Friday, September 14, 2007

Women and secularism

What a man believes, and what he therefore regards as unquestionable reality, constitutes his religion.” Jose Ortega y Gasset, "Concord and Liberty". “His/her” religion, not everybody’s, because faith is a very intimate endeavor, perhaps the most private human space, after family and sex.

The government is itself nothing but the self-established focus, the individual embodiment of the universal will.” Hegel, “Phenomenology of Mind.”

The idea of separation of church from state, or secularism has been a center of much debate. It is important to look at its origins in order to understand its true meaning. The Age of Enlightenment (18th century), when laying the foundation for the modern nation-state, promulgated that a state does not represent the Will of God, but the will of people. By its very nature the Enlightenment began the slow extermination of monarchs, who were ruling by grace of God, not by the will of people. In the new formula, the church as the earthly manifestation of God, was to be separate from the state. Moreover, religious scholasticism and mysticism of the Middle Ages were replaced by reason. Enlightenment was synonymous with reason. Thus, the Enlightenment thinkers recognized that the demands of religion/church are incompatible with the demands of the modern state institutions.

As these liberal institutions developed, the idea of separation of church from state deepened and became an integral component of a western liberal democracy. The state was not to establish any religion and was not to abridge free exercise thereof. Also, the state was not to let any church influence its workings. However, an unspoken dilemma was always there. The state is not an abstraction and in its functions, it is empowered by the people it purports to represent. As Hegel pointed out, the government is an embodiment of the will of people. Since religion constitutes an “unquestionable reality” for millions of people, the state is necessarily challenged with respect to religion. Therefore, it can never really and fully insulate itself from religion.

Today while most European states and America preach secularism, they do not follow what they preach. While the institutions such as Constitutions are secular in their formulations, the governments are influenced by religion. It all really revolves around how people understand faith and religion. If you subscribe to the broader definition of Gasset, the vast majority of people can be classified religious, since they all believe in something faithfully and even blindly.

The recent developments in the world have illustrated that things are not as simple as the Enlightenment thinkers envisioned and secularism needs serious review. While in its essence separation of church and state is necessary in many ways, in many others too much of it borders on suppression. Professor Madhavi Sunder called this era as the New Enlightenment (Read her brilliant article "Piercing the Veil"). Her vision is how to recharacterize secularism to serve the needs of religious minorities and first of all, women, who have made certain choices toward emancipation within religion/culture. So, the dichotomy is changing. Faith as it is understood by people, has to receive its redefinition in the state and its representation of people.

For example, when France banned the Muslim headscarf in public schools, Muslim women rebelled against it, “You are suppressing our religious faith. This is intolerance and discrimination under the guise of secularism.” The state had a lame response, “We are a secular state and cannot allow your religious symbols infiltrate the public sphere.” In fact, the real motivation behind the ban was the fear of Islamic fundamentalism and religious fervor. To give some break to the French government, it was really grappling with Islamic women—suicide bombers. Unfortunately, the ban resulted in more fundamentalism and more religious uprisings.

The problem is that while theoretically separation of church from state is a positive thing, it always ends up as a tool for religious discrimination by the majority culture of the minority, or in other situations, it simply turns into a tool to get rid of disfavored minorities. The headscarf for these women was not only a religious symbol, but a part of their cultural identity. France’s ban was to exclude them from the public sphere, or force them to choose rejection of their culture. But why should these women, already oppressed in their own culture, receive more oppression in the hands of a liberal democracy… Moreover, it seems the human rights law itself supports this. The European Court of Human Rights in Leila Sahin v. Turkey decided that Turkey was justified in prohibiting Sahin from wearing her headscarf in the public university.

I cannot pretend to have a ready answer to this dilemma, but it seems the goal should be to empower, rather than shut out these women, who have a right to choose… While Islamic extremism and militantism must be grappled with, I would search for other ways than suppression of religious minorities.

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