The origin of the word secularism is rooted in knowledge, not atheism, and those bent on twisting language to worsen discord won't change that
It's time to scrutinise linguistic nuances to combat manipulation
There is a war of words underway in the region, one that has been stoked by certain media outlets that are intent on exploiting and widening sectarian rifts and points of difference. Most recently, Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera attempted to tug at one such thread after Yousef Al Otaiba, UAE ambassador to Washington, publicly stated that the GCC and neighbouring countries wish for “secular, stable, prosperous, empowered and strong governments”.
Mr Al Otaiba, who has served as ambassador for almost a decade, was interviewed on the Charlie Rose show on America’s PBS channel and mentioned the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Bahrain as the countries in question, while asserting that for the past 10 to 15 years, Qatar has routinely empowered Islamist militias in Libya, Syria and elsewhere by funding groups who champion the manipulation of religious concepts to brainwash and control.
Mr Al Otaiba was referring to a formula for strengthening governance and having stable states in a region in need of stability. While the word “secular” in English does not correlate with the marginalising of religion – on the contrary, religious communities in, say the UK, thrive under a secular government whose monarch is also the head of the Church of England – its Arabic equivalent has connotations of atheism on an individual level.
Despite the fact that the word ‘ilmania’, Arabic for secularism, has its etymological roots in ‘ilm’, which translates as knowledge, the word has gradually come to imply a turning away from religion or the exclusion of religion from all aspects of life. After decades of political division over communism and the rule of law, espousing secularism became synonymous with being anti-religious among many who did not understand it as a concept. In the Middle East, it has loaded connotations that are manipulated by those who want to shut down any debate about statehood, modernity and moderation.
Highlighting efforts to confront the mixing of religion and politics – and elevating spirituality from the murky waters of politics – is part of an important debate in this region and beyond. As Hassan Hassan recently argued in The National, it is time to stop allowing ill-informed and dangerous extremists to hijack verses and concepts and pervert the specific context within which they emerged.
Indeed, it is time these misconceptions were laid to rest. While countries such as France have taken their secularist mantras, notably “la laicite”, beyond issues of governance to include individual practices in public, the UAE remains at the forefront of nations governing through a strong rule of law, while not only accommodating all religions, but upholding the tenets of Islam.
Writing in The National, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the UAE Minister of State for Tolerance, reminds us that “the notion of tolerance faces threat from within and abroad”. As Dr Ali bin Tamim, director-general of Abu Dhabi Media, recently said, “when you believe in knowledge and not fallacies, you can shout out with full confidence: ‘I am the church bell and the muezzin of the mosque’, and under knowledge and knowledgeability – or secularism – we can bury the hypocrisy of extremists.”
The fight against manipulation starts with redefining – or reasserting – the true meanings of concepts that are otherwise deeply rooted in true Islam.