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Voll – Islam and the End of Secularism

“Islam
and the End of Secularism.”

John
O. Voll
Georgetown University

Presentation
to the Philadelphia Society

(Edited
Transcript)

April
22, 2001.


It’s a real pleasure to be here. The title of the session indicates
that we will be talking about “The Ethnic and Religious Factors,” with the
subtitle of “Conflict or Conciliation.” In the introduction, our chair,
Michael Franz, spoke of religion as a problem, and I feel that I may be somewhat
of a “sheep in wolf’s clothing,” since I will be suggesting that religion
might involve a vehicle for conciliation as well as for conflict. I want to
speak of religion as a solution, not as a problem.

My basic framework can be stated simply. I would like to define that
framework with the words of a prominent sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark,
in the journal Sociology of Religion about a year and a half ago. Stark
wrote in an article entitled “Secularization R.I.P.:”

“For
nearly three centuries, social scientists and assorted Western intellectuals
have been promising the end of religion. Modernization is seen as the causal
engine dragging the gods into retirement” A few pages later, he concludes:
“Let us declare an end to social scientific faith in the theory of
secularization, recognizing that it was the product of wishful thinking. After
nearly three centuries of utterly failed prophecies, it seems time to carry the
secularization doctrine to the graveyard of failed theories.”[1]

I think that we are looking at a world that negates the idea that
modernization necessarily involves the end of religion. We are at the end of an
era. As we look at the role of the United States in world affairs, the end of
secularization as an accepted dimension of modernization rather than as a
competing ideology must be recognized. We need, as believers, or we need as
Americans, or we need as “deformed Protestants,”[2]
or as reformed Catholics, or as a Methodist preacher’s son teaching in a
Jesuit institution (which I am) ñ we need to re-recognize religion.

Briefly stated, there are three elements in this framework. I will state
these and then look at the implications for relations of the United States with
the Muslim world. The
experience of the societies in the world in the past half-century shows that
modernization does not mean the end of
religion as a major force in public life. That is, the secularization of society
is not an inherent part of the process
of modernization. Secondly, it is clear that policies of separation of church
and state or religion and politics are not
religiously neutral. That is, advocacy of secularization and secularism
represents an ideological, religious position. It is not an objective,
value-free description of what happens in modernization. And thirdly, this
means, in policy terms, that secularization is not something that just happens
as a natural part of the historical process of modernization, but rather,
secularism can be recognized for what I think it has always been: one of a
number of competing visions of what society should be in the contemporary era.
That is, we are at the end of the period when secularization has been taken as a
given in the development of modern societies. We are at the end of
secularization.

This situation is an important dimension of what has sometimes been
spoken of as the resurgence of religion ñ and religions ñ at the end of the
twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century. Again, what we
are looking at, and what we need to see, is that the idea of secularization of
society, and the accompanying idea that this secularization is a good thing, is
a part of a world of competing visions rather than just simply a social science
description of so-called reality.

This new perspective is especially important for understanding
contemporary Islam. In the Muslim world, advocacy of secularization has always
been more clearly recognized as a competing ideology than as a necessary and
inherent part of modernization.

For two centuries, the major efforts for reform in the Muslim world have
aimed at creating modern nations, modern states, and modern nation-states. In
keeping with the earlier idea that modernization somehow involved separating
religion from public life, most of the modernizing reformers were identified
with secularization. The key elements in most modernization reform programs of
the 19th and 20th centuries involved creating a clear
break with the past, which was viewed and defined as “traditional.” The
major social science studies that came out in the 1950s and in the 1960s
defining modernization made this
clear. One of the major studies of modernization that played a significant role
in shaping the understanding of the processes involved was a book published in
the 1950s called The Passing of Traditional Society by Daniel Lerner.
This set a clear vision of what modernization was believed to involve. In this
discussion, Lerner spoke of people that he called “the Transitionals.” In
this perspective there were “traditional” people who still believed, among
other things, that religion was very important. In addition, you had the people
created by modernization processes, the “moderns.” The “modern” people
believed, among other things, that religion had no role in the public sphere and
that it was a matter for personal and individual life. In a description of
“Transitionals” in Turkey, Lerner said that they “are acquiring psychic
mobility, a personal capacity to identify widely and empathize readily. They are
secularizing They are becoming activist. In their view, problems are to be
dealt with by policy rather than by prayer."[3]

That was the picture of what a modernizing person was supposed to be.
However,
as we reach the end of the era when secularization was
assumed to be an inherent part of modernization, we recognize that many of the
“modern” people in fully modernized societies at the beginning of the 21st
century do not necessarily see policy as an alternative to prayer. In
contemporary Turkey, almost half a century after Lerner’s study, there are
many thoroughly modern business men, scientists, and intellectuals who do not
feel that they must choose between policy or
prayer but, instead, have a perspective that involves policy and
prayer.

The major modernizers in the Muslim world have
usually been seen through the secular perspectives of old-style secularization
theory. As Americans look at the Muslim world, they see the secularizing
“modernizers” as heroic figures. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey is a major
example. Kemal created the foundations for the modern society of Turkey that is
one of our great allies. Turkey has been an important part of NATO and was a key
supporter of the West in the Cold War. Kemal’s achievements are widely and
justifiably recognized as being essential for the creation of contemporary
Turkey.

In the context of the question of religion in international affairs and
in the processes of creating modern societies, it is important to recognize that
Kemal created a political system that was based on the assumption that it is
necessary to take religion out of public life if you are going to have a modern
society. Reza Shah Pahlevi in the 1920s in Iran and his son Muhammad Shah in the
1950s and the 1960s operated within a similar policy framework.
There are many other cases in the Muslim world where secularization was
viewed as a necessary part of modernization. This is visible in descriptions of
processes of social modernization as well as in politics. Frequently, the
rejection of the veil is seen as an important element in modernization programs,
and is often mentioned in descriptions of reformist programs. In Egypt, the
signal “that a new era for women was beginning”[4]
was when Huda Sha’rawi and Nabawiyya Musa dramatically and publically removed
their veils on their return from an international meeting, as they stepped off
the train in the great railroad station in Ramses Square in Cairo in 1923.

What we need to recognize now is that the idea that one must separate
religion from public life in order to be modern is refuted by the lives and work
of many people, including, I am sure, many in this room. It is refuted as well
by the experience of many countries and individuals in the Muslim world.

As we look at the Muslim world in the context of
options for American policy, it is important to keep in mind this broader
framework of the end of secularization theory. It is important because we need
to look for the right allies. In an era that recognizes the importance of
civilizational dialogue, we need to be aware of those people with whom we can
work and talk most effectively. John Lenczowski concluded his presentation
yesterday with the strong affirmation that liberty requires a moral foundation
and we might expand that important affirmation to note that liberty around the
world requires moral foundations. If we are seeking to build and strengthen the
moral foundations for liberty in the United States, we do not necessarily go to
an agnostic, near-atheist novelist to seek out our allies. And so, if we don’t
do that in the United States, why should we do it when we deal with the Muslim
world? Why should we see Salman Rushdie, for example, as a great Islamic
moderate and ally, as opposed to looking for those people, and talking with
those people, who are strong believers in and upholders of religiously-based
moral values, people who believe that religion
does
have a place in public policy. In this context, the Ayatullah
Khumayni, to put it as an extreme case, would have been a better ally for us
than Salman Rushdie. However, our only options are not having to choose between
the Rushdies and the Khumaynis. We do have in the Islamic world, many people who
have a sense of a morally-based community, with whom we can and with whom many
people do talk. I would call your attention to a group that Anthony Sullivan and
I are a part of, called the “Halaqa.” This is an effort, on a small scale,
to provide vehicles for effective communication based on shared awareness of
moral community. It involves both Western and Muslim intellectuals, including
people like Fahmi Huweidi (Egypt) and Rachid al-Ghannoushi (Tunisia).[5]
There are many other people in the Muslim world, some more visible than others,
who represent significant examples of the importance of religion in the public
sphere in contexts of modernity. There are leaders like Anwar Ibrahim, who
combine religious commitment with public policy leadership roles. Although Anwar
Ibrahim is currently in jail in Malaysia because of domestic political
conflicts, he and many like him represent a living refutation of the old
secularization theory.

In the era of the end of secularization as a given, and in an era when we
have to recognize secular
ism
as one of the competing set of ideologies defining the vision of
what we want society to be, we can and must choose effective allies. We do not
have to deal only with agnostic secularists when we go to the Muslim world. In
our contemporary world, there is a clash; yes, there are conflicts. However, the
conflict is not the clash as defined by Samuel Huntington as a “clash of
civilizations,” especially a conflict between Islam and the West in a
“global war” between Muslims and non-Muslims.[6]
One important clash, rather, is between those who think that religion doesn’t
have a role in society and those who believe that religion
does
have a role. In that clash, people who believe that liberty
must be defended by having a strong religiously-based moral foundation have many
natural allies in the Islamic world.

Thank you very much.



[1] Rodney
Stark, “Secularization, R.I.P.,” Sociology of Religion 60, No. 3
(Fall 1999): 249, 251, 269.

[2] See
the presentation/ paper by James Kurth, “The Protestant Deformation.”

[3] Daniel
Lerner, The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East
(New York: The Free Press, 1958), p. 165.

[4] Cynthia
Nelson, Doria Shafik, Egyptian Feminist: A Woman Apart (Gainesville:
University Press of Florida, 1996), p. 26.

[5] For
a brief description of the group and its aims, see “News from Other
Associations” in Middle East Studies Association Newsletter 19, No.
3 (August 1997): 11.

[6] Huntington’s
position was first and most clearly defined in Samuel P. Huntington, “The
Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72, No. 3 (Summer 1993):
22-49. Although Huntington’s views have been slightly revised in recent
years, he still speaks strongly especially regarding the conflicts between
Muslims and non-Muslims, so that, in 1999, he spoke of the conflict in
Chechnya as being “one front among many in the contemporary global
struggles between Muslim and non-Muslim peoples” and he opposed having the
United States impose sanctions on Russia because of the Russian policies of
reconquest in Chechnya. See Samuel P. Huntington, “A Local Front of a
Global War,” New York Times (16 December 1999).

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