Secularism's Failure to Defend Itself
By Supna Zaidi
The liberal-conservative divide has worsened since 9/11 to a point where each side is having a different conversation over the other's head, preventing Americans from coming together to defend democracy against the "enemy" in the "war on terror."
A possible explanation comes in the form of Herb London's book, "America's Secular Challenge - The Rise of a New National Religion." He is the president of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank located in New York. In this work, London argues that western secularism has evolved to such an extreme form that it cannot fight militant Islam because it no longer knows what it stands for. By stretching the purpose and meaning of multiculturalism, and tolerance to a point where "anything goes" anti-democratic sentiment is applauded as diversity even though it threatens secularism itself.
Multiculturalism was once an appreciation for everyone's differences in society, especially minority groups. It has morphed into an assumption "that non Western cultures are somehow more equal, more worthy, than their Western counterparts. This Orwellian phenomenon preaches the gospel of equality, but proceeds as much from self-loathing as from egalitarianism." In other words, the West is embarrassed of its historically dominant role around the world. This has mistakenly given anti-western movements, like Islamism, the green light to spread their divisive message in their home countries and among their immigrant populations in the West without scrutiny.
This has resulted in a tolerance that "has degenerated into an unwillingness to discriminate. According to this anesthetic philosophy, right and wrong are archaic concepts that belong to the ash heap of history. What counts is 'openness', that perversion of tolerance that, as Allan Bloom observed in The Closing of the American Mind, is indistinguishable from indifference." Such indifference chips away at secularism itself. Supremacist ideologies like Islamism are allowed to use democratic institutions to grow and gain influence with the hopes of gaining enough voter support (via conversion and lobbying) to replace the very secularism that gave it a home and protected it under the U.S. Constitution.
Lastly, the decay of religion in favor of the "other" - any "new age" or spiritual" outlook has allowed secularists to forget its own origins in Judeo-Christian principles. This allows radical secularism to deride its parentage and further, fail to defend it against a religious ideology that specifically wants to replace other ideologies, including radical secularism wherever it can.
American secularism was meant to be neutral in its position on religion, but in a post-religious society, it looks down on individuals that actually practice their faith. This tendency prevents secularists from accepting that foreign religious movements could actually be sincere and truly rooted in religious sentiment.
Consider the statement, "Palestinian mothers love their children too." That was the answer an audience member received on November 10th, at the Anti-Defamation League's 10th Annual Conference on the Middle East, to a question regarding the connection between education and the indoctrination of Palestinian children into suicide bombers.
Shibley Telhami gave that odd answer. Odd, precisely because no one doubts the love Palestinian parents have for their children. It is this knowledge that demands an explanation as to why they still permit their children to be indoctrinated into violently killing themselves for a cause they cannot possibly have the emotional and intellectual maturity to understand, let alone "volunteer" for.
Secularists like Telhami argue that religion is simply the "rhetoric" behind socio-political, foreign policy or domestic frustrations of men and women in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, as London reminds his readers, this completely ignores the sincerity of the Islamist movement, which has been growing since the early 1900s in the Middle East with subversive "brother" organizations in the West. Islamists like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood advocate a separatist interpretation of political Islam as an ideology that divides global society into Muslim versus non-Muslim as an answer to the social, economic and political problems in the Muslim world. Quoting, a Hamas leader, London states, "It is hard for someone raised on university banalities [speaking on anti-American remarks after 9/11 at NYU] to believe that Hamas leader Sheik Hasan Josef can possibly be serious when he says 'We like to grow [Islamic martyrs] from kindergarten through college.'"
Though, they are by no means the majority of Muslims, Islamists offer leadership counter to autocratic governments who do not provide much needed social and civil services, leaving their respective citizenry vulnerable to the religious Islamist message. The material needs of Muslim populations have allowed real Islamist indoctrination to succeed where secular democracy or socialist movements have failed.
In pondering the dilemma of the West's failure to understand Islamism, and its consequent inability to create meaningful policy against it, London argues for the reassertion of Judeo-Christian values, which found the humane secularism that has been lost under radical secularism.
But what are Judeo-Christian values? I concede that when I first read London's book, I took his words as a literal call to reassert the Judeo-Christian faiths. This is one element of London's otherwise, strong argument that a reader might need more explanation of. London is not arguing for Americans to become evangelical and get on the crusader bandwagon. Rather, he wants Americans to respect the role of religion in society. Realize that it has been the evolution of multiple interpretations of God and faith in the US that forced Americans to seek overriding common principles to bring us together rather then keep us apart.
A simple internet search of the phrase "Judeo-Christian" offers some interesting background. The Oxford dictionary puts the origins of the phrase as early as the 1800s. With the rise of anti-semitism in the 1920s and 1930s the phrase reemerged as a way to unify Jews and Christians as Americans arguing that tolerance, equality and liberty were principles common to both faiths and inherent in the founding of American democracy as well. Today, the phrase, as London can attest to, evokes not these unifying themes, but an evangelical conservative paradigm that excludes all "others" by liberals.
It is important for liberals and conservatives alike to read Herb London's book, "America's Secular Challenge - The Rise of a New National Religion" to understand that we need a unifying civic culture or "religion" capable of unifying the diversity that makes America a country everyone wants to be a part of. Otherwise, we will continue to mistakenly allow divisive and separatist ideologies like Islamism to flourish within our own borders to the detriment of all democrats, especially radical secularists.
(Supna Zaidi is editor-in-chief of Muslim World Today and asst director of Islamist Watch at the Middle East Forum)
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