Global Extremes

In defense of secularism

Polarization based on a politics of religious identity seems to be the most dangerous for democracies.

Haldun Gülalp
19 November 2019, 8.32am
Silent procession for the Utrecht attack victims in Netherlands - 22 Mar 2019
Picture by Ana Fernandez / SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
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Consider the events of mid-March, 2019. First a deplorable attack by a white supremacist on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing dozens. Next, an attack, perhaps in retaliation, on tram riders in Utrecht, The Netherlands, by a man presumably connected to ISIS, killing at least three. These events appear as possible evidence of an undeclared war of religions. Finally, statements by President Erdoğan of Turkey, angering authorities in both New Zealand and Australia by invoking the Ottoman defeat of the British-led invasion of Gallipoli during World War I and by implying in speeches to followers at political rallies that this is indeed a war between religions. Although tempered in a concurrent opinion piece and subsequently recanted and revoked, these statements still raise the question of what to make of all this in the 21st century, resembling a distant past, the premodern age of religious wars.

War is politics by other means, as famously noted by Carl von Clausewitz. If by politics, in this context, we understand negotiation, compromise and give-and-take between states, we may generalize this dictum to other areas of social and political life and observe that social and political actors may turn to violence when verbal communication fails. Such communication may fail because an utterance was not heard, or it was dismissed or suppressed or simply rejected for being unacceptable. An act of violence may be the last resort in search of justice or may involve an effort to put down a demand for justice. It may represent rebellion or simply oppression.

While some may have sympathy for acts of violence that appear to be in search of justice, the “root cause” may not always be easily sorted out. At any rate, in democratic society, we reject the use of violence as a means of communication and promote peaceful methods of negotiation and compromise. Moreover, whether in pursuit or in denial of some sense of justice, the easiest targets of violence are the weak, the vulnerable and the unprotected. The rise of violence in current affairs, therefore, is an indication of the crisis, if not an imminent collapse, of democratic civilization. Democracy can only survive if a government has established moral hegemony. The alternative is either a form of absolutist power or chaos.

The rise of the “politics of identity,” at the turn of the century, was initially welcomed as a mode of democratic struggle for the rights of “recognition.” It quickly turned, however, into what Tariq Ali has called the “clash of fundamentalisms.” Identity may be linked to a number of markers, primarily including (but not limited to) race, gender, ethnicity, and religion; but the term “fundamentalism” refers first and foremost to religion. While all of these markers indicate divisions that may not be easy to bridge, there is still something distinctive about religion. Certainly, all indicators have to do with both personal and communal dignity; but division by religion tends to be the least flexible, hence potentially the most fundamentalist.

The reason for this is simple. For the individual, his/her categorization in terms of race, gender and ethnicity is biologically based, although the categories themselves are socially and politically constructed. One may not change one’s biological sex or skin color, but society may create alternative arrangements for gender roles and race relations. Religion is altogether different, even though it is also often an inherited and/or ascribed cultural identity. For on the one hand it is the most readily alterable among social identity categories, while on the other hand it is a matter of faith and hence for the faithful a marker that is inscribed into one’s life-style, world-view, daily habits, and most precariously for democratic politics, into one’s political ideas and ideology.

How is democracy, as a system of negotiation and compromise, achieved when there are multiple religious communities that are potentially in conflict in terms of ideas, ideologies, doctrines, and dogmas? The classical solution to this in the modern world has been the principle of “secularism” – i.e., separating politics from religion. This may involve a variety of arrangements; but, at any rate, instrumentalizing religion for political ends is a slippery slope, as it often (and perhaps inevitably) degenerates into inflammatory acts of violence, whether perpetrated by those who claim they are rebelling to an injustice or those who feel they are maintaining law and order. Polarization based on a politics of religious identity seems to be the most dangerous for democracies, simply because belief cannot be negotiated or compromised. Politics needs to be kept free of religion.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the GREASE project (grant no. 770640) and the BRaVE project (grant no. 822189).

The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.

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