halakha) or Christianity. In the gospels, Jesus’ first call to people is to follow him. In fact, to do so requires the disciple’s death to self-will and ambition (symbolized by picking up our own cross, as for instance in Luke 9:27). Freedom means that you get to choose or refuse this offer.


Human trusteeship and human rights

To some extent, Ghannouchi is right that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) offers “the marks of secularism or a human religion based on the divinity of humankind in the universe and on people making themselves the source of every right and legislation.” But that’s not a necessarily so.

In fact, the UDHR was hammered out in a long process of negotiations between people who represented the world’s main religions, as well as strong secularists. So in practice, it can certainly be interpreted in that fashion. Still, influential voices in their midst included two Christians, Eleanor Roosevelt and Charles Malik (the Lebanese representative), and the Chinese Confucian philosopher and playwright Pen-chun Chang. Moreover, seven Muslim-majority nations contributed handsomely to the discussions (see my paper, “A Muslim and Christian Orientation to Human Rights”).

I have always argued that human rights discourse is only a framework into which people from many faiths and no faith can inject their own theology of humanity. That certainly was the main theme of my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text – Muslims and Christians converging in their doctrine of creation by seeing God empowering humans to rule on earth as his trustees and thus being fully accountable to Him for the way in which they manage its resources and people. Notice how important this concept is to Ghannouchi here:


“[God] alone is Creator and Owner of all his creatures, and the Definer of their way of life (Shari’a). And human beings are His trustees, whom the Creator honored by granting them a mind, a will, freedom, and by the sending of messengers in order to help them discover the way of truth and follow the path of perfection by means of their commitment to the Shari’a or law of God, which He defined in its final form, revealed as it was through the agency of the Arab prophet Muhammad. This Shari’a is the general framework meant to guide human life individually and collectively, but also granting humanity within that framework wide empty spaces, requiring them to fulfill their God-given trusteeship by managing everything within their scope, and thereby joining together in harmony, freedom and commitment, unity and plurality.”


Therefore, the God-given dignity conferred upon the human person is what impels Muslims to set up a polity that allows all citizens to enjoy these rights:


“ … human rights should be grounded in humanity’s Creator:

a) This gives them a sanctity that pulls them out of the orbit of a regime’s domination, or that of a political party that manipulates them at will.

b) It renders them a trust that believers can hang around their neck, holding them accountable for their protection, for their establishment in human society, and for resisting the tyrants’ violation of them, because that is a religious duty that will be rewarded if fulfilled, and punished if neglected.

c) It gives them the true dimensions of humanity, and thus warding off any discrimination based on race, nationality and class, since He is “God of the Worlds,” and not of only one nation or umma.

d) It gives them a comprehensive and positive dimension that moves them away from mere formalism or selectivity in legislation, because God is the Creator of humanity and He alone knows the true needs of his creatures.

e) Tying rights to the Divine Legislator is not to enforce the despotism of a theocratic polity, for there is no clergy in Islam that sanctions or forbids. Rather, the One who loosens or binds is God, who shows no partiality nor treats anyone unjustly, for He is in no need of anything or anyone in the universe, and thus finds no benefit when he is obeyed and no harm when he is disobeyed. Therefore, he grants rights in an absolutely just manner and enlists every believer to defend them when they are violated, whether the enmity is directed toward him personally, or toward someone else, whether believer or not. It is a duty to both remove injustice and to achieve righteousness.



But what are these rights recognized by the Divine Legislator? I have no space to delve into the details here. But we do know from contemporary debates that there’s clearly a tension between how Islamic law was traditionally interpreted and contemporary norms of human rights and citizenship in a democratic polity. For Ghannouchi, however, the latter trumps the former, and this mostly because of his theology of humanity:


“Islam is not content to declare the human person’s right to life, freedom and personal integrity; it considers that a sacred duty enjoined upon the community and the individual. The human being is appointed as God’s trustee, that is, his deputy charged with the responsibility to judge among his creatures with justice. Thus anyone who sets out to obey God and judge his creatures aright is God’s trustee.”


Apostasy as an example

But what about the Muslim who decides she no longer wants to remain Muslim? Apostasy and blasphemy laws in conservative countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan account for egregious human rights violations one can regularly read about in the press.

Ghannouchi devotes several pages to this issue, stating that the majority opinion traditionally – based on one particular hadith, and not the Qur’an – was that the apostate should incur the death penalty, because it came under the category of the hudud offenses (those which violate “God’s rights,” and are stipulated in the Qur’an and Sunna, like hand amputation for theft).

At the same time, there was always a minority view, which has become even more mainstream today, which sees apostasy as something between God and the individual. The Qur’an in several places warns those who abandon their faith of tragic consequences in the life to come, but mentions no punishment in this life. In fact, according to this view, the words and deeds of the Prophet and the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs show that apostasy was a political crime for them, which was committed by people who posed a material threat to the young Islamic state in Medina. It would be like people put on trial for treason today. That is also Ghannouchi’s view.

Characteristically, he then looks at the wider context of Tunisia’s Muslim society, deploring the inroads that Western-style secularism has made on many people’s minds. They have bought into a distorted view of Islam and often turn their backs on religion. Is this apostasy, he asks? No, the blame goes to the Muslim leadership in mosques and schools. A new and more relevant approach is needed. As such, education captures a key role here and in many other parts of his book.

Let me wrap up here. Ghannouchi’s emphasis on genuine, full-fledged democratic political procedures and state institutions, on the one hand, and on the necessity for a wider culture of respect for the ethical values put forward by religion on the other, opens a wide area of agreement between people of all faiths – and in particular, between moderate “islamists” like the followers of Ennahda, and American evangelicals, who also deplore that loss of basic values within their own political system. This is an issue I take up in part in a forthcoming trilogy of blogs on “The Impossible Islamic State?”

A coalition of Muslims and Christians have come together to address the rising tide of discrimination, intolerance, and at times downright hatred against Muslims in the United States. This is what is called today Islamophobia (see my 2011 blog on the 138-page report by the Center for American Progress entitled, "Fear, Inc.: Exposing the Islamophobia Network in America"; also my blog examining Robert Spencer's work).

Among these are the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) based in Washington, DC, Peace Catalyst International (PCI) headquartered in Denver and the Dialogue Institute (DI) at Temple University in Philadelphia.

In January 2014, ICRD convened 19 U.S. and Pakistani religious leaders for a week in Nepal to establish an Interfaith Leadership Network (ILN) that will develop and jointly pursue capacity-enhancing initiatives to ease the plight of religious minorities in Pakistan and to arrest the spread and impact of Islamophobia in the United States. Among other goals, this Network proposes to bring together American religious leaders, predominantly from the Evangelical movement, to educate, discuss and ultimately limit the impact of Islamophobia in the United States.

The next step was for Douglas Johnston of the ICRD, Rick Love of PCI, and Leonard Swidler of Temple University's DI to convene a conference on Religious Freedom and Islamophobia (October 6-8, 2015), which sought to help evangelicals and others understand the consequences of and develop thoughtful responses to Islamophobia in the United States.

This was the paper I presented -- a look at the historical roots of American evangelical Islamophobia. My thesis was that from the late seventeen century to now there has been a sad continuity in evangelical polemics against Islam and Muslims, but that there were nevertheless signs of hope today as well. We should continue to vigorously build on those!

It was subsequently published in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies (Temple University) 51, 2 (2016), 224-35.



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    Earth, Empire and Sacred Text

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