Beyond the Secular West

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Akeel Bilgrami
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , March
     2016.
     296 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780231170802.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Since its publication, Charles Taylor’s monumental work, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007) has been praised and extensively discussed, notably for its analysis of the historical progression of ideas about religion and the secularization of the immanent/transcendent divide after the Reformation. Taylor analyzed how from this moment on, the nation-state has replaced the Church as arbiter and regulator of the immanent. The consequence is that family life, sexuality, and lifestyles have largely evaded the influence of religious norms and become individualized. Taylor has acknowledged that such an analysis needs to be done for other regimes of secularity outside the West. What happens when this division of labor between the state as the immanent and religion as the transcendent is exported throughout the world through colonization, trade, and wars? Some scholars working on specific religions or cultural areas have addressed this question. But Akeel Bilgrami’s Beyond the Secular West is the first attempt to explore the processes of secularization outside the West across multiple religions and countries, with contributions on India, China, Tunisia, Mexico, Senegal, and Sudan, bookended by an introduction and a short response to each contribution by Charles Taylor.

A few fascinating points emerge from the discussion of secularism in these diverse contexts. In the Indian case, Rajeev Barghava discusses the relevance of the immanent/transcendent divide for Hinduism, notably the “Mosaic specificity”—that is, the exclusive worship of one God, and the rejection of all other deities. Through the colonial encounter with the West, this theological feature was adopted and adapted by Hindu elites and became part of the modernization and transformation of multifaceted Hindu religious expressions. These religious expressions became more homogenized, and more rigid boundaries among groups, especially between Hindus and Muslims, were established. In the case of China, Peter Van Der Veer emphasizes the historical role of the emperors toward the homogenization of Confucianism and Buddhism and their authoritarian attempts to distinguish religion from superstition by “smashing the idols.” The most interesting common thread across the chapters is the fact that all contributors offer a nuanced and complex process of the diffusion of secularism that does not eliminate the agency of the local actors,suggest that the West acted everywhere in the same ways, or was always insistent on destroying local cultures. This is an important point to make at a time when our scholarly approach to non-western religion tends to dismiss all actions from the West as authoritarian and authoritative endeavors to eradicate local cultures. Of course, the interactions between the West and the colonized were not politically and culturally fair and equal. But reducing the West to oppressor and eradicator conceals the hybridization and modernization undertaken by local actors, who willingly transformed their traditions and adjusted their ongoing reflections in light of thess encounters.

Despite Bilgrami’s initial claim, the reader is not taken from these multiple voices to a clear understanding of the diffusion of secularism outside the West. There is no doubt that the diversity of cultures and traditions covered by this book is a contributing factor to this weakness. While it opens a much needed path, then, for a de-westernization not only of our regions of interest but also of our conceptual tools, it also leaves plenty of room for a more consistent analysis of regimes of secularity in different religious and national contexts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jocelyne Cesari is Professor of Religion and Politics at the University of Birmingham and Senior Research Fellow at the Berkely Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

Date of Review: 
September 7, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Akeel Bilgrami is the Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy and a professor on the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University. His books include Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment; Self-Knowledge and Resentment; and Belief and Meaning.

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