A post-secular Europe — Rafia Zakaria

Calling out Europe on its latest cherished masquerade of passing its dirty laundry as an elaborate defence of Enlightenment values is a challenge and who better to take it on than Europe’s most admired philosopher

The cataclysm between faith and secularism in Europe has become the source of consistently troubling and increasingly polarised refrains in recent years. The recent denial of citizenship to a Moroccan immigrant for wearing a niqab, the campaigns to create Sharia tribunals to arbitrate personal law disputes in Britain and Canada, and the ban on wearing the headscarf by public school teachers in Bavaria, Germany, are some of the recent iterations of the tension between secular and religious worldviews.

Some much needed insight into the new ideological clashes afflicting Europe was recently provided by eminent German philosopher Jurgen Habermas in a speech entitled ‘A post-secular society — what does that mean?’.

Habermas argues that the old sociological truism that asserted that modernisation would lead to secularisation and the increased irrelevance of religion has in recent years and with recent historical developments been proven wrong in societies previously considered “secularised”. In support of his thesis, Habermas asserts the reality that the developmental path of Europe, considered in previous years to be the model for the rest of the world and hence the core of the secularisation/modernisation thesis has proven instead to be the deviation from the norm, with most societies including the United States not experiencing a decline in religious affiliation concurrent with modernisation.

The vibrancy of existing faith communities around the world is in Habermas’ opinion further evidence of the death of the secularisation hypothesis. As he says: “orthodox or at any rate conservative groups within the established religious organisations and churches are on the advance everywhere.” In addition, both fundamentalist religious groups such as Christian evangelicals and radical Protestants, and more syncretist new age faith groups such as the Falun Gong have become increasingly popular.

Finally, the unleashing of political violence in the name of religion seen in the Iranian Revolution and the desecularisation of conflicts in Pakistan and other parts of the Middle East all point to the increased rather than decreased prominence of religious faith as a means of understanding and organising public life not against but despite the currents of modernisation.

The new face of Europe, marked as it is by the increased prominence of expressions of faith in the public sphere and the demand by faith communities to have a seat at the table of democratic citizenship, represents the refutation of the thesis that the trend toward individualisation automatically implies that religion loses both its relevance in the political arena, the culture of life or in personal conduct.

According to Habermas, the reality of the post-secular world (and by this Habermas pointedly refers only to Western industrialised nations) is that a change in consciousness has occurred that implies a symbiosis between religious and secular ways of life brought on by the need to live together in a democratic polity.

Habermas’ argument is the first form of recognition by a European political theorist of the ideological consequences of Europe’s changing demographics on the public consciousness of Europeans. Instead of adhering to, as many other theorists have chosen to, the hackneyed trend of rallying against public expressions of faith in the name of defending “European” values and sweeping incipient xenophobia under the rug, Habermas has chosen to call Europe to task for ignoring the necessary rights to full belonging available under liberal values to all those, religious or otherwise, that are part of the polity.

Castigating both the proponents of blanket multiculturalism that insists on the recognition of any and every cultural claim in the name of preserving culture and those that seek to deny even the most pressing claims for accommodation, Habermas insists on the need to recognise that the constitutional principles enshrined in Western liberal constitutions insist on the necessity of co-existence for both religious and non-religious perspectives based on what he calls the “complementary learning processes” required for co-existence in a democratic polity.

The prescription of “complementary learning processes” is notable — with the edification of Europe as the harbinger of civilisation, the initiator of tolerance and champion of egalitarian values. The call for Europe to respond to an unheeded change in consciousness and demography afflicting the continent and the prescription that the secular has perhaps as much to learn from the religious in terms of establishing workable parameters of co-existence is notable. Central to the prescription is the need for recognition by the neutral state that aspects of religious expression in the public sphere can be a legitimate demand of democratic citizenship and a right owed by the state to those having a religious orientation.

While it is important to note that Habermas is not prescribing the acceptance of all forms of religious expression in the public sphere, what he is advocating is the uniform application to religious and secular. Inherent in his argument thus is the recommendation of a particular kind of secularism, one that does not see any and all forms of religious expression as necessary inimical to the project of cohesive political community that is typified by cultural and religious difference.

While Habermas’ thesis does not go into detail about the impact of post-colonial immigration on the polities of Europe, his general argument can also be interpreted as a move by liberal thinkers toward recognising that immigrants, previously believed to be less deserving of recognition than indigenous minorities, have as much of a stake in the liberal polity as those that can mark their belonging in Europe by centuries.

Absent in his essay is the reminder so often peppered into similar discussions that voluntary immigration suggests a consequent obligation to relinquish any and all aspects of culture or faith that may not fit neatly into one’s new homeland; instead the cumulative argument suggests that immigrants can and do change their new land as much as it changes them. It represents, also, a frank admission of the use of theses such as secularism to mask deeper problems of non-egalitarian resource distribution, xenophobia and cultural constructions of belonging that are inherently exclusive.

Calling out Europe on its latest cherished masquerade of passing its dirty laundry as an elaborate defence of Enlightenment values is a challenge and who better to take it on than Europe’s most admired philosopher.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Courtesy: Daily Times, 2/8/2008

 

Leave a Reply