Friday, May 04, 2007

Foreign Policy: Seven Questions: Between God and Atat�rk

What is Secularism?

Foreign Policy: Seven Questions: Between God and Atat�rk

FP: In the West, it is usually assumed that modernization, secularism, and democracy naturally go together. Is that the case in Turkey?

AM: Turkey is rather different in this way. It differs from a lot of Western countries in that the religious tend to come from poorer segments of the population. And obviously because the secularized minority realizes that it is a minority, it wants the powers of the majority to be somehow or other circumscribed. It wants limits to be set.

Sounds familiar here in the US. But what does it mean? In the US, with separation of church and state on the books for over 200 years and, perhaps more importantly, a free church tradition and the legacy of Protestant pietism, we don't regard political secularism as a threat to religious belief or practice. Religion in this tradition is personal matter, detached (at least in principle) from politics and public policy--a matter of metaphysics and "private morality."

I don't understand what "secularism" is supposed to mean within the context of Turkey or the rest of the Muslim world or, for that matter, in France, as cited in the article. Does it mean the repudiation of metaphysical claims and religious practice or just anticlericalism and the relegation of religion to the private sphere? Does that distinction even make sense to people in the Islamic world, in traditionally Catholic countries or other places where religious belief and practice are inextricably bound up with clericalism and social/political agendas set by religious authorities, without a history that comes from the Reformation and the whole Pauline/Kierkegaardian take on religion as "inwardness"?

My oldest kid shared a grad student office with another grad student from India who had two questions about the US: "what is religion?" and "what is curry?" Curry powder, according to Amartya Sen is a British invention: there are lots of spicy Indian dishes that we call "curry" and subcontinental chefs operating in the UK and elsewhere keep inventing more to appeal to Western tastes, but the idea of curry as a particular kind of dish is alien in South Asian. The idea of "religion" as a package of metaphysical beliefs, cultic practices and a code of personal conduct, detached from ethnic affiliation and a social/political agenda is apparently alien too. It would have been alien also in classical Greece and, I suspect, may still be alien in regions where Protestant Christianity never took hold.

Funny business. Liberal Protestants used to condemn conservatives as pietistic and "escapist," for being obsessed with personal experience and personal "salvation" to the exclusion of social or political agendas. Real Christianity they said had a social and political agenda. But when conservative Christians announced their social and political agenda, commandeered the media to promote it and engaged in political activism, liberal Protestants were outraged because it was the wrong social and political agenda.

I used to fantasize a dream world of Mediterranean Folk Catholicism, with churches and shrines thick on the ground, processions in the streets, legends of the saints, lawn statuary, holy days and customs, icons, myths and a thousand pretty little pieties--religion as a system of outward and visible signs. But religions that are attached to outward and visible signs become inextricably linked to secular social arrangements; and more often than not they get hooked into political agendas and develop authoritarian systems. It takes professionals to put on the show and money to keep it running. Moreover if social arrangements collapse or there are political realignments, if the rules change or the authorities are discredited, religion does down. When the Greek city-states collapsed, the classical Greek city gods went down; when the power of national churches was broken in "old Europe," religious belief and practice declined to the vanishing point.

Is it possible to have Mediterranean Folk Catholicism or a reasonable facimile in a secular state?

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