Beyond critique:

Beyond religio-secularism: Toward a political critique

posted by Markus Dressler

On July 24, 2013, a “Letter to the Prime Minister of Turkey” was published as an ad in the British newspaper The Times. It was signed by an illustrious group that included showbiz celebrities, such as Sean Penn, Ben Kingsley, and David Lynch; popular academic writers, such as Andrew Mango, known for his Ataturk biography; and notorious secularists, such as the Turkish composer Fazıl Say. The letter was part of the international contestation over the correct interpretation of the Gezi protests, which began in the last days of May 2013. After likening a government-organized rally against the Gezi protests and in support of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the Nazis’ Nuremberg rally, even calling Erdoğan’s rule “dictatorial”, the letter continues as follows: “[Y]ou described these protesters as tramps, looters and hooligans, even alleging they were foreign-led terrorists. Whereas, in reality, they were nothing but youngsters wanting Turkey to remain a Secular Republic as designed by its founder Kemal Ataturk.” As exemplified in this letter, public reactions in the West tended to emphasize the purportedly secularist motivation behind the protests in opposition to a government whose authoritarianism was supposedly connected to its religious views.

However, the picture of the Gezi protestors as being essentially secularist defenders of Ataturk and his legacy is no less distorting than the complimentary portrayal of the AKP as crucially motivated by religion. To be sure, secularist resistance to certain Islamization policies of the governing AKP was not absent in the mélange of motivations behind the Gezi protests. However, it was clearly not its driving force, even if certain pro-secularism forces from within and outside the country, supportive of the protests, aimed at producing just such an image. To the extent that the “secularism versus Islamization antagonism” perspective guides the perception of recent political conflicts in Turkey, it obscures them rather than furthering an understanding of a much more complex matter. (For more, see Ziya Meral in Cairo Review of Global Affairs, and Ateş Altınordu at The Immanent Frame).

Similar secularist bias can be observed in many responses to the turmoil in Egypt as well as in the description of political conflicts in the Middle East in general. Hussein Ali Agrama has suggested that the initial anti-Mubarak protests in Egypt be understood as asecular, “outside the problem-space of secularism.” One could easily argue that the major motivations and stakes behind the Gezi spirit are asecular, too, since they reflect a claim for sovereignty that is indifferent to the question of where to draw the line between religion and politics—a question at the core of the “problem-space of secularism” as defined by Agrama. The widespread resistance to perceive such fields of asecularity reflects the continuing dominance of a religio-secularist worldview. In the most general way, I use the notion of “religio-secularism” to put emphasis on the manner in which the concepts of religion and the secular have been intertwined, forming a semantic continuum constituted by the oppositional way in which they are pointing to each other without being able to be defined independently from one another. It also points to how secularism and religionism are corresponding worldviews and practices. The question of the political can be regarded as the vantage point through which this antagonism/binary is constantly reinforced. In the example at hand, a religionist approach— based on the secularist obsession with religion as the root cause of political turmoil in Turkey and the Middle East—is employed to explain politics. We need to ask what exactly this move accomplishes. The short answer is that the religio-secularism inherent to many European and American responses to political conflicts in the Middle East often obscures much more complex questions of power and connected material interests and stakes. This is a dynamic that deserves more attention.

Those scholars critical of religio-secularist biases, which also underlie much liberal religious freedom rhetoric, face a challenge: How can we respond to such biases without getting ourselves caught up in the circular ideological crossfire that religio-secularism creates and in which it is embedded? Viewed from the early 21st century, it seems to be rather bold, if not anachronistic, to try de-linking the connection between religion and the secular. Religion as a concept has—following intellectual discourses and social processes that are generally discussed under headings such as enlightenment and modernization—been semantically connected to politics. The last century has witnessed the formulation and decline of the secularization paradigm, through which our understanding of religion has been thoroughly linked with notions of the secular in ways that make it extremely difficult for us to overcome conceptually. As a consequence, it has become almost impossible for us to rethink religion in nonpolitical ways. What I mean by “nonpolitical,” simply, is an intellectual space that makes it possible to conceive of religion in a manner that does not necessarily implicate the political directly as a point of reference against which the domain of religion is demarcated. Given this intellectual baggage, can we emancipate “religion” from politics if we do not want to take refuge to phenomenological or metaphysical approaches, but remain within a social science framework? Is such a task feasible at all? I tend to believe that it is not, although there certainly are thought-provoking attempts to transcend the conceptual space of religio-secularism—the editors of our exchange have identified such attempts as “upholding religion.”

The notion of the post-secular reflects one attempt to rethink religion after the demise of the secularization paradigm. But what does it accomplish? In its descriptive variety it primarily asserts the end of the secularist paradigm; in its religio-political or theologico-political variety (e.g. Habermas, Caputo, de Vries, Abeysekara) it celebrates the end of the secularist era and provides an intellectual framework for the return of religion. Charles Taylor’s “secularity three” can probably be argued to bring together both of these approaches. To be clear, I am not questioning the legitimacy of these approaches per se. But it seems to me that if we want to think about religion after the end of the secular(ist) age in a way that goes beyond dismantling the secularization thesis, the potential of the notion post-secular is limited since it ultimately remains within the logic of religio-secularism. In other words, although the classical secularization thesis has been greatly modified and is even regarded by many social scientists as failed, our conceptual apparatus has remained deeply indebted to the language of secularism. This crucially has to do with the fact that the question of secularism and religion is not only and not mainly an intellectual question, but also a political one that continues to be effective on local and transnational levels. I think that this constitutes a major challenge for scholars critical of religio-secularism.

In our introduction to the volume Secularism and Religion-Making, Arvind Mandair and I have argued for “a perspective that is postsecular as well as postreligious and, to the extent that the religious and the secular are epistemologically and semantically linked, for a perspective that is post-secular-religious. The focus needs to be shifted away from one that inquires and thus, consciously or not, reifies the dialectic of the religio-secular construct and the politics in which it is embedded…[W]e strive for a meta-perspective that scrutinizes the religio-secular construct in all its epistemological and theologico-political facets.” We further suggested that inquiry into the processes through which the religio-secular paradigm was translated into new contexts, and de facto universalized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, could be a way to advance the dismantling of the paradigm. Investigation of the historical moments of the secularization of religion, in which the semantic bonds between religion and the secular were tightened, continues to be one angle for reflection on the beyond of the religio-secular construct. The formation of the modern nation-state, and the formulation of the programs of nationalism and secularism more specifically constitute such historical moments of secularization, in which the question of religion was conceptually correlated to the political project of modernity.

After following and trying to contribute to the debate on (religio-)secularism for quite a while, looking for a new conceptual frame and a new language that would go beyond the path-breaking genealogical critique that has been spearheaded by Talal Asad, I do recognize the limits of this pursuit. The reasons behind this are ultimately political. Although scholarly critique of the secularization thesis has challenged the religio-secularist knowledge regime, as a political tool the latter is still extremely powerful and likely to continue to be so. It provides a language for mapping societal conflicts and actors in a binary scheme that reduces complexity and allows for the framing and justification of strategies of political engagement. The recent announcement of the US Department of State with regard to the creation of an office that “will focus on engagement with faith-based organizations and religious institutions around the world to strengthen US development and diplomacy and advance America’s interests and values” needs to also be understood from that angle. In other words, no matter how disputed religio-secularism is as an academic project, its basic promises still function as a powerful device of world-ordering and political engagement. This political reality of religio-secularism makes it extremely difficult to overcome it conceptually.

How can we as academics respond to the political (ab)use of religio-secularism? I would suggest that a major task for scholars critical of the language of religio-secularism is to make their criticism heard also by non-academic publics. The task should not merely be to make academic knowledge more accessible to non-academic audiences, but, more importantly, to engage in a dismantling of religio-secularism as a device to mask and/or justify nonreligious, and often rather material, political agendas. Such critique could, for example, focus on the work that religio-secularist language accomplishes in particular political contexts. In the case of Turkey, one could point out the material interests behind the strategy of feeding the secularist-Islamist binary. More specifically, one could show how the focus of the political debate on ideas and ideologies works against the interests of those who have been disadvantaged by the socioeconomic transformations that the turn to neoliberal politics in Turkey since the 1980s brought along. It would admittedly be farfetched to claim that all of those contributing to the maintenance of the secularist-Islamist binary as a central explanatory frame in explaining Turkish politics do so in an attempt to obscure the socioeconomic consequences of the neoliberal turn. But I would claim that there are heavy economic and political interests that weigh on major actors in Turkey who are keen not to have these consequences comprehensively addressed. Keeping the focus of public debate on matters of ideology can be helpful to achieve this task. Similar dynamics are certainly also at work in other national and transnational contexts. Therefore, in both local and transnational contexts, the task of uncovering the material/political interests that underlie the politics and languages of identity and ideology necessitates a combination of scholarly analysis and political critique. Without such critique the knowledge regime of religio-secularism cannot be challenged in any sustainable way.

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