Stephen Chan: Last week we talked about the sec­u­lar­iza­tion of the state, part of the com­ing to moder­ni­ty of today’s inter­na­tion­al state sys­tem. But to sec­u­lar­ize the state is not sim­ply a mag­i­cal oper­a­tion that hap­pens at the wave of a hand. You’ve got to desacral­ize the state. By sacral­ize and desacral­ize I mean the process that removes the sacred from the con­text, the mean­ing, and the ani­ma­tion of the state. And this is not an easy process. In fact, in the rev­o­lu­tions that pre­fig­ured the kind of moder­ni­ty we enjoy today, what was reli­gious had to be replaced by things that had a spir­i­tu­al qual­i­ty but were not them­selves reli­gious in the sense of hav­ing an orga­nized reli­gion as their font. 

We’ve talked about how in the United States, mason­ic sym­bols were used. They were very much a cov­er for the con­spir­a­tors against British rule. And the lega­cy of all of this in terms of sym­bols is still seen on dol­lar bills today with the pyra­mid and the eye, mys­ti­cal mason­ic sym­bols. In France, lead­ing up to the rev­o­lu­tion and after­wards, a whole doc­trine of what they called illu­min­ism sprang up and became huge­ly pop­u­lar not only in France but in many parts of Europe. The great French and American rev­o­lu­tion­ary hero Lafayette was a great illuminist.

That gave rise to what we still have today, theos­o­phy. And that’s tak­en all kinds of vari­ants. The Indian philoso­pher adopt­ed into English soci­ety Krishnamurti is very much an exam­ple of the residue of theo­soph­i­cal influ­ence that’s come down over the ages. The search for some­thing that was spir­i­tu­al but which could be mar­ried to the philo­soph­i­cal with­out becom­ing reli­gious, with­out adher­ing to any reli­gious orga­ni­za­tion that could be iden­ti­fied along church lines. So that when we talk about latter-day projects of resacral­iz­ing the state, that is putting reli­gion, sacred­ness rep­re­sent­ed by reli­gion, back into state con­fig­u­ra­tions, we’re look­ing at a process that’s got to over­come the entire for­mer process of desacral­iz­ing the state. And a lot of this depends on how scrip­ture, the text, and its adher­ence to cer­tain reli­gious forms of orga­ni­za­tion can be con­fig­ured into a uni­ty that allows it to become more pow­er­ful than state struc­tures in the cur­rent mod­ern guise.

Now, because many many hun­dreds if not thou­sands of years have passed in the dif­fer­ent reli­gious sys­tems of the world, much water has passed under­neath scrip­ture, as it were. Much inter­pre­ta­tion, rein­ter­pre­ta­tion, and debate has tak­en place, bring­ing many reli­gions into a form of moder­ni­ty. Because of this, in an effort to elide these cen­turies of quite com­plex the­o­log­i­cal debate, much effort these days is devot­ed to strip­ping back debate to its bare min­i­mum and recon­fig­ure it in terms of the ori­gin of reli­gions. The orig­i­nal texts. The orig­i­nal debates. The orig­i­nal com­men­taries that try to sum­ma­rize those debates. 

And a lot of his­tor­i­cal con­text is lost. Because for instance if there were all kinds of injunc­tions against unbe­liev­ers, the his­tor­i­cal con­text may well have been that this was not so much a reli­gious edict but an effort to con­trol ter­ri­to­ry polit­i­cal­ly as a result of the rapid and vast Arab con­quest that burst out of the Middle East into sur­round­ing coun­tries as far afoot as Europe. And the polit­i­cal nature of reli­gious edicts depends very very much on the pol­i­tics of the day. 

So trans­fer­ring one set of edicts designed for a polit­i­cal con­text that was his­tor­i­cal into a mod­ern set­ting does not always work very well. And you have ironies and con­tra­dic­tions. The injunc­tion against the image for instance, as pro­posed by cer­tain Islamic thinkers, is very much at the root of destroy­ing his­tor­i­cal arti­facts at the hands of ISIS mil­i­tants, while they’re being filmed destroy­ing these very very same imag­is­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of some­thing that was not meant to be part of a right­eous culture.

But what is a mov­ing image, and what is a still image, what’s the demar­ca­tion between the two, pro­pos­es a con­tra­dic­tion. Overcoming those con­tra­dic­tions requires a very great deal of thought. Contradictory, cer­tain­ly inge­nious, it requires thought all the same. To pro­pose this kind of dif­fi­cult thought as the foun­da­tion for vio­lence is high­ly selec­tive of course, because which thought do you select? Which thought do you apply, to which body of pol­i­tics, in which part of the world?

And you nec­es­sar­i­ly ignore the rich tapes­try of in this case Islamic devel­op­ment. You ignore for instance that in the so-called Dark Ages of European medieval­ism, it was Islamic thought that illu­mi­nat­ed a very great deal of the pos­si­bil­i­ties of social progress in Europe. The whole idea of European knight­ly chival­ry was tak­en from Islamic thought, tak­en from the coun­tries where Europeans went to cru­sade, tak­en from Andalusian Spain, that was for many many long years under­neath Islamic con­trol. The very highly-developed civ­i­liza­tions pro­posed for instance that women were meant almost to be ele­vat­ed. Obviously to an ide­al and unre­al­is­tic lev­el. Made pos­si­ble in Christian iconog­ra­phy by propo­si­tion­ing the image of Mary, moth­er of God as very very much the font of what it meant to be an ele­vat­ed, spir­i­tu­al­ized woman. 

But, this form of chival­ry import­ed from Islamic con­duct was far and away removed from the Christian debate which had hith­er­to con­sid­ered whether women were actu­al­ly human. So mak­ing them ultra­spir­i­tu­al, as opposed to mak­ing them ani­mal­is­tic, was very very much part of an accom­plish­ment of Islamic thought in those medieval times. When Richard III was cam­paign­ing against Saladin and Saladin actu­al­ly defeat­ed the Christian armies, the Christian world was astound­ed by the chival­ry and the mer­cy of Saladin. He did not exe­cute his pris­on­ers. He allowed them, for a mod­est ran­som, to go home. It’s how Richard Lionheart him­self wound back up in England and encoun­tered Robin Hood of the leg­ends of that point in time.

So the devel­op­ment of a reli­gion which devel­oped new forms of social con­duct, new forms of reci­procity, all of that needs to be elid­ed if you’re go to take, debate, to found a new state struc­ture back to its basics, back to its roots, strip­ping away hun­dreds of years of devel­op­ment, of evo­lu­tion. But then it pro­pos­es the ques­tion as to whether the new state, to which the new form of reli­gion, using old forms of text and inter­pre­ta­tion, whether that can grap­ple with a moder­ni­ty. Whether it can func­tion with­in that moder­ni­ty. And whether to pros­per with­in that modernity. 

The exam­ple of a thinker who did his very best quite suc­cess­ful­ly but prob­lem­at­i­cal­ly to accom­plish that was the Iranian thinker Ali Shariati, who dur­ing his Paris sojourn at the same time after World War II as peo­ple like Frantz Fanon, and like Fanon com­ing under­neath the spell of Jean-Paul Sartre, propos­ing a fusion of French exis­ten­tial thought, Islamic thought, poet­ic leaps of log­ic inspired by poets like Rumi, and look­ing across the Channel at the orga­ni­za­tion of the Church of England as a way of being able to rein­vig­o­rate the cler­gy that was mori­bund under­neath the Shah’s Iran, tak­ing all of these things for­ward into a fusion for the future. The likes of Shariati prob­a­bly would’ve come only once in a life­time. He left a lega­cy, but that lega­cy is very very prob­lem­at­ic in its appli­ca­tion today.

Further Reference

Religion and World Politics course information


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