Keywords: Secularism; Muslims; nationalism; religion
My weekly Doug Saunders treat happened today. (He’s so smart! The Globe and Mail is lucky to have him.)
This time he wrote about the “Muslim tide,” setting up the debate by mentioning Basem, an Algerian youth living in France. Doug asked him whether he thinks of himself more as French or as Algerian. Basem replied, “Actually, I don’t see myself as French or Algerian. I just consider myself Muslim. I’m proud to be French, but I’m part of the Islamic nation before anything else.”
Naturally, Doug disliked that answer. He’s a secular, Western intellectual, as I am too (sort of). We feel more uncomfortable confronting a zealous religious identity than even a zealous national identity — which set my train of thought running in a different direction from Doug’s. Yet both his subsequent thoughts and my own are worth pursuing.
What he did with the rest of his column was to reassure himself and his readers that the so-called “Muslim tide” is not as dangerous as one might think. His proof? There are two elements in it: first, that a huge and growing number of people in Europe do identify more as Muslim than as citizens of their state; but second, that the kind of Islam that they are embracing is increasingly compatible with secular values.
He picks Turkey as foreshadowing the trends we’ll soon see elsewhere. In 1999, only 36 percent of Turks considered themselves “Muslim first and Turkish second,” but today that has increased to 45 percent. At the same time, the wearing of hijabs has declined, along with attendance at mosques and support for shari’a law and the idea of Islamic political parties. To Saunders these seemingly contradictory trends mean that a form of Islam is emerging that can be a private, non-political matter. A sociologist explained to Doug that “It’s an expansion of belief, but it’s also a massive secularization of belief.”
Another related point was that the supposed “Muslim baby boom” is a myth in the West. Muslim women have lots of babies only if they live where women don’t get much education. Elsewhere, the birthrates are dropping — indeed, almost to the levels prevailing in North America and Europe.
That’s nice. I’m glad. And I take heart from the trend toward what Saunders calls “secularization.” It’s necessary if Muslims are to fit comfortably into the modern world.
But soon after reading his column, my mind went back to the original question he had set me to pondering: Why do we think national identity is okay while we dislike any primacy given to religious identity? After all, most of the wars for hundreds of years have been clashes between different nationalities. True, there had been religious wars in Europe before then — notably between Catholics and Protestants — but surely the prospect of zealous nationalism remains more ominous today than the conflict between religious communities. I myself rather cringe when I have to call myself either a Canadian or an American. Legally, I am both, but I look for a time when it is possible to say “world citizen” instead of proclaiming my territorial citizenship at all. I am an Anglican too (sort of — in a deviant way) and I would hesitate to declare myself as such. This is not because Anglicanism requires anything of me that clashes culturally within the wider society. I don’t have to wear a head scarf or kneel on the floor to pray, for example. Nobody can spot me as Anglican in a crowd. The possibility of such religious anonymity for Muslims is exactly the kind of future I hope they attain.
Yet I am a bit uncomfortable with Doug Saunders’s prescribed means to attaining that freedom: by “secularization.” The term, as he uses it here, refers to the principle that religion should be a private matter, expressed only in personal relationships and never visible in any public discourse or activity.
That is, to be sure, the way things are moving in the West. Take, for example, the increasingly frequent trend toward eliminating Christmas trees from public places, along with prayers in the schools and other civic rituals. That is secularization, all right, but it is not how I resolved my own conflicts about religion. I would not push religion out of public activities. if anything, I’d prefer a more inclusive approach, welcoming all kinds of other faith traditions into the public sphere.
Instead of excluding religion, I would accept all kinds of religious symbolism, but with a difference. We’d need to “read” religious symbolism in a new way — as metaphor and inspirational poetry instead of literally or doctrinally. Yes, I’d have a certain private back room to which I would relegate moral instruction and all invidious comparisons of closeness to God. The public sphere would not be competitive at all, but we could nevertheless invoke spiritual guidance as we determine our collective agendas.
I am not truly secular, I guess — nor are most scientists and intellectuals, if you ask them quietly. We have a certain faith that sustains us, but we downplay the controversial beliefs and social mores that traditionally went with religion. I didn’t go to church on Easter Sunday and I certainly don’t believe that Jesus ascended bodily to heaven, yet that does not impede the valuable part of faith, which is open to everyone, regardless of his/her spiritual tradition. It’s just a matter of taking the sting out of religiosity. And I would favor that anyhow, even when it comes to private religious expressions. I want an inclusive, yet remarkably vague, kind of rhetoric. If you make it vague enough, and non-prescriptive, I can get into it with enthusiasm. If you get too familiar, however, (such as referring to Jesus by his given name in everyday conversation) I want to back away.
Yet this does not give me any specifiable principles that would make public religion generally okay. I know what it looks like when I see it, but I can’t tell you when the line has been crossed. Given that ill-defined attitude, probably the best solution really is, as Doug Saunders suggests, to define religion entirely as a private matter. Even in private, I’ll have the same uneasiness about it when I encounter fundamentalist rhetoric, but then it will just be my personal problem, not a political one.