Secularism

(S) Should we be living in a religiously plural society, secularism requires that all religions should have the privilege of free exercise and be evenhandedly treated except when a religion’s practices are inconsistent with the ideals that a polity seeks to achieve (ideals, often, though not always, enshrined in stated fundamental rights and other constitutional commitments) in which case there is a lexicographical ordering in which the political ideals are placed first.

What is it about the idiom [of toleration] that seems inappropriate in the present multicultural West?…It is a familiar and repeatedly made observation that the very idea of toleration presupposes disapproval of what is tolerated, and a condescending acceptance of what one disapproves. If, in the context of an aspiring multiculturalism, one wants to improve on or replace the attitude of disapproval with some other moral psychological attitude that cultures (including secular cultures) must exhibit toward one another, it might seem that we have two choices. One is to emphasize a less hostile, kind of negative attitude: indifference rather than disapproval. . . The other is to stress a more positive attitude: respect rather than disapproval.

(S) replaces indifference with a concern to register disagreements and attempt to change the minds of those holding those points of view with which one is in moral and political disagreement. . . its assumption of disapproval of one point of view is never accompanied by any condescension whatever.

One of the things I’m currently reading is a collection of philosophical essays by Akeel Bilgrami (this is him), the quotes above being a couple of small pulls from an essay on secularism and/in the polity. By quoting three short passages I’ve simplified the argument to a criminal degree but can hardly type out the whole thing here.

What Bilgrami is trying to map out here is a kind of working definition of secularism in state practice, proceeding from the starting point that there are no “external” reasons to accept secularism as a primary ideology among all members of a given society. In other words, ditch the universality of certain ideals approach, dispense with a reliance on rationality, in its form as a liberal’s concept of human political behavior, to get us anywhere. Instead, the taking up of ideals among the members of a polity can only result from a common conclusion reached by the convergence of “internal” reasons, which are based on myriad substantive values that diverse populaces hold– what can be messily called an overlapping consensus. In the era of multicultural melancholy (as I rambled about  in a previous post), many exasperated (old-school liberal values) people would throw up their hands at this point, decrying the destructive force of moral relativism, and declare an impasse.

And then we all become laïcité fundamentalists? This is the darkness that Bilgrami is trying to write himself out of, I think. It hinges on the emphasis of re-inserting history into the formulation of values, and recognizing “internal” reasons as evolutionary, mutable, grounded in historical subjectivity.

Secularism is one of those state practices that is taken for granted as a background governing principle– we don’t let the church run the show anymore, for example– until it becomes a pretense for interventionism. Bilgrami is far from giving up the ideal itself, but is attempting to imagine a secularism for the multicultural society that is non-interventionist, which is difficult. If you look at the above (S) formulation, it treads a fine line between intervention and conflict contingency plan. It treads the line between, say, burqa banning and repealing blasphemy laws.

Where, to me, arguments based on consensus building through moral disagreement and mutual engagement, are inadequate is in their implicit assumption that there is no significant power imbalance between interlocutors. (And no, it is not always the holders of the non-secular position who are subordinate in social relations of power– again, those upholding the blasphemy laws in Pakistan provide a good example of the reverse.) However, in multicultural societies of the West, the key barrier is, before even getting to the state of argument, arguers need to have equally amplified voices. The creation of new universals via the route of converging particulars doesn’t always/usually happen on a level playing field.

Even when the ideals of the polity are sought to be protected and extended to encompass the multicultural society through a ‘soft’ approach, the power dynamics are glaringly obvious. For example, though this is not about secularism per se but about some idea of ‘Western values.” Today I read this article about sexual harassment training classes held for refugee men in Norway. Here is some version of (S) in practice, that proceeds from a starting point that one side begins with the following “internal” reasons:

a) women are property in non-western cultures from which refugees trace origins
b) men from such cultures equate women who dress or behave certain ways with ‘prostitutes’
c) men from such cultures do not know the difference between right and wrong, and “something happens in their heads” when they see women in miniskirts in Norway

It doesn’t take an expert on crisis migration to tell you that refugees are among the most disadvantaged, demonized, rights-less and voice-deprived in any society. In an (S) regime–rendered imperfect by the simply fact that it has been put into practice– these refugees have not been made into equal interlocutors. They’ve been made into near animal creatures who lack a basic sense of right and wrong because of their culture and/or religion. Is this the point from where we are to start building consensus?

This is hardly to say that emphasizing gender equality and preventive education around sexual assault isn’t a welcome and noble cause (as people who see a reason to attack ‘relativism’ in everything would surely try to twist out of this point). It is rather to point out that the effort to instill ‘liberal’ ideals at large in a multicultural society, in practice, does not unfold in an equitable environment– it unfurls in contexts where those ‘on the wrong side’ are morally judged for their misguided-ness (even if Bilgrami wants to believe that condescension can be eliminated from the equation if there are good faith efforts at outreach). Where the misguided are often those who are already marginal to the polity, so what need is there for the power-holders to address them as equals? No, they are made sub-human, and assumed to hold certain ‘internal’ reasons without much verification other than ‘X belongs to culture Y, therefore possesses ____ beliefs in conflict with the secular polity.’

(S) may not be the aggression of laïcité but it is still not a working definition that takes into account the exclusion of many from the conversation pit where consensus is reached. So then what? I guess I have to keep reading for that.

 

 

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