The salience of politicized religion over the last thirty years, especially across the Greater Middle East and among Muslims in Europe, has not been matched by a comparable articulation of an alternative secularism—or secularisms. A notable exception is in France, where the concept and political program has been strongly espoused, most loudly so in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. French laïcité often veers close to anti-clericalism and can be frankly anti-Islamic. This is what defines secularism in popular global narratives.
This is unfortunate. There are multiple secularisms. Societies and their leaders have adopted secular principles for various reasons, and their versions of secularism have accordingly been different. For example:
- European secularism was adopted primarily to protect the people from religious absolutism. French laïcité is only one example. Protestant focus on individual rights and the rule of law is another.
- American secularism was adopted to protect multiple religious minorities from the state, thus creating the paradox of a highly religious political class but a constitution that separates religion from state.
- Indian secularism was adopted as a means of managing diversity, making the state relate equally to different religions.
- Kemalist and Nasserite secularism and Ba’athism were adopted as an instrument of modernization and nationalism.
- Communism was an atheistic political programme.
- Chinese Confucianism means that faith is absent from the public sphere and the issue of secularism is not relevant.
- African secularisms are diverse, reflecting the experiences of specific countries with colonialism and with liberation from colonial rule, overcoming religious or sectarian strife, and the challenges of governing diversity and protecting civil and political rights. But in much of Africa, secularism is a political creed that dare not speak its name, for fear it be confused with atheism.
Secularism is under threat from several quarters: from conservative religious leaders who call on religious values to promote civil codes that discriminate against women; from leaders who mobilize religious constituencies to gain office or stay in office; from extremists who use violence to pursue their causes. Political leaders who seek power by instrumentalizing religion are responding to specific predicaments, such as remote, dictatorial or corrupt government, or a sense of collective humiliation on account of poverty, powerlessness or foreign domination. Some are just seeking power and money.
Secularism is also endangered because it is associated with forms of power and wealth that are widely seen as illegitimate, such as leaders who are remote, corrupt and brutal, and who have allied themselves with western governments and foreign corporations. In most parts of the Greater Middle East, secular modern states are widely seen to have failed their people. At best they are seen as building impersonal institutions rather than cultivating better people; at worst they are seen as handmaidens to marketized and militarized public life, in which cynical and manipulative leaders exploit public office for power and wealth.
If secularism is to be revived, its adherents need to rise to the challenge of restoring the legitimacy of secular constitutional rule. Secularists certainly need to oppose religious fanaticism. They equally need to fight against the conditions that make religious extremism an attractive alternative to present conditions, including corruption, arbitrary power, inequality, lack of educational opportunity, and the militarization of politics. Secularists need to display and promote civic virtue, to embody compassion, integrity and self-improvement.
Secularists also need to respond to the challenges of globalization. Historically, secularism has been a state agenda, or defined in relation to a state—usually the aspiration for a nation state. What would a global secular order look like that transcends states and is appropriate for a globally integrated world? How would it produce public goods, both global and local, as well as managing diverse identities?
A global secular agenda would need to be pluralist, and to borrow from the various secularisms found around the world. Indian plural secularism has clear value in many of the world’s ethnically and religiously diverse countries. Protestant secularism and laïcité are relevant for protecting personal rights. But most importantly, we need to articulate a global secular agenda relevant to the challenges of the contemporary globalizing order, with its marketized and militarized politics. If secularism is seen as a tool of such political orders, for sure it will be resisted by those who locate a source for a comprehensible and ethical human order elsewhere.
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