Saturday, March 26, 2016

Secularizing or Secularism?

One of the many topics in which it is hard to understand what Reza Aslan really means is that of secularization and its meaning. 
When politicians speak of bringing democracy to the Middle East, they mean specifically an American secular democracy, not an indigenous Islamic one.
There exists a philosophical dispute in the Western world with regard to the concept of Islamic democracy: that is, that there can be no a priori moral framework in a modern democracy; that the foundation of a genuinely democratic society must be secularism.  . . .  As the Protestant theologian Harvey Cox notes, secularization is the process by which "certain responsibilities pass from ecclesiastical to political authorities," whereas secularism is an ideology based on the eradication of religion from public life.  . . . neither human rights nor pluralism is the result of secularization; they are its root cause. Consequently, any democratic society -- Islamic or otherwise -- dedicated to the principles of pluralism and human rights must dedicate itself to following the unavoidable path toward political secularization.
This sounds like a philosophical backflip: first acknowledging that a people can't secularize themselves into a more free society, and then suggesting in ambiguous language that to remain "dedicated to the principles of pluralism and human rights" one must not stray from the inexorable pull of secularization, a path that is "unavoidable" provided a society "dedicates itself to following" it.  In America's case, all we need is a Supreme Court to force our ignorant society of religious yokels to remain dedicated to it.  Aslan at turns seems to be saying that Middle Eastern countries must find their way to democracy in their own way and their own time (in other words, we need to stop sanctions and ignore human rights violations), and then begs the question why unavoidable paths require dedication.  If we interpret that last sentence as meaning that this dedication to secularization itself follows irrevocably, it still begs the question why any Islamic democracy would dedicate itself to "pluralism and human rights" in a way that would subordinate religious sensibilities to higher principles.  This sounds like doubletalk.  

The main problem here is that it is hard to trust how some "prominent thinkers" distinguish an acceptable encroachment of "political authorities" into "ecclesiastical" life from "the eradication of religion from public life."  Presumably, "ecclesiastical" voices (including any religious coalition) don't surrender these "responsibilities" easily; the real question is just what we mean by a voluntary surrender of these responsibilities.  The vision of Marx and of every collectivism derived from Marxism (fascism, communism, socialism) has demanded a centralized authority that puts every ecclesiastical agency (and every familial and didactic agency) at its mercy fiscally, legally, politically.  This is necessary for a centralized state to impose the right morality and vision of society (e.g. a specific interpretation of pluralism and human rights with which a free people might disagree 1,2) that the religious sensibilities of the common folk are too backward to embrace willingly.  It requires a power unaccountable to the people, like a dictator or (in America's case) a Supreme Court.  Turkey is not a good example for Aslan because theirs was not a voluntary surrender. Which is why they don't wear hijabs. 

The work that Reza Aslan does with Mike Weinstein in undermining the prominent place that Christianity holds in America's military says a lot about what he really means by secularization.  This sort of forced pluralism or involuntary pluralism is apparently seen as the passing of certain responsibilities in which it becomes .  I wonder what Aslan would make of attempts to de-Islamicize the Iranian military, squelching Islam's prominent role in that society.  This sort of thing is not necessary for pluralism, and is not traditional American pluralism.  Traditional American pluralism is neither forcing a society to celebrate all views equally nor forcing a society to deny having a specific religious heritage.  The former comes from a quasi-religious progressive vision of diversity as a sacrament; the latter comes from a tacit agreement between secularism and quasi-religious progressivism.

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