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

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