A Suspension of (Dis)Belief: The Secular-Religious Binary and the Study of International Relations - Rethinking Secularism - Craig J. Calhoun

Rethinking Secularism - Craig J. Calhoun (2011)

Chapter 7. A Suspension of (Dis)Belief: The Secular-Religious Binary and the Study of International Relations*

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

Today Egypt is being challenged over the fundamental structure of the field in which the secular and the religious are defined and contested. The structure of this field under Mubarak served to legitimize certain parties, institutions, and forms of collective identification. It allowed certain kinds of political practice, such as vigorous antiterror laws and violent repression of opponents of Mubarak’s regime, while disallowing others, such as full political participation by parties designated by that regime as religious. These distinctions were enacted legally: revisions to Article 5 of the Egyptian constitution enacted in 2006 prohibited political activity based in any way upon religion, effectively banning the Muslim Brotherhood from participating in Egyptian politics.1

This was not only an internal affair. The United States stood forcefully and famously behind this state-instituted and highly securitized secular/religious oppositional binary as a means of defending its interests in the region, defined primarily as ensuring Israeli security, pursuing the war on terror, and guaranteeing access to oil. In a 2005 speech at the American University in Cairo, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice remarked: “our goal here is to encourage the Egyptian government, within its own laws and hopefully within a process and a context that is ever more reforming, to engage with civil society, with the people of Egypt for elections that can be free and fair. But we have not engaged the Muslim Brotherhood and we don’t—we won’t.”2

According to Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher, the Bush administration further hardened this position after Rice’s visit. After Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary elections, in which the MB gained one-fifth of the seats in parliament, U.S. pressure on the Mubarak regime decreased and then ceased entirely after Hamas’s victory in 2006. Washington remained silent as the Mubarak regime arrested hundreds of Brothers and transferred dozens to military courts.3 In early 2011, a powerful anti-Mubarak coalition representing a diverse cross-section of the Egyptian people overturned this entire structure of domination. Rami Khouri, the eminent Lebanese journalist, described this momentous change as “the unraveling of the post-colonial order that the British and French created in the Arab world in the 1920s and 30s and then sustained—with American and Soviet assistance—for most of the last half century.”4 The degree to which decision makers in the United States and Europe will cling to the familiar securitization of secular/religious politics in the name of regional security and order in the wake of the democratizing transformations in Egypt and elsewhere in the region remains uncertain.

The object of this book is to rethink the categories of the secular and the religious in a world in which the limitations of these categories are becoming increasingly clear with each day that passes. With this in mind, this chapter interrogates the relation between two fundamental terms used to study these questions, the secular and the religious. I refer to the division of labor between these two categories as the secular/religious binary. This binary is often perceived as something that is understood intuitively, especially by social scientists. As Linell E. Cady observes, “the conventional story of secularization authorizes a bifurcated spatialized picture of the religion/secular landscape, identifying religion with the supernatural, the irrational, and the outdated, as it positions the secular in relationship to science, reason, and modernity.”5 This chapter politicizes the secular/religious binary, using examples from recent world politics to illustrate the argument.

A Suspension of (Dis)Belief

Most academic discussions in political science and international relations presuppose a fixed definition of the secular and the religious and proceed from there. Most realist, liberal, English school, feminist, and historical-materialist approaches to international relations treat religion as either private by prior assumption or a cultural relic to be handled by anthropologists. Even constructivists, known for their attention to historical contingency and social identity, have paid scant attention to the politics of secularism and religion, focusing instead on the interaction of preexisting state units to explain how international norms influence state interests and identity or looking at the social construction of states and the state system with religion left out of the picture.

This disciplinary convention fixes in advance key definitions and terms of inquiry, with some of the most vital aspects of contemporary world politics systematically excluded from consideration. The presumption that religion has been privatized and is no longer operative in modern politics or that its influence can be neatly encapsulated in anthropological studies of a particular religious tradition and its external influence on politics has led scholars of international relations to miss or misconstrue some of the most significant political developments of our time. This narrow vision is in part attributable to a rigid and dehistoricized secular/religious binary that prestructures the field of academic political science and international relations. This academic practice, in turn, mirrors and reinforces particular kinds of limits on political practice, as suggested by the Egyptian example. Expressed and reproduced through both forms of practice, this binary polices the borders of what counts as politics and what counts as religion and how they relate to each other. It has played a critical role in the global production of knowledge. As Alasdair MacIntyre has observed of the fluid relation between theory and practice, “there ought not to be two histories, one of political and moral action and one of political and moral theorizing, because there were not two pasts, one populated only by actions, the other only by theories. Every action is the bearer and expression of more or less theory-laden beliefs and concepts; every piece of theorizing and every expression of belief is a political and moral action.”6

To be clear, I do not want to suggest that the categories of the secular and the religious fluctuate so wildly that they lack any analytical, political, or metaphysical salience, depending on one’s perspective, but, rather, that from the perspective of deep pluralism that underlies my argument, these categories cannot be taken for granted in their fixity.7 Failing to account for the power and limitations of the category of the secular and its shifting and contested relation not only to religion but to other political phenomena cast in opposition to it risks imposing a simplistic and distorted template on world politics. A rigid secular/religious divide stabilizes particular, historically contingent, and often hegemonic definitions of both politics and religion. This makes life easier for social scientists looking for answers in the short run but is costly in a world in which the way these categories come to be defined, what they come to represent and not represent, is critical to understanding how they operate politically.

At the same time, the category of religion is no more obvious than the category of the secular.8 Reconsidering the fixity of the secular/religious binary opens new epistemological spaces for the identification of forms and locations of politics that fall off the radar screen of conventional secular rationalist approaches to politics and conventional religious approaches to politics. It makes room for alternative instantiations of the secular/religious divide to work their way into political theory and practice, as is occurring today in Turkey and is discussed below.9

A second qualification is that not all social scientists are cut from a single mold, and the degree to which any individual, institution, party, state, or international organization unthinkingly reproduces any particular secular/religious binary varies. It would be inaccurate to suggest that everyone approaches these questions in the same way. Yet particular varieties of secularism, like varieties of religion, have had an organizing influence on the ways in which most Europeans and Americans define and relate to basic categorizations involving religion and politics. These categorizations also change over time, as Charles Taylor argues in chapter 1 of this book, with the secular coming to refer in our time to that pertaining to a self-sufficient immanent sphere. The practices, institutions, and ways of being designated as secular sustain and shape the contours of public life and the modern organization of social-scientific knowledge. These traditions do not merely reflect social reality; they help to construct it.10 They embody attitudes, sensibilities, and habits that facilitate closure and agreement around cultural, political, and legal settlements of the separation of church and state, the definition of religion, and what constitutes normal politics. There is in many contexts an identifiable secular “pattern of political rule,”11 helping to generate and sustain the category of religion and setting preconditions for particular kinds of academic and political practice.

The unthinking adoption of a rigid secular/religious binary in the social sciences has had at least three consequences for the study of world politics. First, social scientists are encouraged to define research questions, select methods, and present results that fall squarely into the “secular” half of the binary, understood as the domain of rational humanism. They are taught to avoid religion, the domain of the supernatural, superstitious, otherworldly, metaphysical, and so forth. This encourages social scientists to approach religion either not at all or as a particular, emotive (as opposed to secular, rational, and universal) dimension of politics alongside others such as gender, caste, and (at times) nation.12 The secular/religious binary operates such that not to be secular is to be emotional, irrational, unpredictable, and behind the march of progress. Quietly at work here is the notion that only the West, with its narrative of secularization, has found its way out of the woods, while other civilizations continue to cast about in a desperate search to answer the questions that the West resolved centuries ago.13 Lodged within this narrative is the assumption that the secular is the natural domain of rational self-interest and universalist ethics. 14 The secular thus comes to stand not only in an oppositional relation to religion but also as the natural counterpart to other dimensions of politics that do not fit comfortably within the categories of either rational self-interest or universalist ethics.

This suggests that the secular is a more powerful and capacious category than one might assume when it is taken to stand only in contradistinction to the religious. Loosening the hold of a fixed secular/religious binary opens up a broader field of inquiry into modern formations of authority than may be apparent at the outset. The secular grounds and secures a place for the good, rational, and universal in Western moral order, which is then opposed to series of nonrational or irrational particularisms, aberrations, or variations. Religion often, though not always, appears as one of these particularisms. It is not the only candidate: institutions and identities associated with (ethnic as opposed to civic) nationalism, race, caste, and gender all have been cast in an oppositional relation to secular rational self-interest and/or universalist ethics. This is the sense in which it is possible to glimpse the capacious power of the category of the secular above and beyond its extraordinary capacity to define and delimit the religious. I return to this below.

A second consequence of the naturalization of the secular/religious binary is that the study of religion and politics tends to focus not on secularism in relation to religion or the other categories discussed above (the binary has effectively segregated these categories) but on predefined religious traditions taken as independent objects of inquiry and the degree to which they infiltrate or influence politics. This division of labor divides inquiry into mainstream (secular) studies on the one hand and studies of religion or religion and politics on the other. A fixed understanding of religion in relation to the secular supports an understanding of the secular as that which is associated with normal, rational politics. Religion becomes a repository for a range of nonrational and nonuniversal dimensions of politics that fall outside the range of “normal” politics, including belief, culture, tradition, mood, and emotion.

A third consequence of the stabilization of the binary is that a particular (often monotheistic) definition of religion is often taken as the norm. This definition constructs an object of study and defines religious actors and institutions according to a particular set of parameters. These limitations press those trained in the traditions of European and American international-relations scholarship to read the world in a particular way, with an emphasis on European religious history and experience, and to misconstrue or miss entirely a whole spectrum of political actors, histories, and processes. Perhaps most significant among these are the intense political struggles, historical contingencies, religious ambivalences, and philosophical uncertainties surrounding the practices associated with and legitimized by claims to the secular itself.

The study of religion, secularism, and international affairs requires a suspension of (dis)belief to address these limitations and move toward new paradigms for the study of religion and politics.15 It requires suspending disbelief in the particularity of the secular (or suspending one’s belief in the universalizing potential of the secularization narrative, depending on how you look at it) and approaching the secular/religious binary not as fixed but as shifting, evolving, and elusive. This suspension of (dis)belief can be uncomfortable for those socialized in Euro-American secularisms, which are kept afloat by a high degree of certainty surrounding the stability of these categories. But I hope to show that it is worth the effort. Suspending the assumption that any secular/religious binary is fixed and universal and approaching it as an unstable, historically contingent construct that is capable of sustaining a broad discursive field that goes beyond the maintenance of a distinction between the secular and the religious allows the ground that supports this distinction to shift in intellectually fruitful directions.

And the ground is shifting. Developments in late-modern international relations, such as increasing pluralization within societies, rising global interdependence, the retreat of Christendom,16 the questioning of the universality of the Enlightenment, and a rise in religiously inspired forms of collective political identification, demand a destabilization of the fundamental terms and binaries (secular rational versus religious irrational, philosophical versus theological, reason versus faith) that have structured inquiry on this subject for decades.17 Understanding the politics of secularism requires this suspension of (dis)belief. Like their counterparts in philosophy and political theory, international relations theorists need to hone their capacity to pose research questions that do not presuppose fixed definitions of these terms or relations between them. What claims to the secular and the religious signify in different circumstances and what political effects these claims have in various settings are precisely what needs to be explored.

Politicizing and Historicizing Secularism

How a researcher identifies an object of inquiry, the kinds of questions posed, and the methods chosen are determined in part by his or her presuppositions about the secular/religious binary. Charles Taylor alludes to this in his discussion of the “unthought” underpinning secularization theory: “Much of the sociology/history of secularization has been affected/shaped by an ‘unthought,’ which is related in a more complex way to the outlook of the author in question, that is, not simply as a polemical extension of one’s views, but in the more subtle way that one’s own framework beliefs and values can constrict one’s theoretical imagination.”18 Most international relations scholars operate from within a secularist “unthought” that predisposes them toward questions, actors, institutions, and processes presumed to be nonreligious or irreligious. Others, swimming against this tide, focus explicitly on religious questions, actors, institutions, challenges, and processes, conventionally understood. In both cases, the relation between the secular and the religious is presumed to be stable. An ontologically fixed understanding of what is secular and what is religious underlies and is reinforced both by analysts concerned with secular actors, institutions, and processes and by those focusing on religious actors, institutions, and processes. A corollary to this is the assumption that religious actors and institutions progress in a linear fashion away from the religious and toward the secular. This developmentalist teleology, also influential in the literature on democratization,19 is an important component of the modern social imaginary, and analyses of religion and politics are not immune from its influence.

To move beyond this mode of inquiry and account for the co-constitutive relation between the secular and the religious and the power relations reflected in the division between them, it will not do simply to incorporate religious actors, variables, viewpoints, institutions, or practices into otherwise untouched secular analyses. This “add and stir” approach misses the point, because adding a religious viewpoint, variable, or actor does not compensate for the fact that the basic categories structuring the analysis remain untouched. As other contributors to this book have emphasized, it is the unreflective reliance on these basic categories that needs to be overcome in order to make the transition into the modes of apprehending the world required to understand contemporary global politics. The task is to develop research questions that neither default without explanation to a conventional secular or religious perspective, thereby reproducing the very categories and distinctions that need interrogation, nor succumb to the assumption that there is a naturally occurring, linear progression out of the religious and into the secular.

This requires navigating the history and politics of the secular/religious binary. As both the more secularly and more religiously inclined discover along the way, it is nearly impossible to avoid engagement with the spaces that lie between these two points of entry (confounding their supposed epistemological integrity) and, more fundamentally, with the broader field that underlies and sustains this complex and unstable binary itself.20 Studying religion and international affairs requires an engagement with the secular because the definition of religion, of religious actors, of religious subjectivities and institutions is bound up with and animated by particular (and often variable) assumptions about and historical practices associated with various forms of secularism. Studying secularism and international affairs requires an engagement with the religious because various forms of secularism carry within them particular assumptions about, definitions of, and practices associated with (both in terms of contemporary practices and as historical legacies) religion. Talal Asad has argued most convincingly in favor of the interrelatedness of these categories; as Gil Anidjar observes, “no one has done more than Asad (and arguably, Said) to show in the same gesture the urgency of reflecting on religion and the religious as well as on the secular and all its ensuing distinctions.”21

To take the secular/religious distinction, presumably one’s own or the disciplinary norm, for granted is to miss the influence of varieties of secularism in international relations. International-relations scholars need to attend to how the terms of this distinction prestructure political theory and practice. Conventional negotiations of the secular/religious distinction in the discipline of international relations presume a fixed definition of the secular and, correspondingly, the religious. This rules out identifying and framing objects of study that require historicization and politicization of the secular/religious binary to appear in the researcher’s field of vision. To open these spaces requires letting go of the notion that the secular/religious distinction is fixed, secure, and universal—a presupposition that Taylor, Connolly, and Anidjar have identified, in different ways, as part of the complex humanist inheritance of Latin Christendom. Acknowledging the historical and political contingencies of this binary leads to a critical reexamination of the assumptions embedded in hypotheses, empirical tests, and research findings in international-relations scholarship.

Let me give some examples. First, historicizing the binary makes it possible to access the assumptions that sustain different varieties of secularism and analyze the political consequences for foreign policy and international relations. This was the task of my book The Politics of Secularism in International Relations. The book analyzes how certain state (and suprastate) institutions organize, settle, and institutionalize—politically, legally, culturally—public settlements involving the relation between religion and politics. It identifies the contours and contents of the forms of secularism that have become hegemonic in particular times and places and argues that these broad and contested settlements are embedded in the creation and reproduction of national and supranational forms of collective identity, reflected and reproduced in legal, religious political traditions and institutions and sustained and transformed through everyday practices, lived experiences, and dispositions. It then seeks to determine how these public settlements influence how political collectivities represent and interact with other state or suprastate actors in the international system. Shared interests, identities, and traditions involving religion and politics developed at the state and regional level are influential at the systemic level; in particular, domestic negotiations of the secular and the religious in Europe and the United States have influenced the ways Europeans and Americans relate to the Middle East and North Africa. In Europe, the United States, and to varying degrees elsewhere, two sets of shared dispositions involving the relation between religion and politics have crystallized into two traditions of secularism: laicism and what I call “Judeo-Christian” secularism.22 Briefly, laicism insists on a rigid separation between what it designates as religion and secular law, institutions, and politics, while Judeo-Christian secularism calls for a less rigid accommodation of Christian, and eventually what came to be referred to as “Judeo-Christian,” tradition in secular law, institutions, and politics. These shared systems of belief and practice form part of the cultural and religious backdrop out of which Europeans and Americans engage in international relations. They are powerful collective dispositions that shape modern sensibilities, habits, laws, and institutions concerning the meaning of the religious and its relationship to the political.

Second, the identities and scope of activities of many transnational actors, including relief organizations, terrorists, missionaries, political parties, the Catholic church, human-rights activists, and environmentalist networks, cannot be represented within the terms of a fixed secular/religious binary. Politicizing and historicizing the binary make it possible to access interdependencies and interplay between secular and religious ideas, actors, and institutions and to understand how they transform one another while contributing to modern forms of social and political order. Taking AIDS policy in Senegal as an example, Alfred Stepan has shown that Senegalese political leaders have adopted multiple strategies to fight AIDS, including enlisting religious leaders, training them, and ensuring that HIV/AIDS is an issue in Friday prayers, on TV and radio, and in religious teaching programs.23 Since the early 1980s, as a result of these efforts, the HIV/AIDS rate in Senegal has been less than 1 percent. It is not possible to understand these developments without reconsidering the secular/religious binary; looking only at so-called secular political actors or so-called religious actors systematically biases the account and leaves out some of the most interesting aspects of these developments, including how interactions between religious actors and their secular counterparts change both of them. Approaching this question in terms of a broader field of practice that is not defined by the secular/religious binary makes it possible to look at how various ideas, institutions, and actors interact, deconstructing and reconstructing each other, while expanding or contracting what Stepan identifies as spaces of conflict and tolerance.

The same holds for the study of missionary activities. Focusing exclusively on so-called secular themes, actors, and institutions misses early American Protestant missionaries’ contribution to defining what it meant to be an American, and not just a religious American, in early America. Politicizing and historicizing the secular/religious distinction opens space for consideration of religious actors that have remained on the margins of the discussion. Early American nationalism, like its contemporary counterpart, cannot be fully understood in purely secular terms, as it was (and remains) an amalgam of anti-Islamic Orientalism, ideals of Christian superiority, and an American approach to government.24 This approach to American foreign relations leads to a richer and more nuanced account of how the secular, the religious, and the political interweave, interact, and modify one another. It also makes it possible to see how religious traditions are rephrased and resonate within American politics and foreign policy, including contemporary notions of the “rogue state” and the Islamist terrorist and depictions of Islam as a “false religion.”25

The Politics of Secularism and American Opposition to Iran

Politicizing the secular/religious binary changes the interpretive filter used to process key events and processes in global politics. This section illustrates the implications of this argument with a closer look at two cases from The Politics of Secularism in International Relations: American reactions to the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 and the rise of the Justice and Development party in Turkey.

The most powerful American condemnation of the Iranian Revolution on cultural and religious grounds occurred when secularists of different types came to the same conclusion about developments in Iran in 1978-79, though for different reasons. In both laicist and Judeo-Christian secularist accounts, in the former because of its inexplicable and irrational revolt against modernization and in the latter because of the resurgence of Islam and its alleged theocratic proclivities, the Iranian Revolution was depicted as a setback for civilization. In both cases, as Richard Cottam argues, “the Khomeini phenomenon was explained as a consequence of the shah’s having moved too quickly for the ignorant, barely aware Iranian to be able to follow his lead.”26 This account became the standard bearer among U.S. representations of the revolution. For laicists, because the revolution imported (any) religion directly into a modernizing public sphere in which the former was unwelcome, it was a defeat for the progress of universal values and civilization. For Judeo-Christian secularists, because the revolution imported Islam into a modernizing public sphere in which the former was unwelcome, it represented a defeat for the progress of Western values and civilization. Working in tandem and combined at different moments with the influence of material and strategic interests in the region, the tenacity of these two varieties of secularism in the American political imagination helps to explain the vehemence of American opposition to the Iranian Revolution.

The American response to the revolution also illustrates the ways in which particular varieties of secularism become embedded in the creation and reproduction of national identities. In addition to activating preexisting American cultural and religious presuppositions about religion and politics, the Iranian Revolution represented a direct affront to a powerful set of connections among American national identity, secularism, and democracy. Secular, rational, democratic American national identity was secured in part through opposition to theocratic, irrational, tyrannical Iran. This illustrates my earlier point that the secular often comes to stand in for the rational and universal in distinction to the irrational and particular, reproducing a series of distinctions that go beyond secular/religious, such that the nonsecular is defined (and rejected) as antimodern, antiuniversalist, antirational, and also, in this case, anti-American.

In rejecting the attempt to impose authoritarian secularism in Iran, the revolution called into question this foundational connection among secular modernization, secular universalism, rational politics, and democratization. It disrupted the secular-rational-universalist/religious-irrational-particularist division of labor. Indeed, one of the central messages of the revolutionaries was that in prerevolutionary Iran, these principles had been working at odds—secular rationalism and modernization had led to repression and not to democratization. The shah was secular yet undemocratic. Secular modernization had served as a legitimizing principle for the suppression of local politics and practice.27 In challenging Western assumptions about secularization and its allegedly irrefutable connection to rational universalism and democratization, the revolution called attention to the fact that the secular/religious binary is not fixed but rather socially and historically constructed. It can be constructed differently in different historical circumstances, with varying implications for democratization. The revolution demonstrated that secularism is not always a stand-in for rational universalism but is instantiated differently in different circumstances. By illustrating the contingent nature of the secularist settlement in Iran, the revolution made explicit the essentially contested and politicized nature of secularist settlements everywhere, including in the United States.28 By confirming the contingent relationship between secularization and democratization in Iran, the revolution called attention to the contested and controversial relation among religion, democracy, and national identity in the United States. The revolution presented a challenge to American national identity insofar as the latter is anchored in a powerful series of assumptions about the pregiven and nonnegotiable compatibility among modernity, secular universalism, and democratization.

One consequence for international politics of this perceived affront to the American democratic, secularist settlement was that in the United States from 1979 onward, to stand for a (laicist or Judeo-Christian) secular and democratic United States was to oppose an (Islamic) theocratic and authoritarian Iran. Representing Islam and the Iranians as a threat to modern American civilization was a performative gesture cementing the connection among American national identity, (laicist and Judeo-Christian) secularism, and democracy in opposition to Iranian (Islamic) theocracy and tyranny. A secularist version of what Michael Dillon calls a horror alieni29 surfaced on the American political landscape at the time of the revolution, seeking to disassociate the United States from the injustices of the shah’s secular yet undemocratic regime, to divest American identity of everything enigmatic and strange (Islam), and to shore up American nationalism as universalist, democratic, laicist, Christian, and secular. This helps to explain the intensity of the American response to the revolution and the long life span of American opposition to postrevolutionary Iran. The antagonism results not only from clashing economic and strategic interests in the Middle East, although these factors were and remain significant. It is part of a process of securing a complex and hybrid identity of the United States as secular, Christian, and democratic in opposition to a particular figure of Iran. It was not just that in order to defend American national interests, one needed to be opposed to Iran but that in order to bea real American, one needed to oppose Iran. Anti-Iranianism became at least in part constitutive of American identity, which is inhabited by powerful assumptions about the relationship among modernity, secularism, and democracy. The American reaction to the revolution made these assumptions explicit. Anti-Iranianism was, and to some extent remains today, what constructivists in international relations refer to as a constitutive norm.

The Politics of Secularism and the Challenge to Turkish Kemalism

Nowhere has a particular secular/religious distinction been defended with the vigor of the Turkish Kemalist establishment and its supporters. For this reason, it is not possible to understand recent political developments in Turkish politics, and specifically the rise of the AK Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or Justice and Development Party) without politicizing and historicizing the secular/religious distinction. From a Kemalist perspective, the AKP appears as a threat to democratic politics to be repressed at any cost. Reconsidering the rigid secular/religious binary that animates Kemalist practice, however, allows us to tell a different story about the AKP’s ascent in Turkish politics.30

In 1997, the National Security Council forced Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of RP (Refah Partisi, or Welfare Party, the AKP’s predecessor), to accept eighteen “recommendations” reaffirming the secular nature of the Turkish state and designating political Islam the top national security concern. The military briefed governmental, judicial, and nongovernmental organizations on the presence of an “Islamic threat” in Turkey, and Erbakan resigned on June 18, 1997. In this “soft coup,” the army enjoyed the backing of the Kemalist establishment, including much of the military, civil service, and intelligentsia. In January 1998, the Turkish Constitutional Court banned the RP, expelled Erbakan from Parliament, tried him for sedition, banned him from politics for five years, and seized the party’s assets. The court argued that “laicism is not only a separation between religion and politics but also a necessary division between religion and society.”31 Defying the official ban, the RP was succeeded by the Virtue (Fazilet) Party, which was in turn banned in June 2001, charged with serving as a “center for antisecular activities.” Virtue split into two factions: conservatives led by Necmettin Erbakan became the Felicity (Saadet) Party, and reformists under Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the AKP. In national elections on November 3, 2002, the AKP received 34 percent of the vote, far more than any other party and enough to form a government and nominate a prime minister. While some contend that the AKP renegotiated the Kemalist settlement since taking power in late 2002, others counter that the party distanced itself from its previous commitments so as to render its challenge to Kemalism less substantial or nonexistent. In any case, despite considerable trepidation on the part of the military and its Western allies concerning the Islamicization of Turkish politics, the party has not imposed Islamic law. It has endorsed what some describe as a conservative democratic and others a “Muslimhood” model in which “religious ethics inspire public service but overt religiosity is not part of an individual’s public political identity.”32

Yet suspicions of the party continue to circulate and even to define Turkish politics. In spring 2006, former president Süleyman Demirel suggested that the AKP “remained under suspicion of ‘dissimulation’ (takiye), a reference to its failure to convince the entire public that it has fully acquiesced in the secularism of Atatürk.”33 In April 2007, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer warned that the country’s secular system “faces its greatest threat since the founding of the republic in 1923” and proclaimed that all state organs, including the military, had a duty to protect the system.34 Hundreds of thousands of supporters of Kemalism demonstrated in Ankara and then Istanbul at the end of April 2007. When the AKP announced its candidate for president, Abdullah Gül, the opposition deputies boycotted the election in Parliament,35 and the military posted a declaration on its official Web site (referred to as an “e-coup”) suggesting that “some circles who have been carrying out endless efforts to disturb fundamental values of the Republic of Turkey, especially secularism, have escalated their efforts recently” and that the military is the “definite defender of secularism” and “will show its stance clearly when needed.”36

Kemalists (represented prominently but not exclusively by the Turkish military) portray the destabilization of the Kemalist secular/religious binary and renegotiation of Turkish laiklik as a lurking danger to be suppressed in defense of democratic (read Kemalist) norms and institutions. The Kemalist establishment and its allies abroad, including the United States, have been wary of the rise of Islamic political identification symbolized by the party.37 A rigid secular/religious binary, in which Kemalism has sought to monopolize the “secular” side of the binary and designated rival political actors as “religious” as a means of delegitimizing them, has been a powerful force in Turkish politics, as it was in Egypt under Mubarak. Seen from within this binary, any challenge to Kemalism with any relation to Islamic political identification is indicted as backsliding away from modernization and toward archaic forms of political order that threaten domestic and regional stability and security. From this perspective, religion in general, and Islam in particular, is “a remnant of underdevelopment that is bound to disappear with industrialization and urbanization.”38

Not only Kemalists but also many others take this perspective as normal and natural. The secular comes to stand in for modern, rational politics not only in opposition to religion per se but also as distinguished from other forms of dissenting politics that do not fit a particular understanding of what it means to be modern and democratic. This mind-set contributed to a July 31, 2001, decision by the European Court of Human Rights to support the Turkish establishment’s suppression of the Welfare Party.39 The court ruled 4-3 that the government’s action to ban the party did not violate human rights because Turkey had legitimate concerns about the party’s threatening its democratic society.40 The majority argued that the party leadership’s intention to establish Islamic law conflicted with values embodied in the European Convention on Human Rights and that statements by the leadership suggested that it might resort to force in order to gain and retain power.41 The following excerpt from the summary of the judgment of the court’s decision indicates that the majority subscribed to a Kemalist secular/religious distinction in which a party must either support the particular, state-sponsored version of laicism (Kemalism) or represent a threat to democratic politics:

The Court held that the sanctions imposed on the applicants could reasonably be considered to meet a pressing social need for the protection of democratic society, since, on the pretext of giving a different meaning to the principle of secularism, the leaders of the Refah Partisi had declared their intention to establish a plurality of legal systems based on differences in religious belief, to institute Islamic law (the Sharia), a system of law that was in marked contrast to the values embodied in the Convention. They had also left in doubt their position regarding recourse to force in order to come to power and, more particularly, to retain power.

The Court considered that even if States’ margin of appreciation was narrow in the area of the dissolution of political parties, since pluralism of ideas and parties was an inherent element of democracy, the State concerned could reasonably prevent the implementation of such a political programme, which was incompatible with Convention norms, before it was given effect through specific acts that might jeopardise civil peace and the country’s democratic regime.42

Yet the RP was a complex phenomenon insofar as it contained significant elements that did not advocate a radical stance against the West, democracy, or the concept of secularism, although it did oppose the Kemalist instantiation of secularism.43 These complexities, and the possibility (expressed to a lesser degree in Refah’s policies and rhetoric and to a greater degree by its successor AKP) that one could oppose Kemalism while supporting a different form of secularism, escaped the categorizations available to European and Turkish judicial authorities sitting on both the Turkish Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights. Working out of a secular/religious binary defined by Kemalist practice and informed by European traditions of secularism upon which Kemalism had been loosely modeled nearly a century earlier, the courts presumed that the alternative to benevolent secular democracy (in its Kemalist form) would be menacing antimodern Islamic theocracy (overturning Kemalism). The judges dismissed the possibility of a reformulated secularism as a “pretext,” arguing that the real intention of the party was to “institute Islamic law.” They viewed Kemalism in its current form as the closest approximation to secularism available and took it to be a universal good, or at least a decent approximation of the “values embodied in the Convention.” In short, they both subscribed to and reproduced a rigid Kemalist construal of the secular/religious distinction.

My reading of developments in Turkey politicizes the Kemalist secular/religious distinction. The rise of Islamic political identification in Turkey represents not a return to a fixed, antimodern Islamic tradition but a renegotiation of the Kemalist settlement including the secular/religious distinction and a vast array of juridical, institutional, and everyday practices that undergird and reproduce it. This becomes apparent when the Kemalist secular/religious distinction is made part of the object of inquiry rather than being taken for granted. To return to the overarching argument of this chapter, developments in Turkey demand a destabilization of the fundamental terms and binaries (secular versus religious, philosophical versus theological) that structure political inquiry. This recovers the conceptual space needed to develop research questions about secularism, religion, and politics that do not presuppose fixed definitions of these terms or relations among them. What claims to the secular or the religious signify in Turkey and what moral and political effects these claims have in this particular case are questions to be explored.

This approach also reveals the extent to which the Kemalist settlement reproduces a particular relationship to, and control over, what the state defines as (a particular Sunni-Hanefi form of) Islam. Kemalist practice is constantly defining and controlling religion. The Kemalist power centers of the state, to the extent that they remain powerful, are forced to “theologize” the religions that they oversee. By this I mean that the state, like other secular states, must play the theologian, discourse and reason theologically, and speculate in theology. The Turkish state controls all of the 80,000 mosques in Turkey and employs their imams as state functionaries. Sunni Hanefi Islam is the doctrine of the State Directorate of Religious Affairs (DRA). Other sects, including the Alevis, which make up 20 to 30 percent of the Turkish population, are not recognized by the state.44

The rise to political prominence of differently configured forms of religiopolitical identity and practice in Turkey is part of a public struggle against and around authoritative Kemalist designations of the secular/religious binary authorized and enforced by state authorities since the founding of the Republic. These dissenting forms of politics represent a challenge to Kemalist attempts to define and regulate the division among the secular, the religious, and the political. They contest Kemalist attempts to theologize religion. These challenges are a series of efforts to grant cultural and political legitimacy to alternative models of religious separation and accommodation. They are working out of a different instantiation of the secular/religious distinction, not to jettison this distinction altogether, as some critics have suggested, but to refashion it.

Politicizing the secular/religious binary may allow us to see developments in Turkey through the lens of what Stepan calls the “twin tolerations,” defined as “the minimal boundaries of freedom of action that must somehow be crafted for political institutions vis-à-vis religious authorities, and for religious individuals and groups vis-à-vis political institutions.”45 As Stepan concludes, “when we consider the question of non-Western religions and their relationship to democracy, it would seem appropriate not to assume univocality but to explore whether these doctrines contain multivocal components that are usable for (or at least compatible with) the construction of the twin tolerations.”46 The challenge to Kemalism testifies both to the inability of the Kemalists to monopolize the secular/religious distinction and to the multivocality of Islamic tradition and its potential compatibility with the twin tolerations. The drive to remake the Kemalist public realm is a contestation of an authoritative secularist tradition that has been authorized and regulated by state authorities since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. This contest involves whether the secular/religious distinction that underlies and animates Kemalism will remain hegemonic or will be refashioned. After the elections of July 2007 and Gül’s election to the presidency in August 2007, the latter appears more likely.


Secularisms differ from one another, particularly those that arose not out of Christianity, as did dominant strains of European and American secularisms (such as French laïcité, famously dubbed catholaïcité by French philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin),47 but out of, through, and against other religious traditions. To study the secular and the religious in world politics requires a suspension of (dis)belief, a reconsideration of the political, philosophical, and religious certainties sustaining the rigid secular/religious binary that has underwritten most social-scientific scholarship to date. Politicizing and historicizing this binary is the first step toward research questions that do not presuppose rigid definitions of the secular and the religious or relations between them. Secular/religious binaries are contingent constructs that draw sustenance from different guiding assumptions, beliefs, and faiths—theistic, polytheistic, nontheistic—about the world both seen and unseen.

In politicizing and historicizing this binary, this chapter has drawn attention to dimensions of politics and forms of political authority, including the power exercised by the category of the secular itself, which would otherwise fall outside the epistemological reach of the conventional toolkit of social science. This shift in paradigm brings new insights to the field of international relations. It makes it possible to see the world more fully, not necessarily to reject rationalism as such but to embed it within something bigger.


* I would like to thank the members of the SSRC Working Group on Religion, Secularism & International Affairs for their commentary on and contributions to this chapter.

1. Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher, “Boxing in the Brothers,” Middle East Report, August 8, 2007, http://www.merip.org/mero/mero080807.html.

2. Condoleezza Rice, “Question and Answer at the American University in Cairo,” June 20, 2005.

3. Shehata and Stacher, “Boxing in the Brothers.”

4. Rami G. Khouri, “The Arab Freedom Epic.” Agence Globale, February 2, 2011, http://www.agenceglobal.com/article.asp?id=2492.

5. Linell E. Cady, “Royce, Dewey, and the Religion/Secular Classification: Toward a Kaleidoscopic Model,” American Journal of Theology & Philosophy 29, no. 3 (September 2008): 243-244.

6. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 61.

7. On deep pluralism, see William E. Connolly, Pluralism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005).

8. See Timothy Fitzgerald, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

9. This attempt to open new epistemological and political spaces may be contrasted with Pope Benedict XVI’s reassertion of the spiritual supremacy of the Vatican, in which he called for believers to return to the “true faith” and harden their suspicion of Protestants, atheists, Muslims, pluralists, Jews, secularists, and others who (allegedly) threaten that faith. See Robert Marquand, “A Church’s Assertive Shift toward Tradition,” Christian Science Monitor,July 18, 2007, http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0718/p01s05-lire.html.

10. This argument is from chap. 2, “Varieties of Secularism,” of my book, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008). Excerpts from the book are reprinted here with permission of Princeton University Press.

11. Talal Asad, “Responses,” in David Scott and Charles Hirschkind, eds., Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006), 219.

12. For a discussion of emotion and affect in international relations that bears on the power of the secular to secure particular forms of modern moral order, see Andrew A. G. Ross, “Coming in from the Cold: Constructivism and Emotions,” European Journal of International Relations 12, no. 2 (2006): 197-222.

13. See Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (New York: Knopf, 2007).

14. I thank Craig Calhoun for encouraging me to develop this argument.

15. Poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the term “suspension of disbelief” in his Biographia Literaria (1817), in the context of the creation and reading of poetry, to refer to “the voluntary withholding of skepticism on the part of the reader with regard to incredible characters and events.” In coining the term, Coleridge was describing preparations for a collaboration with William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads (1798): “it was agreed, that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us.” William Safire observed of this statement, “the context is an eye-opener…. Wordsworth delivered in his area… ‘to give the charm of novelty to things of every day’… and Coleridge worked the other side of the street.” William Safire, “On Language,” New York Times Magazine,October 7, 2007, 16.

16. See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007), chap. 14, “Religion Today.”

17. William Connolly describes a world in which, “first, the acceleration of tempo compresses distance and intensifies interdependence, second, no more than thirty percent of human beings call themselves Christian, and, third, secular intellectualism provides too thin a gruel to serve as the neutral matrix to regulate relations between faiths.” William E. Connolly, “Catholicism and Philosophy: A Nontheistic Appreciation,” in Ruth Abbey, ed., Charles Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 178.

18. Taylor, A Secular Age, 428.

19. In Jillian Schwedler’s critique of the transitions to democracy literature, she argues that “scholars should abandon the notion that the ‘space’ between authoritarianism and democracy is characterized by a continuum of stages from primitive, traditional, or patriarchal systems of rule (authoritarianism) to modern, rational-legal systems of rule (democracy).” Jillian Schwedler, Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 6.

20. See Taylor, A Secular Age; Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003); and William E. Connolly, Why I Am Not a Secularist (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

21. Gil Anidjar, “Secularism,” Critical Inquiry 33 (Autumn 2006): 57-58. See Asad, Formations of the Secular; and Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).

22. For an explanation of my use of the term “Judeo-Christian” secularism that goes beyond the discussion in this book, see Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, “Secularism and International Relations Theory,” in Jack Snyder, ed., Religion and International Relations Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

23. Alfred Stepan, “Rituals of Respect: Sufis and Secularists in Senegal” (unpublished manuscript).

24. Timothy Worthington Marr, Imagining Ishmael: Studies of Islamic Orientalism in America from the Puritans to Melville (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI, 1998), 87; see also Timothy Worthington Marr, The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

25. Marr, Imagining Ishmael, 92. See also Richard Falk, “False Universalism and the Geopolitics of Exclusion: The Case of Islam,” Third World Quarterly 18, no. 1 (March 1997): 7-23.

26. Richard W. Cottam, Iran and the United States: A Cold War Case Study (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988), 13.

27. Ali Mirsepassi, Intellectual Discourse and the Politics of Modernization: Negotiating Modernity in Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

28. For a comparative and global study of the history and politics of secularism in France, India, the United States, and Turkey, see Linell E. Cady and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, eds., Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

29. Michael Dillon, “The Scandal of the Refugee: Some Reflections on the ‘Inter’ of International Relations and Continental Thought,” in David Campbell and Michael J. Shapiro, eds., Moral Spaces: Rethinking Ethics and World Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1999), 104.

30. For a more detailed account, see “Contested Secularisms in Turkey and Iran,” chap. 4 of Hurd, The Politics of Secularism, 65-83.

31. M. Hakan Yavuz, “Cleansing Islam from the Public Sphere,” Journal of International Affairs 54, no. 1 (Fall 2000): 38.

32. Jenny White, “Turkey’s New ‘Muslimhood’: The End of ‘Islamism’?” Congress Monthly (November/December 2003): 6-9.

33. Gamze Çavdar, “Behind Turkey’s Presidential Battle,” Middle East Report Online, May 7, 2007, http://www.merip.org/mero/mero050707.html.

34. Ibid., citing the Turkish daily Milliyet, April 13, 2007.

35. The opposition asserted (without precedent) that a quorum of three-quarters of MPs had to be present for the vote to proceed and took their objection to Turkey’s constitutional court, which annulled the first round of voting on May 1, 2007, a verdict described by Prime Minister Erdogan as a “bullet fired at the heart of democracy.” Gül withdrew his candidacy five days later, after another failed round of voting. Andrew Finkel, “Turkey: Torn between God and State,” Le Monde Diplomatique (May 2007), http://mondediplo.com/2007/05/02turkey.

36. Çavdar, “Behind Turkey’s Presidential Battle,” citing Milliyet, April 28, 2007. Çavdar notes that “the government issued a counter-statement reminding the general staff that they are government employees and that, in democracies, it is not acceptable for the armed forces to intervene in politics.”

37. The Turkish military had the full support of Israel and the United States in the 1998 ouster of the Erbakan government. See M. Hakan Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 254.

38. Haldun Gülalp, “Globalizing Postmodernism: Islamist and Western Social Theory,” Economy and Society 26, no. 3 (August 1997): 431.

39. Although the European Court of Human Rights is not an official EU institution, its decisions are regarded as significant in Turkey at a time when Turkey is seeking accession to the European Union.

40. Judges from France, Turkey, Norway, and Albania supported the majority opinion, and judges from Austria, Cyprus, and Britain dissented.

41. Human Rights Watch World Report 2002: Turkey, http://www.hrw.org/wr2k2/europe19.html.

42. Press release issued by the Registrar of the European Court of Human Rights, “Judgment in the Case of Refah Partisi (the Welfare Party) Erbakan, Kazan and Tekdal v. Turkey,” issued July 31, 2001.

43. Nilüfer Gole, “Authoritarian Secularism and Islamist Politics: The Case of Turkey,” in Augustus Richard Norton, ed., Civil Society in the Middle East, vol. 1 (New York: Brill, 1995), 38-39.

44. Hakan Yavuz, “Islam and Europeanization in Turkish-Muslim Socio-Political Movements,” in Peter J. Katzenstein and Timothy Byrnes, eds., Religion in an Expanding Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 240.

45. Alfred Stepan, “Religion, Democracy, and the ‘Twin Tolerations,’” in Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, and Philip J. Costopoulos, eds., World Religions and Democracy (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 3. For a more detailed discussion of the twin tolerations, see Alfred Stepan, Arguing Comparative Politics (New York: Oxford University Press), 213-254.

46. Stepan, “Religion, Democracy, and the ‘Twin Tolerations,’” 44.

47. Yolande Jansen, “Laïcité, or the Politics of Republican Secularism,” in Hent de Vries and Lawrence E. Sullivan, eds., Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), 478-480.