work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Gregor McLennan questions post-secularism

08.26.2010 · Posted in Uncategorized

and is, I think, spot on. Here’s his article in TCS.

He critiques the works of Asad, Braidotti, Connolly, Butler and Chakrabarty, meticulously examining their case and finding quite a lot of holes in their arguments.

I think this is an eminently important piece as post-secularism also led into some politically rather dubious alliances and misjudgements.

For me the main points are

– the image of secularism as modernist/authoritarian discourse that is functional in the suppression of the religious colonial other is fundamentally flawed: both in that it is idealistic and in that it fails to acknowledge the complexity and multiplicity of secularisms and secularities

– the postsecularists themselves do not commit to a leap of faith but remain rooted in a secular discourse universe.

– the non-theological study of religion is not by itself rationalist imperialism. In McLennan’s own words:

‘On point is that having a “rational” perspective on other cultures and societies means that we want to explain how they work. Now, while it is probably true that a “secular” sense of explanation will be thought to over-ride the values and categories of other cultures for present cognitive purposes, this does not mean that those values and categories are (necessarily) anything other than valid, reasonable and rational for the varied purposes of their proponents and mediators. It is also worth establishing conclusively that, in the modern present itself, while a scientific outlook must at certain junctures undermine certain sorts of “fundamentalist” religious visions of the world, rationalistic explanations are themselves necessarily limited in scope, and are always changing in substance.’ (McLennan 2010: 13)

It’s good to see the postsecular position dismantled on a theoretical level – I think it is also built on shaky empirical foundations. In an interview on the TCS blog McLennan alludes to the absence of an empirically grounding, the absence of a recognition of actually existing secularists:

The main problem with arguments about ‘secularism’ is that it is too often equated with atheism, and that’s not right. You can be religious but also secular, and atheist without agreeing, for example, that religious motivation should always be confined to the ‘private’ sphere

Postsecularists tend to be cherry picking their evidence – focusing mainly on political claims for recognition of religious identities, such as the defence of the right to wear Islamic attire in public places like schools – while completely ignoring that the arguments brought forward are normally firmly grounded in secular legitimacies around freedom of expression, anti-discrimination, personhood and dignity etc.  So they tend to overlook the possibility that the disputes around the hijab could, in the end, actually prove to have a secularising effect – a challenge to the more authoritarian modernist secularisms of France and Turkey, but at the same time also a challenge to theocratic authoritarianism and an embrace of a more liberal secularism by Muslims (as suggested by the the discussions in the wake of Nilüfer Göle’s seminal Modern Mahrem). Postsecularism choses to ignore the secularising effects of consumerist expressions of Islamic belief and belonging as explored by a number of sociologists and social anthropologists across the Middle East, and particularly in Turkey (pioneered by Sandıkçı/Ger and Navaro-Yashin)

Ironically, a Western intelligentsia that makes sense of the world after the Iranian Revolution, which put a final nail in the coffin of modernisation theory, by denouncing secularism as colonialistic, now has nothing to say about the post-Islamism emerging in Iran and other Middle-Eastern countries which according to Asef Bayat (1996: 46)

‘implies an understanding that not only is Islam compatible with modernity, but its very survival as a religion depends upon achieving this compatibility.’

Post-Islamism is secularist, not in the sense that it rejects Islamic religiosity (to the contrary – it is very concerned with saving Islam from being abused by authoritarian regimes and movements) – but in that it vehemently rejects theocracy, embraces the rule of (secular) law, … and consumerism. It is secular in that it promotes freedom (azadî) precisely along the lines of protecting a private sphere against public interference (a separation that allegedly is no longer tenable in a postmodern postsecular etc. world). As Bayat comments on the Khatami years:

In this new period, azadi was articulated not only in terms of political inclusion, but especially in terms of civil and individual liberties. Perhaps at no time in Iran’s history has there been such a powerful quest for individual rights, civil liberties, and a longing to be able to choose one’s preferred lifestyle. For most young people, the major concern became “reclaiming youth” itself – the desire to act as a young person, as freely as any others in the world – to choose where to go, what to wear, what to think or listen to, and who to marry or not marry. That meant that young women wanted to be free from the constant surveillance of the moral authority, the state, enforced hijab, and oppressive laws. They struggled to follow their lifestyle, pursue their hobbies, play a public role, make decisions in family matters, study, choose their life partners, and be seen and heard.

Bayat insists this does not amount to a mass turn to atheism – those young people still understand themselves, culturally and spiritually, as Muslims. But as McLennan pointed out: you don’t need to be an atheist in order to be a secularist.

True: some fervent atheists deny that possibility – as Ali Eteraz complains on Cif:

Secular humanists in Europe often cry that a person cannot be religious and committed to separation of religion and state; yet the US contains many such people, and increasingly, so does the Muslim world. In fact, it will be theist Muslim secularists who will help atheist and agnostic secular humanists exist safely among Muslims

This observation is equally valid for the antisecularists who equally deny this possibility and have a tendency to recognise only antisecular Islamists as authentic voices of the excluded Other. The Muslim Left presented and advocated by Eteraz – one that opposes religious experts overseeing legislation and advocates the separation of mosque and state – cannot count on the solidarity of the post-whateverist European Left.

Bayat, Asef (1996): ‘The Coming of a Post-Islamist Society’, in: Critique, Vol.5, No.9, pp.43-52

McLennan, Gregor (2010): ‘The Postsecular Turn’, in: Theory, Culture & Society, Vol.27, No.4, pp.3-20

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