What conventional wisdom promotes and dictates is the assumption that religion is an outdated weltanschuuang. It presupposes the reality of secular ideals vs. the myth of religion. It assumes the necessity of secularism versus the threat of religion. Much of the foreign policy of the last decade or so, and now with Theresa May and David Cameron’s new terrorism Bill, is underpinned by an assumption that somehow secularism is a saviour of religion. It sees religion as a dangerous phenomena and therefore it is in need, or more correctly, there is a necessity for it to be tamed.
What such an outlook of the religious and secularism divide overlooks however, is that secularism can be just as violent, and the very pretexts on which policies of taming the ‘Other’ are carried out, could just as well be reversed. There is an incoherence in such essentialist claims of separating secular violence from religious violence. What counts as religious or secular violence in any given situation does not stem from an intrinsic nature of religion and secularism but is more to do with different configurations of power.
Built into the matrix of normative conceptions of religion, as Mahmood has highlighted (2009: 861), are non-nuetral mechanisms for negotiating it; secular reasoning is encoded with an entire set of cultural and epistemological presuppostions. What this does then is construct a marginalised and peripheral ‘Other’, prone to violence, in contrast with a rational, peace-making secular subject. This notion is underpinned by an assumption of a secular philosophy that acquires a hierarchical position.
This is the myth that has underlied politics since 9/11; both internal and foreign policies. It casts nonsecular Others, especially Muslim societies, as dangerous villains. It deems them as premodern, who have not yet learned how to disassociate dangerous religious violence from politics. Their violence therefore is fanatical and irrational. Whilst on the other hand, Our violence is secular and therefore rational, peace-making and regrettably necessary to contain their violence.
An important point to note here is that religions – Islam, Christianity and others – can and do use violence under certain conditions, but what I wish to highlight here is the assumption that religion is somehow more prone to violence than ideologies calling themselves secular. This myth and inconsistent reasoning deems its own violence as legitimate and necessary because of the absolutist, divisive and irrational nature of religion, whilst in so doing, secularism itself becomes absolutist, divisive and irrational.
In order for us to overcome these inconsistencies, we need to question the essentialist claims of secularism and religion; claims of the necessity of secularism versus the threat of religion. We also need to question a priori epistemological and ontological assumptions of the nature of the religion vs. secularism divide.
Mahmood, S. (2009). “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide.” Critical Inquiry 35(4): 836-862.