In evaluating the universality of secularism, we can think of the fundamental imagination in the Islamic tradition that human behaviour and activity generates metaphysical impact. Hence, what we do in this world is reflected back to us through natural events. Accordingly, earthquakes are not simply seen as consequences of tectonic plate shifts, even though this is acknowledged and appreciated as the material explanation, but in fact are the results of a higher ‘spiritual’ reason, which is our godless human behaviour. This is something that, according to Charles Taylor, is regarded by us as an old, quaint, superstitious idea from an age of ‘enchantment’. I would argue that the construction of the two categories of ‘transcendent’ and ‘immanent’ in European societies was facilitated by an ostensible non-complementarity and contradictoriness between the explanations offered by these two realms on what happens around us in this world, which makes a clear-cut distinction between the two, an invention of Latin Christendom.
A universalisation of this exceptional historical trajectory however can lead to an European ‘Enlightenment-based narcissism’, as Yolande Jansen puts it, often at the expense of the freedom of powerless, ordinary minorities. José Casanova, who to me is one of the key contributors on the formation of the Secular, his main concern is the particular historical genealogy contextual to the theological discourse in Latin Christendom that has led to the emergence of the dyadic categorisation and binary classification of ‘the secular’ and “the religious”. ’The secular’ soon came to be perceived as a universal, natural human achievement, without taking into account that both ‘the religious’ and ‘the secular’ were two categories that do not necessarily have analogues in non-Western societies. He goes on to say that the ‘secular’ therefore is equally in need of critical analysis and reflexive interpretation. He pays attention to the ‘historical stadial consciousness’ and dangerous self-understanding that presupposes the universal validity, legitimacy and superiority of the process of secularisation. His recognition, that the conceptualisation of the category of “secularisation” as a universal process that needs to be exported into non-Western contexts characterises a Eurocentric discourse, merits appreciation. It goes without saying that while fleeing from ‘the religious’ (that is considered as sacred and to be overcome), this discourse can create a secularist ideology that quasi-sacralises, quasi-absolutises ‘the secular’ as a universal historical process towards an unthought, taken-for-granted reality that is inevitable, and profanes religion. This new sacralised secularism has the potential of becoming a ‘new religion’ that in turn represses, demonises and marginalises the ‘old (now profaned) religion’. Given the complexity and exceptional genealogy of the term ‘secular’, Taylor proposes a redefinition of the term: If secularity aims at the harmonious coexistence of different religious communities; societies, that have ensured peaceful coexistence among various religions without utilising the Western antithetical approach of pulling out ‘the religious’ from ‘the immanent’, should be examined.
The ‘good’, ‘pure’ or ‘rational religion’ that was advocated by Philosophers such as Locke or Kant is another issue that merits attention. In the earlier years of Western enlightenment, religious institutions and beliefs were expected to rationalise themselves and meet the requirements of the ‘supreme morality’. Religion was perceived as good and acceptable as long as it was relegated to the private sphere and subordinated itself to a self-sufficient, independent social morality and is devoid of any external, transcendent relevance. What brought this idea into being was, as Jansen rightly stresses, the ‘context of search for a common denominator helping to end the religious wars (Jansen 2010: 73), while this search ended up in new differences and social fault lines, along which new power hierarchies emerged. Protestantism was celebrated while Catholicism and Judaism were considered as cults and statuary confessions, providing a similar grounding that is susceptible to the abuse of power and the marginalisation of some ‘other’.
Casanova, José (2011) ‘The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms’ in Calhoun, Craig, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, eds., Rethinking Secularism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 54-74.
Jansen, Yolande (2010) ‘Secularism and Security: France, Islam, and Europe’ in Linnell Cady and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, eds., Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 69-86.
Shakman Hurd, Elizabeth (2011) ‘A Suspension of (Dis)belief: The Secular-Religious Binary and the Study of International Relations’ in Calhoun, Craig, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, eds., Rethinking Secularism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 166-184.
Shakman Hurd, Elizabeth (2008) ‘Varieties of Secularism’ in The Politics of Secularism in International Relations. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, pp. 23-45.
Taylor, Charles (2011) ‘Western Secularity’ in Calhoun, Craig, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, eds., Rethinking Secularism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 31-53