(Comment on the interview with Dr. Kuru)
Dr. Sune Lægaard is assistant professor in Philosophy and affiliated with the Centre for the Study of Equality and Multiculturalism at the University of Copenhagen. Among his publications are ‘Normative Interpretations of Diversity: The Danish Cartoons Controversy and the Importance of Context’, Ethnicities 9(3), August 2009; ‘Moderate Secularism and Multicultural Equality’, Politics 28(3), September 2008; ‘Moderate Secularism, Difference Sensitivity, and Contextualism: A Rejoinder to Modood’, Politics 29(1), January 2009; Nils Holtug, Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen and Sune Lægaard (Eds.), Nationalism and Multiculturalism in a World of Immigration (Basingstoke:Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
In the interesting interview about secularism with Dr. Ahmet T. Kuru, dated September 27, 2009, the exposition of different kinds of secularism turns on two distinctions. One is the opposition between anti-religious versus and more religion friendly secularism, which plays an audible role in Turkish debates on secularism, where conservatives accuse Kemalists of being hostile to religion in general. In response to the way of understanding secularism implicit in this opposition, which is present in debates over religion and politics in many other countries as well, Dr. Kuru sensibly proposes a different distinction between what he calls ‘assertive’ and ‘passive’ secularism. This is a both empirically more accurate and politically more plausible way of conceptualising debates over secularism. On the empirical side, Kuru’s distinction is better able to capture the differences between kinds of secularism in different countries. On the political side, the assertive/passive distinction directs attention to what immediately matters, namely the policies proposed and pursued in relation to religion, and allows for different ways of justifying and motivating such policies. This is important, because many debates about secularism either outright conflate policies and justifications or make the unwarranted assumption that there can be only one justification for secular politics, as exemplified in the often made mis-identification of secularism with atheism.
Once this distinction is made, the next question is which justification actually lies behind a certain form of secularism, and, more generally and normatively, which kind of secularism (if any) is desirable. To address these deeper questions, one has to consider the reasons for supporting a kind of secularism.
The most important difference is between the justifications for why a state should be secular in the first place; the difference between assertive (French and Turkish style) secularism and passive (US style) secularism is due to different fundamental views about the significance of religion. In American style secularism, the reason for having a secular state is that religion is considered extremely important for people and as much too important to allow the state to have any say over organised religion. In French style secularism, which was taken over by the Kemalists in Turkey, the basic intuition driving secularism is that religion is a problematic, anti-progressive force, which should perhaps not be that important for people in their private lives, but which first of all is problematic from a political perspective, since a religiously based political order would be unjust, oppressive and anti-progressive and would make for counter enlightenment policies.
Roughly, one could say that the reason for separating state and church (but not politics and religion at a broader, more informal level) in the US is mainly based on a consideration of the importance of religion and a fear of the dangers to people’s religious freedom inherent in state control of religious life. In the French variety, to the contrary, the main reason for separation has to do with the importance of instituting a certain kind of republican, democratic and enlightened political order and with the dangers religion poses to this kind of politics.
So although American style secularism need not be religious friendly and French and Turkish style secularism need not be anti-religious in general, the traditional American motivation for secularism is based on a positive assessment of religion and a fear of politics or at least of political control and regulation of religion, whereas the traditional French motivation for secularism is based on a negative assessment of religion as a political force as seen from a progressive-enlightenment based form of republican politics.
This is, admittedly, a rough and very general picture, which can be qualified and modified to a considerable extent. In recent American political philosophy, for example, some defences of secularism have taken on a less positive view towards religion, especially if secularism, or religious neutrality as it is often called in those debates, is defended on more perfectionist grounds having to do with the development of individual autonomy and similar more comprehensive values. In French debates over republicanism, to the contrary, recent confrontations with the fact of multiculturalism in general and Islam in particular have prompted some to make a closer link between republican secularism and a more general and vague notion of ‘Christian values’.
The picture is even more complicated in a Turkish context, of course, where secularism has been imported from France but now operates in a different historical and political context. These important differences notwithstanding, there are some similarities between the traditional French secular hostility to and suspicion against the influence of the Catholic church on public matters such as education and contemporary worries about and accusations of an Islamist political agenda in Turkey.
It is important, however, to see that a secularism based on fear of the negative consequences, from the perspective of a republican political project, of allowing more religion in the public sphere, e.g. as expressed in religious symbols, is fully compatible with a positive assessment of the role and significance of religion in people’s private lives. The coherence and stability of such a position hinges, however, on the ability and willingness of the people involved to make and accept a distinction between the public (political) and private (religious). This distinction is, as often noted, relatively easy to make for Christians in general and Protestants in particular, whereas the denial of the possibility and legitimacy of this distinction is central to Islamist views.
A final distinction is in order to see why it is not only protestant Christians who can acknowledge and affirm a political form of secularism. The main difference between French and US style secularisms turns of the construal of the proper scope of application of the principles of secularism. Whereas American secularists traditionally understand the doctrine of separation in a mainly institutional sense, e.g. as expressed in the anti-establishment clause of the US constitution’s First Amendment, French republicanism operates within a much broader and more encompassing scope, where religion is to be excluded from the ‘public sphere’ in a more comprehensive sense, as exemplified by the ban on the wearing and display of religious symbols in general and Muslim headscarves in particular in French public schools. In American secularism, one might say, what is to be religiously neutral is the state, whereas citizens are assumed to be religious through and through. In France, to the contrary, the state is merely the immediately visible top of the secular Iceberg; secularism applies to citizens as well in their conduct as well as in their personal deliberations. This view of secularism as what Cecile Laborde has called a ‘doctrine of conscience’ has its proponents in American political philosophy as well, of course, where heated debates over the permissibility of religiously based arguments in politics have raged over the last couple of decades.
The important observation here is, first, that even the more exclusivist views in the American public reasons debates, according to which only arguments that eschew any references to religious beliefs are admissible in political debates, mainly concern the publicly expressed views of citizens when actively engaging in political debate. As such public reason views do not place as heavy a duty on individual citizens to conform their private religious conscience to a political doctrine of secularism as French republicanism does. Secondly, and much more importantly, even though such public reason views have been prominent in American political philosophy, as exemplified by people like John Rawls and Robert Audi, they have next to no influence on how politics actually operates in the US, where religion is a very visible and influential force. In France, to the contrary, the effects of secularism as a doctrine of conscience applicable in the public sphere more broadly are very real, e.g. in the 2004 law against religious symbols in public schools.
So it is not only assertiveness or passivity that matters. What also matters is the reason to be assertive or passive, the scope within which one is assertive or passive, as well as the general mixture of assertiveness and passivity in a given political regime. If assertiveness is publicly and credibly justified in terms that are not anti-religious and/or if assertiveness is limited to some areas while more room is left for religious presence or expressions in other areas, the acceptability of a secular order may be much greater from religious, and perhaps even from certain forms of Islamist, points of view. And political, non-religious reasons for having a secular order may be sufficiently satisfied by regimes that are not assertive across the board.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author/s who retain the copyright.