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The Montréal Review, September 2016


Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism by Jakob De Roover

(Oxford University Press, 2015)


            Secularism is not as "secular" as we are used to hear. It is not "anti-religious" as well. In fact, secularism is the unexpected "child" of Christianity; a child that many non-Christian societies have tried to adopt. This child, metaphorically speaking, has become an adult, and today, it seems to experience a "middle-age" crisis. These are some of the main arguments of Jacob De Roover's new book "Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism." 

            There are different kinds of secularism. The most popular is the liberal model. The core of this model is the separation of politics from religion. Liberal secularism is a product of both the Christian Reformation and European Enlightenment. The center of its political ideology is the "sacrality" of the so-called "neutral" state. According to this model, the state policies cannot be based on religious doctrine.

            Liberal secularism follows two basic rules: first, government should not be informed by a particular religious doctrine; and second, the state should guarantee the freedom of conscience of its citizens. Until recently, the liberal secularism had been regarded as a panacea in preventing religious conflicts, especially in Europe. But now it comes under pressure. It is not as effective as usual; the power of its ideological appeal seems in retreat. There is a rise of religious conflicts globally; people, governments, and political parties are more and more entangled in religious issues and debates. Religion that had been increasingly marginalized in the last hundred years seems to swiftly return to the public sphere. "Journalists and academics," Roover writes, "often blame this 'crisis of secularism' on the emergence of 'political religion' across the world: Hindu nationalism in India; political Islam in Turkey, the Middle East, and Northern Africa; Zionism in Israel; protestant evangelicals in the US..."

            Whatever the reasons for this shift from secular to religious are, one seems undisputable: today, the liberal model fails to reproduce its former success. "In countries like India," Roover notes, "some intellectuals now reject liberal secularism as a typically Western invention that cannot be exported to other countries." They argue, Roover says, that liberal secularism is "intertwined with a Western cultural context that is bound to fail outside this context." However, the model shows signs of instability in Europe itself. With the migration of millions of Muslims to the European continent, the principle of state neutrality is challenged, and sometimes even violated. 

            Europe is the birth place of liberal secularism. The idea of religious toleration and neutral state was a result of a history of religious conflicts; conflicts (it should be noted) among different Christian sects and communities, contained within the limits of Christendom. When we speak about toleration, we often forget that Christian Europe, the society that produced the idea of religious tolerance, did not have on its own soil a history of large-scale politics of tolerance to non-Christian groups. The toleration debate was a "family" matter. With it, Christians tried to resolve their own sectarian differences and quarrels. The minimal experience Europe had with other religious communities was in fact tragic—continental Europe is still suffering the moral consequences of its past anti-Jewish sentiments and the Holocaust. 

            Now, Roover says, many European intellectuals explain the emerging forms of religious and cultural intolerance, and the growing involvement of state in religious matters, with the intolerant nature of non-Christian traditions. They believe that a completely free expression of religion could be practiced (and defended by the state) only if the non-Christian religious communities, especially the Muslims, adapt their religious philosophy and practice to the "liberal secular values." Roover does not agree with such an interpretation. He is a skeptic, who, knowing the history of British colonialism in India, has reached the conclusion that the old colonial approach of dealing with the foreigner and his culture does not work. Despite its good will and intentions, secular Europe has neither the legitimacy nor the capacity to change the culture of its non-Christian, non-European minorities and global neighbours. 

            The liberal secularism is a Western idea, Roover argues, and so far it seems applicable and effective only in predominantly Christian societies. This explains the growing inability of contemporary Europe to successfully accommodate and integrate the "foreign elements" in its socio-political structure. Roover does not comment directly the problems of contemporary Europe, but his conclusions seem to support the feeling that the classical secular model is crumbling and the victim of this trend is the very unity and survival of Pax Europeana. The desire of Britain to exit the European Union reveals that the European liberal ideology, in fact the common European identity, experiences an existential crisis. Nobody knows whether the EU-British divorce is good or bad for the future of the Union, but one is clear: the European expansion has stopped, the growth of supra-national, bureaucratic state has ceased and even receded. Instead of attracting and accepting new members from its Eastern and South-Eastern peripheries, Europe has surprisingly shrunk from its Western side. The British referendum has shown that one, if not the main, reason for this setback was the influx of foreign migrants and the free movement of people with different culture, language, and faith. 

            According to Roover, the liberal secularism has one huge deficiency. It did not produce a clear definition of what constitutes religion. Roover argues that if we do not have a plain, "impartial conception of religion," we cannot have a neutral state. If we aspire to a politics of neutrality, then we should find a working and widely accepted definition of religion. To define the scope of spiritual means to draw the limits of political, it is to make the ideal of neutral state possible in practice.

            It gets even more complicated when we realize that despite their shortcomings the liberal secular theory and order do not have a valuable alternative. What is the alternative to liberal secularism? If we consider the Chinese model or other non-liberal forms of secular or religious political organization, we would see that they could not resolve the problems of the modern multi-cultural world. It is so because the non-liberal models have the capacity to sustain peace, but only on the expense of freedom. The Western supporters of the Chinese model, the so-called "Confucian meritocracy," may argue that this model is good, even superior to the Western liberalism, but even they admit that it is not universally applicable. It is unthinkable the Western and the Islamic societies to adopt a form of Confucian communism. 

            The "exceptionality" of the liberal model, Roover argues, creates "asymmetry" in our understanding of political orders and their underlying cultures. Because of its supposedly democratic nature, the Western secular model will always claim a superior position against all other political forms. It seems that only the liberal secularism offers a conceptual framework for a state constitution that respects and defends the freedoms of all citizens. If one agrees with such a claim, as many do, one risks to be criticized as being "Eurocentric," having "colonial mentality," supporting the Western cultural dominance. Yet, Roover is right to note that at a macro-level the "Western forms of life" are still viewed by many, including non-Europeans, as the best possible alternative to all non-Western types of social organization.

            The problem is that the true universality of the Western secularism has not yet been proved. In theory, it seems universal and exceptional; in practice, it is limited and often disappointing. That is why Roover argues that we should find a new formula for a multi-cultural, globalized world. Unfortunately, he does not say what this formula could be. Roover's book does not offer an alternative to liberal secularism, but it gives us a rare insight in the history and meaning of the Western concept of toleration, its application in British India, its promises, successes and failures.

--The Montreal Review


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