Last November 11, two British Muslims, purportedly members of an organization calling itself “Muslims Against Crusades” (MAC), were arrested under the UK Public Order Act. They were accused of burning three oversized poppies at a Remembrance Day ceremony and interrupting a two-minute moment of silence with such chants as “Burn, burn, British soldiers, British soldiers, burn in hell!” and “British soldiers: murderers! British soldiers: rapists! British soldiers: terrorists!” Last week, one of the two activists, Emdadur Choudhury, was found guilty under Section 5 of the Public Order Act of burning the poppies in a way that was likely to cause “harassment, harm or distress” to those who witnessed it, and was fined £50. . . . While it is very tempting for Muslims, and those sympathetic to the situation of Muslims in Europe, to see a case like this as evidence of double-standards—Muslim speech is suppressed on grounds of injury to non-Muslims, while the reverse is not; speech injurious to secular affect is suppressed, while speech injurious to religious affect is not—this might also be an occasion for some general reflection on the problem of injurious speech in morally pluralist contexts.
Is critique secular?
Justin Neuman’s stimulating last post encouraged me to reread the debate asking “Is Critique Secular?”from the beginning, and in doing so I began to wonder what would happen to the discussion if we added to it the notion of “resistance”. By resistance I simply mean the refusal to accept the social system in which one lives. I am partly inspired by Robert Bellah’s wonderful post, which makes the case that elements within several axial religions share a single impulse with Western theoria, namely renunciation thought precisely as (a practical and/or conceptual) departure from one’s inherited social condition. For Bellah, renunciation typically becomes institutionalized and then carries out critique from a relatively autonomous social space, in a routinizing extension which, somewhat in Charles Taylor’s spirit, he thinks contains “explosive potentialities for good and for evil.”
The heated exchange in this forum between Stathis Gourgouris and Saba Mahmood raises a basic question about conviction through which the relationship between critique and the secular can be approached from a different angle: can we be committed to—can we believe or have faith in—a particular position, idea, religion, etc. and nonetheless be fully critical toward it?
What has become clear to me in recent years is that the old dream of progress, which used to be assumed, is being replaced in popular culture by visions of disaster, ecological catastrophe in particular. If, as I believe, we human beings are at least to some extent in charge of our own evolution, we are in a highly demanding situation. Never before have calls for criticism of and alternatives to the existing order seemed so urgent. It is in this context that I want to consider whether the heritage of “the axial age“—the period in antiquity that gave rise to such social critique through practices of renunciation—is a resource or a burden in our current human crisis. […]
What’s so bad about heteronomous thinking, anyway? Stathis Gourgouris has used the term in several posts here on The Immanent Frame. He says that Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age is an example of heteronomous thinking, and he also thinks that Saba Mahmood’s post on secularism and critique exemplifies it. Though Gourgouris doesn’t define “heteronomous thinking,” he seems to mean something like “thinking that depends at some crucial point on something outside itself.” He thinks this kind of thinking is pretty bad—though it’s less clear exactly why he thinks so. [...]
Calls for the embrace (or for that matter rejection) of secularism are premised on a putative opposition between secular and religious worldviews wherein each is defined as a necessary and stable essence that is superior to the other. It is argued that there is an essential kernel to secularism that must be preserved and defended from religious extremism and backwardness. For some this is secularism’s scientific rationality, for others it is secularism’s incipient objectivity, and for yet others it is secularism’s strict separation between state and religion. The idea that the “good” elements in secularism can be distinguished from its “bad” sides, the latter discarded and the former refined, only serves to further reinforce the blackmail that one is either for or against secularism.
What are we to think of the idea, entertained by Rawls for a time, that one can legitimately ask of a religiously and philosophically diverse democracy that everyone deliberate in a language of reason alone, leaving their religious views in the vestibule of the public sphere? The tyrannical nature of this demand was rapidly appreciated by Rawls, to his credit. But we ought to ask why the proposition arose in the first place.
I guess it’s to be expected that in today’s fashionable anti-secularist perspective an act of secular criticism that calls for “de-transcendentalizing the secular” would be unfathomable—not merely contrarian or inadvisable, but inconceivable, unaccountable. [...]
One of the most cherished definitions of critique is the incessant subjection of all norms to unyielding critique. Or is it?
Heidegger did not need to point out (but he did) that God occupies a hegemonic place as the figure of transcendence that characterizes the Christian and post-Christian tradition (let us not rush too quickly to operate our own secularizing machines, global experts on world-religions that we are, to claim that other “traditions” equally partake of this particular character). But – and here is some more outbidding – God is not transcendent enough. In order to be a critical secularist, one would have to demonstrate a more unyielding antagonism, take a more radical stance (or agonizing distance), and install oneself in a more transcendent position vis-à-vis the object of one’s critique. What object? More often than not “religion” and better yet “religions.” But not only religion, of course.