Like the last one, this post comes from June 2007, when Salman Rushdie was knighted, but it is very relevant to some of the recent discussions here too
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, Ophelia – however much I respect their crusade and share some of their positions.
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
, socialist or nationalist messianism”. France
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…