With technological advances and breaking news hurtling towards us at hyperspeed, we are confronted with an onslaught of profoundly ethical questions. From the impact of economic policies on local communities to the parameters of freedom of speech and down to the inception and sanctity of human life, we look on as politicians put forth proposals that stake ethical claims in one way or another. Whether they are framed as “principles of human rights,” “common sense politics,” or “promoting peace and security,” these are inherently and purely religious claims.
This piece in the secularism series – a follow-up to Is Secularism ‘Secular’? – tackles the oft-repeated adage that attempts to cast secularism as a space of non-interference and neutrality between religion and politics: that it is “the separation of Church and State.” It is phrases like this that add to secularism’s subversiveness and power, convincing people that it is the only way to navigate human diversity peacefully while preserving the respective dignities and domains of Church and State. This piece is a modest attempt at demonstrating why none of this is true.
I confess: on the surface, secularism sounds quite appealing, ringing in the promise of peace where too often across history there had been strife. On their own, religions – and the theologies, traditions, and thinkers which give them real-world meaning – are complicated enough without having vastly divergent, sometimes directly contradictory religious groups cohabiting the same geographic space. Simply put, it makes intuitive sense to seek a durable recourse from this potential for conflict. Today’s nation-state finds its recourse in secularism, both an ideal and its mechanism for actualization, the end and the means for securing peace in diverse countries. State and secularism are thus so closely related, so co-dependent, that they are virtually indistinguishable. Unfortunately, the very steep cost being paid to maintain secular order around the world is increasingly coming to the fore, and it requires some deeper attention beyond the all-too-common oscillation between victimization narratives and diatribes against discrimination.
Secularism as ‘Religion’
For the sake of brevity and admittedly with some generalization, secularism emerged as a remedy to long-standing, violent strife in Europe. It was specifically aimed at eliminating the power and influence of Christian clergymen, many of whom, unfortunately, orchestrated and otherwise abetted great bloodshed. It was these ties of religion to state – and the ruthless authoritarianism through which both had for so long maintained their dominion – that Enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century sought to sever. Theirs was a reaction to a particular history of a specific context, and it cannot be divorced from that history. Particularly in the aftermath of the Second World War, secularism was taken from context-specific remedy to universal norm, and promoted across the globe on that basis.
Secularism appears universal because it supposedly offers a world devoid of a dominating moral framework. It appears beneficial because it purports to facilitate social harmony. But to separate religion from state or politics, to establish what does and does not constitute liberty, and to deliberate on the optimal means for advancing social harmony requires not only definition of the things in question, but a guiding principle, a set of values, an ideology upon whose basis such definitions are calibrated and set in motion. In effect, the state must be ideological in this pursuit. Saba Mahmood, recently deceased anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, put it thus:
Secularism has sought not so much to banish religion from the public domain but to reshape the form it takes, the subjectivities it endorses, and the epistemological claims it can make. The effectiveness of such a totalizing project necessarily depends upon transforming the religious domain through a variety of reforms and state injunctions. This has often meant that nation-states have had to act as de facto theologians, rendering certain practices and beliefs indifferent to religious doctrine precisely so that these practices can be brought under the domain of civil law. (1)
Having purportedly discovered the happy medium between protecting religious practice (by relegating it to the private sphere) and guaranteeing individual liberty and freedom of conscience, the modern state positioned itself as neutral arbiter and mutual guarantor. But an intrinsically ideological actor it is. In truth, this is a deception and a perversion of the constitutive parts, focalizing all power in the State – made to be the legislator, judge, and executioner of all things – and dismembering and violating religion (the Church) to the State’s benefit.
The Secular Eclipse: The State’s Eminence Over the Church
For the adage “the separation of Church and State” to have any practical use – indeed, for the phrase itself to make any logical sense at all – some definitions must be made about what is religious and what is not, clear & unassailable boundaries must be drawn between Church and State, respectively. To argue that an action is or is not religious, or that it is or is not permissible in the public domain of a secular system, is itself an ‘anti-secular’ act in that it would necessitate the movement between and engagement with both religion and state politics. Whether we are to articulate definitions here or not, some body at some point must surely have made them explicit, given that most of us live in secular societies. Was a council of religious leaders convened for this purpose? The answer to this is a resounding ‘no.’ Indeed, if such a thing were to take place, it would be a matter of extreme discomfort for the concept of secularism itself. So, then, did a group of select political leaders decide on a definition? Not quite, though this may soon come to pass. What guides secular states in legislation and policy is not dry nomocracy, or rule of law, but a raw and unabashed opportunism by supplanting its own ‘religion’ over those deemed undesirable.
An interesting case study to this very effect is in modern-day France, where President Emmanuel Macron has announced his intention to lead the charge for a “French Islam,” or a redefinition of Islam to bring it in line with French culture. This initiative includes the possible deletion or abrogation of Qur’anic verses, the creation of a hierarchy of state-approved religious leaders and organizations, and a reconstitution of Islamic traditions and mores to be subsumed under an overarching national culture. That such a thing is taking place in broad daylight, defiantly championed by the highest office of the land, and not in the dark basement offices of sinister lobbyists is an indictment of just how ideologically-driven and mainstream secularism is. For French Muslims, this is a painfully obvious message that the state is uninterested in maintaining a respectful distance from and objectivity towards religion. For the pious adherents of all religions, this is an implicit warning that any non-interference at present is tenuous, that the balance may at any moment be tipped, and that the State reserves pre-eminence for itself.
Many will argue that making pointed critiques of secularism by way of French politics is too easy a shot to make, as most agree that the most flagrant and shocking violations of our modern secular sensibilities so often come from France. I find this to be a point well taken, so let us now turn to the United States, the self-anointed “champion of the free world.” Now in the seventeenth year of the War on Terror, the dividing lines between war and peace, truth and falsehood, just and unjust have been blurred into obscurity. Muslim Americans have seen “national security” and “terrorism” charges leveled against otherwise unassuming citizens going about their lives. People have been arrested, interrogated, and jailed for writing Facebook posts and articles or delivering speeches critical of American foreign policy, and a narrative pitting “good” Muslims against “bad” Muslims has very quickly become the norm. The qualifier “moderate” before Muslims is another battleground betraying the professed neutrality of the state to religions (see A Modern Myth: The Moderate Muslim for further reading on this). Using a largely War on Terror-tinted lens, political leaders and media personalities have imbued the phrase with such power that has many Muslims scurrying away from anything that might invite state inquiry, from organizing against controversial policies like entrapment and police brutality to donating to certain international causes, most notably Palestine, Syria, Kashmir, or East Turkestan. This moderating project of the U.S. State assumes “the form of theological prescriptions and a particular style of scriptural interpretation,” as Mahmood explains, taking sides on distinctly religious matters and, in that way, mimicking religion itself.
Moving Past the Secular Fable
Language holds great power, especially when backed by the self-generating and all-encompassing might of the state, and it directly molds and shapes action. The relative subtlety of the American example compared to the abrasiveness of the French should not be mischaracterized as the former being an aberration and the latter a symptom of disease. In both contexts, there is only one loser in a zero-sum game played against our will. The state, its bodies and apparatuses, and the political and cultural elite on whose shoulders it stands remain firmly intact and reign supreme, while religious traditions, practices, and adherents must bend or be broken. Through this battered relationship, the peace-through-objectivity that secularism claims to seek is not only unattainable – it is unfathomable. Beyond the state’s persistent violation of the principle of non-interference lies the reality that human difference (religious or otherwise) cannot simply be wished away or recategorized. Difference and disagreement are inevitabilities of the human experience. The raw truth is that what we have, therefore, is not a separation of Church and State, but the domination of the former by the latter.
For the modern West and much of the rest of the world, secularism is all we have known. We have been so firmly within its grasps, its claws gripping us so tightly, that the thinness of our breathing feels normal. It is not. A separation of Church and State would require a ‘Church’ that is clearly identifiable and definable and a ‘State’ that cedes power and control over much of its subjects lives, a move which would effectively neutralize the modern state itself. To put it explicitly, secularism falls short of its own standards and is thus neither ‘secular,’ nor neutral, nor even a unifying, harmonizing factor forging an unbreakable bond between people. Secularism’s rosy connotations have too long distracted us from an accurate reading of the world as it is, and precluded any efforts to put forth an alternative model for the peaceful flourishing of diverse societies.
Viable alternatives, of course, require immense intellectual effort and considerable political will to bear any fruits. In the meantime, each of us can take it upon ourselves to recognize wrongs as such and assume our place as beings worthy of dignity and responsible choice. We can assert the rights we are due from others while emphasizing that others have rights upon us, too. We can live full and unapologetic lives as individuals grounded in the knowledge that our decisions have direct implications on our immediate communities and our world. And, for those of us who believe in God, we can resolve to lead lives worthy of His Mercy and Grace, that we may leave this world better than how we inherited it.
- Mahmood, Saba. “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation.” Public Culture (2006) Volume 18, Issue 2; 326-7.
About the Authors: 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.
Abid is aspiring to be an abid (dutiful slave of Allah) and a student of life. He likes to read about history and religion and wants to read a bit more philosophy. Make science philosophy again! You can follow him on Twitter here.
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