Is Secularism Secular?

Across cultures, questions of purpose naturally and commonly come to occupy a significant place in one’s heart and mind. We all wonder about our place in the world, reflecting on what our families and friends mean to us and how long they will be in our lives. We inevitably search for an essence, pure and unchanging, something to which we can grab hold, in certainty, to weather the storms of life. This unending and entangled web of questions and answers – from the fleeting to the timeless and all encompassing – is what I call ‘religion.’

Others might look at these same questions and worries (all of which invariably lead to discussions of how best to organize and empower individuals and give structure to societies) and see the role of governments, economies, and the modern state. Specifically, many do indeed see these questions as largely or even solely political, economic, or social in nature, and thus entrust the state with the primary responsibility for their care. It is this tension – between what is religious or political – that I thus address. This is merely a start for critical engagement with the world of secularism, as I hope to illuminate some ideological flaws and foster a curiosity for future exploration.

In his book Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt (2012), Hussain Ali Agrama brilliantly and simply demonstrates the ways secularism works through the tensions and anxieties it itself generates. He explains:

The processes by which secular doctrine is implemented incessantly generate the very question that doctrine aims to answer; namely, where to draw the line between religion and politics. That is, the processes by which that line is drawn work to unsettle that very line. And thus what best characterizes secularism is not a separation between religion and politics, and not simply state regulation of religion, but an ongoing, deepening entanglement in the question of religion and politics, for the purpose of identifying and securing fundamental liberal rights and freedoms. This ongoing entanglement is a feature of the expanding regulatory capacities of the modern state, and it is something we see throughout the history of the paradigmatic secular states right up to the current moment. [1]

We are far from the theory or practice of a seamless “separation of Church and State,” or even a mutual tolerance between the two. Rather, today, inherent to secular power is the state’s deliberate regulation of religion: first by ascribing it an essence (i.e. by defining what it is, excluding those aspects deemed non-essential or often “bad” or “evil”) and then by policing its exercise in the public sphere. As seemingly contradictory as this is, it is characteristic of secular systems, which purport the separation of religious and state institutions, but often violate the principle of non-interference.

Far from being uninterested or even objective towards religion, the modern state and its constitutive political actors are obsessed with religion, consumed with a need to limit both its definition and its application at both an individual and communal level. Problems of war and peace, education, and healthcare, even the style of one’s dress and choice of food are full of moral and ethical dilemmas (which are generally decidedly “religious” matters) and yet, increasingly, there is little capacity for an individual or community within a larger nation-state to exercise its own agency. This is often witnessed when one prefers that which is contrary to the status quo, whereby the state, a corporation, a teacher, or police officer intervenes. Of course, many times intervention is necessary, as human beings are not always magnanimous, compassionate, and life respecting.

I pronounce not a value judgment on the state or on religion writ large, but rather begin to challenge the notion that secularism is objective and universally beneficial. Secularism is deeply subjective and constantly evolving, consciously and deliberately producing “winners” and “losers,” a reality complicated by the fact that “the good” are often religious matters (i.e. profoundly moral). Secularism behaves in the same ways and uses many of the same means that prominent secular thinkers malign religion/religious actors for using.

It is difficult to identify secularism as modernity’s most insidious initiative, as there is no dearth of strong, viable candidates in competition for that title – including liberalism and capitalism. Nonetheless, we can confidently declare that secularism may be modernity’s most dangerous deception. It is time we break the chains tethering us to its power.

  1. Agrama (2012): Hussain Ali Agrama, Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt, (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2012); 29.

Image Credit: “Drawing Hands” by Maurits Cornelis Escher 

About the Author: Mariem is a civil society activist working for democratic governance & religious freedom in the Middle East and North Africa. She writes on critical political & social theory, comparative democracy studies, and Islamic & comparative religious studies. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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5 thoughts on “Is Secularism Secular?

  1. “Inherent to secular power is the state’s deliberate regulation of religion: first by ascribing it an essence (i.e. by defining what it is, excluding those aspects deemed non-essential or often “bad” or “evil”) and then by policing its exercise in the public sphere.”

    Great article Ma Sha Allah. I’ve always stated, there are so many public policy-related questions which are, by their very nature, “religious.” One example is the question of when a lump of cells becomes a human life – there’s simply no way to answer this scientifically. So any claim to separate religion from politics is self-delusion at best and deception at worst.

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