Emory Report
February 5, 2007
Volume 59, Number 18

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February 5, 2007
Legal scholar challenges Muslims, Americans to debate church, state

by carol clark

Emory law professor and world-renowned Islamic scholar Abdullahi An-Na'im blends his traditional North African roots with a bold, reformist mentality. "I believe that if I'm not challenging and being challenged, I'm not relevant," An-Na'im said during the recent Currie Lecture in Law and Religion, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Law and Religion.

Clad all in white, in the flowing robes and turban of his native Sudan, An-Na'im spoke to a full house at Tull Auditorium, which included a contingent of U.S. Army officers in desert combat fatigues. The title of his talk was "The Future of Sharia: Secularism from an Islamic Perspective," but he hit on many provocative topics, including what he called "the U.S. colonization of Iraq" and the lack of accountability of the U.S. government.

While in law school days in Sudan, An-Na'im became a follower of Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, who preached a form of Islam that embraced human rights. Taha was eventually executed by Islamic fundamentalists and An-Na'im was briefly imprisoned for his beliefs before fleeing Sudan in 1985. An-Na'im has worked to keep Taha's vision alive, advocating for a modernized, secularized form of Sharia -- the body of Islamic law.

In 1995, he joined the faculty of Emory Law School, where he is now the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law and a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion. He is currently working on a book, "The Future of Sharia," which is posted in draft form in several languages on the Internet (www.law.emory.edu/fs) to invite critique from throughout the Muslim world.

Emory Report visited An-Na'im in his office, a cozy retreat furnished with a tribal rug and overstuffed armchair, where he is surrounded by photos of his wife, five children and new grandchild.

Emory Report: After the Currie Lecture, the U.S. Army officers in attendance, including several military chaplains, asked to meet with you privately. What did you talk about?

An-Na'im: Some of them had served in Iraq and they were asking me how, as military people on the ground, they should engage Muslims in discussions to know what they are thinking and feeling. I advised that they should avoid accepting some people as religious leaders who speak for entire communities. There are many different perspectives, and you shouldn't just talk to the usual suspects. If you really want to engage people, you should engage a range of voices to get a more accurate picture. Some of it may be favorable to U.S. foreign policy and some of it may not be, but it's better to know the real picture. Otherwise, whatever programs you are developing are being done in the dark or through misinformation.

ER: You expressed strong feelings in your lecture against the U.S. policy in Iraq.

An-Na'im: I do not mean to insult, but I need to challenge because this is relevant to what I am trying to do. The U.S. is colonizing Iraq. Colonizing is seizing sovereignty over land and people through military conquest without legal justification. And that we did. European colonization of the 19th and 20th century was legitimized as "the white man's burden" of promoting stability and bringing law and order to developing societies. The irony is, that is very much like the U.S. mission of going to Iraq to bring it democracy.   The citizens of the colonial power don't see the action of their government as colonial, but that does not mean that it is not true.

Formally, the U.S. handed over sovereignty to the Iraqi people in June of 2004. But it's still a colonial institution because you have 150,000 heavily armed troops there under foreign command. We can't talk about an Iraqi state and a sovereign government when the government itself has to be protected from its own people by foreign troops.

When the U.S. behaves in this way, it is undermining the rule of law in international relations, and challenging the legitimacy of human rights. That is why I need to challenge this aspect of U.S. foreign policy.

ER: You became a U.S. citizen in May 2001, a few months before the Sept. 11 attacks. What is your perspective on 9/11 -- as a Muslim, an American and a legal scholar?

An-Na'im: Terrorism can never be justified, not for any cause. It's brutal and always counter-productive. What was problematic was the U.S. response. It played into the hands of the terrorists, legitimizing their cause by showing that the U.S. super power is willing to forgo international laws and due process of individuals for the sake of defending its security.   It is easy to uphold principles when conditions are normal. You need to uphold them when you are under attack; that's when they are tested.

ER: You say that the United States is more of an Islamic state than Muslim countries that claim to be Islamic states. What do you mean by that?

An-Na'im: My central point is that I need a secular state to be a Muslim, because belief requires the ability to make a choice -- not to be forced to comply with the religious doctrines of the ruling elite. The U.S. is more of a secular state than any of the states in the Muslim world, so to be an American gives me more of a possibility of being a Muslim than being a citizen of Sudan.

The separation of church and state is at a high level of development in the U.S. That's a product of struggle and building institutions and investing the Constitution with new ideas about what it means to be free.

ER: Do you ever feel like you're preaching to the choir when you talk about the need for separation of church and state to American audiences?

An-Na'im: No, I'm telling people not to take it for granted. I've lived here since 1993 and I've seen a slide in the separation of church and state over the last six or seven years with the rise of the new conservatism. I've seen a chipping away of core values and institutions. If people don't fight back, they could be lost.

Take the issue of gay marriage. Don't tell me this is going to be illegal because it's a sin. Give me a socio-economic reason that I can debate with you. The legal is the realm of the state, but if a state makes laws in terms of religion, then my freedom of religion will suffer.

I see the universal problem of how to keep the state neutral as ongoing tension, not as a settled principle that we can assume to always exist once established. The discourse of the separation of church and state needs to be reiterated with every generation. We should not assume that our children fully understand and appreciate the value of this view.

Muslims can learn from the American experience about the separation of church and state, but Americans can learn from the Muslim experience about how dangerous it is to allow the diminishment of that separation.