August 2007



Militant Secularism


Abdulkarim Soroush


Secularism was supposed to have been capable of digesting religions; not to turn into a religion in its own right that banishes some other religions. Was this not the objection to religions after all?  That an Islamic State, for example, does not treat Jews or Christians well, that it does not view them as equals, that it gives Muslims special rights which it denies to others?  Well, if secularism starts behaving in this same way and does not treat non-secular people well and withholds some rights from them, we will have returned to where we began.


On the invitation of a group of students and people interested in the ideas of religious intellectuals, Dr Soroush presented a talk at the Maison des étudiants belges, Cité Universitaire, in Paris on Thursday 2 August 2007.


Dr Soroush began by explaining the concept of secularism.  He said:  In Persian, we don’t have a specific term for ‘secularism’; in fact, it’s a term that’s unique to the Latin languages.  Most Arabic speakers haven’t found an equivalent for it either and they’ve mostly chosen to use the foreign original.  Of course, in Persian, terms such as gitianegi and/or donyaviat have been suggested (derived from the words for the cosmos and the world).  In Arabic, too, the term ilmaniat has occasionally been used which is derived from the term for ‘science’ or for ‘the world of differences’.  In the Latin languages, ‘secularism’ is derived from the word saeculum, meaning here and now;  that is to say, this world and not the next world, this world and not the world beyond.  So, in effect, secularism is a confirmation of one world and a rejection of two other worlds.  It means that our concern is focused on this earthly, natural world, in which we’re living now, that we’re seeking to understand and to succeed in the world we’re in; we’re not concerned about the world after death or the world beyond (the supernatural).  On the whole, secularism is a rejection of asceticism, a confirmation of partaking in and of this world in every sense of the term, and a snubbing of the hereafter and the supernatural.


Dr Soroush said:  We haven’t acquainted ourselves with this concept as well as ought to have done. We therefore haven’t coined a word for it either and it hasn’t stirred us mentally and practically.  But, in the West, secularism emerged and grew in a natural way and it turned into a tree that spread its branches everywhere.  And now Westerners are living under the branches of this tree.  Certainly, in Islamic literature, you will find two terms that are closely linked to some aspects of secularism or, at least it, are very close to it etymologically.  One is the word ‘dahr’, which is apparently from the same root as ‘duré’ in French and ‘duration’ in English.


Explaining the word ‘dahr’, Dr Soroush said:  This is a word that also appears in the Qur’an, at the point where the deniers say: We come into the world from ourselves and we depart from it by ourselves.  And it is the passage of time (dahr) that kills us, there is no other cause, there is no God, there are no supernatural or invisible forces.  It is this world, here and now, that raises us and, ultimately, casts us down.


Dr Soroush also said:  ‘Dahr’ means the age or the times and it is fully in keeping with the word ‘secularism’ which contains the idea of time.  Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should call secular people ‘dahri’ because, in Arabic and Persian and in a religious environment, this term is considered blasphemous and insulting.  At any rate, philosophers are of the view that the distinguishing characteristic of the nature that we’re living in is that it is time-bound and they describe the supernatural world as a world that is beyond time and place.  In English, ‘temporal order’ is used to denote this time-boundness and ‘eternal order’ to give the sense of being beyond time.  ‘Temporal’ and ‘secular’ mean the same thing; they both mean this-worldly, earthly, time-bound, natural and material.  It makes no difference whether we say ‘material’ or ‘time-bound’ because the supernatural world is neither of these two things. According to theologians, time is the offspring of matter, it is the offspring of the motion of matter.  Hence, secularism means attachment to and concern for the material world, which is the time-bound world.


Dr Soroush also referred to the Asr Sura of the Qur’an and said that another related term was ‘asr’.  He said that, in this Sura, God swears by ‘asr’ (which can be rendered as ‘afternoon’, ‘evening’ or ‘declining day’):  “I swear by the declining day that perdition shall be the lot of man, except for those who have faith and do good works.”  Qur’anic commentators have disagreed over the meaning of asr.  Some have simply said that it means afternoon, arguing that, since God swears by the day and the night, He can also swear by the afternoon.  But some maintain that, here, asr means time.  I also met a cleric who was so enraptured by left-wing ideas that he explained this Sura by saying that one of the meanings of asr is ‘pressure’. He said that God was swearing by ‘pressure’, meaning that revolutionary pressure had to be brought to bear from on high to reform society!!  Setting aside outlandish interpretations, it would seem that the term ‘time’ can be a better rendering of asr.  In fact, God is taking this weapon away from disbelievers and saying:  This time that you’re speaking about is my own creation, like the sun and the moon, and I swear by it.  Although time has a status that makes it worthy of being sworn by, it does not step from the realm of the created into the realm of the creator.


Dr Soroush then spoke about another equivalent for the term secularism and said:  Some of you who are familiar with the philosophy and history of theology have no doubt noticed how, when our philosophers and theologians discuss religious issues, they say that we can approach a subject in one of two ways:  rational or transmitted/narrative.  The narrative approach is to look at accounts that are available to us about the words and deeds of the Prophet and our revered religious figures, to see what they said about the relevant subject.  Another approach is to rely on our own reason, without reference to the verses of the Qur’an and the Prophetic narratives or Traditions; to see what we understand of something and what reason tells us about it.   ‘Rational’ in this sense is very close to the contemporary concept of ‘secular reason’.  That is to say, a reason that is not under the sway of religion and wants to issue rulings, in its own right, about worldly matters.  When we contrast reason with narration in this way, we mean a reason that’s independent of revelation and this is exactly what a secular person favours.


Dr Soroush said:  Now you can see that secularism has a practical aspect, which relates to life, and a rational aspect, which relates to thought.  In the aspect that relates to life, it wants to reap satisfaction from life and, in the aspect that relates to thought, it wants to understand and judge for itself and not to follow the logic of revelation.  And, then, when a people wills and endeavours to put these concepts into practice, secularism is born;  that is to say, a people comes into being that does not bring the supernatural into play or ask invisible forces for assistance when it judges and analyses social and natural phenomena.  A people that does not pray, does not promise to give alms if its prayers come true, does not plead for help from revered figures, shuns magic, discards myths and superstition, and abandons monasticism, asceticism and austerity in life, because one important practical aspect of secularism is that human beings are not ascetic.  As Hafez (the 14th century Iranian poet) put it:  “I belong to heaven, but on this present journey / I am a captive of beautiful youths.”  The first sparks of secularism in the West were sparks of anti-asceticism;  that is to say, people abandoned abandoning the world.  They set asceticism aside and took the world seriously in every sense of the word;  that is to say, they chose to partake rationally in politics, economics, education, science, art, industry and so on.


Dr Soroush then spoke about the different types of secularism and said:  We have at least two types of secularism:  political secularism and philosophical secularism.  The meaning of political secularism is clear;  it means the separation of religion and the State.  It means governing this world without concern for the two other worlds, as if this is the only world and we, human beings, are its rulers and our self-justifying reason is the judge of all things. It means that the State’s legitimacy is not pegged on religion. It means that the State is neutral towards religions.  It means that society’s laws are not obtained from religion. But we also have philosophical secularism.  Philosophical secularism means that there is no God.  There is no supernatural world.  There is no hereafter.  It is akin to naturalism and materialism.  In political secularism, you don’t necessarily reject God, but, in politics, you don’t concern yourself with God and religion.  You don’t need to reject the hereafter, but you don’t concern yourself with it.  But in philosophical secularism, you make judgments and your judgments are negative, you consider religions to be without truth.  When Max Weber said that modernity meant the demystification of the world, this is what he meant.


Turning to the causes of the emergence of secularism in the West, Dr Soroush said:  Now, why is it that secularism came into being in the West from the 16th century onwards, whereas it did not develop in the world of Islam and in the East as a whole? What was the factor behind secularism’s growth in the West?  First and foremost, I have to say in this connection that secularism had a natural birth in the West.  In other words, it was an infant that spent the appropriate length of time in the womb of the West’s history and, when it had reached its full term, it came into this world;  its birth was not accompanied by a Caesarean section and bleeding.  We can attribute this to two causes.  The first cause was the confrontation and clash between science and religion.  The quarrel between science and religion was a very fateful quarrel in the history of Europe.  And it was not a product of a conspiracy, ill will, malice or irreligiosity.  In fact, it was a very natural quarrel:  there was growth in the natural sciences, in geology, biology, astronomy.  And new information came to light that was in conflict with the contents of Scripture and the conflict intensified to the point where it became impossible to hide or deny.  There was Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton and, later, Buffon and Darwin.  Some of these people were religious themselves.  As it happens, Galileo was a religious man.  Copernicus was once a priest.  Kepler was someone who had gone several steps beyond the common religion of the masses to the point of being superstitious.  But the product of these people’s work was something that was not in any way in keeping with the contents of Scripture, especially on the subject of the motion of the earth and the sun and the planets.  The Church tolerated these ideas for a while but, then, the quarrel flared up.  The status that the Church and Scripture acquired thereafter never went back to what it had been before the quarrel.  In all fairness, despite all its hostility towards science, the Church did not go down the path of fanaticism.  The Church allowed the publication of Copernicus’s book.  In The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, Copernicus explicitly stated that the earth was in motion and that the sun was still, whereas, according to Scripture, it was the sun that moved and the earth that was still.  From the 400 copies of the book that were published in the 16th century, 200 still exist today.  The tales about Galileo having been put to death are all untrue.  Of course, they did put Galileo under house arrest.  The Church allowed the publication of Copernicus’s book but wrote an introduction to it.  And the important point that was made in this introduction was “what is stated in this book is a theory and not the absolute truth”.  This was a laudable and sensible solution.


The big and small discoveries that were being made here and there gradually robbed Scripture of the status that it had had heretofore.  Religion lost its former power and status and, from then on, it was no longer the actor on the social and political stage that it had been before.    As long as religion was strong, it was in the political arena.  When faith diminished and religion’s status declined, this actor ended up playing a smaller role.    It was not as if anyone evicted religion from the political stage;  it just grew weaker and moved to the sidelines.  This is why I said it was a natural birth.  The political stage is for powerful players.  When religion was strong, there was no need for anyone to invite religion onto the political stage.  And, when it grew weak, it inevitably left the stage;  there was no need for anyone to evict it. 


The second cause was the rupture that occurred in Christianity;  that is to say, the birth of Protestantism from the ribs of Catholicism. This Protestantism reduced the Church’s strength; in fact, it stood exactly opposite the Church.  Martin Luther was the first person to translate the Bible into German.  And he said that everyone was their own priest and he rejected the authority of the Church.


These two events together weakened the Christian Church so that it departed from the game of power, and this departure meant that there was now a separation between religion and the State.  Some people imagine that, in European countries, some people drew up Constitutions stating that, henceforth, there must be a separation between religion and politics.  This was not at all the case.  The fact that this has been stated in European Constitutions was the effect of this development, not its cause.  At any rate, the secularism that was born was a tolerant secularism. It was not militant.  Since it knew that religion was weak, it felt no need to attack it.  As recently as about 30 or 40 years ago, many sociologists were of the view that not just Christianity but all religions were on the decline. They believed that history was moving in the direction of political secularism.  So, what do you do when faced with weaklings?  You are tolerant and you tell yourself that they pose no danger, they are doing no harm, let them have their mosque or church, let them observe their rituals. Secularism proceeded on the assumption that it should be neutral towards religions and view them all in the same light. As far as secularism is concerned, it makes no difference that there are Bahais, Christians, Muslims, Jews and/or Zoroastrians in society, because it assumed that they were all being left behind by history.


Secularism in this sense both led to the separation of religion and the State and adopted a neutral approach to religions.  Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell said with pride:  “In the US now, you can see mosques and synagogues alongside churches, and they are all coexisting peacefully.”  And, in fact, this is something to be proud of and it is a very laudable situation.


But gradually secularism enters a new era which I call the era of militant secularism; a secularism that has lost its capacity for tolerance, that does not view all religions in the same light. A secularism that loses its previous, strong digestion system, as if surrendering to secularism’s enemies.  One example of this is the question of schoolgirls and the hijab in France.  Or Tony Blair, when he said:  “If they don’t like our values, they can leave Britain.”  Turkey’s position is the clearest of all in this respect. It officially baulks at the idea of having a Muslim president.  Some people come out into the streets in the name of defending secularism and Western media fuel the flames.


Examining the root causes of the emergence of militant secularism, Dr Soroush said:  First, one of the underlying assumptions of secularism has now been falsified.  Political secularism bore one meaning, which is the separation of religion and the State, and one historical prediction, which is that religion will become increasingly weak.  Hence, secularism would become easier with every passing day.  Today, the prediction has turned out false and this is something that you’ve been hearing from major sociologists over the past 20 or 30 years, that religions are gaining in strength.  We won’t go into why this is happening now, but it is happening.  In sociology, they were always speaking about the USA as an exception, because religiosity is strong in the US.  But now, this is happening everywhere.  People like Peter Berger and Jose Casanova are openly saying that secularism is not history’s destination; just as they used to say in Marxism that socialism was historically inevitable, but it became clear that this wasn’t necessarily the case.


Now, when religions grow stronger, it is not clear whether they will be tolerant towards them.  This is a flaw that applies to both liberalism and secularism.  Secularism’s digestion system was good for swallowing weak religions, but it can’t swallow strong religions.  They get stuck in its throat so it turns militant.  A new theory is needed.  Don’t look at Al-Qaeda and the like, which the gentlemen like to emphasize. First of all, it is not a broad-based movement and, secondly, it is a minor exception that will not last.  This is not what people mean when they say religions are growing stronger.


As to why religion is springing back to life, American sociologists say that it is because there is a crisis of identity.  Some others say that there is a crisis of meaning and spirituality.  Whatever it may be, there are obviously some causes and, whatever these causes, the effect is what we’re seeing.  The US attacked Afghanistan and Iraq.  Then, both countries stipulated in their new Constitutions that they must derive their laws from the shariah.  This is something that the Americans couldn’t have imagined.  In other words, Saddam’s secularism has been transformed into the current anti-secularism in Iraq.  In Afghanistan, too, they’ve stated officially that their laws must not contravene the shariah.   The second time when Mr Bush was elected president, it was because some people thought that he’s a very religious man.  They made a pact with God and voted for him. 


Religious minorities now have a stronger sense of identity.  Because of the way they behaved over the hijab, the hijab has turned into a matter of identity.  Before, it used to be a religious matter, like the prayer and fasting that Muslims consider themselves duty-bound to perform without making any claims about it and without making a show of it.  They were simply performing their duty.  The hijab has turned into a matter of identity.  Religion has two aspects:  identity and truth.  And militant secularism unfortunately intensifies the identity aspect of religion. And this is to the detriment of both religion and secularism.


The second point is that, in countries such as Turkey, where religion is strong, secularism cannot be imposed from above, with militancy and high-handedness.  As I said, secularism had a natural birth in Europe.  Religion grew weak, it left the game of politics.  But in Turkey religion isn’t weak;  more people go to mosques there than they do in Iran.  Thirty years ago, when I went to Turkey, I saw big crowds of worshippers in Istanbul’s mosques.  When I returned to Iran, I said: “I’m sure something is going to happen in Turkey.”  In Turkey, no one receives rewards for being a Muslim;  unlike Iran, where if you make a show of going to the mosque for the ritual prayers a couple of times, it has an impact on your promotion in your university post!  There, you can see crowds eagerly going to Friday prayers and the daily congregational prayers which shows that religion is alive.  And in a place where religion is alive and strong, it will definitely play a role in politics.  If you want to harp on secularism in such a place, then it’s clear that it can only be militant secularism;  that is to say, a secularism that wants to quarrel, not a secularism that favours tolerance.


In European countries, States are slowly losing their tolerance towards religious minorities and their tolerant secularism is turning into militant secularism, which means that it is no different from religions.  Because Secularism was supposed to have been capable of digesting religions; not to turn into a religion in its own right that banishes some other religions. Was this not the objection to religions after all?  That an Islamic State, for example, does not treat Jews or Christians well, that it does not view them as equals, that it gives Muslims special rights which it denies to others?  Well, if secularism starts behaving in this same way and does not treat non-secular people well and withholds some rights from them, we will have returned to where we began.


Finally, Dr Soroush predicted that secularism and liberalism would be facing a series of serious challenges in the future in view of the resurgence of religions.  He said:  I believe that neither liberalism nor secularism will remain in their current form.  However – and a thousand howevers – I don’t want to conclude, on the basis of what I’ve said, that we should move towards intolerance.  Tolerance is a great human value and virtue, and this isn’t even something that we need to learn from foreigners.  Hafez, our great poet, said:  “In these two phrases lies peace in this world and the next / With friends magnanimity;  with enemies, tolerance.”  From now on, the West must formulate theories on how they intend to be tolerant towards the strong.  So far, their theories were directed at being tolerant towards the weak, but now the challenge is greater.  Muslims can contribute to the formulation of these theories and offer a civilized response to this challenge. 


Then, Dr Soroush fielded questions from the audience.



Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser




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