It seems that colour blindness does not only afflict religious fanatics. Militant secularists can also be afflicted. Both are unable to perceive tones, shades, details, and nuances. In their simplistic worldview, there are only uniform blocks of good and evil, identified here with believers and infidels, angels and demons, heaven and hell, there with science and superstition, enlightenment and darkness, modernity and medievalism.
Nietzsche wrote about this affliction. Its sufferers lack the necessary historical sense that enables one to navigate through the complex labyrinth of socio-historical phenomena, relying instead on the rusty compass of rigid dogmas and unshakable certainties. These may appear convincing and even attractive in abstract philosophical tracts. But when examined in broad daylight, outside the small, shadowy confines of religious seminaries and philosophy departments, they seem shallow, deceptive, and quite absurd.
AC Grayling seems to display many symptoms of this malady. His paranoid obsession with religion and the religious brings back echoes of the 18th and 19th century. The militant secularism evident in his writings, like those of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, is reminiscent of the extreme wings of the French Revolution like the Mountain, who could only see opposite camps of darkness and light, or of the Convention’s “mission deputies” entrusted with the task of enforcing the “religion of reason” on Christianity’s ruins, and transforming cathedrals into “temples of reason”.
This brand of puritanical secularism is little more than inverted religion. It substitutes reason for god, science for theology, relentless progress for original sin and human fall. Its followers see secularism not as mere separation of religion and politics, or as state neutrality vis a vis matters of faith and belief. To them, it is a set of dogmas to be embraced willingly or imposed coercively by the force of the state. The public sphere must, therefore, be purged of all religious symbols and expressions. It cannot be left open to all to interact freely and spontaneously therein – believers and non-believers alike. It cannot be an inclusive space accommodating different ways of life. Total homogeneity must be enforced. Sacred wars can thus be waged about matters of strictly personal choice. The zealotry leads to the insane scenario of the state and judiciary being deployed to prevent a schoolgirl from wearing a simple headscarf.
So it was hardly surprising to see Grayling side with the Turkish army’s quest to use the judiciary to dictate its will on society and the political arena – now that military coups are no longer an easy option. In a recent Cif piece, he defended the Turkish deputy prosecutor’s attempts to disband the ruling AKP for allegedly “encouraging more women to hide… the tresses on the female head”. One thus comes under the false impression that the threat to democracy in Turkey comes from its democratically elected rulers, not from an authoritarian secularism, armed with a military establishment intent on remaining beyond accountability and above the political system. In the name of Kemalism, it gives itself the exclusive right to define the acceptable and unacceptable: what to think, and not think, say and not say, wear and not wear. Those genuinely committed to civil liberties and individual freedoms would applaud the relaxing of an oppressive law that denies women their basic right to decide their dress. For a woman’s hair is not a battlefield where ideological scores are settled.
This crude interventionism practised in the name of secularism in Turkey and France, and religion in Iran and Saudi Arabia can only be described as despotic. Individuals’ minds and bodies are not part of the state’s jurisdiction. The state is only the manager of citizens’ public affairs, not a judge of their consciences, appearances, habits, and preferences.
What militant secularists do not appear to realise, or choose to turn a blind eye to, is that there is no secularism per se, and no religion per se. There are many secularisms – or flesh and bone secularist experiences – and many religions, or religious forms within the same religion. “Secularism” and “Religion” in the abstract have no existence outside their minds. In Islam for instance, we find the popular esoteric Sufism of the tareeqa, the rationalism of Ibn Rushd and the Mu’tazila, the traditionalism of al-Azhar scholars, and the modern reformism of Muhammad Abdu, expressions which, far from being rigidly demarcated, move, overlap, and interact.
And the same diversity is true of secularism. The neutral soft secularism of the United States, and more ambiguously Britain, is not the radical militant secularism of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Enver Hoxha’s Albania, Kemalist Turkey, or France’s laicité. Some are tolerant, flexible, and pragmatist; others are fanatical, exclusionist, and repressive. And sadly, Grayling’s secularism, which seems to sit with such ease alongside generals, coup d’etats, and military tribunals, belongs not with the former, but with the latter.
First Published in The Guardian, Friday 1 August 2008