Secularism, Islamism

It seems I wasn’t exactly clear in my post where I argued that there is lots of diversity among “Islamists.”

Ideofact writes about some statements and ideas of al-Ghannouchi which do seem quite bad to me. My point in my previous post was not to defend al-Ghannouchi or Fazlur Rahman or anyone for that matter. As a secular Muslim [what is that? —- ed. It means I am secular and would in fact like a more secular US, but at the same time I identify as a Muslim rather than an agnostic or atheist etc.], I have obviously some fundamental disagreements with anyone who wants religion (Islam or any other) to have a place in the political sphere.

My point was simply that we, and I include myself, people in the west as well as the Muslim world here, have a habit of sometimes conflating all Muslims together. Or at least considering all religion-based politics as equally bad. That is not the case. There are some pretty bad groups, some are less bad and some have some redeeming qualities/ideas. For example, I think the Justice and Development Party currently in power in Turkey has been a good positive development for that country. I also think that Algeria would have been better off with an FIS government in the early 1990s than the military coup and the civil war with the extremist groups that it actually experienced.

Ideofact also gives examples of fascism and communism as reasons for considering all Islamists together.

While there were variations among German, Italian and Spanish fascism, or Soviet, Chinese and Yugosalvian communism, that all these systems are illiberal, that the only difference is how heavy is the one wearing the boot while standing on your face.

This comparison depends on how widely you are casting the net for Islamists. For example, a number of people consider Alija Izetbegovich, the former Prime Minister of Bosnia, as an Islamist politician as well. Bill, on the other hand, has written glowingly about the guy on his old blog, Paleo-Ideofact. [I think Bill and I agree much more than disagree on this whole issue, but what’s the fun in agreeable blogging.]

As a secular guy, it is also not my purpose to decide which religious group is good or bad. However, as I argued in a post about secularism and the Middle East, we need to focus on specific actions rather than condemning all of political Islam. For better or worse, religion does play a large role in the lives of many people around the world. And there are a lot of things happening in the Muslim world with both positive and negative consequences. As Thebit points out, we sometimes blame everything on the “Wahabbis” and consider the traditionalists as the good guys. However, traditionalists are also responsible for a lot of bad stuff, like superstitious beliefs, cooperation with authoritarianism, etc.

On the other side, a lot of Muslims don’t like criticism of bad Muslim behavior by others. That is a wrong attitude. Criticism is definitely something to be engaged with and not condemned outright. See, for example, posts by Ideofact, Muslims Under Progress and Avari-Nameh on the criticism of the Muslim world by the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

Author: Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer

14 thoughts on “Secularism, Islamism”

  1. As a secular Muslim [what is that? – ed. It means I am secular and would in fact like a more secular US, but at the same time I identify as a Muslim rather than an agnostic or atheist etc.], I have obviously some fundamental disagreements with anyone who wants religion (Islam or any other) to have a place in the political sphere.

    This makes sense to me, to clarify what I was saying, I think most secularists have certain things in common with each other, no matter what religious background they come from and to a degree the latter doesn’t make that much difference and doesn’t need to be eradicated as an axis of identity. After all most people, I know aren’t born/raised as atheists or agnostics (some are but I would guess that the majority are not) but are instead raised in one religious tradition or another and for various reasons either adopt secularism or move towards this way of thinking. Few, if any religions are inherently geared towards secularism; this is sort of disguised by the fact that in some religious traditions essentially political decisions to institute secularism as a way of conflict resolution or maintaining a stable and liberal democracy in the past, gives the veneer of secularism to dominant religious communities in some states: ie France, USA, India etc. The only major difference as far as I can see is that at the societal level, only Christianity has made a significant breakthrough because it happens to be the predominant religion in a number of secularised states, but there are other examples in other religions. The only anomaly here is having a democratic, predominantly Muslim polity that has secularised and lasted for some reasonable length of time without imploding. But this is taking a macro-view of the topic.

    At the individual level, I would think it is more than obvious that one’s religious background influences the way one looks at interactions between the position of religion in society and its relation to politics, everyday life as well as its proper role. I can see big differences amongst my own friends and family from those who could be described as secular Hindus, secular Christians, secular Muslims and secular atheists (who tend to be rather different from the preceding theistic secularists). I do get surprised when European secularists can’t see the influence that growing up in a de-sacralised Christian environment has on them and claim that religion plays no role in their conception of secularism.

    Or at least considering all religion-based politics as equally bad. That is not the case. There are some pretty bad groups, some are less bad and some have some redeeming qualities/ideas. For example, I think the Justice and Development Party currently in power in Turkey has been a good positive development for that country. I also think that Algeria would have been better off with an FIS government in the early 1990s than the military coup and the civil war with the extremist groups that it actually experienced.

    I agree with the fact that not all religion-based politics is bad; from my persepctive I think it can be dangerous and should be avoided but I can accept that others make an effective case for exceptions or many instances when this is not the outcome. My point was simply that the nature of the polity and the foundational aspects of any political order need to be effectively secularised and enough gurantees exist to protect religious minorities from any religious majoritarianism as well as to allow a measure of pluralism that enables them to lead fulfilling existences in states where they are not preponderant in numbers or infleunce. There should also be a space in the public sphere at the heart of nationalism where one doesn’t need to display any religious affiliation in order to feel part of the nation or run the risk of being stigmatised just because one comes from a particular faith. I think this is the bare minimum that should be enforced; within these parameters there is quite a lot of room for religious-based parties and ideologies to move around in and grow, as long as they remain within these constrictions, I think they are a legitmate form of political expression, though obviously not one I would really support or feel comfortable about. Nevertheless I don’t think that being a secular polity has any real business or need to suppress any form of political organisation on religious grounds and doesn’t need to go around running suppressing religious sentiment or manisfestations wherever they crop up.

    This comparison depends on how widely you are casting the net for Islamists. For example, a number of people consider Alija Izetbegovich, the former Prime Minister of Bosnia, as an Islamist politician as well. Bill, on the other hand, has written glowingly about the guy on his old blog, Paleo-Ideofact.

    Well, talking about Fascism and Communism I think misses the point here; they are just extreme representations of Rightist and Leftist political thought; a pro-Islamist could just as well argue that nobody uses Fascism or Stalinism as an argument to ban Conservative or Socialist parties; so why should Islamist ones be targeted. It also depends on, as you say, what exactly is meant by the term “Islamist” here, obviously for those who believe that they are analogous to Fascists or Stalinists it sets the range quite narrow; myself, I would think that Islamists like all religious parties can be legitimate forces within the political sphere as long as they are willing to abide within a secularist framework that meets the kind of minimum criteria outlined earlier. In principle, though, I have to say most religious parties I know of, don’t really respect any secular-sacred boundaries and usually intend, either covertly or overtly to actually remove these distinctions. In many Western Liberal Democracies, there are some exceptions like the CDU frex, but here as in places the like the USA, religion seems to be smuggled in through the backdoor and operates through the language of culture and ‘values’ etc. which allow such sentiment to be expressed without attracting censure.

    Plus on a sidenote, wasn’t Izetbegovich a member of some pro-Nazi group during WWII when the Germans were recruiting Muslims from the Balkans for their locally raised forces?

    On the other side, a lot of Muslims don’t like criticism of bad Muslim behavior by others. That is a wrong attitude. Criticism is definitely something to be engaged with and not condemned outright.

    I think this is a natural reaction, particularly given the current political situation in many places around the world. However, it is always worthwhile to see where the criticism is coming from; one of the attractions of a genuinely secularist stance, is that it should embody a high degree of pluralism that doesn’t need to rely on the ‘tolerance of the majority community’ or on any faith-based or revealed divine/textual sanction. I don’t think it is all that hard to see when criticism is just thinly (and sometimes not so veiled) gratuitous Islamophobia or for certain political objectives; it shouldn’t be very difficult to sort out the chaff from the wheat here.

  2. I wish I’d noticed the trackback earlier. I wanted to update that post anyway (as far as I could tell from my Nexis searching, al-Ghannouchi’s group wasn’t involved in the Tunisian tourist bombings). I also wanted to note that Fazlur Rahman was heavily quoted by Izetbegovic, and that I have (I’m embarrassed to admit this, given my post) two of his books, one of which I actually read. In my defense, I think my confusion can be ascribed to the lumping of Rahman in with the Islamists. I know his writing primarily as a scholar of religion (and not a religious scholar — there being something of a difference). There may be a whole body of his work I’m not familiar with, but recalling the one book I read and after flipping through the one I haven’t, if these two are representative of his thought, and if Rahman indeed can be called an Islamist, then the term is so broad as to be meaningless..

  3. Conrad: Minority rights are the sticking point in most religion-based politics. Although this problem has affected political Islam, it is not unique to religious politics. Secular polities have had problems with minorities as well.

    I do agree that the proper inclusion of minorities in society/politics is a essential requirement.

    wasn’t Izetbegovich a member of some pro-Nazi group during WWII?

    According to Wikipedia, he joined Young Muslims (Mladi muslimani) during the war when he was a teenager. It was a conservative Muslim organization, not directly fascist but was set up in opposition to the partisans and Serb guerillas. I am not very familiar with this stuff, so I can’t exactly say how bad his involvement was.

    Bill: I haven’t read Fazlur Rahman’s work, but have read other works which reference his. So I didn’t venture a direct opinion about him. Which of his books do you have? And do you recommend them as good reading?

    if Rahman indeed can be called an Islamist, then the term is so broad as to be meaningless.

    Different people have very diffferent perceptions in this regard. If one takes the broad view that anyone arguing for Islam in the public or political sphere is an Islamist, then Izetbegovic and Fazlur Rahman are Islamists as well and the term becomes meaningless.

    On the other hand, I think you are using the term in a much more narrow focus, though probably a bit wider than mine. In your case, the comparison with other totalitarians might not be far off.

    Because of this ambiguity, the term “Islamist” does not serve much purpose without more details and context.

  4. Much like you, Zack, my aim was not to defend al-Ghannouchi, Rahman, or anyone; it was to show how rhetoric, especially of the politician and ideologue, creates false borders. I’d say that thigns are a lot more fluid than they seem. What is an “Islamist”? What is a “modernist”? It ends up meaning anythnig one’s polemic wants it to mean.

    As for Fazlur Rahman, try “Islam” and “Islam & Modernity”, and “Revival and Reform: A Study of Islamic Fundamentalism”. The first is a history of religion — with a section on “prospects for the future” which is some 25-30 years old now; the second a survey on Islamic educiation systems and some ideas on reformaing them (check out his section on Pakistan — he has a hard time in keeping his political opinions out of his work); and the last a study of Muslim “reviers” and “reformists” throughout Islamic history, which also has a very good biography of his life by the editor.

    Being a “modernist”, he saw ‘the state’ as a means of by-passing the powerful traditional ulema — often an obstacle to his reformist ideas — as the source of what “Islam” is or is meant to be. If the masses were provided with a stronger idea of what “Islam” is — and this would only come via a genuinely reformed Islamic education system — then a truely democratic Muslim state, being the product of the people, would become the bearer of “Islamic knowledge”; in other words “Islamic knowledge” would become widely available and would also mean more than “religious knowledge”; all knowledge would be deemed “Islamic” because it could potentialy help humanity. Some of his ideas can be viewed, somewhat, as a Muslim version of Rawlsian welfare state liberalism (see John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice”). He was a strong advocate of using the state as a means of providing socioeconomic justice (i.e. a welfare state); though he criticised secularism as a “corrosive acid”.

    But other than those general ideas, his thoughts were a little hazy, something he is criticised for (in his defence, I’d say that he did try to enact reform in Pakistan, before being driven into exile; maybe it wasn’t his job to provide ideas? Maybe that is our job?). From our vantage point, I’d say he had a certain role to play in opening up the Islamic tradition to criticism and reform. But all his ideas, he says, were “traditional” at their base. I don’t think he was any sort of traitor or hypocrite, as some Muslims like to portray.

    Fundametnally, he saw regenerating the Islamic conscience as a means of saving Islam, and so humanity, from the juggernaut of a narrative that is secularism.

    He was a moral realist, a la the Mu’tazlites; but I don’t think he can really be called a Mu’tazlite, since he provided Revelation with a stronger platform than the Mu’tazlites. You’ll be surprised to find out that his families religious roots were in Deoband.

  5. Lastly, I would hazard a guess and say that secularism is a theological position within Christianity, an outcome of the victory of the state over the Church.

    Religious tolerance seems to have had less to do with “philosophical” concerns regarding pluralism, and more to do with empowering the state.

  6. Minority rights are the sticking point in most religion-based politics.

    I think the particular problem with religion-based politics arises mostly in national contexts with religious minorities per se, as opposed to say gender or sexual ones (these are important but tend to cause less violent upheaval), and the record here as a whole is not good. As far as I can see secularist modes of political discourse and foundations offer the maximum scope for reconciling both group and minority rights, more so that political approaches that rely on some notion of religion, ethnicity etc. the latter do play an essential role but when they are elevated to the position of primacy have tended to be quite disastrous. I am quite open to arguments that seek to carve out such a role for them, but the weight of evidence is overwhelmingly against this kind of politics delivering what it promises.

    Although this problem has affected political Islam, it is not unique to religious politics.

    I would say that there has been a specific difficulty in reconciling the rights of religious minorities in societies/states which can be said to be Islamic. There does seem to be a lack of democratic states that have been able to go some way in implementing this kind of programme effectively and it is a troubling lack. In this I would probably agree with many of the more Conservative political theorists on the issue; however, unlike them, I think I would locate the causes of this not within the religion itself but in other factors, like: the impact of colonial rule, regional political developments, internal pressures of rapid socio-economic change, distortion of the productive base and weaknesses within nation-building projects etc. For Conservative thinkers the problem stems more, one would guess from the religion of Islam itself; in a way ‘Islamist’ thinkers have an overlap here as they place the responsibility for reform and regeneration on religion as well (obviously in a diametrically opposed fashion to the former). I have to say, in my opinion, religion cannot play the role that either of these groups want it to and this is indicative of my scepticism towards religious politics as a whole.

    Secular polities have had problems with minorities as well.

    Yes, I think it should be said that all polities have problems with minorities. Within the framework of the nation-state that the international system consists of; it is a basic political dilemma and question that needs to be dealt with. Secular polities, no less than religious ones, have their problems here. The former have all too frequently been either to weak or too hypocritical to be able to honour their own guiding principles; however the struggle for minority rights and pluralism has been a see-saw battle in most secular states and societies that has seen an uneven and jerky progress as well as regression and the process is far from complete or satisfactory. Having said this, this is a battle that doesn’t really seemed to have been waged at all in most Islamic states at the political at all and the only remarkable thing about progress on this front, is the relative lack of it and the difficulties in engaging on these struggles at all. Secular polities are not perfect, but they have been by far, the most powerful and available political vehicle for articulating these kinds of rights and any progress will depend heavily on them to carry such aspirations forward.

    I do agree that the proper inclusion of minorities in society/politics is an essential requirement.

    I think so too, which is why I favour secular polities so strongly. Non-secular ones if you have a look around, whether they are Islamic, Zionist, and Christian or based on other religious systems haven’t exactly been all that good to their minorities.

    According to Wikipedia, he joined Young Muslims (Mladi muslimani) during the war when he was a teenager. It was a conservative Muslim organization, not directly fascist but was set up in opposition to the partisans and Serb guerillas. I am not very familiar with this stuff, so I can’t exactly say how bad his involvement was.

    Thanks for this, I did wonder exactly what the case was here. I was just surprised at some of the strong praise in the recent obituaries for him, as he tended to be wheeled out by pro-intervention writers as a case where the West supported a prominent Muslim nationalist leader.

    Fundametnally, he saw regenerating the Islamic conscience as a means of saving Islam, and so humanity, from the juggernaut of a narrative that is secularism.

    One can see where the problems arise here, as humanity is considerably bigger than Islam. I don’t think secularism can be claimed to necessarily be a juggernaut narrative given the fact that relatively few polities are actually secular ones and that in terms of societies it has been an unevenly accepted and erratic mode of organisation. There is a tendency to conflate it here with various aspects of modernity and other forms of social change which while they have rather unsettling effects on many societies that are exposed to them, particularly since it has proven to be difficult, if not impossible to actually resist many of these pressures; this is however, very different from any independent concept of secularism.

    Lastly, I would hazard a guess and say that secularism is a theological position within Christianity, an outcome of the victory of the state over the Church.

    I am unsure as to what this exactly means, as the hypothesis being advanced here, appears to be somewhat confused and contradictory. State-Church relations were and are quite complex; having said this while the Church could exercise a great deal of influence outside the Papacy, ultimate power rested on the whole with the state which asserted its primacy over ecclesiastical authority in political matters. While there was a fair amount of conflict and competition between the two, as a rule the State was almost invariably the superior of the two authorities. All that has happened in Europe, at least since the inter-sectarian wars, was that even this element of competition in the political sphere for claims to public loyalty were largely and gradually removed to leave the State as the sole legitimate arbiter. If one looks to other regions, frex South Asia both Muslim and non-Muslim pre-colonial states, by enlarge tended to favour the power of the State over that of any sacred authorities in reality; despite a highly idealised textual representation that sought to give the latter a more prominent role.

    I am also a bit puzzled by the argument of secularism being a theological position; secularism in the sense of the term that I am interested in, refers to a political doctrine not a religious subjective experience or belief or a sociologically prevalent ethic within society. This is the difference between having a secular state and a secular civil society; political theories are primarily concerned with the former, the latter can’t be achieved by any form of social engineering or by coercion from above but are an organic development that rest on shifting combinations of several other factors. At a purely theoretic level, arguments in favour of secularism can be founded in realist and early Enlightenment philosophy; wrt the state the classical expositions of this come from Hobbes and Rousseau respectively. One could argue that they are somewhat unique to Christianity simply because they were initially developed as a response to religious-conflict and breakdowns in the polity that occurred when different forms of religion-based politics clashed; however, since many democratic states are not multi-religious ones, one can extend this principle to inter-religious relations as well as intra-religious ones; as it involved the same issue of how to manage such group relations within the polity, the only difference being the greater level of aggregation of the groups involved.

    Lastly, it is a mistake even in modern political terms to see secularism as some sort of ‘victory over the Church by the State’ simply because in many instances where secular political orders were founded; this was not the explicit intention. Both India and the USA provide interesting illuminations of this; given that both countries were given specifically secular constitutions, with a secular state order; despite the fact that they were founded and designed to allow self-governance to very religious societies and citizenries with a high level of religious activism and belief. Of course the lack of any over-arching established Church or similar single unitary institution that could articulate the demands of the dominant religious communitie(s) played an important role in this and it was the desire to preserve freedom in the sphere of private religious belief that increased the attractiveness of secularism in the first place.

    Religious tolerance seems to have had less to do with “philosophical” concerns regarding pluralism, and more to do with empowering the state.

    One needs to be careful here, both pluralism and secularism entail a level of religious tolerance for other communities but they are not the same thing at all. In fact, it is a serious error to regard tolerance per se as being the same thing as either pluralism or secularism; there have been many such tolerant societies in the past; most poly-ethnic empires have been tolerant in this sense. As long as some sort of notional tribute was paid to the religion/superior status of the ruling order then self-governance and private freedom was extended. Both the Roman, Mughal and Ottoman Empires can said to have practised a form of this system. However, tolerance implies a reliance on the goodwill and sufferance of an external power, which can withdraw it if it sees fit. It is more in the fashion of a privilege rather than an inherent right; trying to apply it to modern societies would be more or less saying that in religious-based polities, religious minorities can live freely not because that is part of their right as members of any national community but because the dominant community ‘tolerates’ them to live so. I have to say that I find any argument that relies on the minority living at the sufferance of the majority an intrinsically problematical one; one can’t help but wonder what happens when this tolerance is withdrawn or some putative price asked for its continuance? It also has a very generous reading of the resistance of religion and other ascriptive based political orders to chauvinistic interpretations and majoritarian manipulation; thus, the arguments of many traditional Hindus and Buddhists in South and SE Asia, decried the need for secularism as unnecessary given the so-called inherently an inalienably ‘tolerant’ nature of these religions. Unfortunately, neither religion has proven immune to the vagaries of religious fundamentalism, particularly when tied up with issues of national identity and regional politics and the reserves of internal civilisational tolerance that we were so assured existed proved completely inadequate to deal with this upsurge. I have to say, I have no faith whatsoever, in any of the Semitic religions being able to resist these kind of pressures relying on some sort of revivalist Christianity of regenerated Islam. This strikes me, in our context, to be a recipe for disaster.

  7. “One can see where the problems arise here, as humanity is considerably bigger than Islam.”

    Of course! Islam is not a “missionary” religion in the sense we understand it (at least not classical Islam). But certainly most Muslims, whatever their intellectual credentials, have seen it as their duty to “spread” Islam. Rahman was still a Muslim.

    This view isn’t too different from secular missionaries who see it as their duty to save mankind from the “evils of religion”.

    “I don’t think secularism can be claimed to necessarily be a juggernaut narrative…”

    I beg to differ. Secularism is the an historical narrative, which is implicit in the views of the founding fathers of Western modernity. Beyond secularism (release from religious tutelage) what is there?

    “There is a tendency to conflate it here with various aspects of modernity…”

    Secularism and Modernity (capital ‘M’) are strongly linked. I tend to see secularism as something more fundamental than simply “seperation of church and state”.

    “I am also a bit puzzled by the argument of secularism being a theological position”

    The comment was said tougue-in-cheek. A dig at the Eurocentricism of most narratives today. But all jokes aside, secularism was forged from a debate between Christians (though the word itself eas coined in the 19th-century by Holyoak).

    i Both India and the USA provide interesting illuminations of this

    I have no problem with a “secular” state. I have a problem with the ‘metaphysical’ claims of secularism.

    i Both India and the USA provide interesting illuminations of this…

    You’re confusing a ‘secular’ state (essentially “religion-neutral”) for secularism. All Islamic empires were very secular — if by secular we mean “this-worldly”. It was convinient for them to adopt Islamic law, because their subjects were Muslims.

    I think there is also the problem of category mistakes. “Religion” and “secular” are categories which do not easily translate into Islamia, when we scratch the surface to take a look at the roots.

    “One needs to be careful here…”

    Yes, you’re right. Tolerance was practiced in order to end conflict between sectarians; this granted power to the state. We know what Locke thought of Catholics and atheists. Modernists tend to forget this.

    I’d say that there was greater concern for “pluralism” in some Muslim empires, which granted a degree of political (legal) autonomy to religious minorities. This cannot occur in the modern nation-state.

    “I have no faith whatsoever, in any of the Semitic religions being able to resist these kind of pressures…”

    I can’t speak for other religion (let alone “Islam”); but to me the future of Muslims is beyond the stifling nature of the modern state. Confusing “Islam” for the “state” is actually an extremely heretical position if we try and understand the ‘philosophical’ underpinnings of the two.

  8. Of course! Islam is not a “missionary” religion in the sense we understand it (at least not classical Islam). But certainly most Muslims, whatever their intellectual credentials, have seen it as their duty to “spread” Islam. Rahman was still a Muslim.

    Well, my comment was a bit facetious so I should have been clearer. I don’t know exactly what you meant by Islam not being a ‘missionary’ religion; it certainly strikes me as being fairly close to one – of course it doesn’t operate the same way that Christianity does but unlike religions which rely on acculturation and slow adaptation over long periods of time (like say sanathan dharm Hinduism) it defintely as you say has a model for propagation and individual conversion. Which is seen as mentioned as a ‘duty’ for most Muslims; proselytisation does tend to lead to friction if not handled properly and would be even more the case in modern democratic societies. I have no quarrel with the freedom to practise and expand one’s religion; however it is highly unlikely that any such mass-based conversion will be successful in all cases (even if one takes a broad voluntarist approach to conversion) and the problem will still remain for those who either want to remain wedded to their traditional religions, want to exclude religion from their lives or most problematically want to expand their own ‘missionary’ religion. A secular state can handle and mediate these contending trends and groups; I would argue that a religious-based one would have real and severe problems in doing so.

    This view isn’t too different from secular missionaries who see it as their duty to save mankind from the “evils of religion”

    Hmmm, I am not a missionary for some form of secular humanism that needs to replace religion and neither am I interested in accomplishing some sort of social-ideological revolution here. I do believe in certain political values, and ethical social norms which need to be upheld and I have a separate notion of progress which is not textually nor doctrinally derived for its legitimation. Free exercise of self-reflective and critical thought is a primary good in my eyes and its greatest scope comes from what I would see as a secular polity, as opposed to a religious one. I also am not personally a big beleiver in “evil” I have no doubt that it exists at an individual level, but unlike most religious thinkers who are Idealists at the collective level, I am a materialist and I don’t think it is an important enough problem or factor when talking about units of analysis bigger than an individual and it has a limited impact at the macro-social level. I can understand why religious thinkers, who are very much concerned with the question of a human soul, the afterlife, individual morality etc. regard this as important but then they tend to see many social problems in terms of changing morality at the level of the individual and thereby effecting social change. I think this kind of voluntarism is a valid response but is analytically inadequate as a response to political and socio-economic problems on a societal scale.

    Lastly, I think it is a real misunderstanding to think that secularism is necessary to save us as a species from the “evils of religion” there is a lot of the latter prevalent but most of it is a mask for exploitation based on sexuality, ethnicity or class that uses religion as an ideologicial veil to mask its real nature. There is no reason to think that these “evils” will disappear simply because religion does, they will carry on into any purely secular era/society in different manifestations and new such problems of a different nature emerge. Indeed, this is exactly what has happened in those sectors of society that are heavily ‘secularised’. It is actually precisely a desire to avoid interefering in the internal religious concerns of other communities that I think a secular state is so important; meddling in matters of faith on some sort of conception ‘evils of religion’ is exactly what has caused much problems in the past and is bound to be the root of much future conflict. Where any such ‘evil’ or reform needs to be done, it can be carried out without the need for any recourse to anti-religious rhetoric; on issues such as gender development frex, it is quite possible to expand the welfare of women without heavy-handed gestures that seek to impose some sort of artificial uniformity across the board.

    I beg to differ. Secularism is the an historical narrative, which is implicit in the views of the founding fathers of Western modernity. Beyond secularism (release from religious tutelage) what is there?

    I disagree, modernity is not purely a Western phenomenon (obviously) and freedom from religious tutelage is hardly something that only sprang forth in 17th century Western Europe; it has waxed and waned at several periods in the past. Secularism certainly in our current period, is based on a re-ordering of relations between state, society and the individual and can be seen from these different viewpoints. I am interested only in relations between the state and society; internal social thought and individual subjective experience is not something that I think needs necessarily by force to become ‘secularised’ nor is it something that needs a religious polity to maintain. It is perfectly possible to have both within a secular polity; the idea of freedom from clerical oppression was very much a trope favoured by the Enlightenment thinkers, if one goes back to the actual foundational thinkers of European modernity such as Hobbes it is justified explicitly on realist grounds as opposed to ‘theological’ or ideological ones and contains wihtin it the assumption that while secularism needs to be the guiding principle of the State as Leviathan, it will not be so for the society that it represents nor for the individuals within it.

    Secularism and Modernity (capital ‘M’) are strongly linked. I tend to see secularism as something more fundamental than simply “seperation of church and state”.

    This is true, but they are not synonymous and it would only be an interpretation of European thought that tapers off in the 19th century that sees the two as so strongly linked.

    The comment was said tougue-in-cheek. A dig at the Eurocentricism of most narratives today. But all jokes aside, secularism was forged from a debate between Christians (though the word itself eas coined in the 19th-century by Holyoak).

    It becomes a bit clearer now, I don’t think anybody denies the European origins of the term secularism – it doesn’t make any sense for it to have emerged from Asian societies which did not have Semitic religious traditions as they didn’t face the same problems. However, as I have pointed out, I am not concerned that much with theological or the doctrinal import of secularism, particularly for religious individuals and their religious communities. My interest in secularism, like that of those who unlike me were very religious themselves; lies in potential for establishing a political order in a multi-religious society. This has happened both in Christian countries as in the USA and in non-Christian ones as in India.

    I have no problem with a “secular” state. I have a problem with the ‘metaphysical’ claims of secularism.

    This in interesting, and I think it reveals the major differences between us. I would expect most who are in favour of democratic and pluralist states/societies in today’s world to support secular States; there are actually no reasons for individuals who are religious to have a secular notion of metaphysics – it would actually be inconsistent for many of them, particularly from the Semitic religions to do so. Like I have said before, I actually am not interested in rubber-stamping the personal ideological beleifs of every single individual – this would require a considerable level of violence not to mention, would be quite a futile exercise. On the other hand, as a colleague once pointed out to me, even the acceptance of a secular and the respect for a partially secularised political discourse in the Public Sphere, will entail at some level the institutionalisation of Secularism (as a political ideology) as a sort of civil religion.

    You’re confusing a ‘secular’ state (essentially “religion-neutral”) for secularism. All Islamic empires were very secular – if by secular we mean “this-worldly”. It was convinient for them to adopt Islamic law, because their subjects were Muslims.

    Well, not really. I don’t think most states are “religion-neutral” certainly the Indian state is not. What I mean by secular here is that Islamic states had power residing in its secular as opposed to its religious arms – they weren’t theocracies (for the most part, as far as I am aware). They also were not neutral in matters of religion, the Ottoman Empire, might well have allowed non-Muslim communities a high degree of internal autonomy and exhibited exemplary levels of religious tolerance but no one could argue that it was neutral in matters of religion. Outside West Asia, ‘Islamic’ states tended to follow different models; with more adaptation to local conditions; from Akhbar’s idiosyncratic religion to the regional cults in SE Asia. Many of these states were of course, located in geo-political zones where religious identity could be described as ‘thin’ as opposed to ‘thick’ and where the boundaries that separated different religious communities were looser. No doubt, many of these would have been considered as bad Muslims by some of today’s standards.

    Tolerance was practiced in order to end conflict between sectarians; this granted power to the state. We know what Locke thought of Catholics and atheists. Modernists tend to forget this.

    It should be remembered though that “the state” in 18th century Europe is not really the state of today. Generally speaking, I tend to associate secularism with the persistence of democracy. Not being an Islamically orientated thinker, I don’t tend to regard the state in quite the same adversarial way; though I do believe in an agonistic conception of democracy where the state needs to be challenged by its citizens. You seem to regard the state as an alien entity that has a predatory relationship with its citizens, I see it on the other hand as very much an institution that is the representation of a collective desire for self-government on behalf of its members. In other words, the State as Servant rather than Master.

    And yes, I don’t think Locke has been ignored; I have to say though that while some of these political figures have played an important role in history I don’t think their thought is benign or all that sophisticated. Locke, Mill etc are hardly the people I would look to as relevant and insightful thinkers of secularism for the contemporary scene and I would like to think that secularism has advanced a bit from Locke’s conception of it. Many of these thinkers had quite objectionable and spurious conceptions of how to found a political order, what the origins of the state are/were and should be and how it should operate. The application of Lockean ideas to the New World and to bourgeouis industrial society was quite disastrous in my opinion.

    I’d say that there was greater concern for “pluralism” in some Muslim empires, which granted a degree of political (legal) autonomy to religious minorities. This cannot occur in the modern nation-state.

    Well, of course. This is because in a modern nation-state, everyone is meant to be a citizen, not a subject of an Imperial authority. As sovereingty and its legality draws its basis from the people themselves; how the latter are defined and organised acquires a new salience that requires a different degree of legal universalisation than before. In an empire, what could be said to be universal was subjugation to the central political authority, in a democratic nation-state it is a subjugation before the law which is meant to be determined by collective political action that is universal.

    I can’t speak for other religion (let alone “Islam”); but to me the future of Muslims is beyond the stifling nature of the modern state. Confusing “Islam” for the “state” is actually an extremely heretical position if we try and understand the ‘philosophical’ underpinnings of the two.

    Fair enough but we do live in an era of nation-states; and at a collective level, I can’t see how the future of Muslims can be considered separately from this. Particularly if we are to consider those Muslims who live in states that have either non-Muslim majorities or large such minorities. Since neither the nation-state not nationalism appear to be going anywhere anytime soon, any concrete visualisation for the near future needs to take them into account. Obviously I have no desire, nor am I capable of speaking for Islam or any other religion; but I think it is important to bear in mind that if different religions and traditions are to co-exist both at the national and international level peacefully that some sort of framework needs to be established that can command respect from all participants. Political secularism and a secular state are an essential part of this in my opinion.

  9. After all most people, I know aren’t born/raised as atheists or agnostics (some are but I would guess that the majority are not) but are instead raised in one religious tradition or another and for various reasons either adopt secularism or move towards this way of thinking.

    one would think-but i remember seeing a recent gallup poll which indicates that 40% of those with “no religion” were raised in such homes, not a majority, but the researchers expressed surprise at such a high figure. this is of course in the american context-but it is interesting. in a nation like the czech republic, which is heavily secularized, i suspect you could find even higher numbers, because so many people disavow organized religion, in contrast, in the united states, only 15% have “no religion.” i suspect in a nation where you have 1% of the people with “no religion” you’d see far lower rates of parental “no religion”….

  10. Razib: I agree with what you are saying but if I have understood your figures correctly we are still talking about 40% of children raised in such homes from a grand total of 15% in the aggregated population who report ‘no religion’. So this means something in the order of less than 8% of people grow up in such homes, larger than I thought but not exactly representative of the vast majoirity of the lived experience for the great bulk of people.

    One also needs to be clear about what exactly being brought up as an atheist or secularist etc. means; I think it is rare for this to happen on a sizeable level. Most people come from either relatively agnostic backgrounds, background with only a weak or non-committal form of religion or from mixed religious backgrounds. I mean many of my peers would have gone along to CoE services as children or been dragged to the temple occasionally but neither would today consider themselves as members of their respective religions and didn’t face any real degree of pressure beyond some externally orientated actions in their childhoods.

  11. There is no “Islam” it exists only in the mind of
    “Muslims”, who have internalized the doctrine of Mohammed.It seems that to deny the political aspects of Mohammedism is to deny the
    reality of the belief ststem. Mohammed was a political leader. The basic tool of expansion being religious warfare.All so called “Muslims”,
    regardless of the sect, see Mohammed as their
    founder and follow his philosophy.

  12. Don Van: May be there is also no “DON VAN.” He exists only in the minds of my weblog readers. Or may be there is no weblog even.

  13. Islamists Everywhere

    It seems like Islamists are everywhere nowadays. But the latest trend is intriguing because now it looks like you don’t even have to be a Muslim to be an Islamist.

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