This is the first of a two part-piece looking at secularism. This first part acts as a loose introduction to a discussion on the negative approach secularism has taken toward fundamentalism, ideology, and essentialism. If we consider secularism to be the governing ideal of the future and the modern state, then we must reconsider the popular form it has taken within the past decade.
Meet Patrick*, a young 22-year-old living and attending school in Alberta. Patrick’s your stereotypical college guy. He’s intelligent, good-looking, well-liked, laid-back, politically active, well-read, and knowledgeable about current affairs. The ladies love him and the guys want to be him. That kind of guy. But behind his bright I-want-to-knock-his-teeth-out kind of smile, there lies a deafening darkness. See, Patrick’s a conservative. Not usually a big deal, but having known Patrick for almost six years, his evolution into his current manifestation of neo-conservatism has shown me the dangers of ideology. I had always believed that ideology, no matter where on that sham of a spectrum it fell, was inherently poisonous and conducive to loss of rationality, even if that ideology was rationalism.
Patrick wasn’t always a huge ideologue. He used to be cool. Like “Whoa! Even though you’re from, like, hick-chuck Alberta, you’re still so awesome!” sort of cool. We met through our love for political discourse and international affairs six years ago. I was sarcastically dabbling in Communism, a result of my high school teacher who was the former head of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation and, unapologetically, really NDP. Patrick was dabbling in green politics, holding favour toward the Green Party while still grasping onto the prepubescent beginnings of conservatism. I thought Karl Marx had a sick beard; he thought John Locke was a saviour. Juxtaposed properly, we fit. We met through mutual friends, and formed a good platonic relationship, filled with enlightening conversation and music-file sharing. Our common thirst for knowledge despite dissimilar views, allowed us to have civil conversations and grow together intellectually.
But things began to change by the time I hit university. Patrick had already been in university for about a year by the time I made my historical entrance into McGill in 2005. His views had become more refined and his MSN citations were also more impressive. He had also begun to get heavily involved with local prominent conservatives in Alberta – something that concerned me as he had always said he felt the only party decent in the Canadian system was the Green Party. Slowly but surely, classes with leading conservative scholars in a conservative university and close relations with prominent Conservative politicians led to a hardening of Patrick’s prepubescent conservatism. He had hit political puberty.
While he became conservative, but not Conservative, in most aspects, his greatest concentration took the form of the superiority of the West. Seriously. During the next four years, I would see the radicalization of Patrick; from a moderate young guy with conservative tendencies to an ideological rationalist. Don’t get me wrong – I love rationalism, it’s great and whatever, but to be such a proponent of it so as to believe that it’s inherent to the so-called West and lacking in “other” cultures? That’s enough to get Edward Said to bust a cap in his own, now deceased, ass. But this extremely erroneous line of thinking did not stop Patrick from fighting against what he thought was the antithesis of Western rationalism. The major part of this antithesis was “Islam” – a religion he believes needs a Protestant revolution, but with a “Mohammadan” twist of course.
After a while, I just came to the conclusion that he had become reactionary to cultural globalization. After all, he had begun seeking what “Western culture” really entailed. To him, it was a given (albeit a fallacious one) that the Ancient Greeks were the forefathers of Western awesomeness. He felt, however, that there must be more to being Western other than the suffocatingly brilliant works of Hegel, Kant, Locke, Rousseau, and Dershowitz. Patrick found this awesomeness in the American South and secularism.
Patrick started asserting that the real heart of the West, everything it stood for, was found in the South, in the form of rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll, he said, encapsulated the very essence of everything associated with the West, including freedom. Aside from the geographical misnomer, I didn’t have the heart to tell the only person I know who identifies so strongly with his hemisphere, that even rock ‘n’ roll, his emblem of the West, was rooted deeply in African music traditions brought over on the slave ships and into the cotton fields. And while he claimed he was an internally religious person, his rhetoric claimed religion to be the most destructive of forces, unless it was liberalized – in other words, regardless of origin and belief, religions needed to conform to his Western ideals of liberalism. The implications of such a line of thinking are tremendous and reflective of a growing trend within popular ideas of secularism, all of with which Patrick has been acquainted.
During the past year, especially more recently, Patrick has become unbearable. He has become rabid about the West, which excludes Russia, but includes Israel and Turkey. He quietly refuses all opposing perspectives, and when debate is ended with frustration by his opponents, he claims they are against dialogue and thus against the core of sweet, sweet Western values. Secularism, rationalism, and the so-called West have been rolled into one massive and ticking package of ideology. All three of these components are fine in and of themselves as ideas and practices, to a large extent. However, as soon as we turn these into a cohesive unwavering ideology, which we have seen happen in the past decade, we begin to see a sort of fundamentalism arise. In my next column, I will address the fundamentalism of secularism from which, I will argue, rationalism and the idea of the “West” cannot be separated.
*name has been changed
Part II of Sana’s short series on secularism will appear two Thursdays from now. In the meantime, if you’d like to discuss political puberty, especially if your name isn’t Patrick and used to be Sana’s friend, email firstname.lastname@example.org.