Secularisation: to what extent is public life free/separate from religious institutions, ideas and ideology?
Government plays a part…
Two of the four countries visited have Islam as their national religion; their government was not secular (Malaysia and Morocco) whereas Turkey and Spain had people of faith within politics and created secular policies. Faith values are evident throughout their policies, but not in the name of religion. For example the architect of an abortion bill in Spain reflects the values that many Catholics citizens within the community, but it’s not a Catholic government. In the same way Turkey, not an Islamic government but the majority of the population are Muslims, therefore policy is created inline with their culture but didn’t justifying religion as a political tool. People’s everyday Islam and public life is interwoven with both religion and contemporary life.
Contemporary and religious life
Pew Research Centre surveyed Muslims examining their views on contemporary life. The findings were that most do not notice tensions between faith and everyday life in the modern world. It was possible to be a devout Muslim in practise and ‘worldly’ outside of the Mosque. But there were comments that western entertainment has hurt morality in their countries (Worlds Muslims Religion Politics Society Full Report 2013, pg. 127).
Muslims in Southeast Asia, were the least likely of the 4 countries visited, to see conflict with being both devout and living in a contemporary world (Malaysia: 59% no, 23% yes). This was surprising because of the interpretation of Islam seems strict through government enforcement. Turkish Muslims were divided on the issue with 38% saying there was conflict between religion and modern life and 49% disagreeing – and that is a secular government with high Muslim population with a strong Ottoman history. In Morocco, 55% said there was no conflict while 26% affirmed that there was conflict (pg. 128).That personally didn’t surprise me with how relaxed they are in their everyday interactions.
Interpreting Islam’s teachings
Muslims in most countries agreed there was only one true interpretation of Islam’s teachings but to varying degrees. Of those interviewed, 71% in Malaysia said there was only one interpretation of Islam; Turkey was 66% and Morocco 34% (The Worlds Muslims: Unity and Diversity 2012, p. 85). There were regional variations but they also vary with levels of personal religious commitment measured by the times they prayed each day. What is the relevance of this to secularisation? Even in a secular country, the expression of religion is high. Secular living is not free from religious practise and those who are devout religious are not free from secular and western influences. But does one’s devoutness mean they are less expressive and in tune with the secular world? No.
Hi, “I’m Muslim and I am normal…”
In Malaysia, because of the strict Islam government, they seemed to have more of a voice in everyday activities, however as a tourist and student I did not experience this, except for wearing conservative gowns and hijabs when in mosques (but this was respectful to their faith and values. And, yet some Malaysian’s wouldn’t say you needed to cover over to be a Muslim – there was diversity).
In Turkey, Islam was very much a personal faith choice with minimal political influence, but far less than Malaysia. Because it is a personal faith practise, there seems to be fewer restrictions on what external and “secular” things they may watch or do although this wasn’t always the case. Previously, there was a ban on headscarves in publics places which was a contentious issue from the 1980s to 2013. After the fall of the Ottoman (Islamic) Empire in 1923, the secular state was founded and with admiration for the West, religion had no place in the public arena. It was the belief that ‘secularism is progress’ and religion wasn’t. Despite Turkey being a secular government, the country resounds with a call to prayer five times, everyday.
In Spain public life and religion, from what I observed, wasn’t as influential. For Muslim Spaniards faith affected their lives in the simple 5 pillars of Islam (testimony of faith, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage to Mecca) mixed with their normal activities in every daily life. The Imam we spoke to was a convert and maintained his Spanish culture and Islam cohesively – not one or the other.
Morocco was flexible in the expression of Islam and secularism seen both in statistics of PEW Research and in person. Whilst it is western and secular influenced, the values and architecture of Islam are still evident. The university professor spoke of entertainment changing and challenging conservatism. They were not like the French in banning the veil, nor Malaysia in “this is what it is to be Muslim” but had diversity in their approaches to wearing a headscarf. They had both sides of secularism influences and Islam values and beliefs. Breaking fast in public is a serious offence during the month of Ramadam but there is a changing identity and liberal forces reemerge. “There should be freedom of speech. But there are red lines in Morocco and sometimes people over step”, said Professor in Rabat.
Previously I saw a Muslim woman wearing a hijab and could assume, “their life must be so different”. But upon seeing these countries and despite the strong influence of Islam in each country (whether it be personal choice or government pressure), public life is so normal and there are many external influences. Yes, you can have secular and religious influences within a person and within a society. The extent of freedom to do so is influenced by government and personal devoutness (only one way to know God and does the affect of the world hinder relationship?). For the most part, it’s with welcoming arms.
Feature Photo found here.