A Secular Age Beyond the West
In this blog post, Shylashri Shankar reflects on the main lessons from A Secular Age Beyond the West: Religion, Law and the State in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, a book she edited with Mirjam Kunkler John Madeley. The book traces the origins of religion and secularity in countries that have remained relatively untouched by Western Christianity. The cases examined therefore lie beyond the largely Western scope of Charles Taylor’s mammoth book, A Secular Age. As Shankar notes, the evolution of secularity and religion in contexts like Egypt, Japan and Turkey, and their subsequent roles in daily life, have been shaped profoundly by the modern/post-colonial state and its project of nation-building. In each country studied, how the state engaged with religion and secularity depended on factors such as the nature of colonialism and/or the interests of local elites. Moreover, Shankar articulates how understanding the intersection of politics, religion and secularity in these contexts requires one to abandon tidy analytical dichotomies, such as “belief” and “unbelief”, and instead embrace their messy, fluid and complicated relationships on the ground.
By Shylashri Shankar
We have all read about or worse still, experienced violence perpetrated either in the name of religion, or in the name of atheism. Last week, a gunman went beserk and shot dead dozens of congregants in a church in the USA. This year, 61 Shias were killed when a bomb exploded in their mosque in Sindh, Pakistan. In September, the Supreme Court of India told the government to take urgent steps to stop cow vigilantism – attacks on beef eaters who tend to be Muslims, and the lowest castes (within Hinduism). In February 2015, an atheist murdered three young Muslims in North Carolina.
The clash between belief and unbelief continues in different parts of the East and the Western parts of the world. Have we, in the societies we live in, moved to a situation where belief in god is just one of the options, but not the only one available to us? For some like Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, the answer is ‘yes’, but only for the North Atlantic world where Latin Christendom (as opposed to Orthodox Christianity) prevails.
But for many of us, the answer is a ‘no’. But we don’t know why religion continues hold our rights in thrall. In the Devil’s Dictionary, the American satirist Ambrose Bierce describes religion as “a daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable”. In attempting to make the unknowable a little less inscrutable, A Secular Age Beyond the West: Religion, Law and Secularity in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa (edited by Mirjam Kunkler, John Madeley and Shylashri Shankar) traces the experiences of religion and secularity in eleven countries – Japan, China, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and Morocco.
The contributors ask: What does secularity mean today?; Why does secularity, however it is conceived and understood in different settings, arise and come to take the form it does, and what consequences flow from it?; How did secularity come to command the space it did at particular times, and what is its current status?
In their search for answers, the scholars interrogate the status of religion and the emergence of secularity in the course of the 20th century in these societies, and they do so in conversation with Charles Taylor’s grand narrative (which had posed the same questions). In A Secular Age we hear the story of the transformation of the human being – from one embedded in an interdependent world knitted together by religion, into an atomistic, individualistic and “buffered” self for whom belief is only one of the options – which Taylor terms as the birth of Secularity III in the North Atlantic world. Taylor terms this situation Secularity III. He presents this process as the fruit of new inventions and newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, involving a series of departures from earlier religious life.
In A Secular Age Beyond the West, it turns out that the State is a major part of the answer to each of the above questions. Building on colonial and imperial legacies, the state highly determines religious experience by variably regulating religious belief, practice, property, and education through laws and policies. The Shah’s Iran, Kemalist Turkey, 19th century Japan, and Soviet Russia offer clear instances of state-engineered secularization, while Indonesia and Morocco show the obverse – state agencies working to create religious citizens. The conclusions testify to the manifold ways in which the modern state, far from marginalizing religion, put it into its service, often in order to legitimize national, developmental, and sometimes even economic goals.
In these societies, it is difficult for societal acceptance of unbelief to appear when the state decrees that religious identity determines the type of school one may attend, the person one may marry, the way one may and may not pray, the professions one may choose, and so on. Why and how this state of affairs came to be in these societies is explained in the volume. Three themes stand out.
- History matters. More specifically, a more recent history that contained colonialism or imperialism enhanced the post-colonial/imperial state’s role in formulating what religion is, and is not, and often intertwined religion with loyalty to the nation. The project to expunge religion from the public sphere, or alternatively to protect or reinstate it, was integrally related to projects of nationalism and nation-building. The impulse to attach religious characteristics to the normative view of an ideal Indian or a Pakistani or an Indonesian or an Egyptian, or conversely, to infuse a secular flavour into an early 20th century Japanese subject or an atheistic Soviet citizen, emanated from the state, societal actors and transnational forces.
These efforts to conceptualise and mark out the domains of the secular and the religious, in turn, were shaped to a great extent by the encounter with the colonial powers and their religions, mainly Christianity. Many local belief systems were destroyed and supplanted, others weakened, and transformed in different ways, while yet others appeared to emerge paradoxically reinforced from the encounter – but none remained unaffected.
In South Asia, to legally situate the colonial subject, the British colonial regime created a ‘unified’ Hindu religion in the laws, carved out of a set of customary practices; and codified religious personal laws for Islam and Christianity. In Morocco the French imposition of a protectorate form of colonial rule from 1912-56 established conditions for a specific form of “Moroccan secularity” through processes of pluralization and differentiation at the political, economic, and social levels that continues today. Even where there was no direct colonial rule, the Western influence was felt. For Chinese people in the 19th and 20th centuries, creating the notion of ‘the nation’, insofar as it represented their collective personality in relation to other nations and particularly the West, constituted a necessary precondition to their entry into a globalizing world.
- Focus on the political projects of the local elites if you want to understand why the legal and societal boundaries of religion and of a given religion in particular were drawn in those ways. There is a strong link between secularity and nationalism as demonstrated by the Japanese case – an early example of an elite-driven westernizing, secularizing project undertaken in reaction against Western imperialism, preceding similar developments in Turkey, Iran, India, Indonesia, and China. Challenging the view once dominant in Japan and elsewhere that secularity was a largely neutral by-product of modernization, the Japan case shows how debates among elites shaped the bureaucratic means through which the populace would be indoctrinated with secular morality, and would unite in support of the state. Shinto ritual was used to promote reverence for the emperor and loyalty to the nation.
Elsewhere, in the Israeli and the Pakistani contexts, symbols, metaphors and the rhetoric of religion were often blended with national ones to teach citizens that the survival of the nation’s religion depended on the survival of the state. In Turkey too, Kemal Atatürk spent the better part of his rule developing a particular kind of state-sponsored Islam that could be put in the service of the national project. In Morocco, after independence from the British, the Arabic triptych “Allah [God], al-Watan [the Nation], and al-Malik [the King]” was adopted in the constitution as the national motto. The Palace reinforced the permeation of Islam in the public sphere while simultaneously imposing limits on its public and political role; Islam was recognized constitutionally as the official state religion, but the constitution also forbade the formation of political parties on a religious, linguistic, ethnic, or regional basis.
- Stop thinking in binaries if you want to understand how notions of the secular and the religious apply or fail to do so in some of these societies. What is “secular” depends to a large extent on what is perceived as “religious,” and vice versa. The important point here is that these categories do not have a fixed meaning for some societies. Take the case of China. Pluralism, where faith is but one position among many, is an old story there. Laypersons could believe in and practice the available teachings in a pluralistic way: there was no sense of a clear-cut and exclusive religious identity according to established criteria of orthodoxy. In fact, both religion and education were conceptualized in traditional China by the same term, jiao, with no explicit semantic distinction between them. It was the translation of trade treaties with Western (and Christian) imperial powers that introduced a Western-influenced concept of religion into the local lexicon in China and in Japan. It would be a mistake to imagine that the thinking of the ordinary, non-elite Japanese was structured by a dichotomy between belief and unbelief. A similar absence of a clear dichotomy between belief and unbelief also attends ‘Hinduism’ in India where Hinduism is seen as a religion, as Indian culture and as an ancient order in the constitution, and has muddled the apex court’s interpretations of Hinduism’s role (and of Hindu nationalism) in the political arena. The ways of thinking and perceiving the natural and the supernatural worlds in these three societies do not succumb to an easy classification under Taylor’s categories of “secular” or “religious,” “belief” or “unbelief”. These considerations make it difficult for the state in China, India, or Japan to draw the boundaries between the “religious” and the non-religious.
Given these conclusions, it is not surprising that belief continues to be the only game in town in these countries.