News Release: Faculty Experts, International, Law, Politics, Religion and Ethics

May 18,  2011

Islam Requires a Secular State, Says Emory's An-Na'im

As countries in North Africa take steps toward democratic reform, Emory University law professor and Islam and human rights expert Abdullahi An-Na’im discusses the difficulties ahead, including whether Islamists should be shut out of politics and if Islam and secularism can co-exist.

Speaking of the roles of religion and government, An-Na’im believes that the dividing line is clear. “A state cannot have a religion,” An-Na’im says. “To say Islam is the religion of the state is a contradiction. The state is a political institution. Religion is for people, not for a political institution to have.”

Libya (View video)

As the war in Libya rages on, rebels continue their fight for freedom from the tyrannical reign of Muammar Gadhafi. The rebels have the backing of the United States and NATO, but the war is far from over. An-Na’im isn’t surprised this wasn’t a quick fix.

“People are not prepared, are not organized, are not effective in their resistance,” An-Na’im explains. “That is to be expected because Libyans do not have the experience to do it.”

Egypt (View video)

In Egypt the military is in control after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, but as plans for a democratic election proceed, some in the West are worried that the current direction will lead to the anointment of Islamic fundamentalists. An-Na’im believes Islamists should not be shut out of the election process.

“Put [Islamists] to the test,” he says. “I think they benefit when they are suppressed and operating from underground. If Islamists are exposed to the public scrutiny of democratic debate, they will be seen as having nothing to offer.”

Sudan (View video)

Sudan was at war with itself from 1956 until the peace treaty of 2005.  This year, in an historic vote, southern Sudanese people voted to gain independence from the north. But fighting continues as the Sudanese try to determine how to split up the country’s oil. An-Na’im says there are lessons to be learned from the decades of violence in his home country.

“Let us not go for simplistic solutions of overthrowing a regime, establishing a new constitution and expecting everything to be fine,” he says. “If the values are not there in the popular consciousness, their existence in a document will not make a difference.”

An-Na’im, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law, is the author of “Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a” (Harvard University Press, 2010).


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