As we ponder the crises and conflicts raging around the Muslim world, with their toxic mix of religion and politics and rising waves of a terrorism that looks to Islam for legitimisation, we cannot help asking: should Islam have any role in politics and public life? Can it come to play a constructive role on the local and international stage?
Just like other major monotheistic religions, Islam does not assume one form but many. Through its history it has been subject to multiple interpretations: open and closed, literal and rational, spiritual/ascetic or militant/politicised, to name a few.
Islam has a long historical record of tolerance and diversity, something evident in the myriad religious sects and ethnicities that coexisted in its midst, as well as in the great plurality of schools of theology, jurisprudence and philosophy it has fostered. Lively intellectual and scientific debates were regularly hosted in the palaces of caliphs, sultans and emirs between linguists, philosophers, jurists and theologians of all tendencies in a spirit of tolerance and mutual acceptance.
The contrast with the explosive violent character of many contemporary expressions of Islam couldn't be more pronounced.
There is no Islam in itself outside historical practice. There are many forms of Islam which are crucially shaped by the wider political and social environment where they are made to operate.
For instance, in Malaysia, Brunei, or Indonesia, which enjoy significant levels of political stability, Islam appears to assume a calm peaceful character, serving as a stimulus for political and economic development. In Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, plagued with brutal political conflicts, schisms and military interventions as they are, Islam manifests itself in tense, divisive and explosive forms.
Theological positions and intellectual tendencies are largely defined by their socio- political contexts. Of course, this is not a necessary law of physics, but it does help us navigate the map of the Muslim hemisphere and make sense of its complexities.
What political role should an Islam functioning in normal healthy conditions occupy? What does it mean for one to have Islamic references in politics? And is secularisation unavoidable or desirable in the Muslim region?
The dominant view among sociologists is that religion inevitably gives way to a secularised worldview with the advent of modernisation. But this hasn't been the case in the Muslim world. Islam still commands a powerful presence in Muslims' private and public lives, and more so among urbanised educated sectors of society.
Urbanised university-educated Muslim women appear to be more religiously minded than their rural, illiterate sisters who have never ventured outside their remote villages. There is no necessary linear correlation between secularism, advancing modernisation and mass education.
The question, then, is not whether Islam should or should not be strongly present in Muslims private and public lives. It already is. The question is how it should manifest itself?
Islam is a source of general moral and religious values. In this sense, it may foster the ideals of social justice, equality, cooperation and mutual exchange between humans. This is the case whether these values are directly referred to their religious origins, or transformed into civic norms conducive to social cohesion and peaceful coexistence. A politician who appeals to an Islamic reference frame is one who is inspired by these great ideals and views them as guidelines for her discourse and political conduct.
True, politics is about the pursuit of interests within a changing power balance. But drawing inspiration from these general Islamic ideals can infuse political behaviour with ethics and help direct and regulate it in accordance with moral norms and spiritual meanings.
Recognising that religion can have a role in politics does not mean that politicians should turn into preachers, or that the state should police people's consciences. In fact, two models have failed in the Muslim world. One is based on top-down secularisation, the other on top-down Islamisation.
Turkey and Tunisia were the embodiment of the first, Iran and Saudi Arabia are examples of the second. Both models dictate their ideologies to their citizens, interfering even in the most personal aspects of their lives, such as dress choice.
Secular interventionism would force a woman to bear her hair in the first; its religious sibling to cover it in the second. Both are repressive in different ways, both have generated tensions within sectors of their societies opposed to official state ideology.
What we should seek to attain in the Muslim world is a neutral, non-interventionist state that manages differences within society, guarantees individual freedoms and protects public order. This neutrality can go hand in hand with respect for collective culture, without coercion or interference in individuals' preferences.
In many ways, Tunisia's new constitution exemplifies this state model, which protects freedoms and rights, while also recognising Islam as the official state religion. The state may respect the majority's values, without becoming sectarian or dogmatic, or laying its hand over religion and exploiting it to its own ends.
Islam has an undeniable social and political character. This may be due to its worldly nature and the circumstances of its birth and evolution, which had coincided with state emergence, unlike Christianity which began as a creed persecuted by Roman authorities.
Seeking to restrict Islam's role to the private sphere and within the mosque's confines is a very difficult endeavour. A majority of respondents to the recent Pew survey in Muslim countries have declared their support for democracy, while at the same time demanding a large role for Islam in public lifehttp://www.pewglobal.org/2012/07/10/most-muslims-want-democracy-personal-freedoms-and-islam-in-political-life/.
Islam evidently continues to have an active and influential presence in Muslims' lives. The challenge is how it can play a positive role in a space open to different religious expressions, free of all forms of violence and fanaticism.
Because only through an equation combining respect for collective culture with individual freedoms and the demands of identity with the reality of pluralism, can Muslim societies hope to regain their lost equilibrium and stability.