Paper: “Unfinished” Secularization in Russia, Indonesia and India, by Stephen Headley

“Unfinished” Secularization meets traditional

hierarchies of values in Russia, Indonesia and India

Stephen C. Headley

(Unpublished conference paper, latest version 15 March 2013)

You can download the whole paper at the bottom of this page.

“Il n’existe au monde qu’un seul litige, celui de savoir si c’est le tout ou le particulier qui prédomine. » (F. Hölderlin, Oeuvres, Pléiades, Gallimard 1967 : 996) In his Essais de Sociologie (1983), Louis Dumont gives this question a profound sociological turn through his analysis of the rise of  “pseudo-holisms” in the context of fascism and communism. Thirty years later, extreme economic changes and globalization have further eroded local customs and unfinished secularization has multiplied the appearance of pseudo-holisms.

What role can this concept play in comparative studies of secularization? Case by case comparisons are very time consuming but provide solid empirical data on which to enlarge this theoretical concept. This paper is a methodological proposition with only two examples.

1) An overview of secularization processes

At the beginning of the twentieth century, structural societal differentiation at work in non-European countries was driven by the increasingly contested hegemony and homogenizing potential of modernity. The pretensions of the earlier cosmologically-ordered social regimes were gradually being replaced by an ethic of autonomous agency. “Modern” authenticity began replacing the fetters of “tradition”, but at the end of the twentieth century it was clear that this individualism has not fully displaced early collective representations. Unfinished secularization left societies hanging; juxtaposed cosmologies provided little belonging and less transcendence. It became clear that any partial acceptance of modernity[1] led to continual redefining and reconstructions of cultural and political programs. This breakdown of traditional legitimacies led to the appearance of fundamentalism, and reinventions of damaged, endangered traditions. Ethnic cleansing and other forms of protest appeared in these artificial efforts to revive or reconstruct threatened or new social centers and pivots on the basis of an earlier consensus.

The internal antinomies of such hybrid cultural communities animated by critical political discourses inhibited multiple cosmologies from creating pluralism where a common good could emerge[2]. Unfinished secularization lays bare the ambiguous place of “the Good” in the articulation of a social morphology. The incoherence between their respective hierarchies has forced partial rationalities and values into separate “pseudo-holisms” (Louis Dumont, 1983) among which politicians pretended one was the totality. This reflects the fluctuation of modernity between a certain cultural autonomy and its need (via la raison de l’état) for total control of that freedom which they cannot guarantee. The dynamics of media and migration straddles, encloses, both the nation-states practicing procedural (so-called “democratic”) legitimization and those practicing substantive forms of ideological and religious legitimization. The impossibility of finding a consensual accountability between “civil” society and the state reflects the confusion between secular social relations and “universal” would-be primordial values.

In the first half of the twentieth century in Europe the initial alternatives to modernity were fascism and communism. In the course of this century the Soviet Union, and later Communist China, attempted utopian and eschatological social programs, but finally without the means to make them take root except through extraordinary violence.  Finally, both proved themselves not universal ideologies, but to broaden Dumont’s terminology, “pseudo-holisms”. In a word equality and hierarchy were obliged to compete. This phenomenon spread; collective identities of utopian Muslim regimes exhibited increasing tensions. Even French laicité struggling to maintain its vaunted neutrality, was challenged. A weakening of the centrality of the nation states at the end of the twentieth century was accompanied the demographic diasporas created by almost total, worldwide, mobility which produced so-called “subdued” ethnic, local, regional and transnational identities. These have, or are in the process of redefining citizenship, and the laws and rights of their respective nation-states. Citizens have been creating “foreign” alliances through WEB-generated networking that put pressure on local political processes.

Appropriating modernity on one’s own (non-Western) terms favored ideologies of political correctness which viewed from the outside seemed to create untenable new totalities. According to S. Eisenstadt[3], the tensions between authentic indigenous and “Western” reflects that no way has yet been found to unravel the tensions that modernity creates. Sharing spaces, i.e. pluralism in a scene so ideologically charged, means that the utopia of modernity is an ever vanishing horizon whose disillusioned adherents veer off into new-found pseudo-holisms. Even here, this questioning of the limits of modernity is in itself a modern move. Such artificiality and fundamentalism are trapped in the very modernity they sought to escape. To understand the on-going processes of counter-secularization, the only move left to us is to study comparatively different experiences of secularization. This modest essay is meant to be a contribution to such an anthropology.

The issue of what is secularization needs clarification[4]. This process is a project and has relevance only vis-à-vis a given cultural context. Separation of “religion and state” means very different things in different cultures because their respective values are so differently articulated. Taken out of its European context, secularism can become an ideological tool of cultural destruction[5]. Secularism is not a good in itself although the features of its justification (i.e. Charles Taylor’s “over-lapping consensus”) and the bases of its adoption tell us about “good” as understood in the societies from which the promoters of secularization came. In fact it has rarely created this over lapping consensus when exported.

In the 2012 Dumont Centenary conference, Joel Robbins forcefully proposed that in each cultural area, one must clarify the cultural differences that structure different secularizations in order to escape the dead-end of those social scientists whose only heuristic tool to understand society are explanations of relations of power. To pursue Louis Dumont’s intellectual legacy and study secularization, we need to deploy a comparative anthropology of morality, of the cultural capital of the “Good’s” place in the articulation of a social morphology[6]. Empirical observations of hierarchies of values should produce scenarios which should contribute to the anthropology of morality[7].

Where religious traditions have been dilapidated, the transmission of spiritual authority is diluted through a fragmentation of rapidly accessible charisma. These revivals are presented as authenticity and such fundamentalism is now found globally in every belief system. If such a general description of fundamentalism is widely accepted today, what is more difficult is to describe in detail, chronologically, its development in a given country, and to compare it with secularization as found in the hybrid fabrics of other non-European societies[8].

[1] Modernity, for Louis Dumont (1983), is an ideology characterized by contemporary individualism and incompatible with holism which subordinates the individual in a hierarchy which encompasses its opposite through an internal distinction of identity. The relations of persons to others are higher valued than that of human to objects of nature. In the context of globalization, Arjun Apadurai (1996: 3-4) stresses modern subjectivity as a work of imagination (a collective social fact), where the cultural dimensions of globalization constructs  imagined selves and imagined worlds that subvert earlier narratives. “…because of the rapid way in which they move through daily routines, electronic media provide resources for self-imagining as an everyday social project.”

[2] – In this paper I will be considering Indonesia and India and not trying to describe Europe where this took place much earlier. Western Europe entered the process of secularization slowly enough to develop political and religious theories of pluralism, economic explanations of industrialization and more recently analyses of globalization. Cf. René Rémond, Religion et Société en Europe. La secularisation aux XIXè et XXè siècle, 1789-200O,  1998. More recently, secularization processes have not encouraged pluralism but rather tried to prevent religion norms from becoming public ones.

[3] This introduction was inspired by reading S.N. Eisenstadt’s essay on multiple modernity’s in the winter issue (2000) of Daedalus.

[4] Cf. Jean-Claude Monod, Sécularisation et laïcité, 2007.

[5] As Aristotle identified it more than two thousand years ago, the “Good”, is a key question in the construction of any polis, hence the need for a analysis of morality. In China secularization was deliberately programmed irrespective to the cultural history, of the Chinese understanding of good. And yet despite the violence the Chinese cultural revolution provoked many of the burned books and leveled temple have reappeared from their Chinese ashes in the last two decades.

[6] As everyone is aware, the ways in which a religious good or value is conceptualized have very local genealogies, usually holistic in outreach while the European notion of religious freedom has often become unmoored from their societies of origin as it was be exported under the name of secularization to recently decolonized states.

[7] – Any analysis of secularization is not purely academic as both of the two societies studied here, India (1946+) and Indonesia (1965+), have recently suffered pogroms between communities, nominally for religious reasons.

[8] – For instance the purification of Indonesian Islam from its local customs and accretions (especially Javanism) led to a fundamentalism through the Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama movements described in section two below, but these were both conservative and modern reformations of Indonesian Islam. In fact conservatism and modernity go quite well hand in hand. In India’s central states, the appearance of Hindutva, a fundamentalist Hindu cultural and political movement in the 1970’s, prevented the India from pursuing its secular course, as communalism concocted from of cultural and political boundaries destroyed the collective identities that Gandhi had strived to reinforce.

You can download and read the whole paper here: Secularization 2013

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