The failure of Secularism
Secularism – that is, the separation of religion and politics – is a product of European revolt against the excesses of an autocratic Church. Indeed, an entry on the website for the department of Philosophy at Stanford University posits the issue of secularism in the words of well known political theorist Leo Strauss: “Is political authority to be grounded in the claims of revelation or reason, Jerusalem or Athens?” (Eberle & Cuneo, 2005). The Islamic perspective is vastly different. To Muslims, there is no inherent contradiction between Jerusalem (religion) and Athens (logic). In fact, Islam makes the rational mind and logical inquiry a central tenet of its religious doctrine. The Quran refers to this fact innumerable times with a constant refrain that prods mankind to use the rational mind and intellect to ascertain the truth of any given situation:
“So be wary of Me O you who possess intellect!” (2:197)
“But none takes admonition but those who possess intellect” (2:169).
“Indeed in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and day, there are signs for those who possess intellects” (3:190).
This constant affirmation of the intellect and its central position in propelling man towards God created a situation in which Muslims felt very comfortable taking the teachings of Aristotle and others and exploiting a natural alignment between them and the Islamic approach. Europeans on the other hand, in their petulant revolt against a suffocating Church went to extremes that crossed the bounds of reason. This insistence on divorcing the lived reality from metaphysical considerations gave rise to the post-modern world. In the post-modern mode of thinking, nothing is sacred, nothing is central and no one has a monopoly on the truth. Capitalism, which is the evil twin of this secularist tendency was based on Adam Smith’s notion that individuals who pursue their own selfish interests will automatically set up a network of human interaction that would benefit all. It is plain for all to see in the aftermath of the Wall Street fiasco that nothing could be further from the truth. The corrosive effects of secularism are not as easy to ascertain as the corrosive effects of capitalism. And yet, if one looks carefully the truth quickly becomes apparent.
Western societies are full of anxious parents who worry about sexting, the commercialization of women’s sexuality and how it impacts their daughters, and the promiscuity of 3rd graders among other issues. Women feel tired and drained trying to fulfill the feminist creed of having it all, men increasingly feel emasculated and bereft of the authority that they once enjoyed. There is a veneer of prosperity that covers these and other social issues simmering below the surface. The idyllic rural landscape of places like New Hampshire and Vermont have towns that are dealing with devastating heroin epidemics. The list goes on and on. All of these issues have their roots in secularism. The reason is simple: human beings by nature are value based. The God seeking nature of humans is what lies at the core of their humanity. When one takes God and religion out of the collective reality of a society and replaces it with nothing but an insistence on the absence of God and religion, a vacuum is created that eats away at the inner core of society.
Of course, Westerners have an easy rejoinder: just look at the state of the Muslim world, they retort, you are certainly in no position to lecture us. Muslims from the Middle East are fleeing Muslim majority countries in their thousands for the relative safe haven of the secular West. Who are Muslims to pontificate on the deficiencies of secularism?
And yet, when this argument is scratched below the surface, it is instantly exposed. If the relative prosperity of the West, with its high unemployment, Donald Trump, the rise of the far right in Europe, the rejection of refugees by an increasingly xenophobic Europe that has thrown off decades of humanistic indoctrination is a sign of the success of secularism and capitalism, then surely communism is better suited for humanity’s needs given China’s phenomenal material success in the past four decades.
Material and economic success is not the barometer for measuring the ideological viability of secularism, capitalism, communism or Islam. Furthermore, the miseries that Muslims in certain parts of the Middle East are undergoing are precisely because of the insistence on anti-intellectualism and fanatical absolutism that is Salafism which is juxtaposed to the rational Islam that the Quran calls towards – a Salafism that never would have taken root in the Muslim world if it hadn’t been for the capitalist driven, British colonial project in Hijaz (currently “Saudi” Arabia).
And finally, if one looks at the resistance and success of Iran in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, one is quickly reminded of the strength, resilience and truth of Islam if it is purified of the vapid influence of British produced Salafism. This issue is not a binary Shia-Sunni dichotomy as many Western media outlets would have everyone believe; the success of groups like Hamas as well as the rejection of and collusion with the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt all point to the hypocrisy that secularism produces when human beings are driven by nothing but an opposition to God in societal affairs.
Secularism is failing, and this failure is reflected in the inability of Western societies to weather any kind of adversity without falling backing on the kind of right wing, fascist tendencies that have been a staple of Western history. What the secularist did is banish religion from the public sphere, but they failed to replace it with anything that could feed and sustain the human need for a values based system.