Secularisation through images. Between East and West, South and North.

by Domenico Bilotti

(University Magna Graecia of Catanzaro)

The history of secularisation is a regulatory history of images. The Grand Chamber of the Strasbourg Court stated it too, deciding on the recourse about the exposition of the Crucifix in Italian classrooms. That verdict, while agreeing on the defensive memory of Italian Government (the exposition of the Crucifix doesn’t violate Article 9 of the ECHR on the subject of freedom of thought, conscience and religion), well clarified the relativization of religious symbols in advanced secularization processes. The Crucifix is not a political symbol of a single party, it doesn’t express – in a Christian cultural heritage which by now is, anyway, disenchanted – a total adhesion of faith. Furthermore, for example, British or Scandinavian citizens recognise in their respective national flags at most a cohesive symbol for the whole community (neither this is always true), so they hardly see in them the ancestry of the reformed and not-reformed Christian cultures from which they come from. The religious symbol clearly remains a biased symbol, even though it is transferred in a semantic appearance which is distinct from the ecclesiastical one, while secularisation has the strength to defuse its divisive effects recognising its pluralism, preventing the establishment of a unique confessional primacy over all the others. Is it actually like this in every case? And what is, above all, secularisation?
Researchers tend to distinguish secularisation from secularism. The first one is a factual situation which comes from a resultative process. That process consists in the attribution, subtraction and separation of some competences between the Government (or, anyway, civil powers) and the Church (or the established forms of positive religiosity). On the other hand, secularism consists in a mentality, a cultural and normative habitus, which portrays a common approach that tends to sacredness. Both words have an unquestionably common historical root: the negotiations for the conclusion of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which ends the last and most bitter war of religion of the “long” century started with Lutheran Reform (1517) and Augustan Confession thirteen years later, fixing the theological legality within the new religious movements. The Peace of Westphalia doesn’t suddenly transform political Europe in a non-denominational space of law – neither bourgeois revolutions of the following two centuries will manage to do it -. It rather comes from a prudential valuation, from a coordination of powers (cuius regio eius religio) which stops hostilities.
Comparative public law of XIX century’s Europe highlights a further institutional step in de-confessionalisation of the public sphere. The Holy Roman Empire, during the Perpetual Diet of Regensburg of 1803 (!), three years after its particularly late formal dissolution, issues the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss through which the secularization of the last ecclesiastical principalities, bastion of the old power structures, is provided and conspicuous political-patrimonial restitutions to secular principles are agreed. The balance of powers has shifted: “the times they are a-changin’”.
The debate on secularization and its effects has been enormous since then. Did it involve an emancipation from a network of legal prescriptions and restrictive customary norms based on an intrusive and pre-packaged moralism? Or, instead, has it completely desacralized the common discourse, sterilizing it from those ethical limits to which the fundamental function of “servare societatem” was entrusted?
Whatever our answers can be, even if the most exact of them should not legalize any conduct and not to abolish any immaterial instance in social relations, the idea that secularisation is an exclusively euro-western process has gained ground. Once again: if we exchange the process of secularisation with its precise historical becoming in Europe and in the West, the statement could be right; it isn’t if we consider that every civilization includes instances of liberation from the theological forms of political control.

Secularisation in the arab-islamic Mediterranean is not absent, it’s just a more recent civil struggle: it is the fjord of a discussion that started much later, even because the unification of those peoples under the banner of an Abrahamic monotheism of such a strongly aggregative orientation arrived later than the European dynamic  between civil and religious authorities. Islamization comes after Christianization and, beyond the common points, Islamic law and the civil law arising from the Roman-canonical tradition are not at the same point of their respective parable. 

The public institutions of the Arab-Mediterranean world empirically confirm this theoretical and reconstructive suggestion through some guiding examples that do not include reasoning but indicate its essential points. Arab secularism is not proposed as overtly anti-Islamic: on the contrary, it often acts as a true procedural and substantial mode of action in order to preserve the core value of the faith against governmental, hierarchical and military intrusions. After all, even the first Western thinkers, whose thought was the backdrop to an orderly social pacification over the separation of powers, proposed themselves as the men of authentic faith and spirituality, which probably they really were. Arab secularism has another characteristic: it is not only proposed as an important lintel of individual civil rights (as it had been for the nineteenth-century liberal state, which however reread them under the perspective of the proprietary statutes), but professes itself even more as an integral communitarian flywheel of social justice. In this way, it has the historical opportunity to present itself also as a formidable tool of anti-colonial emancipation, although this instance risks fermenting a concept of “nation”, against despots and colonizers, at first largely unrelated to Arab culture. The stories of the Algerian Ahmed Ben Bella (1916-2012), of the Moroccan Mehdi Ben Barka (1920-1965) and, not so surprisingly, of the Palestinian of Christian education Nayef Hawatmeh (1935) prove it: they give birth, also on the juridical-ecclesiastical and philosophical-juridical plan, to three distinct and non-opposed ways of rethinking political Islamism and the socialist-oriented Arab secularism.

Bella is the first president of free Algeria, he doesn’t assume the republic in laic terms, even because is laic-secular the juridical regime of the  hostile French invader. He imagines the revolutionary order in terms of a radical political emancipation, but this biased struggle (which, according to Bella, is also “class” struggle) belongs by now to the historical experience of the Algerian people, even if the constitutional reform of 1986 maintains in the Preamble a not merely honorific tribute to the “fathers” of the National Liberation Front.
Barka was decidedly less lucky, since he was killed in Paris following an operation of the secret services, just like, a little more than a decade later, the Iranian Shariati in London. The anticolonial motive, in the context of a political struggle that faces the open front of secularisation, is associated here with a more systematic Third World commitment: Barka is a reference to the Afro-Asiatic solidarity fund that supports economically and politically the non-aligned countries. Among the post-colonial appetites of the Western powers and the Soviet ambiguities in the relationship with the Arab countries, Islam can maintain universal ordering value, even on the political level, if it accepts the federalist, plural and anti-authoritarian constitutional modules.  Hawatmeh deepens the theoretical spectrum of these options over the decades starting from the Palestinian perspective. Hawatmeh would like to replace the State of Israel with a Palestinian confederation characterised by an anti-Zionist and a equally non-pan-arab orientation (imposing pan-Arabism on the Arab peoples and states makes it a way to perpetuate the same powers, under the vestiges of an undivided faith, they struggled and still are struggling in military conflicts).
These three authors do not advocate the constitutional inclusion of the principle of secularism: to affirm the opposite would be an unfulfilling forcing from a technical-juridical point of view. They welcome and support but in different shades fundamental axes of the democratic “game”: tripartite institutional-organizational powers, recognition of local government, state intervention for economic redistribution, cessation of judicial and administrative claims by religious elites. It’s a political program light years away from fundamentalism and well below the national Arab socialism, experienced under dictatorships in Syria and Iraq, where the aim was to replace the previously applicable arrangements with a national founding myth that also included in its own use and consumption mandatory codes of religious derivation. Therefore, Bella, Barka and Hawatmeh show a legal theorising that engages some of the same social needs that motivated the start of Western secularization over three centuries before. In particular, anti-authoritarianism, self-determination and inter-state pacification in order to guarantee substantially improved living conditions for all. Secularization, even when caught in its embryonic assumptions and not in their maturation, can be a mosaic of differences, a frame of freedom. Even more in our ever-changing Mediterranean scenario.

Traduzione in inglese a cura di Miriam Borgia

The narratives of European modernity: An exceptional time or a historical context?

by Mustapha Ben Temessek

(University of Tunis)

The controversial narratives of modernity now lead to two approaches: the first advocates a decontextualized or even transhistorical modernity; the second (which we support) attempts to re-anchor modernity in its European context in order to put these dubious universalizing aspirations into a specific perspective. The resulting hypothesis is that n the age of globalization and ascending multiculturalism it would be better for Western modernity (continental and Anglo-Saxon) to adjust these foundations and abandon in particular its Eurocentrism, in order to recognize the contributions of other cultures in the advent and fulfilment of Western modernity.

The first story: European modernity. An exceptional/transhistoric time

For the laudators of European modernity, the collapse of the world of the ancients has brought forth an exceptional and even transhistorical time. The new world is no longer the exclusive preserve of a transcendental God, it has now been organised from all parts by the free will of the “white man”. Thus “the transcendence of gods is simply transferred to man.” This historical turning point was certainly the prerogative of a long and arduous process of scientific and philosophical maturation that the European continent experienced since the Italian Renaissance. Nevertheless, this gave an aura of “mystery” around this unfailing European “genius”. This led later and quickly to the ideology of “Eurocentrism” fuelled by a series of dogmas of racial (Nazism, fascism, etc.), chauvinist (the European nation-state) and linguist (French-Anglophony) nature, paving the way for a colonial movement at the end of the 19th century. It is from this historical moment that the modern world is polarized into two conflicting entities: enlightened/rationalized West versus Orient (mythical and static). In 1978, Edward Said, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University in New York, wrote Orientalism, a book that had a worldwide impact, as evidenced by its translation into 37 languages.

In Orientalism, Said analyzes the system of representation in which the West has enclosed – and even created – the East. The book is more topical than ever, because it traces the history of anti-Arab and anti-Islamic popular prejudices, and reveals more generally how the West, throughout history, has understood “the other”.

The second story: the Judeo-Christian origins of modernity

At first instance, saving modernity from its pretensions and arrogance includes to reread and rediscover its roots which go back to the ancient Greeks and Judeo-Christian theology, in chaining with the romanticism of the 18th century and the rationalism of the Enlightenment. According to Ch. Taylor, the malaise of modernity is due to the alleged incompatibility of these three sources: theism, rationalism, and romanticism. The Canadian philosopher’s instruction is to meditate deeply on the various elements that would have cut modernity in these three distant moral sources: God, Nature and History. These sources are, in fact, the paradigms of Hyper-Good. They were, in view of its values, the benchmarks of continental and Anglo-Saxon authenticity. These identity markers are so entrenched in European and American culture that no one would intend to get rid of them. For Taylor, these “reference frames” are not dispelled, but simply forgotten in everyone’s heart. Indeed, these parameters are timeless. They rise by their omnipresence on all modes of conventional time. In other words, they are not ephemeral historical facts, but rather “Geschichte” facts in the Heideggerian sense of the term. In view of these extraordinary qualities, the founding sources of human identity in general refuse the contingent and the accidental because they appear to us as the one and only bulwark of the “fragility of the human condition”. To rehabilitate the power of these inhibited sources in the depths of our unconscious and our community imagination is to acquire a collective and individual power over the fleeting, ephemeral and eternal flow of time. Moreover, it is remedying the inherent structural vulnerability of human beings.

The third story: the failure of modernity

Critics of modernity, such as deconstructivists from Nietzsche and these French intellectuals (Derrida, Deleuze and Foucault), deeply and even fiercely criticize the dangerous excesses of instrumental modernity that resulted in the “disenchantment of the world”, according to Max Weber’s use, and also the perdition of all the heroic dimensions of life. Moderns are only attached to small and vulgar pleasures, or to a “minor comfort”. The modern individual is brought back to live in the solitude of his own heart. “Do the secularization and disenchantment of the world, the separation of the world from phenomena – in which technical action takes place – and from the world of the being – that enters our lives only through moral duty and aesthetic experience -enclose us in a cage according to Max Weber?” (Alain Touraine, Critique de la modernité, Paris, Fayard, 1992, p.113)

The narrative of the failure of modernity is already the fundamental sentence of an inescapable overcoming towards a Postmodernity capable of relativizing the hegemony of instrumental reason and, in particular, the supremacy of continental/Anglo-Saxon Western civilization. This could give a new chance to recognize the contributions of non-Western modernities in the fulfilling of human beings and humanity.

Traduzione in inglese a cura di Maria Chiarappa

Secularism, what can we learn from history?

by Khadija Ben Hassine

(University of Tunis)

I always thought that words have a history. Sometimes I feel, in front of the pages of a historical dictionary, the same sense of intrigue which one experiences in front of an archaeological site. It seems to me that by digging a little, I could clear the vestiges of meaning. Moreover, some words have a more tormented history than others: they are charged, from birth, with a symbolic meaning that guides the manipulation that can be made of it. Unstable meaning, as is their empirical advance, that “ne suit pas toujours une voie où les moments particuliers se rangeraient paisiblement les uns à la suite des autres, se complèteraient de mieux en mieux en direction d’une unique conception globale”[1] but that would oscillate as oscillates the prominence of all things widespread because too desired.

The aim of the article is not to seek the true meaning of the secular, nor to decide on its conditions of possibility, but to follow, as far as possible, its oscillations from the date of its occurrence in the 13th century and to analyse its constructions and deconstructions until the end of the 15th century. Such a quest cannot go on without the help provided by a dictionary such as Le Robert historique. It inspired me to come up with the idea of this work, which took place in the light of Condorcet’s sentence, in Esquisse  d’un tableau des progrès de l’esprit humain: “les guerres entreprises pour la superstition servirent à la détruire”[2].

Strange story as in the case where the same concept goes from what must be avoided to what must be achieved, from object of prohibition to principle of claim. The article stops at two stages in the history of the concept: a medieval stage that begins in the 13th century and extends until the 16th century, a negatively charged stage where the concept is used to designate what must be disposed of to ensure the credibility of knowledge; and a modern stage – begun around 1690 – that took on its full meaning in the 18th century and which can be described as positive since secularism becomes a value.

The hypothesis of this work is that history does not make a leap, and that long before the concept of “secular” manages to take the well-defined and distinct form of moral, political and scientific value, the spiritual forces that led to it were already at work in European culture. No recognition can be made without conflict. Why has the West progressed while the Arab-Muslim world has regressed? A painful question that I ask myself and which refers me to myself, to this world to which I belong. Secularism is the end of a process and not its starting point. It was possible under a progressive path that began with the disenchantment of nature in Galilean and Cartesian science to reach a stage where the principles of theoretical reason affect those of practical reason, where speculation directs life and where both have only one goal: the happiness of man. The idea of an “unwavering and inalienable human right” is at the foundation of the American Declaration of Independence as well as that of the Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights in France. Some Arab-Muslim thinkers, such as Al Fârâbî (10th century) have built philosophical systems that, well developed, could have engaged Arab-Muslim culture in the same process of rationality borrowed by the West. What has made one continue its rationalization process while the other freezes itself in the eternal restart of an unsurpassable starting point? One thing is to prove that man has a reason capable of encompassing everything, another is to get everyone to make use of that reason. In my view, this is where the difference between the Western world and the Arab-Muslim world lies. The philosophical landscape of the golden age of Arab-Muslim philosophy puts us in front of two categories of thinkers who have bet on the ability of human reason to access the truth on its own: the former has entered, from the outset, in the field seeking to enlighten Revelation by borrowing the method from Greek philosophy. The specific field of motivation for the first category is the demonstration, by reason, of the need for faith. Thus in the 12th century, Averroes took the concordant path: Revelation needed understanding and intelligence. The question that guided his interventions was not how to achieve humanity in man but how to help him become, in practice, a good believer.

Linked to the basis of politics, this category has positioned itself, from the outset, in the agora and has been an ideology for praxis. The reformers of the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century are part of this lineage, those who, based on the reformer spirit of the Koran, had proposed projects for Muslim society emancipation: Tahtaoui in Egypt, Tarabbi and Haddad in Tunisia. The second philosophical approach was immediately in line with Greek philosophy; it was intended as a variant and a continuation of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus. Unlike the Greeks from whom they were inspired, and the jurisconsults whose reason they share, these fathers of rationality have kept themselves away from the agora and have refused to make public use of philosophy: a use likely to make a “motif d’action”, “une raison d’agir”[3] to carry out or transform a political project. Apart from the comments of Plato and Aristotle, the own writings of these philosophers, when they are not scientific productions, often come in the form of utopias where the world represented is neither inhabited nor likely to be inhabited. The virtuous city of Al Fârâbî, the Hai Ibn Yaqdhan of Ibn Sina and Ibn Toufail, do not offer a character of generality under which it would be possible to place the singular action. Rational and abstract, these constructions are an endless reiteration of purely speculative theses made for a dialogue from self to self. Wanting to avoid tensions with the religious dimension, these thinkers missed the dialogue and, therefore, the possibility of corroboration of their theses. A variant of this movement continues to exist today, it claims to continue the tradition of Descartes, Kant and Rousseau, writes and speaks in the closed circles of Modernity and Enlightenment but, like its ancestors, it still stands outside the agora. The posterity of Arab-Muslim thought has therefore not been able or assured of the progeny of its forefathers. A normal cultural evolution would follow the theoretical yet audacious phase, begun in the 11th century, by a practical phase where philosophical ideas are transformed into social and cultural ideals.

[1] Aldo. G.Gargani, Le des-accord de la pensée, in la sécularisation de la pensée, direction de Gianni Vattimo, seuil 1988, p.20.

[2] Condorcet, Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain, Vrin 1970.

[3] Paul Ricœur, Du texte à l’action, p.266.

Traduzione in inglese a cura di Maria Chiarappa