February 13th, 2016
THE events unfolding in North Africa and particularly in Egypt and Tunisia highlight the contested nature of what remains the key question of modern political philosophy: How to establish a stable and just society of individuals profoundly divided by incompatible religious, moral and philosophical beliefs? The bloody battle between those favoring secularism and those strongly advocating for an active participation of Islam in politics typifies the philosophical schism between those who argue for a clear privatization of beliefs that avoids a clash amongst conflicting worldviews and those that cannot make sense of politics without the substantive commitments of religion. Both camps have strong reasons to advance their case, but the reality is that both options have profound drawbacks leaving us all with the unsavory solution of having to “pick our poison”: either we side with secularism and champion a neutral State that respects individual freedom but that vacates the public space of life’s “big questions” or we side with a religiously-driven state with a substantive vision and ethos but that has no choice but to coerce dissenting views in the name a single truth.
While most westerns feel that privatizing morality and sterilizing the State is a worthy price to pay for individual freedom, eastern cultures (but also increasingly the religious right in the US for instance) tend to disagree and prefer to pay the price of coercion in order to have a fully-fledged and meaningful political live. Of course in reality most people sit somewhere in the middle between the two solutions and many believe that a pragmatic compromise can and will be achieved. Allow me to spoil the party: in an era of interconnected global communications and instant dissemination of ideas, the strident confrontation between secularism and religiously-based politics is only going to get worse. As I have argued elsewhere, we are experiencing an era of rapid de-privatization of morality as the wall of separation that secularism successfully built between the public and the private crumbles under a new hyper-connected social reality. In a world in which we are all instantly interconnected, beliefs can easily be socialized and public debate on deep held commitments reignites. The genie is out of the bottle and secularism won’t be able to bottle it back. Any concerted effort to push beliefs back into the private will only lead to a violent response by those who feel oppressed by the State. (Just ask the Muslim Brotherhood how they are feeling right now.)
As the “privatize and tolerate” solution of secularism crumbles with the re-socialization of religion and morality, are we condemned to a new era of inevitable sectarian violence between the plurality of deep commitments that characterize modern societies? To many, this power struggle or “clash of civilizations” is an inevitable outcome of our current condition. What astonishes me is that everyone is splitting hairs asking how we should organize ourselves politically in a plural world—so that our deeply held commitments don’t lead us into self-destruction—but no one takes a step back and questions the necessity of having deep commitments to begin with or their accuracy. The fact that secularism never really liberated men from their entrenched deep beliefs—but quite the contrary allowed these beliefs to grow in the unaccountable world of the private—is the real root of the problem. Secularism was a brilliant short-cut to civilized coexistence but it never truly dealt with the uncomfortable fact that men remained pathetically enslaved by their own privately held deep commitments. So let us be frank: the real problem is our unyielding attitude towards our deep commitments, not our lack of imagination in devising a sustainable political arrangement (news flash: there isn’t one). Secularists are wrong for trying to hide the problem and fundamentalists are wrong for pretending to have the one true solution.
In the dire situation where we find ourselves today, only a radical re-imagining of how human beings come to believe what we believe in can truly solve our predicament. If the problem is that we all have accumulated a non-negotiable array of moral and religious beliefs then the very practices that lead to this mess need to be revamped. Our very idea of freedom as the inalienable right to privately choose our most fundamental beliefs is, to me, the right place to start our revamping enterprise. The liberal idea of freedom as an autonomous process of ‘belief self-imposition’ is certainly a vital step in achieving freedom but it falls short of real autonomy as the gains we made by liberating ourselves from external coercion are counterbalanced by the loss of belief-accountability that ensues when beliefs are privatized. We freed ourselves from others only to end up self-enslaved. To be truly autonomous we need to move beyond the mere capacity to privately select our own beliefs and insert them in an ongoing process of open public deliberation. To be free is not only to have the capacity to choose our beliefs, but to choose beliefs that can be tested socially.
As the world grows interconnected, we need to go beyond the complacency of private autonomy and regard ourselves as free individuals only when our beliefs have been appropriated through social discussion—when they are viewed as cleansed from fundamentalism. In an interconnected world, a freedom that deserves the name has to be socially constituted. Neither concealing our deep commitments as secularism recommends nor trumpeting our own unyielding beliefs as fundamentalism mandates will bring a sustainable solution to the problem of pluralism. Only an amplified idea of freedom as constituted through ever-going social discussion can truly reap the benefits of our new interconnected reality. If we are all committed to keeping the conversation open, secularists can allow religion and morality back into the conversation and fundamentalists will eventually learn the liberating benefits of listening to dissenting views.