Russia and the Middle East
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What does the UAE envoy to Washington mean by secularism?

13.08.2017

While addressing the future of the situation in the Middle East, United Arab Emirates ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba used the term secular when talking about the regimes of some of the regions countries. His statement stirred controversy and what he meant was distorted by ideological and extremist figures. The word secular is a translation of the word laïcité which real significance according to the theological dictionary means people and institutions that do not belong to the religious institution. Its thus translated as worldly or civil. Its strange for this statement to stir controversy when the matter is about a Muslim country where there are no priestly institutions and no significance for the theocratic religious rule. All Sunni scholars have agreed that the imamate affair is a worldly and administrative matter that has nothing to do with the religious doctrine and the religions pillars. What Otaiba meant is that the regions countries are adopting a modernizing civil approach versus religious extremism and ideologies. He never said these countries have secular regimes that eliminate or fight religion. Therefore, using the term secularism distorts what he meant although he did not use the word within its social or legal context. 

We must differentiate between two concepts of secularism that often intertwine in Arabic writings: Secularism in its sociological concept which means decreasing the status of religion in society in terms of belief, faith and the individual and collective religious paths and secularism in its legal concept which is the laïcité system that eliminates religion from public affairs and fortifies the states neutrality towards all religions to protect freedom of conscience.

Secularism according to the first concept is a historical and social phenomenon which all studies prove it is exclusive to European western societies where traditional religions collapsed.

We must differentiate between two concepts of secularism that often intertwine in Arabic writings

Seyid Ould Abah

Secularism according to the second concept is a legal system that has many formulas such as France which adopts the idea to the maximum by separating religion from the state via the centrality of the republics values and Greece and Denmark which constitutions stipulate the religion of the state.

What these countries have in common is the system that separates between the religious institution and the public field. They do not fight religion and cancel religious freedoms but some of them even sponsor religion and recognize its national role within the pluralistic standards of democracy.

In brief, what Otaiba wanted to say is that the regions countries decided to establish national, civil, modern and successful governments. Its obvious that he did not mean secularism according to the concept of laïcité or according to the social context of the term. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries in the region are keen on sponsoring religion, maintaining its role in the public field and protecting it from ideological exploitation which is a hidden manifestation of the manifestations of secularization.

Dr. Adballah Seyid Ould Abah
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