Of fundamentalisms, secular and otherwise

Engaging religious communities is a way forward for promoting democracy, human rights, and religious freedom around the world. “Failure to engage" will leave secular fundamentalists, along with the rest of us, on the outside looking in

The Task Force Report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy called for greater "religious literacy" across the "whole of government" and greater levels of interaction between nongovernmental institutions, American higher education and business, and select religious communities around the world. Not least, it urged the Obama dministration to bolster U.S. advocacy and enforcement of religious freedom around the world.

The question is: With what kind of religious communities, specifically, should the United States engage? To what ends?

Many Americans and Europeans are taken aback, to say the least, by our suggestion that collaborating with religious groups on matters of shared concern is a necessary element of advancing democratisation and prosperity in many parts of the world. They demand an answer: Is not religion the province of absolutism, intolerance and repression—especially when it is publicly empowered? The answer is complicated, of course. The largely untold story of religion is its demonstrated power to oppose injustices, defend human dignity, reduce violence, practice compassion, mediate conflicts, deliver social services to the marginalized, encourage repentance and forgiveness, and, yes, foster good governance and honesty in business. In some cases—the headline-grabbing cases—extremists betray the core principles of the religion and prioritise violence and punishment as a response to injustice.

But the same can be said of dogmatists who proclaim the creed of secularism, as if they were the sole bearers of truth and righteousness. And the secular fundamentalists control vast resources of their own.

Secular fundamentalists? But this is a contradiction in terms! Not if one understands “religion” to be, in the theologian Paul Tillich’s pithy definition, “whatever is a matter of ultimate concern.” Of ultimate concern to secular fundamentalists is the triumph of their largely materialist worldview and the crushing of the religious opposition.

In the 1990s The Fundamentalism Project, a study of worldwide religious resurgence defined “fundamentalism” as a mode of modern belief and behaviour manifest as a minority option in most, if not all of the worlds major religious traditions. Held in common by the seventeen clusters of movements identified as belonging to the fundamentalist ‘family’ were five ideological traits that worked together in a mutually determining dynamic: reactivity (to the marginalization of religion), selectivity (of both modern and traditional ideas and instruments), absolutism (our truth is superior to all other forms of knowledge), inerrancy (because it is free from error) and apocalypticism (the enemy is evil, gathering strength, and preparing for a mighty battle which must be joined). The core authors recognized the presence of these patterns in nonreligious as well as religious communities and individuals.

Today we see the competition between secular and religious forces, including fundamentalists on each side, unfolding across the world. This is the case, not least, in Turkey, arguably the pivotal nation in the contemporary Middle East. No economy save China's is growing at a faster rate. In this new century, no society has modernized as rapidly, nor seen its international profile rise higher. Not least, Turkey is on the threshold of becoming the world's most powerful and influential Muslim-majority democracy—and a model for other Islamising and democratising societies. An unprecedented regime of religious freedom, including full rights for religious minorities, is not out of the question.

The ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party), led by the Muslim Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has succeeded where its predecessors failed. By governing transparently, effectively and honestly, the AKP has demonstrated that cronyism, inefficiency and corruption is not an inevitable concomitant of state power. Having experienced responsive government for over seven years now, Turks are tiring of the constant manipulations of what many openly refer to as "deep state"—the shadow government of the ruthlessly secular nationalist elites, embedded largely in the military, who have run the country in the name of Kemalism since Atattürk's death in 1938 but only episodically after their defeat in the first free and fair national elections, held in 1950.

In short, the fundamentalists in Turkey tend to be of the secular variety, whereas the mainstream Islamists identified with Erdogan, at least to this point, have been advocates of tolerance and openness.

Erdogan and his allies now stand a fighting chance of prevailing in an internal struggle with the generals. On July 8 the eleven-member Supreme Court, packed with champions of the old guard but confronted with a newly vigorous media and popular pressure, yielded to reality (as in the past, the secularists are nothing if not pragmatic) and allowed most of the constitutional reform package supported by the AKP to move forward to a popular referendum. As Gunes Murat Tezcur writes on openDemocracy Turkey's referendum: a democratic dynamic, the constitutional referendum of September 12 saw a clear majority of voters endorsing a set of amendments that serve to limit the authority of the military and “deep-state.” These include introducing civilian trials of members of the army who are accused of violating the constitutional order; subjecting decisions of the high military council to judicial review; and lifting the judicial immunity of the leaders of the 1980 coup.

The most contested articles in the amendment list increase the size and open up the appointment procedures of both Turkey’s constitutional court and the judicial organ that supervises judges and prosecutors. There is also a new provision for citizens to apply directly to the constitutional court. “Overall,” Tezcur writes, “these changes augment the power of Turkey’s presidency and parliament over the bureaucratic institutions of the army and high judiciary, by reducing the political autonomy of the latter.” The Constitutional changes would open Turkey's system wider and diminish further the power of unelected elites.

In short, nothing less than a soft power revolution is underway in the heartland of the erstwhile Ottoman Empire. As with all popular revolutions, its driving force is ideas-ideas embedded in and conveyed through culture. And crucial to the cultural revolution transforming Turkey have been the progressive, liberalizing doctrines of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish imam living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania who serves as the inspiration for a global network of elementary and secondary schools, colleges, hospitals, media foundations and civic organizations that together constitute a virtual civil society of its own, one dedicated to promoting Gülen’s philosophy of religious tolerance, intercultural dialogue and social action to eradicate poverty.

Gülen has his critics. His endorsement of robust religious pluralism, reluctance to proselytise publicly, and insistence that his followers build schools not mosques, has led some Islamists to conclude that Gülen preaches an "Islam-less Islam"—a fuzzy ecumenism that refuses to take seriously the supposedly absolutist claims of religion. Others, from Turkey's secular hard core, cannot believe that Islam could produce such an open-minded figure of influence, and therefore suspect Gülen and his followers of playing a duplicitous game. Like all Islamists, these detractors claim, the Gülen movement seeks eventually to impose Islamic law and establish a theocracy.

This familiar “secular fundamentalist” line was ably represented in an article on openDemocracy Don't sweeten the pill of an illiberal democracy by Ceren Coskun. Deeming “the principle of secularism . . a fundamental pillar of civic citizenship and hence liberal democracy,” Coskun warns us not to judge secularism by the behaviour of its extremists. Moreover, she argues, the direction of AKP policies has been increasingly illiberal. “The chosen date of the referendum itself, in marking the thirtieth anniversary of the military’s most brutal coup, is an effort to further propagate the myth of victimhood,” she writes. “This is a truly Machiavellian ploy because the AKP is the product and beneficiary of Islamisation policies adopted by the Turkish military following the 1980 coup, which incidentally was carried out with the backing of the United States.”

Yes, one should not judge a movement solely on the behaviour of its extremists, as secular fundamentalists are quick to do about Islamist movements. If a tree is known by its fruits, however, thus far the Gülen people give no evidence of deserving these accusations. Notwithstanding the expectations of the critics from the secular and religious extremes, Turkish Muslims by and large are embracing modern culture and liberal political values while feeling increasingly comfortable enacting their religious beliefs in the private sphere and in a plural (secular and religious) public square. If the popularity of the Gülen movement can be taken as a bellwether of "public Islam" in Turkey (and elsewhere where it exercises influence), the detractors will be hard-pressed to sustain their polemics.

Indeed, the movement embodies a mode of religious presence within societies that responds effectively to, and draws its energies from, the wave of teens and young adults who are equally post-secular and post-fundamentalist. These young professionals see no contradiction in adopting traditional religious practices, morality-and garb-while also embracing and even celebrating diversity and plurality of expression.

Within a decade, in Iran as well as Turkey, China as well as Brazil, this cohort will inherit the mantle of their religiously skittish, indifferent or extremist forbears—and they think quite differently than the oldsters, not least about matters relating to "social justice." The United States is no exception. The charismatic Chicago activist Eboo Patel, like Gulen, talks about building "a golden generation" of interfaith youth who will serve as agents of change for the common good of all. Dynamic religious trend-setters such as Patel's Interfaith Youth Core, the Gülen movement and Roman Catholic renewal movements like the Community of Sant'Egidio know that mobilizing the rising youth under the banner of religion requires a soft touch, not a hard line. Their milieu is civil society-transnational networks of friendship, dialogue and cross-religious and cross-cultural collaboration for effective social change. In a rapidly globalizing world, such efforts are never merely local-and never lacking in political influence, however indirect.

And so I return to the questions posed at the outset. With whom should U.S. universities and youth movements, foundations and businesses engage? To what ends?

One could do worse than respond constructively to the Gülen network's open and oft-repeated offer of dialogue and mutual inquiry. Is a truly moderate and progressive Islam both possible and popular? Can democracy, economic development, pro-Western policies co-exist with—and even thrive within—an inclusive Islam? Scholars are beginning to study the Gülen phenomenon with the critical eye appropriate to the academy. Universities are seeking student and faculty exchanges, businesses new markets, states a new major trading partner.
But none of these budding partnerships will endure unless Islam in Turkey is engaged seriously and constructively. Today, enlightened governmental and nongovernmental engagement with religious communities and networks is the exception rather than the rule, not least in religion-wary Europe. In part, secular poets as well as politicians assume that the churches, looking for a way to revive their sagging public presences, would take advantage of the new openness and unleash aggressive missionaries.

But ignoring the likely consequences of intelligent engagement with other cultures and their religious bases is a self-defeating policy. Europe has made a major mistake in raising the bar unfairly for ("Islamic") Turkey's admission to the European Union. In a show of obtuse cultural chauvinism, secular European politicians were all too ready to make common cause with their suddenly useful Christian (especially Roman Catholic) countrymen in pronouncing the Euro-zone a Christian civilization. Positing an unbridgeable gulf between Islamic and (post) Christian societies is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and in this case one likely to drive a major (re)emerging power into closer economic and strategic relations with Iran and other rivals of European interests.

Greater engagement with religions elsewhere should be undertaken by universities, businesses, artists and even politicians. But even European churches could play a constructive role. Decisive in such an effort would be a clear understanding that "religious freedom" must be construed legally not as a warrant for proselytising religious actors, but as a brake on such neo-imperialism.

Turkey is by no means the only religiously vibrant nation poised on the brink of significant economic and political transformation. Demographers predict that by 2030 China will be the home of enormous Christian and Muslim populations. India continues to be shaped culturally and politically by the crosscurrents of Hindu revivalism. And Pentecostal Christianity is taking Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and large swaths of southeast Asia by storm. "Failure to engage" will leave the secular fundamentalists, along with the rest of us, on the outside looking in.

 

 

 

About the author

R. Scott Appleby is Professor of History and Director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and co-author of the report  “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A new imperative for U.S Foreign Policy."