In my last column I introduced you to my friend Patrick* who, by the way, is a real person and not a figment of my attempt to create an interesting preface to this second part. Now, in this piece, I want to discuss the existence of what specifically Patrick represented: secular fundamentalism.
“Fundamentalism” is, in and of itself, a contentious term which has come to take on completely negative connotations extending to all religions. For the sake of argument and brevity, I will adopt the term in its modern construction and with such connotations. Today, we relate zealousness, close-mindedness and religion to the term: a fundamentalist is a religious zealot who has medieval and unwavering ideas regarding religion and its role in society. My problem with this popular understanding of fundamentalism is not with the inclusion of religion, but rather the definition’s exclusiveness. Fundamentalism, as we take it to mean in the popular sense, should not be confined solely to religious zealots.
Religious fundamentalists strictly adhere to certain ideas based on an eschatological foundation. Their ideas about the public and private realms are political and social ideas based on a greater ideal and good they see as the salvation force of society and humanity.
Regardless of anyone’s personal convictions against religious fundamentalists, and regardless of “right” versus “wrong” and other moral epithets we can throw, their ideas are legitimate as they define a certain way of living; they form a certain worldview which is as legitimate, in and of itself, as any other worldview. “In and of itself” is important because it stresses not the fundamentalist beliefs, but that the ability to have such a worldview is objectively valid. That being said, if fundamentalism relates to strict and unwavering adherence to certain social and political ideas, based on a greater utilitarian good, then why should it be limited to religious zealots?
Secularism, broadly defined and understood, consists of certain ideas regarding the public and private life based on a particular idea of the role and the understanding of religion. It differs in both theory and practice.
American secularism, as established by the forefathers, serves to protect religion from the political realm, while French secularism aims to protect the French citizenry from the evils of religion. These two examples right away show us the vast differences in understanding what secularism is and/or what it should be.
We do, however, see the latter understanding of secularism, in which religion – with no differentiation made – becomes a negative force in society that needs to be controlled; religion creates a life contrary to the aims of the secular ideology. Religious fundamentalists see other forms of life, secularist or from other religions, as contrary to the aims of their ideology.
Political and academic rhetoric in France, Turkey, northern Europe and North America, in particular, shows the rise of secular fundamentalism in which religion – seen as a unified and stagnant force – is swiped away from the Enlightenment-rooted ideals of rationalism; it is made incompatible, a joke. The enemies of secularism fundamentalists are not religious fundamentalists, but rather anyone who adheres to religion. Religion is a brainwashing force that chains minds to lofty fairytales and fruity promises; it cannot be upheld by those with a hint of rationality. This line of thinking ironically makes religious and secular fundamentalists brethren. Religious fundamentalists see those who adhere to other religions, or to nothing at all, as lost, brainwashed by false prophets into believing in lofty fairytales and fruity promises. Salvation and destruction become parallel terms – both see their salvation in what the other sees to be destruction.
Secularism is not the problem in our society, nor is religion; both can co-exist peacefully, and both have proven to be positive forces in the governance and function of society – as well as negative thanks to their uses by individuals and groups. What we see increasingly today, however, is this “fundamentalism” penetrating all ideologies and belief-systems. Feminist fundamentalists, Buddhist fundamentalists, libertarian fundamentalists and atheist fundamentalists, who share an intellectual relationship with the secular fundamentalists, exist – they’re not griffins. Intellectual essentialism becomes practical fundamentalism, and this practical fundamentalism affects the portrayal of other worldviews, especially religion, which is again seen in a singular and stagnant lens.
Christianity, in particular, has had to bear the burden of social contempt given the negative role it has played in many Western societies that now bear the mark of secular fundamentalism. Thus, like religious fundamentalism, which is largely reactionary, as embodied in the works of individuals such as Syed Qutib, secular fundamentalism follows the same route – reacting to a long history of a negative relationship with a particular belief system by extending that reaction towards not just a religion but toward religion..
The solution? I’ll write about that after I learn to type secularism without first typing sexularism.
*Patrick is real, but this name isn’t.
Sana’s column will be back in a couple Thursdays, but if you just can’t wait for some more Saeed in your life, email email@example.com.