Reading Tocqueville in Cairo

If Alexis de Tocqueville were alive today to witness the churning unrest and revolutions sweeping North Africa and Middle East in recent years, he would observe numerous contrasts with what he saw in America in the 1830s.  But permit me to speculate on one similarity that might catch his eye.  Unlike the French Revolution, which pitted freedom against religion, he would notice that forces of religion and freedom, in the early American republic and across the Arabic world today, were and are complexly intertwined.

As Tocqueville memorably wrote in Democracy in America: “Upon my arrival in the United States it was the religious aspect of the country that first struck my eye.  As I prolonged my stay, I perceived the great political consequences that flowed from this new state of things.  In France I had seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom almost always move in contrary directions.  But in America I found them united intimately with one another: they reigned together on the same soil.”

To many intellectuals shaped by the European experience of modernity, recent events in the Middle East–which have included demonstrators chanting “God is great,” protests scheduled after Friday prayers, and appeals to the Qur’an to affirm human dignity–were not the way history was supposed to turn out.  Once upon a time, figures such as Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim, among others, gave birth to what in the academy came to be known as the “secularization thesis”—the positing of a tight link between political modernization and secularization.   But as the sociologist Peter Berger has noted, the secularization thesis was “essentially mistaken”; it was “an extrapolation of the European experience to the rest of the world,” leading many scholars beguiled by the prestige of Western social science to underestimate the global staying power of religion.

For much of modern history, the American experiment in religious liberty and America’s comparatively high levels of belief have posed a riddle to the secularist European imagination.  As Karl Marx once put it, “North America is pre-eminently the country of religiosity, but since the existence of religion is the existence of a defect, the source of this defect must be sought in the nature of the political order itself.”  More recently, David Martin has observed, educated Europeans often view the religious field in America not in light of its own provenance, but as a case of “arrested development” when compared to European secularist benchmarks.

When political modernity violently descended upon the Middle East in the aftermath of World War I, it was by and large not the American model of religious liberty that stood at the disposal of political reformers, but what the Turkish political scientist Ahmet T. Kuru has called “assertive secularism,” which took its cue from the French Revolutionary tradition, in general, and the secularist laws of church-state separation enacted in France in 1905, in particular.  (This imported modernity often came with a heavy dose of nationalism as well.)  The towering example, of course, were the Kemalist reforms in Turkey of the 1920s, which imposed a draconian secularism—cribbed directly from recent French history–on the collapsed Ottoman Empire, which prior to the war exercised suzerainty over much of the Arabic world.  The Turkish word for secularism (laiklik) comes directly from the French, laïcité.

Moreover, in many countries today, Arab societies associate secularism with postcolonial autocratic regimes that subjugated their populations to the cause of Arab nationalism.  Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunsia and Hosni Mubarak’s Eygpt epitomized this reality.  Thus for decades, many in the Middle East, not unreasonably, have felt secularism was joined at the hip with corruption, dictatorship, and nepotism.   Not surprisingly, many have regarded Islam as an alternative source of personal meaning and political inspiration.

Times change, of course.  In Turkey today, the legacy of Kemalism is in retreat as liberals and religion-friendly moderates, such as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, argue for a middle path between militant secularism and militant Islam.  (Erdogan, a man not without his shortcomings, has in fact spoken of wanting “laiklik American-style”.)   In Europe, too, the American religious experiment—though still often caricatured in high-brow circles—has begun to receive more sympathetic engagement and a variety of more nuanced, “Tocquevillean” voices have come on the scene.

In France, challengers to the status quo of laïcité and the 1905 law of church-state separation have recently argued for greater public visibility of religious belief and less hostility on the part of the state toward religious actors in society.  The historian Jean Baubérot, for example, has argued that the day is long past when one needs to fear a zero-sum game between anticlerical secularists and nostalgics for a Catholic Ancien Régime.  Present-day realities of immigration and globalization should lead to a loosening of militant secularism and a more fluid, open-ended process of negotiation and dialogue with religious currents in society.  Without these, he fears, many Muslim immigrants and some French Christians will be tempted to measure their worth by intransigence and withdrawal, not by their ability to interact peaceably with civil society.  Similarly, Jean-Paul Williame, a leading sociologist of French secularism, has argued that France today stands in need of a “more secular secularism” (laïcité plus laïque), which would be less “confessional,” “modern American,” and more open to “a certain return of religion to the public sphere” than France’s traditional secularism.

Most remarkably of all, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, the eminence grise of European enlightenment values, has in recent years spoken of the reality of the “post-secular” and the limits of a one-size-fits-all secularism that compels religious believers to articulate their intuitions about morality and the good life in an idiom foreign and often adverse to their deepest convictions.  “[T]he democratic state,” he writes, “must not pre-emptively reduce the polyphonic complexity of the diverse public voices, because it cannot know whether it is not otherwise cutting society off from scarce resources for the generation of meanings and shaping identities.  Particularly with regard to social relations, religious traditions possess the power to convincingly articulate moral sensitivities and solidaristic intuitions.”

To be sure, the legacy of Kemalism—or “Mubarakism”–will not vanish immediately across the Arabic world—at least if one understands the term to suggest fear-mongering among old-guard leaders against popular religious sentiment in the public square.  And it is not lost on anyone that darker, seductive versions of Islam abound and crave power.  (One should not confuse the Muslim Brotherhood with the Methodists!)   But, historically, these two antipodes—secularist/nationalist political fear-mongering and Islamism–have only fed upon one another.  The challenge of the future—and it is a daunting one–remains to nourish a sane middle ground, deflating extremities by giving religious concerns a more centrist, democratic public voice—and a voice not hostile to minorities, such as the Copts in Egypt.

With the distorting lens of the secularization thesis exposed and the viability of assertive secularism under scrutiny, the American religious experiment; Tocqueville, one of its greatest interpreters; and—surprise, surprise—many among Europe’s present-day intelligentsia stand ready to offer food for thought.


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