Secularism vs. Democracy

Among those who care, it should be reasonably well-known by now that secularism is in deep trouble within the Muslim world. The Muslim experience with secularism has typically followed what I have called “military secularism,” where reforming constituencies such as military elites have pushed Westernization in order to force their societies to catch up to the advanced West. Typically this has involved suppression of religiously-inspired cultural reactions; military secularism has not given religious freedom high priority.

This does not get much notice in the US popular media, which as always seems devoted to commercialism and reflecting official propaganda. So as long as “moderates” in the Muslim world are faithful to Western commercial and military interests, they get labeled as democrats, modern people, progressives—regardless of whether they’re oppressing the locals. Hell, oppressing committed Muslims can even get you brownie points for defending civilization against fanaticism.

Unfortunately, news sources out of the mainstream are not always a great improvement. Especially if they have leftist sympathies; the political left has a long history of romanticizing the politics of the oppressed: the heroic Third World that can do no wrong, the noble “Other.” And so it is in matters of secularism and Islam. It’s not hard to find leftie writers expressing sympathy for Islamist movements, mainly because Islamists express the authentic resistance of peoples subjected to Western colonialism or neocolonialism. And indeed the Islamists express a culturally authentic resistance. There are no shortage of conservative Muslims whose moral opposition to secular Western culture are fired by a deep and authentic desire to keep their women under control by making them live in brown paper bags.

Here is a recent example of the genre: Dilip Hiro on antidemocratic impositions of secularism in Turkey. It’s an interesting example because much, perhaps even most of what it describes is unequivocally correct. The Turkish military has a history of intervening (explicitly or behind the scenes) in the democratic process to preserve a secular state. Turkish secularism has no deep support outside a relatively prosperous, small Westernized elite. Much larger numbers of people express their political and moral aspirations in doctrinally conservative Islamic colors—political Islam and various Islamic movements have a much better claim to reflect an authentic voice of ordinary people.

Nevertheless, it’s also weird to see so much in Hiro’s reporting that reads as if it were from a press release of the currently ruling Islamist party in Turkey. Especially when he gets things wrong in just the right way to make the Islamists look better. I mean, “drastically reduced corruption”? Less corrupt, perhaps, but even that is much debatable. Talking about any political party in Turkey being non-corrupt betrays ignorance of the local political culture and the systematic disincentives to any truly non-corrupt administration. Somehow, in the eyes of some leftists, not only are the Islamists authentic resisters of Western imperialist bastards, but also the saviors of the people. So we get strange occurrences like a left-leaning endorsing praise of a political party that represents nothing but a variety of neoliberal economics and a cultural politics that is comparable to the Religious Right in the US in most respects.

So, what is it? Do too many of the secular political left really oppose Republican-style ideology only in the US and other Western countries, while celebrating cultural and economic conservatism elsewhere? Is it some sort of (perhaps even principled) insistence that the democratic will of various peoples must triumph? But then, that would be to forget how right-wing populism is quite popular, has strong democratic credentials, and is deeply rooted in the non-elite culture in the US. If I were to pick a broad-based democratic, popular political movement that has been most prominent within the US in the last few decades, it would have to be the conservative Christian Right. If an alliance of corporate rapaciousness and religious authoritarianism is so disturbing close to home, and even more so because it has deep popular and working-class roots, surely roughly similar political movements in more distant countries should also be treated with some suspicion.

Secularism is dying in Turkey and in the Islamic world as a whole. It has failed to take root beyond elites; it continually has to resort to top-down impositions on strongly pious populations. So it is—perhaps there is no point in trying to stave off its collapse, even if it were desirable. Nevertheless, the Muslim experience should have something to teach Western secularists, and especially left-leaning secularists, beyond a mindless celebration of claims to cultural authenticity. The mature Enlightenment political tradition has never promoted a naive understanding of democracy as sheer majoritarianism or a reflection of the will of The People. In our current degraded form of political life where consumers get to choose between mildly different versions of pro-corporate parties after marketing campaigns pretending to be elections, maybe populism and authenticity look good. Still, at its best, the Enlightenment idea of democracy includes more than a nod to notions of public service, civic virtue, considered deliberation, and a negotiation of competing interests even with all the dirtiness and compromises that implies. Moreover, this notion of democracy takes a guarded stance toward claims of transcendent interests and God-given ways of life: educated democratic deliberation and negotiation is about secular aims and our collective thisworldly interests. We may be wrong; and revealed “truths” tend to be non-negotiable.

There is more. If we are to stand for secularism in the West (where it still may be defensible), we have to make an affirmative case for it—as a way of life, as a different framework to think of civic virtue than what is provided by cultural (usually religious) conservatism. This comes hard to those of us in the Anglo-American political tradition, with our fixation on negative liberties and conception of secular government as merely neutrality between sects, a way to keep the peace between rival transcendent claims to the Good. But if we can make an affirmative case for a secular way of life, perhaps our views on Islamist politics will also gain some coherence. We might be able to respect other cultural choices (not everyone has to live under a secular democracy; it’s legitimate to try and avoid living in a global shopping mall) and refrain from crudely imposing our political vision on everyone, while being clear that we know what we want for ourselves, and it is not any Religious Right way of life, no matter what the religion. To reject military secularism yet also to refrain from cheering on politics of authenticity. To admit that sometimes we live in different moral universes, and that the best we can hope for is to negotiate some way of living together.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University