The secular and the religious (Part I): Conceptual confusions

Let’s wrap up the concerns that were voiced over the idea of an Islamic State. This text is a bit disarticulate and is mostly a series of thoughts on the question that I fail to more effectively organize. But I have been trying to produce a decent post about this for the two last weeks and I promised an answer so here it is. This is just the first part. Part II will be on the actual practices, historical and present, of political movements and institutions in the Middle East in relation to the concerns raised in the comment section of the last post.

I will start by the statement I found the most interesting: “I disagree though that an Islamic or for that matter any religiously derived state is better than a secular one. Unless the religious is regulated in a secular way”.

At the heart of this highly coherent and seemingly legitimate comment, lies the working of modern hegemony: The acceptance of a social system that has changed the significance of the term ‘religion’ or for that matter our understanding of the “religious” phenomenon and led to the rise of another elusive concept, the “secular”. The trigger of this discursive shift is the emergence, the rise of the almighty modern nation-state. New structures of power require new conceptualizations of social reality. The definition of two allegedly different phenomenon namely “the religious” and the “secular” is a political move before anything else.

It does not mean that the secular creates similar social spaces than the religious, on the contrary, but it is important to remember that the difference has nothing to do with something intrinsically religious or secular about it. Ok, for now I’m talking abstract and enigmatically so let’s try to illustrate.

When we use these terms we usually mean several connected spheres of social life:
1- personal beliefs about reality physical or spiritual
2- rituals and practices we engage in and the meaning we give to them (i.e. 1)
3- legal rules we abide by that regulate the interaction between social agents
4- Institutions that have the power to enforce the legal rules specific to the region (the State, courts, etc.

When people discuss the relation between the religious and the secular they usually refer to one or more of the four mentioned areas. The problem, I think is that sometimes they mix everything up. In a pre-modern settings these 4 areas of social life are not politically separate or distinguished, but the rise of modernity triggered a discursive separation, meaning that it enabled intellectuals, political actors, institutions etc, to talk of a separation of spheres.

The rise of “the secular” as a space in modern politics is, if you ask me, a big trick. In marxist linguo, it serves to preserve the interests of the overarching state (thus the dominant actors behind it). The rise of the ‘secular’ is accompanied by the rise of the concept of “individual”. The individually maximizing profit type of actor. The individual who thinks independently of his social structures. When we refer to the fact that ‘the individual’ should be free to make his own decision about what he believes in is to play by the rules of modern political structures of power. In this case, we fail to understand that in the first place, individual are social actors, meaning that they form beliefs ‘socially’, that their decisions are socially determined. But this valorization of the individual paves the way to the biggest political alienation of the individual which is the creation of the national actor. So you become an individual who is supposed to make his own decisions about things provided that you’re labeled from birth to death as a ‘citizen’ with benefits, and responsibilities vis-a-vis an overarching State.

So the State compartmentalize the four areas mentioned above. It privatize what becomes “religion”. Whereas in a pre-modern setting there is no such thing as “religion”, but more of a general understanding of social and political life that disursively links beliefs to rituals and political rule. It does not mean at all that people are automatons following the dominant ways of holding beliefs, it just means that talking about beliefs as different from rituals and other social activities, at the political level is non-sense. Privatizing religion (saying that religion is a private affair everyone chooses to practice on his own) involves fooling the individual into thinking that he is free to make his own beliefs about things, and these beliefs will be called “religion”, or non-religious is they don’t derive from a tradition of beliefs.

Arguing that there is something peculiarly religious about Islamic political movements is I think to miss the point of general political, social, and economic processes at stake. We think we have different beliefs about life etc. The content may be different but the form is pretty much the same. We all believe the same way. There is a striking resemblance between women who strive to look undressed and those that veil. Both are elaborating a specific representation of femininity. It is basically the metaphors that change, linguistic metaphors that end shaping the conceptualization of our Self. And this process is virulently social: We are all social agents holding socially determined beliefs. Rimbaud was not that stupid when he said “je est un autre” (I is another or Self is Other).

Also, we should not think that when one talks about being ‘religious’ he means going back to a pre-modern understanding of the four areas mentioned above (even if he/she think he/she is). Islamic movements for example accept, whether consciously or unconsciously the dominant social paradigm of modernity. Why? Not because there is something special about them but because of the imperative of new political and economic structures in place namely the modern-State.

Islamic movements are totally in line with these new conceptual categories the modern State feeds to the people. In this sense claiming to want an Islamic state is a profoundly modern phenomenon. The key here is that the reaction against the dominant discourse of ‘secularism’ is one against the identification to institutions that are not ‘homegrown’ (a point mentioned by one commentator). In this sense if I can vulgarize a bit, asking for an Islamic state is asking for a different ‘nationality’. Of course here the process of national formation is very different from initial European ones at the very least because the former is a post-colonial one. This is why we may in the foreseeable future see the rise of modern-state that are not exactly “nations” in the old European sense (as Islamic movements approach power).

So Secularism cannot exist without nationalism (or maybe other forms of projected collective history) i.e. language and stories from which governance legitimacy is derived. Likewise nationalistic manifestation in the Middle East take place through the discursive Islamic prism. France is ‘secular’ but without French ‘history’ of kings, revolutions, age of enlightenment and other Totemization of the past (to use a Straussian concept) what would become of the secular “French” system.

One should read Islamic resurgence through the same lens: the dialectical relation of social actors to a specific territory, its institutions. The Islamic is the set of signifiers attached to specific representations of the self. It is in this sense, I think, that the secular/Islamic debate is a bit sterile at the normative level. At the legal level, it wants to derive the rule of land, people, and resources from a different regional and historical context.

I have tried to understand Islamic movements as a cultural movement through the use of language in an earlier post for those interested. But I will have to develop these ideas further.

6 Replies to “The secular and the religious (Part I): Conceptual confusions”

  1. Interesting post. I realize Marxism is dead, but how about the clerical class becoming the dominant one and grabbbing all the resources of the state (as opposed to Hariri doing it)?

    In a secular state the rules of the game is that you get an education, you work hard and you can succeed. In a religious one you have to become a cleric, or be associated with them.

    In the first case you get educated individuals that might help the country compete in a harsh global invironment. In the second you get Iran and KSA who can only survive thanks to their oil.

    You just have to choose who the dominant class is going to be: clerics, the Party, businessmen…
    You end up supporting the one you can be part of.


  2. Nobody said that under an “islamic state” it is ‘clerics’ that rule. First of all, for sunni “islamists” there is no such thing as a ‘cleric’. Second, the shi’a who are the ones famous for modern invention of the wilayat el faqih, have most of their political actors that are no clerics. Indeed clerics, when they do exist politically, have at best a symbolic ‘guiding’ role a bit like presidents or kings in parliamentary countries.

    As for the rest, of course I am not equating “islamism” with “marxism”. Any form of political rule will require the dominance of a specific class of people. “the religious” again in this case has nothing to do with the character of this dominance.

  3. Very interesting points.
    I have to re-read the post a couple of times before I make a “coherent”comment, as there are several embedded ideas.
    But just one point for now that struck me:
    I agree about the “work of modern hegemony..” bit. Our discourse, and way of formulating ideas/labeling is definitely shaped by the dominant -or if you may call it-the “ruling” way of looking at things. A certain way of thinking, accepting values as good or bad is engrained in us quite early and is influenced to a big extent by the dominant discourse in the society we grow in.It is shaped and modified as we mature. this sculpting is influenced by the specifics of each individual’s experiences, but also to a big extent by the dominant or “perceived as sound” societal discourse, after all we are as you said social actors. ( and as a side comment the dominant discourse tends to be the one of those in power, and once the prevalent discourse becomes different from that of the ones in power, major shake-ups and potential change in the ruling entity can happen, in my opinion that is part of why we have a schizophrenic state in most of the arab countries, we have a historical repetitive attempt to implement a dominant ruling discourse that is not congruent with people’s prevalent discourse, coupled with an attempt at maturation that is stunted by a variety of factors). Now, would ascribing to the dominant discourse be bad by itself?
    In my view, ascribing to things without questionning or at least having the freedom to question can be deterimental.(granted the capacity and will to question is present).
    This is part of my worry with religious states:
    the divinity of the rule makes it unquestionnable and lends itself to abuse.
    Now, you make very good points by highlighting the fact that the “nation-state” concept can become “divine” in a way. Still my concern is rules that are man made are open to improvement and modification (again to a certain extent). Rules that are God sent are not . Of course in Islamic rule there is the concept of ijtihad and fokoh that actually is a quite progressive one, but with the way things are currently leaves the door open for abuse.
    I apologize as this turned out to be a long all over the place comment. There are several points in your post that I found quite interesting, but I wil need to re-read before further commenting.

    btw congrats on the new and improved look …


  4. HT, if you agree on the works of ‘the hegemonic’ then you should put into question the very way we make choices and the supposed nature of what’s ‘divine’ or not.

    What’s the difference between a rule that is ‘divine’ and one that derives from ‘man’? None! Both are formulated by man and subject to interpretation according to the prevailing linguistic metaphors.

    There is nothing in the ‘religious’ (here taken in this very narrow sense), deriving legitimacy from an idea “God”, that is more alienating than one deriving from “man”. As Derrida has shown, the logs, metaphysic, or God, etc. is present in the very nature of language, in the actual formation of concepts.

    The difference in political rule is who are the guys abusing it, whether clerics, businessmen, military dudes, or what have you. I will talk about this more in my Part II…

    Thanks for commenting it helps me frame my concerns better!

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