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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

Society, Politics, and Economy >
Why do Muslims reject secularism?

Muslim reactions to the term secularism have been influenced by Western history, politics, and religion, as well as fear that secularism leads to the marginalization of religion. The term secularism has often been misunderstood and seen as diametrically opposed to religion. Muslims interpreted European colonialism and attempts to introduce modernity as an attempt to impose Western secularism, separating religion from state and society and thus weakening the moral fabric of Muslim society. While some Muslims, especially among the Western-oriented elites, believed that secularism was necessary to build strong modern societies, many others saw it as a direct challenge to Islam and its heritage, in which religion had for centuries been closely associated with successful and powerful empires. Secularism was equated with unbelief and thus seen as a direct threat to the religious identity and values of Muslim societies.

The problem was compounded by the fact that Muslim languages lacked a precise equivalent word for modern secularism. Few have understood that American secularism separated religion and the state to avoid privileging any one religion and to guarantee freedom of belief or unbelief to all. Little notice was taken of the diverse forms that secularism has taken in modern Western secular countries like Britain, Germany, and Canada that have a state religion and provide state support for recognized religions.

The examples of France and Turkey, which have been anticlerical and have banned the wearing of Muslim headscarves in their schools, reinforce the belief that secularism means a state that is antireligious rather than simply religiously neutral. On the other hand, in recent years many Muslims in Turkey and India have called for a “true” secular state, one that does not privilege any religion but does ensure freedom of religious belief and practice. The Muslim leadership of the ruling AKP party in Turkey has balanced its support for this kind of secularism with freedom of religion.

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