Islam and Secularism

Islam and Secularism December 19, 2011

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd ( The Politics of Secularism in International Relations ) notes the role that Islam plays in Western views of its own secular order: “More than any other single religious or political tradition, Islam represents the ‘nonsecular’ in European and American political discourse. This is because secularist traditions, and the European and American national identities and practices with which they are affiliated and in which they are embedded, have been constructed through opposition to Islam . . . . Opposition to the concept of Islam is built into secular political authority and embedded within the national identities with which it is associated and through which it is expressed.”

As a result, “attempts to explain relations between Europe, the United States, and the Islamic Middle East and North Africa through recourse to fixed and objectively given state interests, the characteristics of individual leaders, bureaucratic politics, the international system, or other traditional explanatory vehicles are important but insufficient . . . . secularist authority is a productive part of the cultural sensibilities and normative foundation of contemporary international relations.” Dealing with Islam thus involves contests about the modern West’s identity, and also makes it difficult for the West to deal with what Islamic regimes actually represent. On secular premises, the Iranian “revolution was unacceptable because it imported religion into public life,” but the revolution also reinforced Islam’s status as the Western other: “the revolution confirmed the existence of ‘natural’ linkages between Islam and theocracy in contrast to alleged natural linkages between Christianity and democracy.”


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