A few weeks after the ouster of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the New York Times ran this headline: “Egyptian Liberals Embrace the Military, Brooking No Dissent.” The accompanying photograph showed a man with a full beard and shaved moustache in the Salafi style, a prominent prayer mark (a “raisin” in the Egyptian vernacular) on his forehead. Behind the man is a wallpaper of Muslim pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba in Mecca. A framed portrait of then-general and coup master Abdel Fattah el-Sisi leans against beige tiles stickered with several Qur’anic verses. The headline limits the military’s support base to (secular) liberals, while the image shows us it actually extends beyond this narrow stratum.
Posts Tagged ‘secularism’
In a recent essay on equality and citizenship in a multi-religious Sudan, Noah Salomon describes a commitment among development experts to equality before the law as a “non-ideological” solution to the problems of post-conflict societies. Salomon disagrees with the consensus, suggesting rather that “law, the institutions which promote it, and our relationship to them enfold deep ideological and political commitments which require a whole host of presumptions about justice and how best to achieve it.” While the rule of law is assumed to govern from a neutral public space that has transcended ideological and political particularities, the hegemony of rule of law discourse should not be taken as a mark of neutrality. It would be a mistake to remove the rule of law from conversations about power, history, difference, and governance.
The same may be said of secularism.
The Modern Spirit of Asia is like a brilliant pencil sketch for an uncompleted oil painting. Something inspiring appears in abstract, but the necessary shading hasn’t been done, and any effort at further illumination will necessarily transform what is depicted. The book traces in provocative outline the recent histories of India and China, arguing that neither formulations of modernity were merely derivative or defective imitations of the West, and that the degree of colonial encounter entwined religion and nationalism differently for each. While its larger goals are admirable, it fails to justify them by doing truly original research or rigorous theorizing. I agree with many of Peter van der Veer’s conclusions, but I fear that anyone who isn’t already singing from the same hymnal isn’t going to be converted.
The Modern Spirit of Asia is a book about India and China and the ways in which they have been transformed by Western imperial modernity. In my understanding, the onset of modernity is located in the nineteenth century and is characterized politically by the emergence of the nation-state, economically by industrialization, and ideologically by an emphasis on progress and liberation; “imperial modernity” is the formation of modernity under conditions of imperialism. This book is an essay in comparative historical sociology, informed by anthropological theory. Comparative historical sociology of culture is a field that was founded by Max Weber and practiced by his followers, of whom the late Robert Bellah and the late S.N. Eisenstadt are among the best known. It has been connected to interpretive anthropological theory and to insights gained in ethnography, especially in the work of Clifford Geertz.
In the following essay I would like to offer three observations about the use of religion in politics in Egypt in the aftermath of the ousting of president Mohamed Morsi, and about the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)—the oldest and most important Islamic organization in Egypt—particularly on how the group became targeted by the current military government in Egypt.
Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is the new Nasser, according to many Egyptians. The image of the military strong man currently leading Egypt is frequently put beside the picture of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led a group of younger military officers in taking control of Egypt in 1952. The new government presents itself as saving Egypt from the religious fanaticism of the Muslim Brotherhood, just as Nasser liberated Egypt from imperialists and conservative forces. Since many secularists and self-identified liberals supported Sisi’s takeover of the government in July 2013, the subsequent political conflicts can appear to be a continuation of the battles between advocates of a secular modern polity and religious fundamentalists. However, viewing the current turmoil as being basically a conflict between religious and secular forces in the public arena can lead to conclusions that make real conflict resolutions more difficult. “Secular” versus “religious” is not the major battle. The goals of the protesters have been more basic: to gain control over their lives through improved economic opportunity and freedom from the surveillance and control of a dominating police state, whether that state is secular or religious.
In The Myth of Religious Violence, William Cavanaugh argues that the assumption that religion is inherently authoritarian, divisive, and predisposed to irrational violence is a myth. This myth has its origins in the so-called “Wars of Religion,” which, he states, did not precipitate the rise of the modern state as is commonly assumed. Rather, he argues that these wars served as a justification for the nascent nation-state, which then used them to assert its power over the church. The church, correspondingly, was either absorbed into the state or relegated to an essentially private realm. It was only through the creation of a distinct private sphere for religion that the divisive properties of religion could be kept at bay—or so it was claimed. The myth of religious violence, propagated by political theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, has been used to legitimize the state’s claim to a monopoly on violence, lawmaking, and public allegiance in the name of Western secular ideals.
On March 7-8, 2014, Harvard University will be hosting an international conference entitled “Theorizing Religion in Modern Europe.”
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.