Europe and secularism

Via DJ Nozem I was directed to a very interesting and very important article on Eurozine about European secularism and its role in shaping European identities. The text contains many useful insights and provides a wealth of discussion material. I’ll give one quote for our readers to consider and debate, emphasis mine, but please do and go read everything.

Internal differences notwithstanding, western European societies are deeply secular societies, shaped by the hegemonic knowledge regime of secularism. As liberal democratic societies they tolerate and respect individual religious freedom. But due to the pressure towards the privatization of religion, which among European societies has become a taken-for-granted characteristic of the self-definition of a modern secular society, those societies have a much greater difficulty in recognizing some legitimate role for religion in public life and in the organization and mobilization of collective group identities. Muslim organized collective identities and their public representations become a source of anxiety not only because of their religious otherness as a non-Christian and non-European religion, but more importantly because of their religiousness itself as the other of European secularity. In this context, the temptation to identify Islam and fundamentalism becomes the more pronounced. Islam, by definition, becomes the other of Western secular modernity. Therefore, the problems posed by the incorporation of Muslim immigrants become consciously or unconsciously associated with seemingly related and vexatious issues concerning the role of religion in the public sphere, which European societies assumed they had already solved according to the liberal secular norm of privatization of religion.

The sentence in bold goes to the heart of what I personally feel to be one of the main issues we are dealing with. Sure, Muslim fundamentalists who are ready to throw bombs and cause physical damage are a real threat and get plenty of media attention, deservedly or not. However, I believe the issues are much larger and much more complex. Terrorists, for better or for worse, are still a minority within a minority. There are bigger forces and trends at play here, as Eurozine points out:

The final and more responsible option would be to face the difficult and polemical task of defining through open and public debate the political identity of the new European Union: Who are we? Where do we come from? What constitutes our spiritual and moral heritage and the boundaries of our collective identities? How flexible internally and how open externally should those boundaries be? This would be under any circumstance an enormously complex task that would entail addressing and coming to terms with the many problematic and contradictory aspects of the European heritage in its intra-national, inter-European, and global-colonial dimensions. But such a complex task is made the more difficult by secularist prejudices that preclude not only a critical yet honest and reflexive assessment of the Judeo-Christian heritage, but even any public official reference to such a heritage, on the grounds that any reference to religion could be divisive and counterproductive, or simply violates secular postulates.

Turkey and the EU: Poles apart?

Like most numbers of the Spectator, the festive, XL-sized holiday edition is marred by the presence of Mark Steyn. But don’t let that put you off, there’s some good stuff there as well. And one of the better bits is an essay by Prof. Norman Stone on Turkey (Potential EU Accession of) (reg. req.).

For the most part Stone paints a picture of the old Ottoman Empire as something much less uniformly Islamic than some think. You should already be aware, of course, that what would later (in truncated form) become Turkey was a multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious state, but if you weren’t, Stone gives you a quick background. (By the time it fell apart, the Ottoman Empire had become the ‘Sick Man of Europe’; but for centuries it was a success.) What you might not have known, though, was that the orthodox Christians of the Ottoman realms were only too happy to be part of a nominally Islamic polity. The orthodox patriarchs and the Muslim sultans saw in the latinate West a common foe. Indeed my own suspicion is that the Greeks felt a keener enmity than the Turks. The sultan, understandably, might well have seen the theological differences between orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism as obscure and uninteresting (how many of us in the post-Christian lands of the west are aware of, let alone take much interest in, the distinctions between the theravada and mahayana strains of Buddhism?) To the bishops of the orthodox world, though, the sultan served (whether he cared about this or not) as a bulwark against the centralising domination of their brother-bishop at Rome.

But what set Stone off was a recent article in Die Zeit by Prof. Hans-Ulrich Wehler. The title of Wehler’s article, which formed part of the contra side in a Zeit-sponsored debate on Turkish accession to the EU, has some unfortunate historical echoes: “Das T?rkenproblem“.
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Where the River Bends

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the female Iraqui blogger River Bend, but my feeling is that those of you who aren’t would do well to make her acquaintance. Juan Cole describes her in his blogroll as an Iraqi nationalist, but reading the posts she doesn’t seem to be a nationalist in any stronger sense than say Blair and Bush are patriotic, or than Schroeder and Chirac are in the defence of their respective corners (of course this may well be problematic, but it is just to put things in perspective). Iraqi nationalism could also mean Baath, and this isn’t the case here. Indeed what she has to say about the Kurdish question is remarkably similar to what the Spanish PSOE seems to be proposing in connection with the Basque and Catalan ‘problems’ here in Spain. And this is not an idle comparison, since I think if you don’t get your mindset round what the ‘problem’ is in Spain, you are never going to begin to understand what it is in Iraq.

Reading one of her posts earlier this week, I couldn’t help been drawn towards an unfortunate parrallel: that between what is now taking place in Iraq and the topic of one of Scott Marten’s recent posts: the headscarf. Wouldn’t it indeed be ironic if we were about to witness a similar – if diametrically opposed error – being committed in two places at once? Whilst young French girls may be denied the right to religious expression at one end, young Iraqi ones may be denied the right to secularism. at the other And all in the name of democracy. Strange world.
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