Saturday 15 November 2014

Hasan Hanafi on the Arab Spring and Muslim ambiguities towards Secularism

In a brief interview with Moncef Slimi on the aftermath of the Arab Spring posted on the Qantara Website, the Egyptian philosopher Hasan Hanafi made some interesting observations on Muslim attitudes towards secularism.
Egyptian philosopher Hasan Hanafi
In response to the question whether it is possible at all to establish a secular order in Muslim countries without religious reforms, he noted that  'in the Arab world that's partically impossible. The concept of secularism is generally rejected by the majority of the population'. The reasons for that are the long-time effects of the defeat of the 1882 uprising of Egyptian officers led by Ahmad Urabi (1841-1911) against British tutelage; the impact of Ataturk's hardcore laicism and abolition of the caliphate in 1924; as well as the continuous and continuing repression of progressive Muslim intellectuals by successive autocratic Arab nationalist regimes.

In effect, Hanafi thinks that Muslims -- and Arabs in particular -- need to start from scratch, returning to the ideas of the nineteenth-century Islamic reformers Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) and Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905).
We should remember the reformist legacy of this movement, and realise that back then, the rejection of worldly thought was a reflexive reaction by influential progressive thinkers to the failure of efforts by the Islamic peoples to achieve liberation from European colonialism. 
This also corresponds to the points of departure of Hanafi's own lifelong mission for defining and establishing an Islamic way of progressive thinking. Known as the Heritage and Renewal Project, the evolution of this project is discussed in great detail in my book Cosmopolitans and Heretics. Where al-Afghani and Abduh represent the first and second phases of trailblazing and breaking ground for the development of an Islamic philosophical method, Hanafi sees himself as following in the footsteps of Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), taking up and implementing the final and third phase of this reform process which the poet and philosopher from British India had laid out in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.

Throughout his career, Hanafi has oscillated between this philosophical project and more engaged writings on current affairs in the Arab world. In the interview, he brings up the hostility of many Arab regimes against religious activism, even if it is strictly intellectual. These state interventions are not helpful in moving the Arab world forward:
The aggressive banning of religion from the public sphere by the state, and the introduction of a kind of "State Islam", is not going to lead us out of this dilemma. The tension between religion and politics would remain even then
Religious reforms in the Muslim world will need to take place within their appropriate context and its own terms, because as Hanafi observes:
Islam actually has no structures like the Church. Neither the Sunni Al-Azhar University nor the International Union of Muslim Scholars functions as an authority for the whole of Islam. In my view, the only Islamic authority comes from open, unbiased, scholarly discourse. And this is why is it quite simply structurally impossible for Islam to undergo the same kind of reforms as other faiths
To read the full interview click here

For some earlier critical observations on the role of Muslim intellectuals such as Hanafi in the Arab uprisings, read the post of 31 July 2011.