Blog Entry #1

Gelvin argues in Chapter 9 that modernity does not require secularism. I find it sort of odd that he opens the chapter with a paragraph about how difficult it is for interfaith (or no-faith) couples to get married in the Middle East other than in Turkey (where civil unions are performed). Is this not a glaring example of anti-progressive government policy which restricts human rights? This is exactly an example of what secularism is able to correct.  In the space allotted I will respond to the first part of this chapter.

Gelvin goes on to say: “Many in the West look at the Middle East and decry the role religion plays in the public sphere. They claim that secularism is an essential part of modernity and that states that are not secular cannot be considered modern. Those who do this, however, assume that the attributes of Western modernity can be generalized for the entire world. Another interpretation of the relationship between secularism and modernity is possible, however. 

It might be argued that secularism developed in the West as a result of idiosyncrasies associated with that region’s historical experience. Europe suffered from bloody religious wars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Over the course of the centuries that followed, many in the West came to believe that the way to prevent a recurrence of that bloodshed was by severing the connection between politics and religion. In the process, they made the state, not religion, the ultimate source of authority. And since European modernity became the gold standard for “civilization” throughout the world, secularism tagged along for the ride.”

I’ll address this in two halves.

First, if we are referring to modernity(1) by its neutral definition, secularism(2) must be essential to a post-enlightenment modernity. In the age of reason, we must transcend or even reject ancient traditions and restrictions based on unsubstantiated mythology when it comes to nation building and infrastructure. The author himself, gives plenty of examples to back up the antithesis to his own thesis here, which is again, puzzling.

Religion is not necessarily excluded from modernity however. The freedom to practice a religion so far as it does not impact anyone’s else freedom or freedom from it, is generally ok but ought to be reserved to an area of personal hobbies – much like one can choose to watch football or play chess on Sundays. I do predict this strict religious influence on day-to-day lifestyles will fade away as science prevails in our understanding of the reality we find ourselves in and we’re already seeing this is many ways throughout Europe and North America. For the sake of brevity in this response I am ignoring the particular failures of American secularism since overall it is still much better than in other parts of the world where theocracies are explicit in governance or implicit where democracies exist but are subjugated by ubiquitous religious intrusion.

I agree that the attributes of Western society (broadening the authors term “Western modernity”) at large cannot be applied to the entire world. However, I believe the enlightenment and post-enlightenment philosophies (not without issues and particular failures – especially in the area of capitalism) have made the best cases for humanity’s ascension towards a progressive and liberal world-utopia. Yes, I realize a utopia is a lofty goal, but what else should our ultimate goal as a world population ultimately strive for at the highest level?!

With that said, while we ought to be sensitive about the differences in cultures around the world, I will argue that many foundational principles of the West ought to be implemented throughout the world in the cases of neutral and truly of basic human interest. This is not however, an endorsement of western imperialism or even the argument that the West ought to be the ones implementing these universal ideals in other sovereign nations. Even worse is often the erroneous or devious justification for imperialism and the undermining of sovereign governments under the veil of delivering democracy and liberty while in reality serving the interests of western oligarchies and further up the chain of power, of the western “1%”.

Secondly, I agree that the bloody, exploitative, truth-altering practices to serve their own interests, and science-denying history of the Catholic church in Europe most certainly inspired an age of secularism in modernity. But, to say that “since European modernity became the gold standard for “civilization” throughout the world, secularism tagged along for the ride”, is an incomplete and over-simplified view.

Eurocentrism is wrong when it is the lens through which a society engages in ethnocentrism, bigotry, racism, or imperialism. However so far as we qualify a Eurocentric view of the principles of the European Enlightenment, I would argue that it is in fact a neutral and universally uplifting foundation for all human beings in which societies in our global economy ought to practice. It just so happened to become realized and implemented more ubiquitously in Europe and the West first. The author points out further along in this chapter that the Ottoman Empire tried to implement some of these principles but they were often overturned.

Additionally, I want to qualify I am sensitive to the complications that arise in applying secular principles around the world, especially in the rare cases where “religions” are deeply rooted in a society and don’t necessarily harm modernity on a global scale. In the case of the Chinese take-over in Tibet, we see how this can become problematic. I support the on-going effort to preserve this micro-culture’s traditions so far as a way could be figured out that would allow Tibetan culture to thrive economically. I don’t have an answer for that though at this point in time.

-A

Footnotes:
1.Modernity (Wikipedia): “As a historical category, modernity refers to a period marked by a questioning or rejection of tradition; the prioritization of individualism, freedom and formal equality; faith in inevitable social, scientific and technological progress and human perfectibility; rationalization and professionalization; a movement from feudalism (or agrarianism) toward capitalism and the market economy; industrialization, urbanization and secularization; the development of the nation-state and its constituent institutions (e.g. representative democracy, public education, modern bureaucracy) and forms of surveillance (Foucault 1995, 170–77). Some writers have suggested there is more than one possible modernity, given the unsettled nature of the term and of history itself.”
2.Secularism (Wikipedia): “Secularism is the principle of the separation of government institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious institutions and religious dignitaries. One manifestation of secularism is asserting the right to be free from religious rule and teachings, or, in a state declared to be neutral on matters of belief, from the imposition by government of religion or religious practices upon its people.[Notes 1] Another manifestation of secularism is the view that public activities and decisions, especially political ones, should be uninfluenced by religious beliefs and/or practices.”
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2 thoughts on “Blog Entry #1

  1. I am glad you decided to write your post on this piece, because I also was intrigued by it. I respect your views on what is, to you, the necessity and means of formation of “utopia,” but I think that by asserting this you are somewhat missing the author’s central point. As an American, you (and even I) are unable to see modernity in any other form than that which we have been raised to view as “truth.” Which, by the way, I could go on forever about the objectivity of “truth,” but for that, I recommend you read the article I posted titled “The Problem of Speaking for Others!”

    As a response to your concern about civil liberties, I will explain this with an illustrative example, namely, the wearing of a traditional headdress, called a hijab by Muslim women or Tichel by Orthodox Jewish women. As a woman growing up in the west, I once saw these articles as a direct repression of women’s rights. However, for many women, this practice represents quite the opposite. In an opinion piece written by Ayesha Nusrat, she states that, “I see hijab as the freedom to regard my body as my own concern and as a way to secure personal liberty in a world that objectifies women” (Link to article below). And just like that, we can hear from the very voices for whom we are speaking, that their version of modernity and liberty is not at all like our own, and that is OK.

    Not only that, but to respond to your point about wanting to apply Western principles to the rest of the world, I think you should have read the article a bit more closely. Because the period of time of Ottomanism or Osmanlilik was actually a time of great tolerance and equality, relative the the rest of the world. All those in the Ottoman empire, Muslim and non-Muslim, were treated fairly and as equal citizens in the eye of the law. And is that not the main goal of secularism (which is not inherently a Western ideal)? The history of tolerance and equality is there in the Middle East, just as much as it is in any part of the world today. I think that allowing each nation to retain its cultural and religious differences is essential to maintaining what is so great and diverse about humanity. The world would be rather grey otherwise.

    “The Freedom of the Hijab.” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/14/opinion/the-freedom-of-the-hijab.html

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  2. I appreciate you taking the time to write a very thoughtful response to my blog. Thank you.

    If this were a class on the failures of America I could happily discuss the almost infinite number of topics with great enthusiasm. But, if I have to be the person in the class to stick up for the west sometimes, so be it haha. I find it extremely frustrating that the element of American liberalism I’ve seen here so far is so filled with self-deprecation. I often discuss the the downfalls of so many members of our society and how clueless they are about the reality of life in America and additionally the world outside of the US. However, it doesn’t seem to me that anyone in our class spends all their time eating Doritos and watching Duck Dynasty all day. I certainly don’t. So I cannot accept that just because we’re American, we can’t have a valid, informed, or genuine opinion on matters of foreign culture or in regards to sub cultures we’re not a member of.

    Celebrating “differences” is great when we’re talking about race, sexual-orientation and many types of traditions and cultures. But “different” doesn’t mean “equal” when it comes to governments, social policy or even opinions on them. We can still be good liberals and reject other world views and socio-insert-word-here systems. Everything here exists on spectrums and some are better than others – that’s just reality. Some ideas are terrible! Has political correctness gone so far that we can’t reject bad ideas if they come from non-white, non-Westerners? I get the sense from other comments that we’d all be quick to jump on the Christian right’s influence in America, and rightfully so!

    Next….
    Why is it that so many liberals nowadays have to carry around this extreme guilt in America? I don’t carry around the weight of America’s ignorance on my shoulders, but I’m certainly glad to point it out and stand against it when applicable.

    I have not missed the author’s point; I totally reject it. I whole heartedly reject the place of religion in the future of a peaceful and evolutionary human culture.

    I’m glad to agree with you on a deeply philosophical level about the difficulty regarding “objective truths”, or to discuss Neitzche over a cup of coffee, but in the context of this class it seems useful to accept that we ought to be able to at least sometimes make statements about what is the “best” way to approach the building of humanity’s future in an increasingly global environment and particularly as it relates to the politics of the West and Middle East. We can’t all be right, even though it feels quite nice to think so.

    Regarding the woman becoming a hijab….thank you for linking to that article. I enjoy reading about unusual positions on matters like this. I respect this woman’s ability to redirect this oppression, even if it’s only for her own mental well-being.

    Her position is that she decided to become a hijab in order to prevent men from objectifying her based on physical attributes but, it was not necessary to do this according to the repressive Islamic protocol and uniform. If anything, it ends up promoting it by default. She could have just as easily worn more conservative non-hajib clothing. Post-Enlightenment modernity inspires us to reject oppressive tradition! How can she claim to be so progressive and still wear the uniform of her masters? It’s a protest, ok. There are better ways to reject enslavement than to be free and walk around in your prison uniform….

    I think women should be celebrated for being who they are – literally speaking. It’s a shame to decide to walk around in a black shadow and invisible from everyone. All anyone will ever see is a black sheet – not a person. But that’s certainly her decision to make.

    Next…
    Perhaps we ought to all reread the Gelvin chapter. As I understood it, while the Turks tried to keep peace by allowing varying lifestyles to exist, they never respected any of them and certainly let their true feelings surface whenever minorities got out of line.

    Human diversity is great – I don’t want to live in a rigid mono-culture where we all have to listen to Taylor Swift and drink Victory Gin and watch one channel on TV. There are an infinite number of wonderfully diverse ways for people to express individuality other than their preferred mythologies.

    I simply don’t think we can strive for an increasingly better modernity with religion or much of capitalism as it stands now.

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