Three orders of questions regarding secularism—genealogical, philosophical, and political—will be envisaged during an upcoming public debate at the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society (ICLS) at Columbia University. Talal Asad, Mohamed Amer-Meziane, and Etienne Balibar will be speaking on these questions in the conversation titled, “Beyond the Secular State? Secularism, Empire, Hegemony.”
Posts Tagged ‘secularism’
On September 13, 2016, Clemson University’s head football coach Dabo Swinney was asked what he would do if one of his players refused to stand for the national anthem. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had recently done so, explaining that he would not “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Swinney took issue not with Kaepernick’s message, but with his method. Dismissing Kaepernick’s refusal to stand as “distracting,” Swinney deployed the image of Martin Luther King Jr. as a model of “the right way” to protest.
Swinney’s words immediately sparked controversy. Clemson professor Chenjerai Kumanyika responded with an open letter to Swinney, sharply titled “Take MLK’s name out your mouth.” He chastised Swinney for participating in a long, misguided heritage of sanitizing King’s radicalism, and of corrupting King’s legacy for the purposes of white moderate liberalism. “In the face of the injustices in his own time,” Kumanyika writes, “Dr. King called for direct action, not press conferences.”
The editors of Race and Secularism in America, Vincent Lloyd and Jonathon Kahn, would not be surprised by this marshalling of Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy, nor by the fact that this legacy is constantly contested and renegotiated along lines of protest, race, and religion. Indeed, in the collection’s introduction, the King monument in Washington, DC serves as a towering symbol of the complex relationship of its two subjects—race and secularism—and their analytical inextricability. King is central to the collection’s claim: Because “whiteness is secular, and the secular is white,” “the careful management of race and religion are the prerequisite for accepting the public significance of a fundamentally raced religious figure.” Indeed, the collection takes as its central stance that secularism itself is primarily a (white, liberal) game of managing and excluding difference.
While crude secularization theories predicting the end of religion have, in response to strong criticism, been refined to be less ideologically driven, more empirically accurate, and theoretically more robust, in recent years, “secularism,” “secularity,” and “the secular” have in effect supplanted secularization altogether. Secularity is a principle in which the religious and secular spheres are distinct. Religion, in a secular society, is one option among many other ideational systems, identities, affiliations, and activities. Secularism, by contrast, is a political project that aims at instituting secularity—at creating a secular society by socially upholding, culturally enforcing, and legally securing the separation of the religious and secular domains. Building on that literature, my recent works on Poland and Québec focus on the process of becoming secular—on the aesthetic, bodily, social, and legal practices of enacting secular identifications and affiliations. In this approach, secularity is never fully achieved but always in process, and often itself infiltrated by religion. My first point, then, is that in places where religion was (or still is) an ethnonational marker, secularism only signifies in relation to specific national(ist) projects, and as such can only be understood by social scientists when triangulated with religion and nationalism.
How does this play out in the cases I’ve worked on?
Throughout much of the world, religion manifestly—and sometimes markedly—informs everyday understandings, cultural representations, and political and legal definitions of nationhood. The paradox I wish to explore, with reference to developments in Northern and Western Europe, is that religion also informs assertively secular understandings and discourses of nationhood—and not simply as their evident target, but as their putative foundation.
The categories “secular” and “religious” have deeply intertwined histories, and the Christian origins of the category “secular” have been amply discussed. My interest here is in the religious dimension of secularism, as a self-conscious, assertive political stance, and secularity, as a characterization of a culture or way of life.
There are various interpretations of Trumpism on offer. Reading it as fascism explains its appeal to the white nationalists of the “alt-right.” Reading it as populism explains its appeal to a white working class fed up with the “Washington establishment.” And reading it as authoritarianism explains its appeal to voters with authoritarian personalities. These interpretations are not necessarily wrong, but they do not explain Trump’s appeal to evangelicals qua evangelicals.
So, let me propose a different interpretation. On this reading, Trumpism is a secular form of religious nationalism. By “religious nationalism,” I mean a form of nationalism that makes religious identity the litmus test of national belonging. By “a secular form of religious nationalism,” I mean one that strips religious identity of its ethical content and transcendental reference. In Trumpism, religion functions mainly as a marker of ethnicity.
Religion is increasingly recognized as a defining feature of political life and as a constitutive element of individual and collective identities. The question is no longer whether religion matters, but how. The contributors to this discussion—which began as a session at the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting, co-sponsored by the sections on the Sociology of Religion and Culture—explore this question through the lens of political contestation over national identity.
Last month, the image of three police officers standing over a woman on the beach in Nice, supervising the removal of her “burkini” (a wetsuit-like swimming costume favored by some Muslim women), provoked great outrage over the bans of the garments in five French seaside towns. The criticisms have been several. The bans are conceived as a trespass against freedom of expression, guaranteed in that foundational document of the French political imagination, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789). Others have seen the bans as manifestations of patriarchy or symptoms of Islamophobia in the West. In the United States, the bans have been labeled assaults on the freedom of religion.
The debate over the burkini strongly evokes the 2010 debate over the niqab (the veil that conceals everything but the eyes) in French public spaces. That debate—itself related to France’s earlier debate about the hijab in public schools—issued in a national ban. The ban was implemented over and against the advice of the Conseil d’État, which advised the niqab could not be said to represent a sufficient threat to “public order” to justify it. When the burkini ban was challenged last week, the Conseil d’État overturned it, citing similar considerations. (The Conseil d’État has the power to nullify administrative actions but can only issue advisory opinions vis-à-vis legislation.) And yet the niqab ban persists: when it was challenged before the European Court of Human Rights in 2014, that Court allowed it to stand.
My new book, The Politics of Islamic Law, presents an approach to the study of religion, comparative politics and law that begins with the contradiction and ambiguity produced by the interplay among sacred texts, institutions of state and society, and actors working with the tools they have at hand. By seeking to understand the development of the category of Islamic law as a “problem-space” for the modern state, the book invites further exploration of how Muslim futures are being framed and discussed, historicizing what David Scott has framed as “the particular questions that seem worth asking and the kinds of answers that seem worth having.” (2004:4) In this exploration the question – ‘whose law?’ – turns out to be as important, if not more important, than the question – ‘which law?’ This generates a new set of questions in the study of the politics of Islamic law: in what domains of Muslim life is Islamic law being raised once again, and by whom? In what domains of Muslim life has Islamic law been made silent? What political compacts and struggles underwrite these claims for presence or absence, and upon what institutional and social foundations do they rely? Over what kind of human subject do they lay claim, and how might this subject speak to the law? To what version of the past do they refer, and to which vision of the future?
Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion makes an extremely important and timely contribution to a conversation that the discipline of political science should be but still isn’t really having. The continued lack of serious, analytically sophisticated attention to religion and religious phenomena by scholars of international relations and comparative politics is all the more baffling given the place of religion in political life around the world today. Religious affiliation has become the central category for a geo-political remapping of the world since 9/11. The results have been depressingly vapid analyses that underscore, once again, the ideological force of Samuel Huntington’s self-fulfilling prophecy, and the bankruptcy of dominant approaches in our discipline that continue to treat religion in the most reductionist, identarian, instrumentalist, and frankly, unthinking fashion. In this regard, Shakman Hurd’s book constitutes a truly novel and vital contribution and I cannot recommend this book highly enough to my co-disciplinarians, whether interested in religion or not. I underscore this point, since many scholars who frequent The Immanent Frame are not mainstream political scientists and are thus unaware of the bleak nature of the wilderness into which rare and prophetic voices like Shakman Hurd’s are crying.
The Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life invites applications for postdoctoral scholar positions, for the 2016-2017 academic year.
Nations have different ways of talking about themselves. Americans tend to discuss their country in an idiom of national greatness, however radically they may disagree about the nature of this providential blessing. The French, on the contrary, make berating their country a national sport. Anyone who has recently spent time in France has heard the exasperation with which its citizens are prone to speak of their homeland, often describing it as “little country” whose glory days are behind it. Such talk is hardly new. In the 1930s, the writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline—a master in the genre—mused about his nation’s fate: “We’ll disappear body and soul from this place like the Gauls … They left us hardly twenty words of their own language. We’ll be lucky if anything more than ‘merde’ survives us.”[footnote]Louis-Ferdinand Céline, L’École des cadavres (Paris : Denoël, 1938).[/footnote]
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion is notable for its subtlety and intellectual generosity, as well as its breadth and depth of engagement with contemporary scholarship and public affairs. This is also a book with a big, hard-hitting idea of its own. Its primary thesis is crystal clear, timely, and provocative: “religion” cannot serve as the basis for scholarly analyses or the formation of policy. I agree with that: individuals, communities, and events are more complex than the idea of religion can capture; indeed, the very idea of religion often gets in the way of understanding how those things work.
What logics, strategies, and effects characterize the category of religion as an instrument for governing social life? What possibilities and foreclosures result from summoning religion to serve novel political ends? Questions such as these subtend much contemporary scholarship on religion; their ascendancy testifies to the puissance of recent deconstructions of the concept of religion, especially those marshalled by critiques of secularism. Rather than conceiving religion as the disavowed other of secular modernity, the burgeoning field of secularism studies has demanded attention to the continual consolidation of “religion” within the problem space of secularism, especially in relation to the dispensation of the modern nation-state. Despite the recent interest in the relationship between secularism and religion, however, the distinctive forms and functions of “religious freedom”—as both a principle for and an object of global governance—have received less attention. Thankfully, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion, has arrived to decisively fill this lacuna.
As part of the COMPROMISE research project at the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen will host an international conference on December 6-7, 2016.
In the wake of the November 13 terrorist attack, French president François Hollande decided to reinforce France’s security legislation. In addition to a raft of police and intelligence measures, he proposed two major constitutional revisions: the first was to “constitutionalize” the state of emergency, previously an ad hoc piece of legislation; the second was to formalize the conditions under which French citizens can be stripped of their nationality.
In the United States, the Middle East is almost always presented as a problem to be solved—most significantly, the problem of religious extremism and conflict. Popular explanations of such conflict turn on supposedly deep-seated cultural attributes within Arab societies and often tied to the nature of Islam. But even for those that avoid this essentializing turn, virtually all commentators take for granted the proposed solution: generate ever-more secular political practices. In other words, what the region needs are governing institutions that treat individuals of all religious backgrounds as civic equals and thus reduce confessional difference to a matter purely of private (and legally protected) choice.
Most of Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report is an original and thorough exploration of the historical rise and unfolding of this finitude of our imagination—the difficulty of relating to the lives of religious communities, in their difference, without the arbitrating mediation of the state. Mahmood traces the gradual replacement of earlier Ottoman modalities of rule governing religious communities and the relationships between them by the state-centered secular mode of governance. The former was a tradition that did not promise equality but maintained religious pluralism, without intervening in what constituted religion and without attempting to reorganize religious life. Paradoxically, the hierarchy characteristic of that system of rule left religious communities more immune to the infiltration of state powers. On the other end, despite its promise of religious equality, secular governance, as Mahmood shows, contributed “to the exacerbation of religious tensions in postcolonial Egypt, hardening interfaith boundaries and polarizing religious difference.” At the center of the book is a story about the sovereign state, modern law—domestic and international—and the unequal power distributions between the West and the non-West during the colonial and post-colonial periods, all of which make up the forces of political secularism and the stage for its unfolding.
Trenchantly framed as “a minority report,” Saba Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report offers more than just one dissenting opinion. The book makes at least three distinct interventions—archival, critical, and methodological—that together call state secularism into question as a political project and normative ideal. This “minority report” has major significance. It raises crucial historical and ethical questions about the power—and limits—of the state and law to achieve “religious equality.”
Mahmood outlines a set of concepts that are historically central to the workings of secularism and elucidates how they facilitate outcomes that often differ starkly from our expectations. She shows how, because our commitments to religious liberty and equality have worked through these concepts, distinctions between majorities and minorities will be continually made and increasingly entrenched within social life, a process that thereby fosters conflict along the very lines that secularism promises to at least diminish if not dissolve. The answer to sectarian conflicts cannot therefore be more or better secularism, since it is secularism itself that shapes and provokes their current forms. That, as I understand it, is her overall thesis, and I found her arguments on its behalf to be powerfully persuasive. Embedded within her thesis is a potentially profound challenge to a set of claims that are strongly promoted by some theorists of secularism and many political liberals: that a harmonious religious pluralism can be achieved by finding shared foundational societal values, and that this can be done through an overlapping consensus.
The stark divide between the sacred and the profane engendered by the Great Separation between religion and politics in the West is put to the test in Saba Mahmood’s rich and fascinating study of secularism and its paradoxes. Challenging conventional understandings of secularism as the solution to the religion-fueled wars that have characterized much of human history through the Enlightenment, Mahmood boldly argues instead that secularism is one of the enabling conditions of conflict. Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report offers an incisive and counterintuitive depiction of the strange career of secularism as anchored in the state’s sovereign power to define and regulate religious life—a sphere that by secularism’s own terms should have been private and depoliticized. This claim acquires particular significance when applied to the supposedly non-secular states in the Middle East. It turns out that when it comes to government intervention in religions, there is not much separating the liberal secular states of the West from the religious, authoritarian states of the Middle East. Could the Great Separation actually be one great con?
It seems as if there’s been an avalanche of inquiries into the precarious status of religious minorities in Muslim-majority societies in recent decades, much of it framed in terms of the incomplete secularization of Muslim states and/or the (in)compatibility of Islam with secularism, modernity, tolerance, and liberalism. Continual irruptions of interreligious tension and violence in the Middle East in particular have taken on an even more ominous cast in the shadow of ISIS/Da`ish, confirming the extent and depth, as well as the intractability, of “the Muslim problem” in the cottage industry of publications devoted to anatomizing it. In this context, the appearance of yet another excursus on religious minorities in a Muslim majority state seems little more than napworthy.
“Now let us see how Bauer formulates the role of the state,” writes Karl Marx in his famous take on the minority question, which Saba Mahmood aptly recalls and perceptively reads. Marx recognized that Bruno Bauer, his interlocutor, was also fighting for emancipation and equality; Bauer was fighting for political emancipation. But Bauer failed “to examine the relationship between political emancipation and human emancipation.” He failed to recognize that, in Germany at least, the state is “a theologian ex professo.” Marx does grant that there may be some states where “the Jewish question loses its theological significance and becomes a truly secular question.” And yet he is also very clear that to stop at the secular (that is, at political emancipation) is insufficient. “Political emancipation from religion is not complete and consistent emancipation from religion, because political emancipation is not the complete and consistent form of human emancipation.” Her Marxian reservations notwithstanding, it is a proximate, urgent and enduring struggle, one for “religious equality,” that Mahmood documents and embraces. “As an aspiration and a principle, religious equality signaled a sea change in how interfaith inequality was historically perceived . . . the variety of social movements fighting for religious equality attests to the global reach of this ideal and its promise . . . The impossibility of its realization should not blind us to its power, its ongoing promise, and its constitutive contradictions.”
In Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, Saba Mahmood has produced a valuable account both of how the idea of separating religion from politics came to be central to the development of the “religiously neutral” state in Europe (beginning with the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century and culminating in the new nations after the First World War) and of how that idea became politically important in the postcolonial Middle East. In particular, she describes how in constituting religious identities, the state in modern Egypt creates unexpected opportunities for political power and social confrontation among those who seek to regulate, as well as those who claim to represent, religious minorities. Her detailed analysis of the rich historical and ethnographic material she has assembled reinforces the conclusion that instead of regarding the secular state as the solution to discrimination against religious minorities, it must itself be understood as part of the problem. So I offer a few reflections prompted by her excellent study, first on liberal ideals that are commonly said to promote equal treatment for minorities, and then about the secular anxiety that preceded the 2013 coup against the elected president Mohamed Morsi.
It is no exaggeration to say that the religious diversity that characterized the Middle East for centuries is in precipitous decline. The reasons for this are multiple, including civil wars that have ravaged Iraq, Syria, and Libya; territorial expansion of militant Islamist groups (like ISIS); and steady erosion of political and civil rights in the region. The US invasion of Iraq and subsequent intervention in Libya have left wide swaths of the Middle East in utter disarray and brought the plight of religious minorities to a new impasse.
Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report is an exploration of the minority question not so much in the context of warfare but of stable governance where the promise of civil and political equality continues to hold sway. Because I am interested in how religious difference has come to be regulated and remade under secularism, I focus on the problem of religious minorities rather than groups defined by ethnic, linguistic, or other attributes.
Secularism has many critics in the academy these days, but not all have given up on it. This is made abundantly clear in the recently published volume, Religion, Secularism, and Constitutional Democracy edited by Jean L. Cohen and Cécile Laborde.
Claims made in the name of secularism vary greatly. At one extreme, self-described secularists in the United States portray their cause as the beleaguered defense of the separation of church and state. As their critics rightly point out, faith in naturalistic worldviews often bubbles up in the fuzzy definitions of secularism that underlie their advocacy. At the other extreme, political and critical theorists use the term as shorthand for a master theory of global modernity. They see secularism as a set of discourses, policies, and constitutional arrangements whereby modern states and liberal elites have sought to regulate religion and, in the process, have contributed to the “immanent frame” in which religion is now located. Rather than advocacy, they see their task as the demystification of secularism.
My last post took my response up to the twentieth century invention of “Christian human rights.” This one engages with crucial details about my case for continuity in that era before turning to the major challenge several of my commentators offer concerning my decision to stress discontinuity thereafter: if I am correct about the endurance of Christian politics in and through the inception of universal human rights, could it really be the case, as Paul Hanebrink asks, that “the decline of Christianity as a social and political force in 1960s Europe falls like a curtain” across the stage?
What is the place of the United States in the history of Christian human rights? This question is worth entertaining because there are many parallels between developments in postwar Europe and postwar America. During the 1940s and 1950s, when Christian Democrats took control of European governments, the American Congress adopted a religious motto (“In God We Trust”), inscribed God onto money and into the pledge of allegiance, and debated a constitutional amendment that would acknowledge Jesus Christ as the guarantor of American liberty.
Sam Moyn’s great contribution to the history of human rights is his careful attention to the meaning human rights assumed in particular contexts. The “human rights” of the 1780s were not the human rights of the 1940s or 1970s. His new work focuses on the WWII era, when primarily European conservative Christians (mostly Catholics) invented the idea of human rights in opposition to fascism and communism—but also to liberalism. The anti-liberal roots of human rights “should deeply unsettle prevailing opinion about what the concept of human rights implied in its founding era,” Moyn writes. It is the corporatist and deeply conservative roots of “personalism” that inspired Catholic support for human rights. Personalism was part of a reinvented conservatism designed to Christianize politics after WWII.
In January 2013, hundreds of thousands of French Catholics marched down the streets of Paris to protest the “Marriage For All,” a bill introduced by the government a few months earlier to open marriage and adoption to same-sex couples. That Catholics would object to gay marriage was not particularly surprising, but the arguments and symbols that they put forth were more puzzling. Many of the marches were led by a group of young women dressed as revolutionary Mariannes with Phrygian caps and red-white-and-blue streamers. According to the Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the bill revealed that civil law no longer “defended our vision of man,” one anchored in “the understanding of human dignity that derives from Greek wisdom, Judeo-Christian revelation, and the Enlightenment.” One of the leaders of the protests, Tugdual Derville, called for a movement of “human ecology” grounded in human dignity and universalism that would resist the “perversion of human rights” by an “egalitarian ideology founded on the fantasy of autonomy,” as exemplified in the demand for a right to marriage. Others, such as the philosopher Thibaud Collin, urged a return to anthropology, natural law, and a philosophy of the person to combat the démocratisme, the excessive democratic animus, driving the pro-marriage activists.
A month before, the tide at Stalingrad had turned against the Germans. Just two days before, General Erich von Manstein had abandoned his efforts to relieve the Wehrmacht’s doomed Sixth Army. But there was no telling that the extraordinary German strength in the war so far would now ebb quickly.
The Americans had formally entered the war a year before, but the Allies would not reach mainland Italy for another nine months, or make it to Rome for a year and a half. The pope—Eugenio Pacelli, or Pius XII—was in dire straits. His relationship with Benito Mussolini had long since soured, and he was a prisoner in his own tiny Roman domain.
As for the Jews, the worst victims of the conflict, millions were dead already; the victims at Babi Yar had lain in their ravine for more than a year; Treblinka, the most infernal death camp, had come on line six months before and already completed much of its grim work.
Officially, of course, the Catholic Church and its leader were neutral, and didn’t play politics. Many of his flock were to be found on both sides of the war.
Tags: Catholicism, Christian Right, Christianity, history, human rights, Pope Pius XII, Roman Catholic Church, secularism, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
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Now entering its third year, the Secularism and Secularity Program Unit of the American Academy of Religion is going strong and looking forward to another great set of proposals. The call for papers for the 2015 meeting in Atlanta is now available, and the deadline for submissions is March 2nd.
On January 3, 2015, as part of the winter meeting of American Society for Church History, four interlocutors will speak on TIF contributor John Lardas Modern‘s book Secularism in Antebellum America, and Mark Noll’s book America’s God, with comments from both authors.
In an 1850 pamphlet, “The Law-Abiding Conscience and the Higher Law Conscience,” the Reverend Samuel T. Spear observed, “Every professed martyr virtually appeals to posterity and to God, to review his case, and settle the question whether he was a martyr or a fool.” Spear was a preacher with a sense of humor, but he was also a critic of his culture, thinking about law and religion in antebellum America. In that weird society, with its secularizing institutions and its fantastic carnivals of spiritual awakening, professions of martyrdom had become so common, so conventionalized, that Spear could analyze them as a genre. He saw martyrdom as a style of protest directed toward the legal system (especially toward the fugitive slave codes), animated by a double faith in God and in something called posterity. The self-styled martyrs appealed from the courts of law not only to the Almighty but also to a future public—one that their words would help to summon into being. The martyrs’ claims to justice would be decided by a divine authority and a spectral community.
Thomas Pfau has created a brand new narrative, not a scholarly book. In the best Christian traditio renovanda (renewing tradition), Pfau’s narrative is an ambitious project to delve into the most loathsome and putrid foundations of modernity and its development. At the same time, Minding the Modern reconstructs an ideal alternative world-to-come based on solid Thomistic solutions. The “road not taken” by the West, which is dooming its own present and its future, appears at its best.
Pfau never portrays modernity as being specifically loathsome and putrid. Instead, he describes modernity as a “catastrophe,” a “shipwreck,” “discontinuous,” “dystopic,” “a failure to remember,” “traumatic,” etc. It is clear from the beginning of the book that Pfau is neither supportive of, nor sympathetic to, modernity. His narrative is not intended to provide a neutral, objective, and academic understanding of modernity, but rather a demolishing and biased critique of it; yet another one from a decidedly Catholic perspective.
Since the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egypt has experienced significant turmoil, from temporary rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to the military coup that led to the election of current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Introduced in Québec in March 2010, Bill 94 proposed requiring women to unveil their faces if they wanted to work in the public sector or access public services, including hospitals, universities, and public transportation. The bill was eventually tabled and was followed in November 2013 with Bill 60, which demanded in more generalist language the removal of conspicuous religious signs in order to dispense or use public services in the province. These Québécois bills—which have not passed—echo the logic of the April 2011 French law targeting the niqab (face veil) and banning the “dissimulation of the face” in public spaces. Both French and Québécois proponents of these laws cited gender equality and women’s emancipation—which they deemed foundational to French and Québécois values—as their primary goal. Despite Québec’s long insistence that it espouses a third path between Canadian multiculturalism and the French Jacobin model, Québec and France have increasingly converged to promote a model of secularism in which liberty and equality are articulated as sexual liberty and sexual equality. In fact, these niqab restrictions represent a broader secular-liberal discourse—what Joan W. Scott calls “sexularism”—that posits secularism as the best guarantor of women’s sexual freedom and sexual equality and, therefore, as that which distinguishes the West from the woman-oppressing rest, especially from Islam.
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.
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.
On November 7th, 2013, on the heels of a heated public debate about the role of religion in public life, the government of Quebec tabled its controversial Bill 60, “Charte affirmant les valeurs de laïcité et de neutralité religieuse de l’État ainsi que d’égalité entre les femmes et les hommes et encadrant les demandes d’accommodement” (Charter affirming the values of state secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests). The legislation, introduced by Bernard Drainville, the minister for Democratic institutions and active citizenship, seeks to affirm the religious neutrality of the state, specifically by prohibiting public sector employees—including those working in hospitals, schools, daycare centers, and universities—from wearing “signes ostentatoires” [conspicuous religious symbols], examples of which include hijabs, kippas, Sikh turbans, and “large” crucifixes. The legislation also proposes to amend Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, in order to enshrine the equality of men and women as the highest human right, to which other rights (e.g. freedom of religious expression) would be subordinated.
Tags: Canada, Charter of Quebec Values, identity, international affairs, Islam, laïcité, law and religion, multiculturalism, pluralism, Quebec, religion and politics, religious minorities, secularism
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The recent media buzz stirred up by a sad story captures well the sense of uneasiness pervading Quebec since the ruling Parti Québécois (PQ) began working to implement a bill known as the “Charter of Quebec Values,” which would ban state employees from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols.”
I have always been puzzled by the fact that Charles Taylor starts his book A Secular Age with a long quote from Bede Griffith in order to describe a religious type of experience. It is the description of a scene experienced by the author as a school-boy: trees are blossoming, birds are singing, the author has the sensation that angels are present and that God is looking down on him. My question is: Why this quote? Why choose an image and a language of sunset, trees and birds in order to describe something for which the different languages of theology have worked out precise and elaborate codifications? I understand, of course, that in the context of the introduction to A Secular Age, Taylor uses this quote in order to make a soft claim to the human openness to experiences of transcendental nature. He uses the rest of the eight-hundred pages of the book to explore why it has become increasingly rare and difficult in our secular age to live these kinds of experiences, let alone to look for them in the context of an organized religious tradition. Most of us, he says, live our lives in an “immanent frame” and religious belief “has become one option among many.”
It was a successful first year for the Secularism and Secularity Program Unit of the American Academy of Religion, which sponsored or co-sponsored four panels at the AAR’s annual meeting in Baltimore this past November. The call for papers for the 2014 meeting in San Diego is now available, and the deadline for submissions is March […]