“(Post)Secularism – Theoretical and Empirical Findings on a Contested Category”

Chair: Susanne Schröter, Professor of Anthropology of Colonial and Postcolonial Orders

Von Katja Rieck

One of the major lines of conflict in the transformation of normative orders in both western and non-western societies is religion. While classical sociological theories of secularisation postulated the demise of the religious and the establishment of secular nation-states, actual political developments in the course of the 20th and 21st centuries proved to be much more complex. Since at least the Iranian Revolution of 1979 “the return of religions” (Riesebrodt) has been an important to understanding the political and social transformations not only in many postcolonial states of the Global South, but also in Europe and North America, where those who are critical of religious positions clash with those who defend the role of religion as an important source of meaning and ethical corrective to the normative neutrality of the secular state. Moreover, in the context of global migration and international human rights discourse the question of the religious rights of minority groups has become a pressing issue for governments in the West as well as in the Global South. The  post-secularist thesis has been proposed more recently as a way to account for this apparent global resurgence of religion. However, doubts have been raised as to whether the paradigm offers a satisfactory framework for understanding current dynamics, particularly in non-European societies.


The three papers presented in the panel moderated by Susanne Schröter “(Post)Secularism – Theoretical and Empirical Findings on a Contested Category” critically engage with the secularist/post-secularist framework of understanding contemporary normative transformations. The paper presented by Joycelin Cesari (Senior Fellow, Berkley Center, Georgetown University; Director, Harvard interfaculty program “Islam in the West”), “Bridging the Gap Between Political Theory and Reality: Revising Secularism”, takes as its point of departure the socio-political reality that relations between state and religion simply do not correspond to the secularist model. In fact, the empirical data show that even in the most advanced democracies (arguably with the exception of the USA) we find some sort of intermingling of the state and religion. On the other hand, secularism, she argues, appears rather to be an ideology based on a particular interpretation of the European and North American experience of the secularization process that then was ascribed normative status.

In Cesari’s view, the first problem with the secularisation thesis is that it focuses exclusively on the relationship between religion and the state as monolithic entities. Instead, she argues, that one should focus not so much on secularisation as the withdrawal of religion from the public realm, but rather on secularity as an orientation that manifests itself in potentially different ways at three different levels of socio-political life: 1) the institutional level, which pertains to the kinds of arrangements between the state and religion that guarantees equidistance between the state and the religions present in society; 2) the sociological level, which that pertains to a society’s public culture and the degree of consensus on the positive role and importance of religion in social life; and 3) the individual level, which pertains to the importance accorded to an individual’s belief in God and participation in religious life.

A second problem with the secularisation thesis is that religion is regarded in a very one dimensional manner that focuses on some inward orientation of belief from which it is presumed automatically follows an outward social and political orientation. And here, too, Cesari argues that a more nuanced perspective is required. She thus proposes to break down religion into three components or modalities that are not necessarily linked to one another: belief, behaviour, and a sense of belonging. Hence, in the West religion is regarded as a particular set of beliefs that are integrally linked to particular behaviours, but where the sense of belonging to a religious community has become rather weak. Religions elsewhere have historically developed different emphases. Thus, in numerous post-colonial contexts (such as in India, but also in Turkey) the moment of belonging has been accorded central importance, in so far as belonging to the religious community (for example Hinduism or Islam) is intimately linked to membership in the post-colonial nation-state and conceptions of citizenship.  Belief and behaviour, on the other hand, may not be as important. What emerges from this more nuanced perspective is that we are empirically confronted with different types of secularities, depending on the particular constellations of the dimensions of secularity and religion.  This has important ramifications for an analytical perspective on global political developments that is free from the historico-cultural bias of the secularisation thesis.

The second paper, “Secularization – the Return of Religions – Postsecularism. Remarks on the Conceptual Landscape”, presented by Hartmut Zinser (Prof. em. Religionswissenschaft, Freie Universität Berlin), traces the conceptual history and topography of the terms secularisation and post-secularism. While all religions and all societies have procedures for de-sacralising formerly sacred goods, secularisation theory refers to a specific historical process by which the state disentangled itself from the Church (Entkirchlichung). This points to a specificity of historical experience that simply cannot be transposed to societies with religions that were not organised in church structures (such as is the case in Islam). Hence, in the latter such societies the normative transformations by which religion’s connections to the state were loosened were necessarily quite different from those in Europe or the United States.

Zinser also points out that much of the secularisation thesis is grounded less in historical fact than in acts of self-interpretation, producing something more closely resembling a myth than a factual descriptive narrative. In his view, the secularisation thesis thus points less to actual historical transformations than to a specific self-understanding, and the so-called return of religions is pronounced on the basis of a comparison that has little grounding in historical fact. The scholarly consensus, thus, has for quite some time rightly concluded that the secularisation thesis is simply wrong, and, as Zinser notes, numerous developments in recent years have supported this consensus. For one, as non-Western societies have modernised we have witnessed a wave of religious revitalisation. In the West, on the other hand, new religious movements have emerged that are grounded in personal rejections of secularity and the importance of the religious in personal life. Moreover, although many people in the West no longer are formal members of a church, this has not led to an outright rejection of religion. Instead, greater emphasis is placed on “spirituality”, which attests to a continued importance of religion to people’s individual lives, even if it is not expressed in membership of an established church. Last and certainly not least, on an empirical level, no country has achieved the perfect separation of church and state: there is always some form of cooperation or collaboration between the two, the cases of Germany and France being two very different but pertinent examples.

And, yet, Zinser argues, the contemporary “return of religions” that we observe globally has only been made possible thanks to the receding of religion from its normatively paramount position in political life. In many cases, especially in Europe, the return of religion to public life has been made possible because the state has provided a space for it in a secular political order. When religion does take on a prominent role, it is in contexts where the state seeks ethical guidance in making political decisions for which the liberal democratic state cannot provide independent grounding. This, according to Zinser, is evident in the debates on genetic engineering and on the capabilities of the neurosciences to create individuals lacking the subjectivity that is constitutive of human life and freedom. In this situation, which in his view is characteristic of post-secular society, the advocates of liberal positions, once highly critical of religion and the Church, ally themselves with religion in order to defend the “sanctity”, or indisposability, of man (Unverfügbarkeit des Menschen). However, unlike in former times, Zinser points out, religious stances in the contemporary, post-secular political landscape are multiple and only among many other ethical stances considered on a given issue. And as long as no single religion raises claims to normative superiority over all other ethical or religious frameworks, Zinser insists religion as such can play a constructive role in  guiding society through normative transformations.

The third paper “Anti-secular Modernity and the Rise of Pop-Islamism in Southeast Asia” presented by Dominik Müller (Post-doctoral Fellow, Cluster of Excellence “The Formation of Normative Orders”, University of Frankfurt) critically reflects on the concept of post-secularism by assessing its relevance to an analysis of the rise of Islamist popular culture in contemporary Malaysia, specifically within the context of popular party politics.

In the study of Muslim societies the interest in post-secularism has centred on discussions regarding the rise of post-Islamism. The term, first coined by Asef Bayat to describe the transformations having taken place in post-Revolutionary Iran, where the political project of establishing an Islamic political order has since the founding of the Islamic Republic shifted in emphasis to the cultivation of personal piety. Olivier Roy has applied the term to the wider context of political developments in the Muslim world to describe the shift in emphasis in political Islam away from state-focused transformations to cultural politics emphasising manifestations of individual piety. Werner Schiffauer has been a prominent proponent of the post-Islamist thesis in the German context, arguing that as Muslims become integrated into the political process in Germany, their political aspirations will become more pragmatic and secular in orientation, and their religious aspirations will focus on endeavours in the private sphere.

The case of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, or PAS) provides an interesting empirical testing ground for the concept of post-Islamism specifically and post-secularism generally. Particularly after 1990, when the party formed a multi-religious coalition, the question arose as to whether it would retain its program of the transformation of political institutions and public life along religious lines, or whether it would depart from such aims and become more pragmatic and secular as the result of the compromises required to maintain the coalition. In fact, as Dominik Müller shows, the party split into two camps: one camp pursuing a strategy guided more by realpolitik that redefined the party’s one-time aim of establishing an Islamic state as a utopian ideal not to be realised in practice; and another camp guided more by idealpolitik that continued to pursue the project of the institution of an Islamic state and which made the institution of Islamic criminal law (and hudud punishments in particular) a cornerstone of this larger effort. On the level of political discourse, the opposition coalition led by PAS began to use the term secularism to delegitimise the government’s policies. This strategy was particularly popular among the vocal PAS youth wing, and it went hand-in-hand with public campaigns to present the PAS as particularly un-secular and Islamic.

Such campaigns, Müller’s ethnographic data shows, took the form of cultural politics with countless events at which PAS members could perform their religiosity and piety. Music was one important site of such cultural politics, with numerous PAS members themselves performing or recording albums. However, there were also events at which heavy metal bands performed at PAS events to show their support for the party and to mobilise popular support. Consumer products were yet another important vehicle for the PAS, with the party launching everything from mobile phones and official watches to a line of halal snack foods for children. At the same time, Müller notes, this pop-cultural approach to popular political mobilisation in support of the PAS was only possible because theologians within the party had provided the religious justification for the religious permissibility of such a strategy.

Ultimately, Müller argues, the data shows the post-Islamist thesis does not apply to Malaysia. Although the party has creatively appropriated modern forms of popular culture, mobilisation strategies and marketing approaches, the party continues to position itself as decidedly anti-secular, insisting on the continued relevance of state-oriented projects to transform formal political Institutions along Islamist lines that characterise classical fundamentalist ideologies. Rather, what Müller’s data shows to be taking place within the PAS, and in Malaysian politics more generally, is that modern means are used for popular mobilisation towards classically fundamentalist ends.

Moreover, Müller argues that the usefulness of post-secularism as an analytic concept to make sense of the developments summarised here is also questionable. Müller notes that although Malaysian politics has become increasingly anti-secular, compared to the 1950s and 1960s, with not a single noteworthy Muslim politician, whether opposition or government, supporting a secular vision of the state, the data do not support the emergence of a post-secular turn. For one, the Malaysian public sphere, government discourse in the 1950s and 1960s notwithstanding, was never really secularised. There was never a withdrawal of religious belief or practice from daily life, and, on the social level, non-religiosity was never a viable cultural option. To the extent secularism can be said to have existed at all, Müller insists it was as a polysemic actor’s concept that was locally appropriated, politicised and charged with a wide array of meanings.

In his view, the applicability of the concepts of secularisation and post-secularism to the Malaysian context is thus extremely problematic. Without a secularisation process that preceded recent political developments that have given religion a more prominent place in the political landscape, he finds that one cannot speak of a post-secularist transformation. Insofar as these concepts are relevant at all, he sees them as actor’s concepts mobilised in political discourse to achieve strategic ends, as is the case with the term secular. In describing actual normative transformations, however, the data show these terms to cause more confusion than provide analytic clarity.

The presentations and the discussion show there to be a consensus that the secularisation thesis in its classical form is not tenable. In so far as the concept might continue to be relevant at all, it would require a more nuanced reconceptualisation, as proposed by Joycelin Cesari in the course of her discussion of secularity in her paper. What remains debatable is whether the problems with the concept of secularisation necessarily undermine the viability of the concept of post-secularism; for if the former is historically and analytically an untenable concept, then it would be tenuous to describe normative transformations as a “post” to it. The data presented by Dominik Müller corroborate this position. However, Hartmut Zinser suggests post-secularism may nonetheless be retained to designate specific developments in states commonly referred to as secular, where church and state underwent a historical process of decoupling (Entkirchlichung). In such contexts, the term post-secular might be used to refer to new forms of collaboration between the state and manifold religious institutions, particularly when liberal democracy cannot provide adequate moral and ethical foundations for policy initiatives dealing with the indisposability of man (Unverfügbarkeit des Menschen). From a normative perspective, then, the idea of the post-secular might continue to prove useful in conceptualising fruitful relationships between religious and political institutions in the shaping of new normative orders.


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