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Political Theology and Islamic Studies Symposium: Secularism, Conversion, and Islamic Politics

I join this conversation as a political theorist having just published a book, Beyond Church and State: Democracy, Secularism, and Conversion (Cambridge 2013), in which I argue that the modern secular imaginary is premised upon an insufficient image of secularism as the separation of church and state, and that secularism should instead be understood as a process of conversion that reshapes key dimensions of both religious and political life

Matthew Scherer is an assistant professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University and a research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He specializes in modern secularism, religion and politics, liberalism, constitutionalism, and political theology. He is author of Beyond Church and State: Democracy, Secularism, and Conversion (Cambridge, 2013). For a full biography see:http://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/people/matthew-scherer.

I join this conversation as a political theorist having just published a book, Beyond Church and State: Democracy, Secularism, and Conversion (Cambridge 2013), in which I argue that the modern secular imaginary is premised upon an insufficient image of secularism as the separation of church and state, and that secularism should instead be understood as a process of conversion that reshapes key dimensions of both religious and political life. My book argues that the figure of conversion helps to account for the persistence of the idea of secularism as separation, as well as for the deeper processes of transformation that underlie it, and that invoking a “religious” concept of conversion to rethink the “political” concept of secularism exposes in a new light the malleable, porous, and contested nature of the boundaries we draw between religion and politics, and the ineliminable intersection of these fields. In the context of this conversation on “Islamic Politics and Political Theology” I would like to work through two ideas: first that a theory secularism as a process of conversion, in which “religion” and “politics” are transformed at their points of intersection, might be usefully applied in thinking about Islamic politics today; second that such a theory of secularism, seen through the critical lens of political theology, might itself be developed further by thinking about the development of contemporary Islamic politics.

It should be clear already that I am not interested in pursuing the familiar –and tired– questions, Is Islam compatible with secular liberalism?, much less, Can Islamists be converted to secularism?, but I am nonetheless deeply interested in the problem of modern secularism as it is posed, and transformed, in the contexts of Muslim politics. In my book, I am critical of theories that tie secularism to strictly Euro-American and Christian histories, effectively closing a secular “West” off from the rest of the world and producing “Islam” as the other of secularism. I argue instead that secularism has itself been continuously transformed through engagement with global “religious” traditions, that this dimension is only becoming more important today, and that a key contemporary problem is understanding the development of secularism beyond Euro-American contexts. Rather than staging “Islam” and “Muslim politics” as the antitheses of secular modernity, I want to use the concept of secularism as conversion to think of “religion,” including “Islam,” as central to modernity.

In Beyond Church and State, I argue that the “modern secular imaginary” is in crisis today, and that it is of paramount importance to clarify, contest, and ultimately reformulate our understandings of secularism in a moment of accelerating globalization, pluralism, and religious activism. I conceive of secularism, therefore, as a multilayered process of transformation that mirrors the process of conversion, which as I understand it contains three primary dimensions: a significant self-transformation (or transformation of the self); a resituation of the individual in relation to a community or a community in relation to a larger tradition or collective; and the production of a new self-narrative, which articulates and consolidates the experience by retrospectively marking a moment of discontinuity, change, or rebirth in the convert’s life course.  The concept of conversion captures a transformation of the self through relation to a community that is mediated by narrative – a dynamic reducible neither to “religion” nor to “politics.”  Surprisingly, this concept of conversion precisely maps the fluid and multilayered processes that produce key features of modern secularism: for secularism refashions individuals in relation to new forms of community in a process mediated by narratives that consolidate these refashionings by retrospectively positing a well-defined separation between the religious past and secular present.

It seems evident that a key theoretical and political question for today involves the contestation and division of “Islam” and “politics” in both majority Muslim societies and in societies with substantial Muslim minorities. Popular accounts –and indeed a great deal of scholarship– informed by the modern secular imaginary tend to impose a distinction between “secularists” and “Islamists,” and to imagine a contest between a “secular politics” and a “religious politics,” figuring “Islam” as the other of “secularism.” It makes better sense, however, to view contests over the role of Islam in public life that are a distinctive part of Muslim politics as one element within a larger process of secularism in which both Islamic practices and institutions, and the practices and institutions of political life are being transformed in concert. At this precise moment, the situation in Egypt dramatizes both the importance of seeing clearly the relations among “Islamism,” “democracy,” “Muslim society,” and “secularism,” rather than reducing the situation to a contest between “secularists” and “Islamists” / “The Muslim Brotherhood.” I will return to the contemporary situation in Egypt below, but first I will say a bit more about the concept of “secularism” and “political theology” to explain my view.

A genuine revolution is under way among scholars of modern “religion” and “secularism” across the humanities and social sciences: upending longstanding views, an emerging consensus is that modernity, secularism, and religion are mutually productive, and shifting parts of large and complex global processes only now coming into focus. To my mind conversion presents one of the best lenses through which to view the worldly, historical, social, and ultimately political effects of religion (and theology), and the concept of conversion emerges from a central motif of (political) theology: that of “an opening toward otherness or toward becoming otherwise.” At any rate, conversion describes how the lives of individuals and communities are rent apart and remade in relation to others, and I suspect that conversion may play a similarly important role within a number of Islamic traditions; that conversion will have been figured differently there; that these differences may open new avenues for thinking about secularism as a process of conversion within different historical and cultural locations.

Gathering these threads together, insofar as such generalizations are possible, it seems to me that the following framework of analysis should be applicable globally: “Modernity” does not follow an age of “religion” in decline, but emerges along with the “becoming religious” of people and places. “Secularism” does not name the erasure of religion from public life, but names instead those processes that produce religion and politics in their modern forms. “Religions” today, furthermore, are modern religions, which is to say that they are traditions that have been invented and re-invented in the modern world under the influence of global systems of capitalist finance, production, and exchange, and modern states. Here one might speak equally of Christianity and Islam insofar as both are conditioned –perhaps re-invented– by these shared dimensions of modernity. In my view, at any rate, it is important to see that we do not face a simple choice between “secularism” and (Islamic or Christian) “theology,” but rather a difficult task of rendering “secularism” itself a site of more democratic contestation, because “secularism” remains the best name we have for the ongoing negotiation of the ineliminable intersection of religion and politics in public life.

Returning in conclusion to Egypt, precisely one year into Mohamed Morsi’s Presidency, all observers seem to agree that the current political situation –I write this on July 1, 2013– is deeply uncertain. What must be obvious to all concerned is that an event is unfolding here: while possible outcomes include a shift back toward the standard forms of modern secular liberalism characteristic of the former regime (in which the state authorizes, regulates and contains “Islam”), or a shift toward a more assertive “Islamism” (in which the state imposes an increasingly Islamic law), it would also seem that a different future is possible here.  Such a future, if it is to emerge, is likely only to emerge through popular, democratic contestation across the various layers of community (Muslim, Coptic, observant, non-observant, revivalist, secularist, etc.), public spaces (urban, print, online, televisual, media), political institutions (constitution, court, executive, police, military), and transnational networks (regional, economic, religious, neocolonial). The situation is more complex than I can justly capture, but it is surely,  for now, a fragile moment conjoining a massive and complex array of social forces.

Whatever ultimately emerges, I am fairly certain that thinking through these events, and imagining a truly democratic Egypt, requires better categories than the familiar “secularist” vs. “Islamist” disjunction. To go further, I would suggest that it may be useful to imagine the process that is unfolding as a potential of conversion of Egypt’s new and as yet unsteady democracy — a formation that has emerged over the past year from an uncertain popular coalition united by dissatisfaction with the shortcomings of life under the former regime, but as yet uncertain about its future.  And that it may unfold as a conversion of the Muslim Brotherhood’s “Islamism” — a program that, as I understand it, has been modern, projective, emergent, critical, imaginative, evolving, globally oriented, and contested from within and from without since the organization’s founding. I image this as a crystalline process of conversion — one that holds multiple layers of possibility together, and one in which old forms and attachments must break down for new and uncertain ones to emerge — a process of conversion in which it becomes possible for fixed identities and commitments to give way as new identifications, and new communities become possible. (But of course, such fixed identities — both “secularist” and “Islamist” — do not always give way easily; indeed they can be held together very strongly, intensified even, during crises, through a kind of counter-conversion.) I am also inclined to suggest that this process of conversion is characteristic of modern secularism, not as the imposition of a barrier between “religion” and “politics,” but as a process of profound, and potentially democratic, contestation in which “religion” and “politics” are both centrally concerned, in which both stand to be reshaped, and in which both stand to emerge in new forms. To say the least, it would seem that this is a process in which Muslim politics offers to teach observers something new about the possibilities of both “secularism” and “political theology” at one of the leading edges of modernity.


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