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.
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