Secularism, Religion and Multicultural Citizenship by Braham Levey Geoffrey, Modood Tariq (Sidney 2005)

ChoiceHow can secularism and religious pluralism be thought about oday? Can secularism accommodate changing social contexts and more importantly: the challenge of Islam? The contributors of this volume bringing their expertise in various fields of social, religious and political sciences to bear on the study of these questions agree that the answer to the second of these questions might be “Yes” - or rather “Yes, if…”.

The book is the result of a symposium held by the University of New South Wales in Sidney 2005 on Religion and Multicultural Citizenship. The editors are two renowned scholars, Geoffrey Braham Levey in the field of political theory and Tariq Modood in Sociology and Public policy and especially the latter can look back on a large number of publications on the subjects of this volume. In their inquiry on how to conceive liberalism, citizenship and its relation to secularism in a contemporary context, the contributors make the solution they suggest also their guiding principle: Reassessing secularism and religion in the light of the pragmatic question: How are multicultural democracies to be made to work?. The volume tries to break out of a discussion on the circular relationship between religion and the liberal state that simply opposes secularist to anti-secularist views. It attempts to re-think secularism from different angles and discuss its usefulness and possible forms in contemporary political and social contexts.

The book consists of two parts. The first part: Debating Secularism, unites several conceptual and historical approaches to the idea of secularism. The second part of the volume consists of five chapters which, under the title Secularism and multicultural citizenship, discuss the implications of the rise of Islam for European secularisms and multicultural democracies. This short overview of the ideas proposed in the different chapters does not, of course, do the book justice and my main aim here will be to try to follow up some core ideas interlinking the various contributors' thinking and highlight interesting points in their lines of argument.

In the second chapter Ian Hunter calls the historical legitimacy of secular liberal political orders into question unveiling their philosophical shallowness. Both he and David Sanders in chapter three agree that any discussion of secularism on an ideological level that tries to deduce it from transcendent reason or ideology misses the point. Secularism should rather be understood as an institutional arrangement set up to create civic peace within a specific historical context – Brandenburg-Prussia, for Ian Hunter and France with the law of 1915, for Sanders. The authors thus encourage us to break out of habitual patterns of thinking on secularism as an ideological concept, therefore enabling to discuss it in a contextual framework.

Particularly interesting is chapter four, where the author pushes the claim to re-think secularism a step further, by actually proposing what he calls contextual secularism and specifically under its Indian form, as a model for western secularisms. His inquiries about the proper normative and conceptual structure of secularism today lead him to establish a typology of different secular regimes, while discussing their strengths and their weaknesses. He proposes that to avoid the pitfalls of ideological rigidity, secularism needs to be contextualized. The core characteristic making the Indian approach a model is the principled distance between the state and religion, which gives it a situational and contextualized character. It thus allows for a public role of religion but at the same time gives the state the means to show hostility towards any discriminatory religious practice.

Veit Bader's approach rests more on the level of political thought and discourse and misses the thread that seems to connect the other chapters. Essentially the authors agree that secularism, or rather secularisms, remain extremely valuable concepts in order to regulate the relations between the state, society and religion. However as secularisms are historically contingent they need to evolve to meet present day challenges, like those raised by the emergence of Islam and their application needs to be subjected to a principled pragmatism. These are the main guidelines run through the analyses of the effects of the “Muslim question”.

Casanova, in chapter 6, discusses religious pluralism as a consequence of immigration, comparing the US and Europe. And in the following chapter Modood argues that the expression of Muslim claims for recognition and equality are profoundly contemporary and western. While Casanova shows the conflict of European attitudes, Modood’s critique on a limited understanding of the term “equality” as some kind of blindness to sexuality, gender and race and his proposition to replace it by its interpretation as identity recognition, show how accessible a discourse facilitating the integration of Islam can be.

These and the following chapters take the argumentation of the book to another level, with the proposition that Islam poses a challenge to western discourse not as something completely alien to it,  but rather as  becoming part of it. Islam threatens less liberal values – as often accused  – than what Sayyid in chapter eight calls “westernese”. It thus touches a core concept of western identity and constitutes a counter-discourse to western historiographic hegemony. Following this logic secularism cannot today claim to be about liberal values and civic peace. This demonstrates how secularism has become intertwined with western identity, discourse and self-perception and what difficulties this raises regarding Islam as an immigran,t but also as a European religion as Saeed argues in chapter nine.

In the final chapter both editors re-visit the cartoon affair in the light of the French “Tricolour” of liberal values. Their argumentation replays some central themes of the previous chapters and shows how the dilemma of the affair, and more generally the integration of Islam into western liberal societies, does not give rise to a conflict between liberal values and other values, but rather a conflict within and between liberal values themselves.

While the quality of the articles varies with its authors, the volume as a whole makes an important contribution to the discussion on secularism today, whose topicality hasn’t been devalued since 2005. Rather, the recent developments in the Arab world which have increased the number of Muslims residing in European countries, at the same time as fueling the fear of Islamic religious fundamentalisms and fundamentalists, make the questions and solutions envisaged all the more pressing and interesting. With their calls for principled pragmatism and their rejection of the circular secular-antisecular bipolar discussion, the authors have created a constructive and instructive discourse that is refreshing. One can hardly reproach any overall conceptual mistakes - unless one wanted to focus on "nitpicking" questions about some perhaps over-vague terms like: “multicultural citizenship”.