Islam, secularism, and liberalism (part 2)

Here’s part one. And sadly I think there will need to be a part 3. Plus an additional post specifically on the whole Sharia law paranoia that’s gripped the imagination of the not-particularly-intelligent-or-imaginative. The whole thing is so long, and the arguments against Islam addressed so baseless, that you may very well want to wait until part three is ready, but I had to write this to get it down before moving on to more compelling arguments. It might be useful background at points for someone interested in but not fully engaged in arguments about secularism, secularization, and religions in the public sphere.

So here goes.

Secularism is a product of social developments in Protestant Europe and the political thinking that prodded and was prodded by them. At first a way for competing Christian persuasions to get along, it became an integral component to modernization, liberalization, and the development of the individual self as the primary arena of moral conflict and suasion, and it never quite lost its mooring in the Protestant ethics of individual choice and progress toward perfection. It is this vaporous religious substance trailing secularism that allows Robert Bellah to diagnose the presence in American civic life  the persistence of an attenuated Protestantism that he calls America’s “civil religion” and that remains in the public sphere, for good or for ill, in subtle tension with our Constitutional tradition of resisting any appearance of the establishment of an official state religion.

In the non-Western world, a key question for some time after the ebb of colonialism has been whether secularism is irredeemably a Western phenomenon – requiring too much of a Protestant worldview and ethic to be adaptable to other contexts – or whether its principles have become sufficiently general and universal that they might prove beneficial to all societies. My personal feeling is more the latter than the former, but I’m not going to get into that now. Instead I want to examine the recent liveliness of the other side of the question. One of the unexpected if now unremarkable consequences of the ebb of colonialism is the thorough cosmopolitanism of the West. And this is no longer a purely urban phenomenon, though it is certainly most concentrated and relatively problem-free in more urban areas. The question being asked now, in a variety of registers and with a various sophistication, is whether secularism can accommodate the non-Protestant.

Well, yes, of course it can. The two major problems for American secularism have been Catholicism and Judaism, and we seem to have reached a point where despite occasional difficulties, Jews and Catholics are largely considered citizens without much suspicion that the Catholic is under the authority of the foreign power of the Vatican or that the Jew places ethnicity higher than civic authority. But these religions were well in place in the Western world before our colonial adventures. What’s prompting the question now is the realization that Islam is a presence in American communities and the perception of Islam elsewhere as a geopolitical problem for the project of secularization. So is Islam here in America a threat to our secularism?

I think the instant response for most is that any answer yes to the question must be driven by Islamaphobic bigotry, and by and large that would be right. The always odious Bryan Fisher, for example, has stated that Islam does not qualify for First Amendment rights of the free exercise of religion because when the Bill of Rights was written solely to protect Christianity and its various observances. And that’s such obvious ignorance and distortion. It’s quite clear that the authors of the Bill of Rights and its antecedents had a conception of religion in general very much in line with our contemporary conception of religion as a cultural phenomenon variously expressed throughout all human societies, and that quite literally First Amendment protections encompassed, as Thomas Jefferson once put it, “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”

Another of these recently emerged and easily dismissed attempts to place Islam outside of the pale is the notion that Islam is not a religion, but instead is a political cult with a theology, “a violent political philosophy more than peace-loving religion,” according to Tennessee’s dimwitted Lieutenant Governor and failed candidate for the Tennessee GOP nod for the governor’s race. The Tea Party favorite was speaking in response to the shameful efforts of some Tennesseans to prevent the construction of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it’s entirely possible to view Christianity in exactly the same manner. In fact, one of Carl Schmitt’s primary contributions to political philosophy is his notion that the entire modern state is a Christian political cult, in that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” And violence is of course in modernity exclusively the legitimate domain of that state.

Regardless of one’s take on Schmitt’s notions of sovereignty, it’s not far off the mark to note that secularism itself as a secularization of Protestant theological concepts would mean that its refusal to accommodate, well, any form of religious expression might have to do more with the political continuation of Christianity than anything else, regardless of what happens outside the historical bounds of Christendom.

But I digress. Religion like so many human endeavors doesn’t afford tidy definitions, nor do all religions boil down to a specific set of categorical behaviors – the insistence, for instance, on confessional beliefs as the defining core of religious expression (“If you are X religion, then what do you believe?”) is itself a primarily Protestant concern fairly unintelligible in other religious contexts. So we assign the term religion instead according to family-likenesses of behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes, and in that arrangement Islam is clearly a religion, and quite resembles its older cousins Christianity and Judaism.

Religion plays an important role in societies, in their culture, and certainly in their politics, but religion is not integral to either society nor culture, even if it may seem at times not completely distinguishable. And Islam, like its cousins Christianity and Judaism, is what we term a “world” religion – a religion that is sufficiently free from cultural and ethical markers to be exportable to other groups, situations, and societies. And it has done so. There is no single Islamic politics, though there may be and are many approaches to politics that come with some Islamic rhetoric attached. Which makes it no different than Christianity or Judaism.

If it is in truth a religion and not a political cult, maybe it’s a religion with a significant enough difference from Christian sects or Judaism that would make it untenable in a secular society. That’s the approach seems to be the lowest common denominator in the recent flare-ups of Islamophobia, the most recent and prominent expression of it coming from Herman Cain, one of the many less-than-serious candidates for the G.O.P. presidential nomination for 2012. He stated, when asked why he’s uncomfortable around Muslims, that based on his “limited knowledge” of the religion he believes “they have an objective to convert all infidels or kill them” – that they have the First Amendment right to practice their religion, but that they are a unique threat because of a drive to enforce their way of life on everyone else.

I’m sure Muslims welcome conversion. Everyone would like to see others brought over to their point of view, particularly if they believe that point of view to offer considerable spiritual benefits. And every group is engaged in a political struggle at some level to place demands upon the public to further a specific spiritual agenda, hence the continual back-and-forth in the public sphere between Christian fundamentalism and secularists. There are points, then, when I wonder to what extent and at what points is secularism merely a political strategy of realism and achievable goals. Let’s take American groups that are aggressive proselytizers (which Muslims are not): Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, both groups which have significantly higher numbers than American Muslims. Is it the secular modus vivendi that prevents them from threatening violent action against reluctant converts? If anything, I think that the relative lack of proselytizing efforts on behalf of American Muslims may be due to the perception that they would then be likely on the receiving end of the ensuing violence.

So, to sum up: the arguments that Muslims cannot participate in a modern secular liberal state because a) secularism never intended for the presence of Islam, b) Islam is not a religion, or c) that Islam is constitutionally incapable of participating in secular society are all quite unfounded, at least to the extent that any of these arguments would distinguish Islam as particularly unsuitable. And certainly to address these issues seems a bit pointless, as anyone who knows – even casually – American Muslims on a personal level recognizes that these objections are groundless and largely based in ignorance and hysterical fear.

But that brings me to what I’ll address in part 3. Although the arguments above don’t hold water, I do find the argument worth considering if ultimately not compelling that secularism itself as currently configured is deficient in accommodating the presence of Muslim communities.



Filed under secularism/religion

2 responses to “Islam, secularism, and liberalism (part 2)

  1. sffrhd

    alright already, get on with part III


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