Simon During’s essay begins with a taxonomy that is harmlessly at odds with my own classification. He uses the term “secularization” as overarching and he calls what I describe as secularism or (S), “state secularization.” He also describes (S) as a “negative” (as contrasted with Charles Taylor’s “positive”) form of “neutralism” regarding the state’s relation to religions. I am less happy with having (S) described as any form of neutrality. But since his intentions here are no more than verbal, it would be fussy to say why, so I will simply ignore my differences on the matter as mere amicable disputation in the word.
On more substantial issues, his instinct is exactly right (and mine) when he says that Taylor wants a neutralism that is not necessarily secular. I wrote a fair number of words in my essay to try and make that instinct into a sound bit of criticism in political theory. I am sure that I have not persuaded Taylor, but it is gratifying to see that During and I share an understanding of Taylor. If he and I are right, Taylor’s honorable and interesting effort to redefine secularism as his form of “neutralism” fails. Or at any rate—if one takes the view that definitions, being stipulative and conventional, cannot exactly fail—it is not theoretically well motivated. During doesn’t mention his grounds for thinking Taylor to be wrong, but does gesture at broad agreement with the grounds I had presented.
Where he seems to find my dialectic is missing something is at the point when I mention that the implementation of secularism (in those contexts where its implementation is called for) in the face of resistance to it, should appeal to a historicized conception of the subjects who resist it. He suggests that I should have given a thicker sense of the actual historical development that might be needed to bring such subjects around to secular polities and proceeds to guide me to a path by which this might be done by providing a genealogy of how it was in fact achieved in Europe. These genealogical and historical remarks are valuable, but I want to shepherd their relevance to a different part of my dialectic from where he places them.
The entire last two sections of my paper aim to address the philosophical issues that arise when secularism is called for but is resisted by religious identitarian groups, and they argue for a historically constituted conception of political subjectivity with dynamic possibilities for the presentation of internal reasons by secularism to those who resist it. Of these efforts on my part, During says this:
This is an ingenious philosophical prophecy. But the obvious problem with it is that history has not so far worked this way, and Bilgrami offers no good reasons for us to think that it will in the future either. I can’t address the issues that Bilgrami’s turn to history raises in any depth, so I’ll content myself with three broad points, the first two of which displace philosophic discussion of state secularization by connecting it to capitalism [and science’s role in society], and thus implicitly to contemporary history’s actual motor. The third places the debate between Taylor and Bilgrami in a different historical trajectory than the one that Bilgrami himself offers, by offering a distant genealogy of Church/State relations.
In response, let me repeat first what I had said in response to Colin Jager: I come bearing no prophecy. I have no predictive aims. What has perhaps misled During (which is why I say that his historical remarks are relevant at another stage of my dialectic than where he offers them) is that I was possibly not clear enough that at this stage of the paper, I am discussing a philosophical problem and invoking the relevance of history in a very philosophical mode.
When I had asked what secularists might do in contexts in which secularism is necessary but in which it faces religious identitarian resistance, I was really asking two questions that were narrowly philosophical. First, is it right for secularists to impose its policies from on high via the force that states possess or should it come to secularist policies inclusively by negotiation with those who resist it; second, should one justify this or that secularist policy to those who resist it by pronouncing some universal, “externalist” claim for its truth or should one seek “internal” reasons in the conceptual vernacular of the very groups which resist the policy. (These two questions are obviously related since the notion of negotiation in the second disjunct of the first question is of a piece with the ideal mentioned in the second disjunct of the second question, the ideal of seeking internal reasons in a conceptual vernacular of those who oppose one.) It is in the context of these specific questions that I introduced the appeal to history. The appeal was: If internal reasons are not available in these efforts at negotiation at any given time, one should not grant anything to relativism (relativism being the view that both parties to the negotiation have a right on their side, a relative right!), but rather one should (as a normative stance) see the party with which one was negotiating as consisting of historically constituted subjects whose moral-psychological economies might, as a result of changing historical circumstances, go on to develop internal conflicts that make them more susceptible in the future to revision of their views via internal reasons.
I had left things relatively schematic here and said nothing very specific about what sorts of historical changes might make for internal conflicts in the thinking of those who resist secularism. I did give one example of how a change in even many conservative women’s thinking in America in favor of pro-choice policies was partly shaped by historical changes in the nature of the economy owing to a proportional increase in employment opportunities in the service sector over the heavy goods manufacturing sector, as well as owing to the general shift away from industrial capital to finance capital. Such changes opened up greater possibilities for women’s work outside the home and that introduced new aspirations in women and that, in turn, introduced conflict in their thinking which may well have led to a deliberation towards pro choice. But, other than that example, I had not said much about specific historical developments that might bring about changes of mind towards secularism. During is disappointed in my silence on this score and thinks that I might have looked to actual history to fill the void in what I mean history to be doing in this stage of my paper. The instruction he is offering me might, thus, be formulated as follows: “Don’t leave things so schematic. Look at the past and notice how much the rise and then the flourishing of capitalism as well as the centrality of science in society did to shape secularist polities and then seek or hope to make (or to predict and prophesize less schematically than you have) historical changes of that kind in those societies in which there is resistance to secularism.”
I repeat: I am not prophesying or predicting any secularist triumph (something I have also stressed anxiously in my response to Jager). I am only normatively advancing (and to use Jager’s term “hoping” for) the triumph of secularism where it seems necessary to do so, i.e., in scenarios that mimic the European setting in which it had in fact been called up as necessary. What During’s instruction ignores is an earlier part of my dialectic in which I myself had given this sort of thick genealogy for how the need for secularism arose in European nations. In doing so, I was, for reasons rather similar to Mahatma Gandhi’s, rather explicitly skeptical of the virtues of the historical transformations in which secularist polities were seen as necessary. It seemed to me that there was no particular reason for countries outside the orbit of European influence and power to seek these transformations. I, again following Gandhi, took colonized countries to be in the orbit only peripherally and unwillingly, and found it quite understandable that they should resist aping these forms of capitalism and centralized state formation which had facilitated the rise of corporate domination in the colonizing nations, using science and technology primarily for corporate gain as well as for highly advanced militaries and armaments. And in my own genealogy, I had fastened on a particular modern form of exploitation of religion in European nation-building, which had grown in tandem with the things that During mentions (capitalism and the use of science in its development as an economic formation), a nationalism that was based on mobilizing majoritarian religious sentiments. The point then is this: Capital, the deployment of science in the pursuit of profit, large scale technological militarization, centralized states tied in hyphenated conjunction with nations, nationalistic mobilization of religious majorities against religious minorities, all emerged gradually in European “modernity” in a familiar trajectory, and secularism as a political doctrine grew in this web of transformations with a very particular good to offer. It would repair the damage wrought by majoritarian religious prejudice and power often exercised with a sustained form of violence backed by the state and minoritarian religious backlash against it with its own form of prejudice and a more episodic form of violence of resistance. And I had said that once this sort of society with these features had been constructed, it is quite possible that nothing less and nothing other than secularism could be conceived and devised to control the damage, given its cumulative depth and pervasiveness.
So, it is precisely because I had in mind just what During presents in his genealogy that I had said, following Gandhi’s lead, that unless one had some vision whereby all of the world should end up as Europe and the West has, countries outside the orbit of such a European (or more generally, Western) construction, should resist pursuing and adopting these lamentable conditions that made it seem that secularism was a necessary solution. Thus, far from being prophetic, I was actually resisting the tendency to Whiggish declarations of secular outcomes in the future for the rest of the world. In this, I believe, I share something deep with Taylor. But, unlike him, I don’t find any need to redefine secularism, domesticating it to another meaning that better fits the urge we both share.
So, in this earlier part of my dialectic, I had myself denied that secularism could really be understood independently of this entire genealogically traced background of European modernity and nationalism, something that During himself nicely underscores in detail (more detail than I presented) in his comments. But he offers the genealogy to me as something I could introduce at a later stage of my dialectic when I am looking at contexts where secularism seems to be a good thing to advance, in the face of resistance to it. However, these contexts, I claimed, are contexts where, despite such resistance to secularism from religious identitarian groups, the conditions of European modernity described in my paper (and in greater detail in other work) had already been replicated in countries outside the main orbit of European or Western society. (I had in particular considered India in the period of the late 1980s and after when this form of religious nationalism and minoritarian backlash against it had emerged in full force –as contrasted with the period when Gandhi was writing, where there was no such replication.) But –and this is the punch line—if these conditions have already been replicated for the relevance of secularism to be acknowledged and advanced, then During’s suggestion that I accommodate those conditions in my appeal to history at the later stage of my argument, seems redundant. I would not have in the first place been advocating secularism for these societies in which there was resistance to it, unless these historical conditions of European modernity had been replicated in them. This is not to say that I don’t find his genealogical remarks valuable. I do and I am in full accord with them as bearing a relevance to the concept of secularism, as I’ve explained above. It’s just that I would place their value and relevance in a different place in my argument from where he proposes them on my behalf.
I couldn’t end this response without saying that I appreciate and find instructive During’s further suggestion that where secularism is necessary and one seeks to convince others of it, there is no reason to think that the state is the only agency whereby this is done. The sorts of more informal associations that he proposes where there might be such dissemination are certainly worth exploring and emphasizing. I don’t believe that the pursuit of these other sites in civil society where negotiation of a broad kind may be sought should make us think that the state should become abstemious and aloof from such negotiation. The field of force in which (to use my, rather than During’s, concept) internal reasons are sought to persuade others of the importance and need for secularism is capacious enough to include both the state and the more loosely constituted institutions of a wider civil society. (See my essay, “Secular Liberalism and the Moral Psychology of Identity” for some historical examples of how the state can effectively be part of this field of force.)
* * *
Let me now turn to the essay by Justin Neuman. This preening response’s repeatedly announced aim is to raise a question about the extent of religious homogeneity in modern societies. Since, in my essay, I had nothing invested in claiming a widespread factual presence of homogenous religious cultures, this striking of an attitude about plural religions is besides any point that was central to my concerns.
I also said very conspicuously that (S) was far less relevant than is often thought necessary by its advocates and gave very specific contextual conditions in which it has its normative relevance and most urgent need for implementation—when societies were under threat from nationalist forms of religious majoritarianism adopted in countries mimicking the post-Westphalian path of modernity in Europe. This strictly implies an acknowledgement that, as things stand historically, its main normative relevance is to societies with more than one religion. Moreover, the author himself registers that I myself point out that any religious group may find itself developing internal conflicts and undermine its own homogeneity. So it’s hard not to think that he wrote his commentary, half-knowing that he was presenting something that, however keen he may have been to put it in the air, was not deeply relevant to the essay he was setting out to address.
I say in the essay that a definition or characterization of an ideal of secularism has a marginal advantage if it has application to both highly pluralized religious societies and relatively homogenous religious ones. If one understands what the notion of an ideal is, one doesn’t need to be told that an ideal that is supposed to apply to two different sorts of conditions is not any less an ideal if one of those conditions doesn’t, in fact, at some given point, exist. But, evidently, I must do some telling. I was characterizing the secularist ideal. Nothing in it lapses if, in fact, societies are now predominantly plural in their religious convictions and practices. Charles Taylor proposed an ideal of secularism that is restricted to certain conditions. I propose one that is not so restricted. I claimed that it is an advantage to be less restricted in this respect—and anybody reading my essay with a view to comment on it rather than a mind to seize some misperceived opportunity to display his own pluralist credentials, would have taken in that non-restrictiveness was offered as a very minor advantage compared to the other much more substantial advantages claimed. Secularism, I had said, is a stand on religion. If it is true that all societies that exist have more than one religion, the unrestricted ideal is at no disadvantage whatsoever. If it should turn out that there is a society in which there is only one pervasive religion, the unrestricted ideal has application in a way that the restricted one does not. That is the marginal advantage I had claimed and nothing in the clichés presented in this essay about how there is a plurality of religions can undermine this claimed advantage. In a characterization of some ideal (secularism, for instance), words like “should there be…” and “If there are…” which I had used in (S) and have repeated just now are precisely meant to protect oneself from making any commitment to the facts that might restrict the scope of one’s characterization of the ideal. So, huffing on about what the facts are at a given time, makes no odds to an ideal, so characterized. It is exactly this point that is missed by the proposal in the essay that I should remove the opening clause from my formula (S) which reads “Should there be…”
Various other points are also missed or misinterpreted. I can’t find a thread of connection in the things they get wrong, so I’ll list them below as a miscellany.
1. There is a quite elementary failure to understand the position being taken, when I said that secularism is a stance about religion and in some broad sense in opposition to religion, in a passage such as this:
…by defining secularism in opposition to religion (secularism has for him only “parasitic meaning”) Bilgrami charts a course that departs from recent trends in the field, represented by Talal Asad and Taylor, both of whom conceive of secularism as a complex, historically specific set of ideologies and disciplines rather than in opposition to religion. Asad in particular has aimed to uncover the various ways secularism operates as a set of disciplinary and disciplining practices that produce and police the modern category of religion.
Secularism was said by me to have a complex history and I was trying to keep faith with precisely that history in my discussion that tried to make my stipulated characterization non-arbitrary. So I cannot possibly have been setting myself up against either Taylor or Asad on that score, when I say that secularism is a stand in some sense against religion. That secularism should have its own ideologies and disciplines (a point I certainly believe myself) does not rule out the fact that it can be understood as being in opposition to religion, for the utterly obvious reason that it may be some part of those disciplines and ideologies that they run counter to the commitments and disciplines of some religions. And if, as Asad says, secular ideology and disciplines can produce new and modern understandings of religions, I don’t see how that rules out the thought that the new understandings of religion can also be something that secularism stands in opposition to. I would think that if it “polices” them, it can hardly fail, at least implicitly, to do so. My own view, I should repeat here, is that modern understandings of religion emerge out of a range of other developments of modernity (such as nationalism devised on the European model, for instance, in the examples I discussed) and secularism nests in these, often introduced explicitly as getting its point and rationale by combating some of the harmful effects it finds these modern developments around religion to have. But I won’t elaborate on that here because it is really too detailed a thought to actually have any relevance to the essay to which I am responding. As for Taylor’s book in which he presents the secular age of Latin Christendom with its own positive humanist construction in contrast with the secular understood as an ideal of subtraction, I think Taylor himself would say that that topic is not quite the topic he is writing about in his essay on which I was extensively commenting. The concepts of “secularization” and “secular” were partly contrasted by me with the concept of “secularism” because I found myself much more in sympathy with Taylor’s book (which is on the first two of those concepts) than with the essay I was criticizing (which was on the third). And within my classification of these terms, some of Asad’s directions of thought can be read as follows. He makes the perfectly correct claim that modern understandings of religion emerge out of the “secular” and the process of “secularization,” and then secularism is constructed with the rationale of policing and repairing the damage done by the political presence of these modern forms of religion. My essay’s argument is, therefore, entirely compatible with Asad’s work and Taylor’s book, though not the essay by Taylor which is the foil to my own essay. This is hardly surprising since it should be plain to a knowledgeable and comprehending reader of my essay that it was, in part, influenced by both of them. But all of this has manifestly escaped the author of this essay.
2. The reply then moves seamlessly from speaking about plurality of religions to speaking more generally about pluralist elements in culture in a sermon that is so familiar that it needs no response, especially since there is nothing in my essay that contradicts these familiar points. All this culminates in the assertion, by now a mantra in our intellectual culture, that identities are multiple, with the authority of Amartya Sen to underline it.
Nobody should deny that identities are multiple for the plain reason that nobody should deny facts. But it is equally a fact that sometimes (as in the case of religious majoritarian mobilization, which was a central concern of mine), people present themselves as having some of their multiple identities matter to them more than others, especially in the political realm, and they convince themselves that it is so. This may even be an illusion on their part. But, as Sen himself points out, a good deal of identity is subjective, not objective, and so calling it an illusion with a view to dismissing it is to simply fail to grasp this basic distinction. Societies can be highly plural in their cultures and yet some mobilizations can put aside the plurality for political and other hegemonic ends. Religion can be exploited for these purposes. When this happens there is a bad form of identity politics as, for instance, in India in the 1980s and 1990s, that appeals in name to religion. The same elementary principle that I invoked earlier when I offered the advice that one should not deny that identities are multiple, applies equally to those who would deny these latter points.
3. I made no empirical commitments whatever on the question of how widespread the practice of female genital mutilation is. My remarks on the subject were wholly in response to an example given by Taylor in his reactions to my paper and I very deliberately and carefully worded them in a conditional, precisely so as to make no such commitments. The essay seems keen to parade some numbers on this question, but there is nothing that they say by way of addressing anything in my essay directly. I was equally careful to expend quite a few words on the question of “who speaks for religions” and religious groups and raised an entire question about this and the difficulty of democratizing those aspects of society in which religious groups are to be counted, since often very unrepresentative points of view get to have a representative voice. The pertinence of this discussion is entirely overlooked in certain attributions that are made to me on this subject of “who speaks for religion,” which I don’t find anywhere in the original essay. The pedantic revisions of (S) offered at the end of the piece in which the term “religion” is changed to “religious persons” (a revision to which I have no objection, as should be evident from much of what I had myself said in my essay) could easily be inferred from precisely the words I expended on the importance (and difficulty) of democratizing the notion of “who speaks for a religion”.
4. At one point we are told that the very idea of a lexicographical ordering such as is found in (S) is only likely to be “available” to those who are already secular. I must confess to finding this so hazy that I don’t quite know how to respond.
Does the remark mean that someone cannot say, “If (S) is what secularism is, I am against it?” I know any number of people who say this. There are several essays by distinguished writers such as Ashis Nandy, written over the last two or three decades, which have said it about a doctrine that is non-neutralist in a way that my lexicographical ordering was trying to capture and roughly codify, essays with titles such as “An Anti-Secularist Manifesto.” Nandy, I wager, would agree that (S), rather than a neutralist ideal of Taylor’s sort, captures secularism, and it is precisely what he is against. I myself, as someone who offered (S), had said, as I offered it, that it is not normatively apt in many contexts. It was one of the chief and explicitly announced goals of my essay, indicated even in its title. And the essay, far from making a clean distinction between religion and politics as this response bizarrely assumes and asserts, actually takes the view that (S) should only be normatively advanced in rather specific contexts partly because in many other contexts and places, religion and politics do not separate and need not separate cleanly.
Or does the remark mean that (S) is not comprehensible to someone who is not already a secularist? If so, I can present to anybody who would make such an astonishing claim any number of people I know who have a perfectly clear understanding of what (S) means and are not secularists. In fact, as you would expect, all those in the first class of people I mentioned (such as Nandy) are a subset of this second class of people just mentioned.
5. The essay cites another paper of mine in which I make a point about how some of the political resentments and angers voiced by Osama bin Laden against American foreign policy, Israeli treatment of Palestinians, etc., finds assent on the street in various parts of the world with large Muslim populations, even as most of those who give this assent are appalled by terrorist violence and the religious absolutism that accompanies this anger and resentment on political matters. A skeptical question is raised about the confidence with which I say this. So let me just say that my confidence is based on what I read in newspapers, what I hear on radio reports and interviews, what I read in blogs on the internet, what I see and hear on television reports and interviews (including on Al-Jazeera), and what I hear in my own personal conversations with ordinary Muslims in different parts of the world that I have visited in the last decade and more.