The South Asian Islamist theorist Abul Ala Maududi (d.1979) detested secularism. His ideas went a long way in constructing what came to be known as 'Political Islam'. These ideas also influenced a number of Islamist ideologues outside South Asia.

A synthesis began to emerge when Maududi's ideas engaged with Islamist ideologues in Arabia and Iran. At the core of the synthesis was an impassioned castigation of secularism. It was denounced as being a European concept that was inherently anti-religion.

But non-Islamist scholarship and studies on secularism in the last three decades have demonstrated that there are various kinds of secularism within the Western world. The same scholarship also maintains that secularism as an idea or its implementation in non-Western regions has deeper roots in those regions' own histories and conditions.

The baseline thought behind secularism is the state's neutrality towards religion. In various European countries, this thought has evolved to mean the right to practise religion as long as this right is not abused to challenge the writ of the state and disrupt the democratic contract between the state and society.

Islamist ideologues often posit secularism as being against Islam. However, an exploration of the history of Western secularism reveals that the problem is often with the Islamists' cherry-picked interpretations

The state is to remain religion-neutral, treating religion as a citizen's personal matter. The state can only intervene if it establishes that the matter has become publicly problematic and is causing discord.

This strand of secularism is the product of 17th and 18th century Enlightenment - a period in Europe and in the US that emphasised the importance of reason, science and material progress over 'superstition', monarchism, clericalism, traditionalism, etc. Most Enlightenment thinkers advocated the separation of the Church and the state. However, they did not call for the obliteration of religion.

They wanted religious texts to be 'disenchanted' and/or simplified and freed from superstition. The Enlightenment thinkers wanted religion to operate as a constructive social current (instead of an impediment) in an era of rapid political, economic and social changes.

So why did most Islamist ideologues explain Western secularism as anti-religion? I think it was a case of cherry-picking. They chose to focus more on the idea of secularism that emerged in France during the tumultuous 1789-99...

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