Secularism, Liberalism, and the Purported Neutrality of the Modern State
This will be my first piece on this page. It was written in the summer of last year. It helped me gain a familiarity with contemporary literature on secularism through the works of many respectable anthropologists in the field including Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, and Hussein Agrama. Feedback would be greatly appreciated and I hope this piece is of benefit to those who may not necessarily be familiar with the topic.
Is the modern secular nation-state a neutral entity? Is a secular modus operandi free of bias? In this piece, I highlight paradoxical aspects of secularism with regards to governance and equality of law. There exists an assumption that religious communities are freer in a secular state because of the supposed neutrality that comes from the separation of church and state. To bolster their support of a secular model, its advocates highlight intolerance towards religious minorities such as Coptic Christians in Egypt. What such an argument fails to appreciate is that Egypt, and almost all Muslim-majority states, operate under the framework of a secularizing modern nation state and not a theocracy. The presence of religious symbols of Islam in many Muslim majority nations is less about the promotion of any sense of Islam at the political and legal level, but more about using Islam as a tool for establishing and maintaining public order or as Sami Zubaida terms it, “spray-on Islam” (Zubaida 2010:4).
Since the secular state legislates the law, defines what religion is and is not, and interprets any ambiguity in the law regarding the divide of church and state, it is difficult to see how the state could be neutral. An example of the tension that exists between religious freedom and discrimination with regards to the problematic role the government plays can be seen in the case of Christian adoption agencies in the US — many of which deny same-sex couples the right to adopt children on religious grounds. If the religious adoption agency gets its way, it will do so at the expense of couples’ individual rights. However, if same-sex couples are awarded the right to adopt, then this would be at the expense of the faith-based communities’ rights, namely the right to raise children of their faith community in a fashion that is in accordance with their own values. This is a demonstration of liberalism’s preference for the freedom of individuals to that of communities. In the following paragraphs, I explore whether religious freedom, especially for minority religious communities, is possible in a secular liberal state.
In his paper, the anthropologist Hussein Agrama makes a point regarding the problematic nature of what he deems the active principle of secularism: the state determines what is religious and how much of a role religion ought to play in the public sphere. He highlights the ambiguous nature of the state’s task of the classification of what is defined as religion and what is not, a problematic feature that one would be hard pressed to find unbiased. This strips any sense of autonomy from religious communities to articulate what is deemed part of their religion and what is not. This very stripping of an individual or community’s autonomy would be deemed antithetical to even the most generous understandings of classical liberalism, namely the right of free cultural expression. An example of such can be seen in the Warner case in Boca Raton, Florida where families of deceased individuals were barred from adorning their relatives’ graves with religious decorations. When these families decided to fight the case in federal court on the grounds of free exercise of religion, that is when the state apparatus took on the problematic task of defining what falls under the category of religion (Sullivan 2007). Winnifred Sullivans, in her book The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, describes how “the legal protection of religious freedom as a political idea was arguably once a force for tolerance, it has now arguably become a force for intolerance” (Sullivan 2007:151).
The secular state not only wields the power to define and delimit religion, but to manipulate and weaponize religion for its own ends. This can be seen in the doctrine of public order, a unique marker of European private international law that has been extended to many countries that were previously European colonies such as Egypt. Public order defined by Agrama is the “laws and values that are essential to a state’s social and legal cohesion and that are usually held by the majority of its citizens” (Agrama 2010:508). In order for the state to enforce public order effectively, laws and values that are representative of the majority need to be put on the forefront. That is why the mention of Christian blasphemy laws used in England are not decried as theocratic or exclusionary in the eyes of the public, regardless of the very religious nature of these laws. This very modus operandi of public order leads us to only one conclusion. Secularism in its very nature can only be implemented partially as it relies on the very tool it claims to disassociate itself from: religion. It is religion that is utilized to carry out the project of social and legal cohesion to achieve public order and national unity. There are countless examples of many European countries that proudly proclaim their secular nature, but in reality their politico-legal sphere is full of remnants of their Judeo-Christian heritage. One possible reason that there are no objections to the vestiges of Judeo-Christian beliefs and values that remain entrenched in the politico-legal sphere is because Europe, and by extension the rest of the Western world, is largely Judeo-Christian culturally, if not religiously. To give a few more examples of just how secularism is only partially or inconsistently applied, I turn to the works of the anthropologist Talal Asad’s writings. One would assume in a country like France, that enforces aggressive-style laicite secularism, would have a lot more separation of church and state than a nation like the United States, whose secularism is more passive in nature. However, there are a few examples that suggest quite the opposite. For example, the French state apparatus funding religious institutions. In France’s Alsace-Moselle region, the French state “pays the salaries of priests, pastors, and rabbis, and owns all church property” (Asad 2006:505). The state also owns and maintains churches that were built prior to 1905. According to a French government document called the Stasi report, such instances of government funding do not conflict with the principle of secularism because these institutions are parts of a region’s identity. However, if a state is going to be making exceptions to very creedal tenets of secularism, shouldn’t Muslim women wearing hijab or Jews wearing kippas in French public schools also be awarded the right to express their identity or is this notion of identity expression restricted to very specific demographics? One could also pose the question, why should somebody living Alsace-Moselle have their taxpayer money go into funding religious institutions that they may oppose on ideological grounds? Does this mean that taxpayer money is being used for the promulgation of some religions over others? Can France actually call itself a secular state while funding public religious institutions with taxpayer money? If secularism is to be understood as a separation of the church and state, how can governments allow for such puzzling features? After coming across such paradoxical government stances, I am once again forced to arrive at the following: it seems secularism can only be enforced partially and when it is enforced at the partial level, it mainly caters to majoritarian sentiments. These exceptions that appeal to majoritarian sentiments are the perfect recipe to further alienate minorities, a phenomenon that is increasing with the resurgence of populist regimes and political candidates around the world. While the answers to my questions are a good starting point, I think we ought to question whether an alternative to secularism need be found? Perhaps secularism needs to be redefined in a fashion that is more accurate to its reality and how it actually operates.
The points made above would apply to Muslim-majority states such as Turkey or Egypt as well. This is so because these nations’ legal systems are built largely on imported European legal civil codes. As such, Coptic Christians in Egypt will never be able to enjoy the privileges some of their Muslim counterparts enjoy due to the mere fact that Islam is the majority religion in Egypt, not because there is some ideological vendetta by anti-Christian Muslims at play. Interestingly enough, in many Muslim-majority states like Egypt or Pakistan, patriotism and Islam are often conflated with one another — a phenomenon that reinforces the notion of states weaponizing religion to further their own interests. In a system that relies on the notion of public order, majority sensitivities will be of utmost priority, inevitably resulting in the unfair treatment of minorities. Anthropologist Saba Mahmood demonstrates how, under the guise of public order, movies offending devout Christians in Austria and England were banned by the European Council of Human Rights (ECHR). While anyone may recognize the very “unsecular” nature of such decisions infringing on basic freedoms of speech, the counter-argument brought on by the ECHR was that freedom of expression can be limited in cases where religious peace and stability are at risk. Such examples show that secular states do actually allow for religion to play a role in the public sphere, so long as it helps the state achieve and maintain a desired state of public order. However, in the process of only catering to the sensitivities of the majority, minority religious communities are dealt an unfair hand. To highlight the inadequate, impartial, and hypocritical nature of secularism, Mahmood brings forward the case of the Danish cartoons that were knowingly insensitive to Muslims’ beliefs, yet the ECHR did nothing to protect the religious sensitivities of European Muslims. Such sidelining of minority communities in Europe over generations has pushed many of these neglected individuals to margins of society, rendering them as third-class citizens as is evident in France’s notorious banlieues. It is under very similar circumstances that the sensitivities of minority religious groups like Coptic Egyptians will be sidelined in a secular framework that prioritizes the majority in order to achieve public order. Just tackling secularism from the public order perspective already highlights one of many instances in which secularism is not as neutral as it is so often proclaimed to be. If the government, which is supposedly the highest authority in the land, cannot ensure fair or just treatment to all, what outlets are marginalized groups expected to turn to?
Problematizing the nature and actual functioning of secularism requires us to call into question a number of issues that are central to contemporary liberal consensus. Views towards gay marriage are a great example. The only reason why the practice of marriage was confined to man and woman was because any other sort of alternative to traditional marriage would be deemed deplorable to the majority of Americans, who for the most part strictly adhered to normative Judeo-Christian family values when it came to marriage. It is only because of the recent decline of religiosity and the trivialization of family values within religious circles that the issue of non-traditional unions is no longer viewed as emblematic of moral decay by the majority of Americans. This goes to show that laws in the US do have somewhat of a religious origin. If one is to make a purely secular argument, what business is it for the government to ban consenting adults from engaging in incestuous relationships, or from officializing their relationships in the eyes of the state by seeking to marry each other? One would be very hard pressed to find any strong argument against the right to marriage for those engaging in incestuous relationships besides the expected medical risks that their children may have, an objection that would be prejudicial given that it is not as though the state conducts any kind of genetic testing on other individuals seeking to marry. Also, this can easily be repudiated if incestuous couples were to forfeit the right to children. The fact that many incest advocacy groups in the US are fighting for the right to marry only allows for me to arrive at one conclusion: the government plays an active role in rejecting the right to marry based on moral grounds that seem to be reflective of the sensitivities of the majority, which are rooted or at least were rooted, in the traditional Judeo-Christian conceptualization of marriage. Because of the fact that incest is really only supported by a small segment of the population in the same fashion that same-sex marriage was in the past, I do not foresee the concerns of incest advocacy groups being given the attention one would assume they deserve in a secular liberal society simply because they are a minority and have yet to rock the boat of public order the way LGBT advocates did during Stonewall. This leads me to the question, are secular liberal states truly neutral and can they actually assure minority groups equality before the law? Is it fair to assume that because of the importance placed on public order in the secular framework that the tyranny of the majority should be tolerated and the onus should be borne by minorities, who should learn how to deal with being neglected and potentially ridiculed as seen in the discriminatory laws used in France and Belgium? In both countries laws, laws have been instituted, banning the hijab in public institutions while mostly taking no issue with head coverings worn by nuns. Funnily enough, the ECHR does not find the hijab ban in some universities in Belgium to be a “violation of the right to human dignity or to the right of religious freedom” (Gralki and El Gharib 2020). If secular European nations are allowed to play by this blatant double standard, how do they have the moral capital to call out the dangers of religious “fundamentalism” when liberty cannot even be guaranteed on their own purportedly neutral secular terms? As the somewhat famous proverb goes, “a child who is not embraced by the village, will burn it down to feel its warmth.” I think it is fair to extend this analogy to individuals who feel marginalization and neglect at the hands of their own society.
Asad also talks about how secularism is a state doctrine that is strictly interested in state unity. Such a doctrine would naturally be at odds with ideologies or religions that are transnational in nature and cannot be confined to drawn up borders. Secularism does not seem to take kindly to people who harbor supranational allegiances, for example, a French national of Algerian origin who resents France’s colonial presence in Algeria and identifies with the struggles of his forefathers while fighting the French. Are secular states afraid of a decentralized governance model that many religious traditions promote? Some religions offer alternative modes of governance that strongly resist subservience to totalitarian modes of governance like the modern nation that desires the ability to wield hegemonic control over its citizens. Many religious traditions offer a liberation theology that is communitarian. It is these communitarian models that promote self-governance over hegemonic government expansion that goes hand-in-hand with capitalism as seen in European colonialism with the advent of corporations such as the East India Company and others that were formed by nation states. It is for this reason aggressive laicite secularism was needed to dismantle the Church in France. It is also similar to how the French, upon colonizing Algeria, had to do away with Islamic legal norms in order to dictate how the financial sector ought to operate making it easier for them to usurp arable land in Algeria that was given away as charitable endowments (Hallaq 2016:110). This type of divide and conquer tactic requires a type bureaucracy that has no interest in legal plurality, but is instead only interested in self-preservation. A common theme across nation states is the preference for legal monism over legal pluralism which allows for, as mentioned earlier, more hegemonic control over populations. It is these intrinsic features of the nation state that point towards the fact that there does not seem to be any interest in applying secularism as an ideal form of governance that is supposed to ensure neutrality, but it is simply a tool for each state to attain their respective goals.
After highlighting the many systemic issues that plague secularism, I think we ought to reevaluate our assumption that secularism is superior because it is innately neutral. It seems that the current modus operandi of secularism struggles to find harmony with a pluralistic world. It’s modes of operation allow for a type of control that is hegemonic in nature, only allowing for the majority to triumph, even at the expense of core liberal values. As John Dewey once said, “any liberalism that does not make full cultural freedom supreme and that does not see the relation between it and genuine industrial freedom as a way of life is a degenerate and delusive liberalism” (Dewey 1935:230). The act of the state apparatus defining religion seems to be the polar opposite of full cultural freedom. These inconsistencies lead me to the conclusion that we perhaps ought to consider other modes of governance that are not as rife with paradoxes.
Agrama, Hussein Ali. “Reflections on Secularism, Democracy, and Politics in Egypt.” American Ethnologist 39, no. 1 (2012): 26–31. www.jstor.org/stable/41410469.
Agrama, Hussein Ali. 2010. “Secularism, Sovereignty, Indeterminacy: Is Egypt a Secular or a Religious State?” Comparative Studies in Society and History 52 (3): 495–523. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40864787.
Asad, Talal. 2006. “Trying to Understand French Secularism,” in Hent de Vries (ed.) Political Theologies
Dewey, John. 1935. “The Future of Liberalism.” The Journal of Philosophy 32 (9): 225–30. https://doi.org/10.2307/2015856.
Gralki, Pia, and Sarah El Gharib. 2020. “#HijabisFightBack: In Brussels, Thousands Protest Belgium’s College Headscarf Ban.” Global Citizen, July 9, 2020. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/hijabis-fight-back-brussels-headscarf-ban/.
Hallaq, Wael. 2016. An Introduction to Islamic Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mahmood, Saba. “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 4 (2009): 836–62. doi:10.1086/599592.
Ross Jr., Bobby. 2018. “When Adoption Agencies Can Turn Away Gay Prospective Parents, What Happens to the Kids?” Crux, March 25, 2018. https://cruxnow.com/church-in-the-usa/2018/03/when-adoption-agencies-can-turn-away-gay-prospective-parents-what-happens-to-the-kids/.
Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. 2007. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Zubaida, S. 2011. Beyond Islam: A New Understanding of the Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris.