In the mid-19th century, the Ottoman Empire, then the seat of the caliphate, took a major step forward in the Muslim political tradition by importing Western liberal norms and institutions. The sultan’s powers were limited, an elected Parliament was established and political parties were allowed. This promising effort, which would make the caliph the head of a British-style democratic monarchy, was only half-successful. It ended when republican Turkey abolished the very institution of the caliphate after World War I.
The birth of the modern-day Islamist movement was a reaction to this post-caliphate vacuum. The overly politicized Islamists not only kept the traditional view that religion and state are inseparable, they even recast religion as state. “True religion is no more than the system which God had decreed to govern the affairs of human life,” Sayyid Qutb, a prominent Islamist ideologue, wrote in the 1960s. And since God would never actually come down to govern human affairs, Islamists would do it in his name.
Not all Islamic thinkers took this line. The 20th-century scholar Said Nursi saw politics not as a sacred realm, but rather a devilish zone of strife. “I seek refuge in God from Satan and politics,” he wrote. His followers built an Islamic civil society movement in Turkey, asking only religious freedom from the state. Contemporary Muslim academics such as Abdelwahab El-Affendi and Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im have articulated powerful Islamic arguments for embracing a liberal secularism that respects religion. They rightly point out that Muslims need secularism to be able to practice their religion as they see fit. I would add that Muslims also need secularism to save religion from serving as handmaiden to unholy wars of domination.