Secularism does not mean a curse for religions. In certain cases, secularism can even be the savior of a minority religion. For instance in France, due to secularism, Islam and Muslim society can develop. Because secularism upholds neutrality in regulating social-political field of the state, any religion and its society are allowed to express their religion naturally. Therefore, their religious identity is not threatened.
To know how the Muslim community adjusts in a state upholding secularist values like France, Novriantoni from the Liberal Islam Network (JIL) interviewed Soheib Bencheikh, Grand Mufti of Marseille France, who visited Jakarta last March to talk about "Islam's contribution in structuring the plural world" in an international seminar held by Francophonie, Switzerland Embassy and International Centre for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP). The man who was born in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) and graduated from Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt also wrote a book Marianne et le Prophete: I'Islam dans la laicite (Marianne and the Prophet: Islam within Laicite). Here is the interview:
JIL: Firstly, do the Muslims in France, particularly in Marseille need a mufti?
SHOHEIB BENCHEIKH (SB): Firstly, I assert that Islam does not recognize the clerical system. However, imam and mufti are not clerics but guardians and mentors who attempt to give light to the believers, without forcing and judging them. France attempts to pay attention to and organize the Muslim society, since Islam is the second major religion in the country. In this context, in 1995 I was installed as a mufti in Marseille after completing my study at the Sorbonne University.
JIL: We have known that France is a secular country who strictly endorses the laicité rule. Does Muslim society have any trouble living in such a country?
SB: Outside of France, particularly in Muslim countries, secularism is perceived as infidelity and atheism. Hence, they consider Islam to have no future in France. Yet, without secularism that is no administrative neutrality (hiyâdatul idârah) to regulate a country, we will be overwhelmed. Secularism is not anti-religion, but also not for religion.
JIL: So, you define secularism as an administrative neutrality?
SB: It is a constitutional interpretation for laicité in France. I have to emphasize that due to secularism, Islam can stand equally with Catholics in rights and duties. Besides, we have no other way to regulate a national life except through democracy or majority rule.
Our dilemma is that currently Muslims appear dangerous. People are afraid of Islam due to a few people's attitude of terror in the name of Islam. Fortunately, due to secularism and human rights, Muslims can be relieved.
JIL: Many muslim have a negative image about secularism. Could you imagine that there will be harmonization between Islam and secularism?
SB: If secularism is interpreted as state neutrality to regulate a country, it will not be a problem for the Muslim. On the contrary, the separation between religion and politic will clarify Islam as divine spiritual doctrine, not as an instrument which (can) be misused to gain the power. Moreover, due to that, Islam can return its original formulation, meaning it will return as the promoted teaching (yu'radl) not as a forced teaching (yufradl)-- as the Koran affirms - "Anyone who will believe may believe, and anyone who will be an infidel may be an infidel!"
JIL: You said that secularism could return the original formula of Islam in regulating political power. Is the original formulation of Islam closer to secularism?
SB: We have to realize that most of Islamic schools in fikh (Islamic jurisprudence), tafseer (Koran interpretation) or theology, developed outside of political rule. Muslims –as we read through history- were free to determine any schools they wanted in the beginning. Assimilation between religion and politic in Islam is a new phenomenon –which to me—is hazardous for Islam, mainly when it is utilized as instrument to gain the ruling position by parties, or when it is utilized to legitimate the power of a regime.
JIL: You said that assimilation between Islam and politic or Islamic ideologizing is a new phenomenon. Since when?
SB: It started from the first half of the twentieth century, when political parties based on religion were established to pursue political contestation to gain power. In this context, we can mention the emergence of Ikhwanul Muslimin (Muslim Brethren) in Egypt as an example.
JIL: Is it due to the contribution of Islamic ideologists such as the views of Muslim Brethren figures, especially Sayyed Quthb?
SB: Sayyed Quthb went too far when he conveyed his notions in his book, Ma'âlim fit Tarîq, particularly in terms of his views of twentieth century jahiliyah (ignorance), God's judgment, and the ruler's infidelity. It stimulates Muslim to think extremely and to blindly express their Islam.
JIL: Doe not Muslims in France feel that assimilation with French culture will threaten their Islamic identity?
SB: When we read through history, we will find that Islam always interacts with many cultures. In addition, secularism implemented in France is a form of neutrality. It is pure neutrality. We can interact with French culture that has a background of Catholicism, while holding on to our own spirituality and Islamic values.
JIL: Are those values threatened by French secularism?
SB: Not at all. It is a challenge we must respond to. Can Islam survive without political rule defending it like in Muslim countries? If Islam is perceived as a satisfying religion, the rising light, it will never need power to force people if it is superior. It will survive as values, norms and ideals of life, and should not be forced upon others.
JIL: However, the demonstration against the ban of religious attire in French public schools confirms that there was problem between Islamic identities they strived with the laicité tenet of France!
SB: On the contrary, the demonstration on the ban of religious attire indicates that French people are autonomous and free. Moreover, the demonstrators are a minority of Muslims in France. Most of Muslims in France agree with the rule, since they observe that extremity is a threat to their future in France. The rule attempts to hide religious symbols in public schools. Actually, the Catholic majority has more right to strike than Muslim, since they also affected by the ban. Nevertheless, they have not.
JIL: You have written a book under the title of Marianne and Prophet: Islam within Laicité. What is it about?
SB: It is a study of law and philosophy so that Islam can find its place in this new climate, and so that it can get the answers that can never be found within our classical literatures.
JIL: Like what?
SB: Muslims find themselves a minority in a neutral country that is not a Catholic country since it is secular and has no religion at all. With the minority status, it is impossible to endorse fikh (Islamic jurisprudence). Hence, we have to find a new fikh or notions about fikh that are compatible with our condition as the minority within a neutral country. These all are new to Islamic literatures. That is my endeavor in the book