Contesting philosophical secularism The case for pluralist secularism

Ravza Altuntas-Qakir

Recent critiques of secularism often refer to the authoritarian tendencies of lai-cism, which is also defined as “philosophical secularism” (Laborde, 2018a: 167), “ideological secularism” (Modood, 2010: 5), “ethical secularism” (Bhargava, 1999: 492), “nationalist secularism” (Asad, 2003: 199), “aggressive secularism” (Kuru, 2007: 576), "fundamentalist secularism” (Plesner, 2005: 1) or “militant secularism” (Soroush, 2007). The limitations created by philosophical secularism are considered a threat to established liberal democracies’ pluralism record, as well as a barrier for genuine democratic consolidation in developing democracies such as those in Muslim majority countries.

In this chapter, I first identify the failures of philosophical secularism to undermine religiously sanctioned normative systems in motivating everyday life. I then propose a conception of pluralist secularism, which aims to achieve a normative reconciliation of the potentially conflicting concepts of secular statehood and public religious presence. Pluralist secularism, I argue, can bring out alternative political and social-legal responses in demonstrating how “religion can legitimately play a role” in contemporary democratic politics (Abou El Fadi, 2005: 202). I then make a case for institutional pluralism, largely derived from the Western multiculturalist discourse, as it shows how broader political platforms can be made available, enabling individuals and groups with religious demands to play public roles. As such, I will critique philosophical secularism to accommodate claims made in the name of religion by presenting a different normative framework for the relationship with the state and religion.

Critiquing philosophical secularism

Philosophical secularism has been the most prominent model of secularism experienced - often coercively imposed - in Muslim societies. This type of secularism in the Muslim world has promoted a strict separationist theoretical approach in dismissing religion from the public sphere and limiting it to the private realm. In practice, philosophical secularism has also endorsed a moralising attitude in controlling and managing the ability to define a national religion for the citizenry to follow, thus lending support to Talal Asad’s assertion: “[r]eligion is seen by secularism [the secularist state] to take the form it should probably have” (2003:

199). The principle of state neutrality towards religion has also been used as “a technology of modern governance that ensures the state’s sovereign right to regulate all domains of social life, a necessary part of which is religion” (Mahmood and Danchin, 2014: 5). Overall, philosophical secularism has manifested an innate “obsession with religion, and it leads to the desire to legislate about religion instead of accepting tine separation” (Berlinerblau, 2017: 95 with quotes from Oliver Roy). This is due to philosophical secularism’s perfectionist ideology that imposes “some eternal, comprehensive set of ultimate ideals” (Bhargava, 1999: 492).

As such, a nationalist secularist outlook and policies have emerged, seeking to control alternative visions of a religiously defined good life by managing religion. Bryan Turner emphasises that religion, as an important “carrier of identity” (with its latent capacity to generate social unity), has been too valuable a tool to leave to non-state forces (2007: 124). Accordingly, religion has become an essential tool for monolithic nationalism, where national political identity and group identities are assumed to be unproblematic. Therefore, the management of religion was a vital component for the nationalist secularist state’s claim to absolute authority, which "seeks to regulate all aspects of individual life even the most intimate, such as birth and death - no one, whether religious or otherwise, can avoid encountering its ambitious powers” (Asad, 2003: 199).

Philosophical secularism has been a significant barrier in the social and political démocratisation in Muslim contexts that continues to hinder the normative reconciliation between religion and the state and hence contributes to a highly contentious political sphere. With Talal Asad's observation, countries with a nationalist secular establishment, such as Turkey, Algeria and Tunisia, face a wide-ranging impasse in which both nationalist secularists and Islamists pursue state power because of the nation-state’s monopoly over “the claim to constitute legitimate social identities and arenas” (2003: 200). Secularists have strictly viewed “religion as a private lifestyle option” and “resist the ‘deprivatisation’ of religion” (Turner, 2012: 166). Meanwhile, political scientists like Jocelyne Cesari and Hakan Yavuz observe that when the attitude of the secularist ideology was authoritarian, Islam re-emerged as a political ideology, which channelled the defensive and reactive political struggle “on the periphery” as political opposition aiming to recapture the platform of the state (Islamist “backlash”) (Cesari, 2004: xv; Yavuz, 2003: 484). Similarly, Charles Kurzman and Ijlal Naqvi also identify that when the state has not provided channels for effective political participation or restricted Islamic visions of a good life, this has led to “driving Islamists underground”, stiffening their political ideology or “helping to radicalize them” (2010: 35). In essence, those authoritarian secular solutions have increased the intensity of Islamist straggles for power and have not helped democratic learning and development in contexts where religion is an important marker of social identity. This is rather another manifestation of the fact that there is “a deep, quite irreconcilable conflict between ethical secularism and religion” (Bhargava, 1999:495). With more pluralistic applications of secularism, I make a similar argument to that of the inclusion-moderation thesis: The Islamist backlash could have

Contesting philosophical secularism 45 been substantially lessened, and the démocratisation process could have been more fruitful had religion been able to have an independent role in the public sphere.

During recent decades, revising the meaning and objectives of secularism for the development of contemporary democratic societies has occupied the works of political theory. Theorists like Jürgen Habermas, Jocelyn Maclure, Alfred Stepan and Charles Taylor, who have criticised old-fashioned assertive secularism, have sought to develop, from within revised political secularism!s), a notion of modern democracies that supports the political inclusion of religious views into the public realm (Habermas, 2006; Maclure and Taylor, 2011 ; Taylor, 1998,2008; Stepan, 2000). Despite these recent theorisations, however, critics like Jacques Berlinerblau have maintained that proponents of “political secularism have rarely conceptualised the state's relation to religions accurately” (2017: 94).

The concept of pluralist secularism developed here aims to address the relation between the state and religion and to offer normative reconciliation. I show how philosophical secularism and its provisions of an excessively centralised and absolute sovereign state can be replaced by more democratic forms. The theoretical argumentation in this chapter cannot decisively adjudicate on the question of redefining this relation between religion and politics without consideration of the issues regarding jurisprudence, public administration, sociology, demographics and even economics. This chapter situates itself within a normative discussion, which seeks to open up new debates about the relationship between the state and religion in modern democracies through its conceptualisation of pluralist secularism. More specifically, it opens new avenues for contesting nationalist secularism’s obsession with singularity in light of arguments formulated in the name of religion in favour of institutionalised pluralist modes of being, thinking and acting. To do this, this chapter will first conceptualise the notions of the state and religion within the framework of pluralist secularism. And finally it will demonstrate how pluralist secularism would reconcile the secular state and public religious life within the context of institutional pluralism.

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