Secular versus sacred: Uighurs are in a hard place
Trump’s America is engaged in trade negotiations with China and is unwilling to add the Uighurs to a long list of difficult issues.
Much of the world, including Arab countries, stays silent on accusations that China is waging a campaign of assimilation against Uighur Muslims. The sultan of Brunei announces, after weeks of an international outcry, that a strict new interpretation of sharia won’t be fully enforced.
Both developments challenge the common argument advanced by Islamophobes and Islamist extremists. They say there is no separation in Islam between secular and sacred. In fact, the separation is often maintained by Muslim leaders against all odds, simply to govern.
The most notable example in the 20th century came after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which enshrined sharia as the law of the newly christened Islamic Republic. However, by 1988, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini found it necessary to release the government from the commands of sharia in “the public interest” (maslaha) because conservative clerics obstructed legislation on the grounds it didn’t conform to sharia. They objected to land redistribution and labour contract laws that regulated conditions, wages, safety and holidays.
They were holding up the business of government and Khomeini responded with a creative formula. He deemed the Islamic state “a branch of the absolute trusteeship of the Prophet… (one that) constitutes one of the primary ordinances of Islam, which has precedence over all other derived ordinances, such as prayer, fasting and pilgrimage.” That is to say, the government is free to abrogate provisions of the law if it judges it necessary to the public interest.
It was a remarkable move and did not conform to the general view advanced by radical Islamists and Western theorists partial to the clash-of-civilisations position. Both argue that Islam is impervious to secularisation, it is a total “civilisation,” in fact a “total discourse,” in the words of the scholar Ernest Gellner.
In fact, though, as Khomeini demonstrated, Muslim leaders routinely govern by secular rationale. Some of that is on view with respect to international issues. The Uighurs…