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Al-Ahram Weekly - Debate: The sacred in a secular age
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 01 - 1999

As the Ramadan debates enter their third week, Omayma Abdel-Latif discusses the Islamisation of the West with John Keane
'Secularity has won a reputation for humiliating the Muslims through the exercise of Western double standards in Kuwait, Algeria and Palestine, through the corrupt despotism of comprador governments and through the permanent threat of being crushed by the economic, technological, political, cultural and military might of the American-led West.'
In 1934, T S Eliot wrote in the Choruses from the Rock: "It seems that something has happened that has never happened before: though we know not just when, or why or how or where. Men have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for no god; and this has never happened before."
Eliot was reflecting upon the secularism that seemed to be taking Europe by storm. The concept was gaining credence among statesmen, academics and journalists. Today, Professor John Keane suggests that, in a wholly unexpected reversal of fortunes, this concept has become the object of cynicism, and even outright hostility.
When Professor Keane published his critique of the doctrine of secularisation, in which he exposed its dogmatic nature and prophesied its inevitable doom, he was accused by many secularists of attempting to turn Britain into a "theocracy".
Professor Keane, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy and a professor of politics at the University of Westminster, has written extensively on the "nostalgic return to the traditional notion of the sacred". Among his many works are Democracy and Civil Society (1988), The Media and Democracy (1991), the prize-winning biography of Tom Paine, A Political Life (1995) and Reflections on Violence (1996). For him, this phenomenon calls into question a number of issues. Has secularism lost the battle against faith? Was the marginalisation of religion in Christian Europe at the root of intolerance for other faiths? Will the return to the sacred, which Keane and others believe is sweeping across Europe, set up bridges of tolerance and understanding between Islam and Christianity, or will it revive old rivalries?
Why is it that, although secularism is now the standard mode of government in most Muslim states, Islam remains the archenemy of secularist claims to universal acceptance?
Today's "secular" hostility towards Islam is obviously a restatement and variation on the old theme of the Satanism of Islam, and helps explain why most contemporary Muslim scholars mistrust or reject outright the ideal of secularism.
There is a widespread impression among most Muslims that European talk of secularity is arrogant, and that it has always been a cover for hypocrites who think Muslims can progress only by following the path marked out by the West, which includes the renunciation of religion.
In the European context, the doctrine of secularism certainly helped to tame Christian fundamentalism and nurture the values of civility and power-sharing, but the attempted secularisation of the 20th century Muslim world has produced dictatorship, state-enforced religion, the violation of human and civil rights and the simple destruction of civil society.
In a word, secularity has won a reputation for humiliating the Muslims through the exercise of Western double standards in Kuwait, Algeria and Palestine, through the corrupt despotism of comprador governments and through the permanent threat of being crushed by the economic, technological, political, cultural and military might of the American-led West.
Do the anti-secular sentiments prevailing in the Muslim world worry the West?
The militant Islamic rejection of secularism within the geographical crescent stretching from Morocco to Malaysia understandably worries many in the West. The material stakes are high, and the concern that anti-secularism will prove to be a cover for brutal power-grabbing instead of benign power-sharing remains high. But this has been untested as yet.
Let me give the example of Hama, the Syrian town, which is a terrifying symbol. In 1982, the armed forces of secularism drowned their opponents -- members of the Muslim Brotherhood -- in a blood bath. For those living in old democracies, such an example has served as a reminder that secularism shelters violent intolerance and, more generally, that we live in times marked by religious protest, the return of the sacred, and the general desecularisation of political and social life.
What are the bases for your conclusion that secularism is a dogma that threatens the free-thinking pluralism of democracy?
Suspicion of secularism is warranted, in my view, by the fact that most contemporary secularists have sacralised it unthinkingly. They suppose that during the past few generations, religious illusions have gradually disappeared and that this is fortunate, since it leads to the extrusion of religious sentiments from such domains as the law, government, party politics and education.
The separation between church and state, they have argued, releases citizens from irrational prejudices and promotes open-minded tolerance, which is a vital ingredient in a pluralist democracy. The modern quest for personal meaning and salvation has taken the place of religion, becoming what some describe as the "invisible religion of self-expression or self-realisation".
Secularists believe that there is a decline of organised religion, that, more and more, the religious experience is privatised so that it becomes a matter of personal choice -- of those quiet moments of reflection -- but no longer a public issue. This is the meaning of secularism.
The contemporary defenders of the doctrine of secularism exaggerate the durability and the open-mindedness of "secular" ideals and institutions, and fail therefore to provide a more democratic understanding of religion and politics, because they cannot see that the principle of secularism is itself self-contradictory and therefore unable in practice to provide relatively stable guidelines for citizens interacting freely within the laws and institutions of democratic civil societies and politics.
So does that mean that secularism could collapse under the weight of its own contradictions?
I don't wish to suggest that it will collapse any time soon because it has nurtured among citizens the idea that the struggle for power based on religious differences is something of the past. There is, however, a widespread sense that the doctrine of secularism has had a pacifying effect in countries previously torn by religious conflict, but nevertheless the question of the limits of secularism should be central to political reflection and analysis.
Despite their success, secularist ideals and institutions tend to produce difficulties and provoke demands for the termination of secularism.
What are these limits?
Perhaps the most striking one is its theoretical and practical affinity with political despotism. Secularists will probably consider this remark akin to blasphemy. Another limit is the view that the struggle for secularity was a struggle for toleration of difference, because this view fails to spot the inherent dogmatism of secularism.
It is not just that various political attempts to institutionalise secularism (in France, Turkey, and some Middle Eastern countries in the second half of the 20th century) have been riddled with such violence and coercion that they qualify as experiments in "internal colonialism" or, at the level of principle, that the early [Christian] advocates of secular freedoms typically denied others -- Jews ("children of the devil"), Roman Catholics and, most recently, Muslims ("violent, ignorant, uncivilised and fanatical") -- such freedoms, as if otherwise benign secularists had suffered a temporary failure of imagination, courage or will in extending their own universal principles to others.
The problem actually runs deeper, for the principle of secularism is, arguably, founded upon a sublimated version of Christian belief in the necessity of deciding for non-Christian others what they can think or say, or even whether they are capable of thinking and saying anything at all.
Will the return to religiosity in Europe revive old rivalries in a clash of civilisations, or could it allow the Christian West, which abandoned religion long ago, to grasp the fact that Muslims continue to believe?
There is a complicated process, and there are two areas involved: one is the clash of civilisations and the other is the question of religiosity. On the clash of civilisations, there has been an endless debate of Huntington's thesis, which, in my opinion, is too simple and has strong Orientalist implications that are undesirable.
It is quite clear now, more than ever, that Islam is a force within Western civilisation, with 20 million Muslims living in the European Union alone, and that there is a slow and sometimes difficult sea change occurring within Europe: for example, the public tabling of the politics of faith, the need for compromise and the need for greater toleration of different forms of religious belief. So Huntington's Napoleonic forecasting of a future clash of civilisations underestimates those complexities and has potential political implications.
On the question of religiosity, there is a sort of renaissance of religiosity, respect for the sacred and the possible belief in the sacred. This takes various forms, but the trend is definite and there are good reasons for it. How this process is seen from the point of view of Christianity and Judaism within Europe remains unclear. But such a process is contradictory: on one hand, there is the danger of the reassertion of a Christian fundamentalism, or rather a Judaeo-Christian fundamentalism, which will consequently breed hostility toward living, breathing Muslims, and hostility toward what they stand for. There are signs of this, but there are also signs of the need within areas of Church for reconciliation and understanding.
This process needs to be strengthened, and it can only be strengthened by the authorities at various levels, all the way from Prince Charles's efforts to promote dialogue between the two faiths down to various civic experiments to bring about some understanding between Muslims, Jews, Christians and others.
As I see it, compromise, mutual understanding and living together in a civil society without violence are possible, but politics will determine whether that is the strong option.
So could this be the reason for the outcry in the West when Muslims attempted to defend the sacred from distortion, as was the case with Salman Rushdie, for instance?
I think that today, at what appears to be the end of the saga, there is a sizable body of opinion in Britain and elsewhere in the world which understands why many Muslims were offended by that book [The Satanic Verses]. There was no uprising of Rushdie supporters after the official reconciliation between Iran, Britain and Salman Rushdie himself; no one said that this was proof that Muslims had to back down, that "we have taught them a lesson, we have humiliated them and shown them what the universal principle of freedom of opinion is all about."
It has been a very quiet and considered reaction, which again reinforces the point that there was and is a body of opinion which values the importance of compromise, of quiet reconciliation and reducing passions in matters concerning the sacred.
This is a symptom of the long-term quiet revolution in favour of the sacred. What I mean by that is a revolution in which a large number of people develop a certain respect for the possibility that there is a god and that the cosmos has an ultimate meaning.
How would you respond to Rashed Al-Ghenoushi's statement that a secular state is semi-Islamic?
Sheikh Ghenoushi surprised me in the first ever conversation I had with him, when he pointed out that Christian Europe came late to embrace the principles of a civil society. That was something of a sacrilege, because here -- I thought, and most scholars believed -- civil society was a European invention par excellence and others followed suit.
Al-Ghenoushi argues that the ethos and structure of the civil society came much earlier and had their roots in the Muslim societies, while Europe has had some difficulty in catching up. But my belief is that Christian Europe has to some degree caught up in its growing official respect for human rights, toleration of differences... In this respect, it has come to understand what was always understood within the tradition of Islam: that there is sanctity of human beings.
Christian secularising civil societies in Europe have -- after five centuries of bloodshed and bigotry -- managed to establish spaces in which there could be public consideration of the relationship between human beings and nature, the world and the cosmos. These spaces of public consideration and reflection are -- according to Al-Ghenoushi -- an intrinsic feature of the Islamic doctrine.
There is a growing sense of religiosity outside, and sometimes against, the Church. One could argue that a certain type of "Islamisation" of the Christian/secular West is occurring -- Islamisation in the sense that the Church could be still be there, but not as dominant as it used to be.
There is a certain anxiety within Western democracies that the Muslim world will wage an attack on Western values and create disarray. How would you view the notion of political Islam within this context?
The European anxiety has very deep roots -- the Crusade mentality, the war on Islam that dates back to the very birth of Europe. So part of the whole idea of Europe is that it was infected with this bigotry and this anxiety about the external threat.
The anxiety is partly driven by the dislike of violence and the unfortunate association of Islam with guns and terrorism, which produced the phenomenon of Islamophobia -- a major source of the on-going anxiety. Nonetheless, there is an emerging perception that Islam, paradoxically, can be a force for civility, power-sharing, liberalisation of authoritarian regimes -- the highest concentration of which on the face of the earth is now found in that belt stretching between Morocco and Malaysia.
Turkey is a case in point: there is some guilty anxiety among commentators about how support for the Turkish regime requires opposition to power-sharing and civil society. Therefore, some liberal opinion is in favour of an Islamic renascence, because it is seen correctly to be largely a force for tolerance, and that applies to the on-going concern over Algeria. There is no decent civilised power-sharing outcome possible in that terrible terrorised context, unless there is public and international recognition of the legitimacy of Islam as a political, social and cultural force.


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