Rushdie and "secular fundamentalism"

This is the third in a series of posts inspired by Salman Rushdie. For the previous one, see here. These were all written last week, in the immediate wake of the knighthood, but I've had limited internet access since then so apologies for posting as the issue cools down.

I promised, some weeks back, to clarify my position on what I have been calling “secular fundamentalism”. This post will not really clarify it, but clear some ground, prompted by the latest twist in the on-going Rushdie affair.

Salman Rushdie has become a cause celebre of the secular movement, not so much because of the content of his work, but because of the hatred he has stirred up in the theocrats of Islam. It is worth asking, though, why his work, and not, say, the explicitly anti-religious polemics of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, arouses such anger from the clerics of hate. Obviously, the fact that he comes from a Muslim background is crucial – as it is with Ayaan Hirsi Ali – in other words, the fact that he is seen as an apostate.

But I believe that there is something more important. This is the fact that he takes religion seriously, that he understands it – understands it spiritually. His novels – and I am thinking in particular of his two great works, Midnight’s Children and above all The Satanic Verses, one of the greatest novels of our age – are not anti-religious. Instead, they rigorously explore the magic and myth of religion, the aesthetics of faith, the narrative power of scripture, and, crucially, its spiritual and moral truths. He writes, not to deconstruct, to denounce or to scorn, but to understand and, in some ways, to do justice to religion.

It is because I think we must do justice to religion in such a way that I differ from the contemporary partisans of militant secularism – Hitchens, Dawkins, my comrades Will and Ophelia – however much I respect their crusade.

I have decided, Will might be glad to hear, to abandon my use of the term “secular fundamentalism” for their position. My abandonment was prompted by reading the opening lines of the letter Mohammed Bouyeri, the Islamist murdered of Theo van Gogh, wrote to Hirsi Ali, which he pinned to van Gogh’s body with a knife: “You, as unbelieving fundamentalist…” To create (or appear to create) a moral equivalence between Hitchens and Bouyeri is clearly obscene.

But there is a dogmatic and messianic quality to some of this militant secularism. Etienne Balibar, a very wise French Marxist, responding to the headscarf debate, has written of “the powerful religiosity that animates anti-religious political ideologies – sacralized ‘secular struggle’, as in France, socialist or nationalist messianism”.

What is at stake, here, is two conceptions of secularism, two conceptions of the Enlightenment, two conceptions of radical politics. Ulrich Beck (not usually a theorist I much care for, but I like this quotation) has written: “To me, Enlightenment is not a historical notion and set of ideas, but a process and dynamic where criticism, self-criticism, irony and humanity play a central role.” The Enlightenment, the secularism, I want to advocate is perhaps the “Spinozist” secularism Balibar proposes: where the public sphere is not cleansed of religion (as in the Lockean and Hobbesian models), but where citizens (or collectives) are free to bring their commitments, their faiths and their heresies, into the space of politics – but contentiously, opening them to dispute.

This means – and again in the spirit of Spinoza and, I believe, Marx – reconstructing the ideal of universality, not as the imposition of residual Christian theology or as generalised Western rationalism, but allowing universality to be, as Balibar puts it, “the stake and the result of a confrontation of all the political discourses” including religious-political ones.

As I finish writing this, however, on Thursday night, the News at 10 comes on, showing an Afghan school where the Taliban attacked and shot young girls because they object to the education of girls. This makes debates about headscarves in French schools or Salman Rushdie’s place on the honours list seem a little trivial…



Anonymous said…
I think you are missing a very significant reason why secularists have a stronger response to the situations of Rushdie and Hirsi Ali than they do to to the situations of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and other writers from a western background.

Since their rise to infamy in the muslim world, Rushdi and Hirsi Ali have both been threatened with death on numerous occasions and have been forced to live their lives in partial hiding and under constant protection.

The Western writers, even those such as Harris and Hitchens who single out Islam for stronger criticism have not yet had to deal with a comparable level of persecution.

I, along with many other atheists and secularists,are primarily worried and horrified by the extreme muslim response to apostacy. For the moment at least, western writers are not stimulating the same level of response from muslims.
bob said…
I think you might have missed my point to some extent, Richard. It is precisely the stronger response of Islamists to the apostates that concerns me. But my point is that it is not just Rushdie's apostasy that angers Islamists so - it is also (and this is connected to his apostacy) his deep and intimate understanding of Islam - and, indeed, his deep and intimate understanding of faith.

Rushdie, unlike Hirsi Ali, is not straightforwardly a secularist in his writings. His writing is infused with magic; he uses a lot of sacred texts in his novels; he never scorns religion as such. His supposed insult towards Islam in Satanic Verses is not intended as insult for the sake of insult or for the sake of deconstructing Islam or helping to reform it.

Of course, the political issue of the violence towards apostates is very important. But to fight it, we need a better understanding of the spiritual concerns behind the violence.

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