Islam in a Post-Secular Age

Post-secular theory counters the secularization thesis, which taught that religion would wither away as modernity gets older. A post-secular awareness acknowledges the perseverance of religion in modernity. The post-secular refers to a change in consciousness attributed primarily to three phenomena: citizens’ awareness of their secularity within the global horizon, an awareness of religious influences both globally and locally, and proximity to religious people immigrating from religiously-oriented countries. [1]

In our post 9/11 world, post-secular society presumes an awareness of the existing global and local presence of Islam, especially because of the global media’s role in the juxtaposition of “Islamic terrorism.” In reality, “Islamic terrorism” is itself a reaction to the secular West, as with Muslim militant groups who are motivated by the negative personal or collective experience of Western foreign policy and interference in Muslim countries. The rhetoric accompanying such reactions to the West is indeed religious – often (mis-)quoting religious texts and ideas; however, to claim it is solely religiously motivated would be incorrect. It is also seen as a struggle against ongoing Western political interference in foreign affairs.

The arrival of Muslim immigrants and refugees from traditional cultural and Islamic backgrounds adds to the post-secular awareness. In a way, it may be compared to the denominational schisms that Europe contended from the 16th century. The challenge then was the tolerance of emerging Christian denominations, while increasingly from the 20th century onward, the challenge remains the tolerance of Islam. Muslims face the question of how to integrate in a socially cohesive manner and the struggle to transform Western society into a post-colonial immigrant society. The pressures of globalized labour markets are incentivizing economic migration; however, successful social integration is yet to be achieved due to growing social and economic inequality. [1]

The secularization of the state was the appropriate response to the religious wars of early modernity. After the Reformation until the mid-17th century, continuous warfare was rampant in Western Europe. The state faced the task of pacifying a religiously-divided society to achieve peace and tolerance. [1] John Locke’s 1689 A Letter Concerning Toleration is the starting point of modern political secularism; in its venture for the tolerance of a religiously divided society, however, it was never the case that toleration was ensured. Constitutional secularism was later instantiated by James Maddison in the formulation of the US constitution. During the Federation of Australia in 1901, Christianity was pronounced as plural, whereby secularism meant anti-sectarianism. [2] Yet, in both the US and Australia, toleration was not a given. Catholics in the US and Australia remained oppressed for decades.

Recently, there has shown to be an increase of aggressive secularist mobilization towards Islam. Rising right-wing populism often uses Muslims as a scapegoat for social and economic inequality. While Islam has been socio-politically marginalized in global and national contexts, it is far from disappearing despite secularization and populist efforts.

Philosopher and Frankfurt school critical theorist Jürgen Habermas’ (1929) thesis on post-secularity has become the starting point for encouraging consideration of religion in the public sphere. Since finding himself largely in agreement with Pope Benedict XVI concerning a post-secular society, Habermas has turned increasingly to questions of religion. He suggests that it is incumbent that contemporary Western societies understand themselves as post-secular. Post-secularity aims towards a more inclusive democratic society and should not render its religious citizens “archaic relics of premodern societies”. [3]

Habermas is devoted to opening the public sphere for Islam to meaningfully contribute. His post-secular turn draws attention to the failure of the populist mobilization to expel Islam from the public realm, and indeed, quite the opposite, perceiving what can be a more inclusive and tolerant account of Islam in the public sphere. A post-secular society and consciousness revitalizes discourse on Islam in a post-secular age, and it seems it will continue to be a part of Muslims socio-political lives in the foreseeable future.

Habermas’ post-secular prescriptions are problematized by de-colonial critiques of the secular and secularism-as-an-ideology. As in the work of Charles Taylor, de-colonizing the secular would mean to challenge the Western secularist episteme. The post-secular too wants to escape the Western secularist regime of cognitive injustice which subordinates alternative world-views. However, genealogical analyses of Western secular normativity, such as the work of anthropologist Talal Asad (1932), problematize the meaningful contribution Habermas hopes Islam can have in the secular public sphere. [4]

Understanding Islam in the West is primarily a matter of how Europe is conceptualized by Europeans, since the West is a construction in accordance with its European heritage. Inspired by the founder of post-colonial studies, Edward Said (1935-2003), Asad contends that Europe has been historically constructed in such a way that Muslims cannot be satisfactorily represented. [4] It must not be ignored that the West considers itself the cultural heir of Ancient Greece, Rome, and Western Christianity, distinct from Muslim Spain. The fact that Spain was governed independently from the rest of the Muslim world in North Africa and the Middle East from the 7th to 14th century remains forgotten. [4]

The claim that Islam as a ‘religion’ (the European disjunction of the secular) should be assimilated into a “global” world. John L. Esposito, scholar of Religious and Islamic Studies, argues that to categorize Islam as a ‘religion’ problematizes it as abnormal amongst religions, precisely because it does not limit itself to the private lives of its faithful followers. Furthermore; it does not “properly” separate itself from public affairs; rather, it endeavours to guide the conduct of devout citizens in the public sphere. [5] Additionally, Islamic civilizations have historically developed in different, distinct ways from one another, and from European Christian civilizations. Therefore, categorizing Islam into the European category of ‘religion’ becomes problematic because, unlike the development of Christianity which has historically coincided with the development of such a European construct, Islam has developed and been conceptualized differently. Though the post-secular space advocated by Habermas may accommodate Islam, and aim to share its universal principles, a reconsideration of categorizing Islam as a ‘religion’ needs to be made.

Muslims moving outside the secular parameter of religion are (mis-)judged as going against the grain. They have been perceived as extremist or fundamentalist, or any of the other buzz words commonly spouted by Western media. These Muslim citizens are at best eyed with suspicion, at worst grossly violated of their rights. The paradigmatic cases of counter-terrorism laws and interventions executed across the West have stripped away the rights of citizens to privacy and to normal legal proceedings. [6] The right to privacy has been infringed by state-sponsored institutions using surveillance technology to spy on citizens, as well as forced intrusions onto these citizens’ private properties. The right to a free and fair trial has also been taken away from thise who have been arrested and detained, in places such as Guantanamo Bay, where no criminal law proceedings exist and abuses of human rights, including torture, regularly occur.

Principally, in a post-secular democracy, nothing should stop Muslims from political representation other than their fewer numbers. Muslims do contribute, politically or otherwise, in the society they call home. Swiss Islamic scholar, Tariq Ramadan, has for decades now maintained that the time of assimilation is over, and now is the time for contribution. [5] The Muslim immigrant struggles to assimilate into Western society is not shared by their children born and raised in Western countries. However, these first-generation Western Muslims are faced with other challenges, particularly those who are visibly Muslim such as women who wear the hijab. There has been a continual display of right-wing nationalist anxiety towards Islam and Muslims. In terms of broader society, it remains an unfortunate reality that Muslims are seen only as a minority in Western countries, and not seen to be at home; it retards full inclusion and exacerbates many difficulties such as discrimination.

In this embattled modern space, if the West is always anxious about Muslim exiles within its gates and Muslim barbarians beyond, how is it possible for Muslims to represent themselves against the prevalent Western methods of articulation? [4] Sociologist Michele Dillon has strongly asserted that “independent[ly] of whether an individual is religious or not, tolerance of otherness does not come easily”. [2] It may well be the case that openness to Islam in the public sphere is more complex than Habermas makes it out to be. The case of Islam in the West demonstrates that the ongoing secular paradigm is far from neutral. A post-secular awareness or consciousness is an important insight for our age; however, a post-secular society remains a distant reality.

Works cited:

[1] Habermas, J. (2008b). Notes on Post‐Secular Society. New Perspectives Quarterly, 25(4), 17–29. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5842.2008.01017.x
[2] Possamai, A. (2017). Post-secularism in multiple modernities. Journal of Sociology (Melbourne, Vic.), 53(4), 822–835. https://doi.org/10.1177/1440783317743830
[3] Habermas, J. (2008a). Between naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays. Polity Press.
[4] Asad, T. (2003). Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford University Press.
[5] Esposito, J. L. (2010). Rethinking Islam and Secularism. Association of Religious Archives. Retrieved from https://www.thearda.com/rrh/papers/guidingpapers/esposito.pdf
[6] Human Rights Watch. Illusions of Justice Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/07/21/illusion-justice/human-rights-abuses-us-terrorism-prosecutions
[7] Bruce, S. (2017). Secularization and Its Consequences. In P. Zuckerman & J. Shook (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Secularism (1st ed.). Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199988457.013.4
[8] Saeed, A. (2017). Secularism, State Neutrality, and Islam. In P. Zuckerman & J. Shook (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Secularism (1st ed.). Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199988457.013.12
[9] Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Photo via Masjid Pogung Dalangan


About the Author: Stefan Pacovski is a graduate with Honours from the University of Sydney, with his thesis on ‘Religion in a Post-Secular Age’. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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