A Secular Age beyond the West

Religion, Law and the State in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa

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Editor(s): 
Mirjam Künkler, John Madeley, Shylashri Shanker
Cambridge Studies in Social Theory, Religion and Politics
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , July
     2018.
     440 pages.
     $120.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781108417716.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This edited volume, A Secular Age Beyond the West, is a response to Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age (Harvard Belknap Press, 2007), in which Taylor analyzed the development of secularity in the context of the Latin Christendom of the North Atlantic world. The authors in the present volume attempt to apply Taylor’s analysis to different cultural contexts in Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. The contributors draw especially heavily on Taylor’s division of secularity into three “types,” which are discussed and analyzed in chapter 1 by Mirjam Künkler and Shylashri Shankar. In Taylor’s typology, “Secularity I” involves the secularization of state institutions—that is, the separation of religion from other spheres of human activity, such as politics, economics, and law. “Secularity II” is the supposed decline of religious belief in general—a process belied by history and rejected by both Taylor and the contributors to this volume. The third type of secularity, the one that receives most attention by Taylor, is the process by which religious belief stops being “taken for granted” and unbelief becomes a genuine, socially acceptable possibility.

According to Taylor, “Secularity III” is a response to the development of pluralism, where different ideas about religion make claims on the interests of significant swaths of a population, not just on the elite. Because the contributors are looking at diverse cultural and religious settings, they are attentive to the local political and legal contingencies affecting the development of secularity in the specific countries, which is a contrast to Taylor’s attention to North Atlantic secularism’s phenomenology and genealogy. That means that the contributors must by necessity focus on how Secularity I and Secularity III interact with each other, in particular by elucidating the roles the various states have played in creating secularism.

Several themes emerge from the case studies; I can only mention a few here. One unsurprising theme is the fact that secular institutions can emerge in many different ways depending on the historical context of each country’s state formation in the wake of events such as colonial encounters, civil wars, and revolutions. In a number of countries under discussion, the establishment of secular institutions was an elite project impressed with more or less success onto the broader populace. In countries such as China (chapter 2) Japan (chapter 3), Iran prior to 1979 (chapter 8), Turkey (chapter 10), and Russia in the days of the USSR (chapter 11), imperial or revolutionary governments affected by Western ideas of secularism divorced religion from branches of government and legal systems while cleansing many signs of religion in the public sphere, often provoking strong reactions from those affected. In the case of Iran, for example, such a reaction led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran in 1979, which led to the end of Secularity I there.

Several authors note the problem of conceptualizing secularism in contexts in which religious identity is linked to national identity. In societies such as Pakistan (chapter 7), Iran, Turkey, and Morocco (chapter 13), religious identity and national identity are tied together to such an extent that to say one does not adhere to the dominant religion is equated with the rejection of national identity. What are the implications of this conflation for our understanding of secularism or “unbelief”? Christophe Jaffrelot, in his chapter on Pakistan (chapter 7), suggests that the instrumentalization of religion as national ideology rather than as belief system could be identified as “Secularity IV,” a new category beyond Taylor’s typology.

Another theme that several authors introduce is that any analysis of secularity requires some parsing of the category, “religion,” a term that is notoriously difficult to define, as Taylor himself points out in chapter 15, “Afterword and Corrections.” The North Atlantic concept of religion depends on deism—belief in a superhuman power—which does not apply especially well to Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, or Hinduism. Furthermore, Taylor’s Secularity III privileges the psychological aspects of religion—whether an individual has religious belief or not. As several authors point out, many religions deemphasize belief and place more emphasis on ritual and community action, making Secularity III itself somewhat irrelevant.

Probably one of the most frustrating aspects of the book is that in several case studies, the authors’ attempts to relate Secularity I and Secularity III are simply not that effective. That is, Taylor and several contributors in this book argue that the existence of Secularity I (the creation of non-religious spaces and institutions) is necessary for Secularity III (the option of unbelief on par with the option of belief). In cases where the state controls or promulgates a particular religious framework (as in Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey, and Morocco), Secularity III does not exist, according to the respective authors, because the ability of the individual to proclaim unbelief without consequences is severely limited. Such statements overstate the homogeneity of all the countries while underappreciating the diverse experiences of individuals and groups internal to those countries. Individuals may not only opt for unbelief (despite paying lip service to the hegemonic power system) but may form communities in which unbelief is in vogue or is expected. To be fair to Taylor, he states (386) that he did not intend for the categories and definitions he used to discuss the North Atlantic situation to be applied to other parts of the world but expected other types of secularity would develop based on different genealogies and phenomenologies. That is probably the clearest single message to be derived from this book: we must not forget that the development of secularism anywhere is historically contingent, and the different expressions of secularity in the world do not lend themselves to straightforward categorization.

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kim Shively is Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, Kutztown.

Date of Review: 
March 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mirjam Künkler is Senior Research Fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS). Before joining SCAS, she taught Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University where she also directed the Oxford-Princeton research cluster on 'Traditional authority and transnational religious networks in contemporary Shi'i Islam' and co-directed the Luce Program on 'Religion and International Affairs' for several years.

John Madeley taught at the London School of Economics and Political Science for some three decades.

Shylashri Shankar is the author of Scaling Justice: India's Supreme Court, Anti-Terror Laws and Social Rights (2009), and co-author of Battling Corruption (2013).

Comments

Mirjam Künkler, John T. Madeley and Shylashri Shankar

The Continued Prevalence of the "Marker State”

We thank the reviewer for the reflections and comments, and are delighted to see that the book is being read and discussed beyond the disciplines of sociology, political science, and law. The book has already elicited much discussion and we are glad to have the opportunity to debate further the issues which have been raised.  

The reviewer’s main concern with the analysis appears to be that, as presented, “in cases where the state promulgates a particular religious framework …., Secularity III does not exist, according to the respective authors, because the ability of the individual to proclaim unbelief without consequences is severely limited”, objecting that this overstates “the homogeneity of all the countries while underappreciating the diverse experiences of individuals and groups internal to those countries.” She points out that individuals in such countries “may not only opt for unbelief (despite paying lip service to the hegemonic power system) but may form communities in which unbelief is in vogue or is expected.” 

We agree, of course, that the experiences of groups and individuals within the countries and between countries is diverse – a point that is highlighted across all the chapters. In none of the cases examined do the relevant authors argue that there are no individuals – or groups for that matter – who opt for unbelief (the reviewer mentions Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia, and Morocco). There are of course individuals professing unbelief in all of the societies discussed. But for Charles Taylor (2007), Secularity III (the changed conditions of belief) is characterized by three phenomena: the presence of exclusive humanism as an acceptable option (a humanism that accepts no final goals beyond human flourishing nor any allegiance to anything beyond this flourishing), the “widening of the range of possible options” of belief and non-belief (Taylor 2007, p.19), and the perceived availability of these conditions across entire societies (falling “within the range of an imaginable life for masses of people”, p.20). 

This last point – the availability of these options for masses of people, not just elites – is frequently overlooked by scholars working with Taylor’s framework. The question therefore is not whether individuals opt for unbelief, as the reviewer suggests, but whether a large majority of people in a given society perceive the availability of meaningful options between belief and unbelief as lived conditions – what Taylor refers to as the super-nova, where the present conditions of belief and unbelief cannot be described purely in terms of elite culture but in fact, have come to characterise whole societies. This is an empirical question that can be examined on a case-by-case basis.

Beyond the question of whether such meaningful options are available to a majority of people in a given society, the conditions of belief vary significantly as between the eleven cases studied in the book. Even considering the six Muslim-majority cases only, it emerges that the political, legal and social contexts affect individuals’ choices between religion and non-religion, what kind of religion (and what kind of Islam) very considerably. As the eleven chapters show, these choices are not only shaped by state policies and regulatory frameworks, but significantly also by internal discourses among religious and lay scholars, by the everyday practices of believers and non-believers, and crucially also by the ways in which individuals demarcate their understanding of religion as against others in the same political space.

The reviewer finds it unsurprising that the development of secularity depends ‘on the historical context of each country’s state formation in the wake of events such as colonial encounters, civil wars, and revolutions’ but it is surely a matter of considerable interest to trace how these and subsequent developments have impacted on  the development of secularity in particular cases – the very task to which the volume is dedicated.  The reviewer’s statement that in five of the eleven cases examined “imperial or revolutionary governments affected by Western ideas of secularism divorced religion from branches of government and legal systems” actually misrepresents the conclusions of the relevant chapters – far from ‘divorcing religion’ each of them represent cases where regimes  have used the tools of government and the law to mould, de-limit, or sometimes repress religious institutions and practices.  Indeed, it is the continued prevalence in the cases examined of states that mark (in all senses of the word: to observe, to judge on some scale, and on occasion to stigmatise) religious phenomena that properly represents one of the volume’s principal conclusions – the continued prevalence of the "marker state”.

The Editors

Mirjam Künkler, John T. Madeley and Shylashri Shankar

Comments

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