Secularism cannot offer identity

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Writing from London in the aftermath of the July 7 bombings, one has a very strong sense that old definitions of the Arab and Muslim worlds won’t work any more. These are no longer places over there, geographically separate and far away.

Many scholars felt bound to point this out when Samuel Huntington published his work on the "clash of civilizations" several years ago. Islam and "the West" are intermingled. Where one begins and the other ends is impossible to judge. There are millions of Muslims in Europe, many of Turkish heritage, others who derive from the subcontinent, as well as all those whose forbears originated from the Mashreq, the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia.

By the same token, western imperialism and influence in Africa, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and further east have a long history. The Ottoman Empire encompassed both east and west as they are now understood in Europe, as too did the Arab and Roman empires before that.

To try to understand now what might motivate a group of young British men, of whatever descent, to adopt a radical Islamist agenda, commonly propagated on the internet and probably unrelated to any particular cultural context, requires an awareness of the larger picture. Herein may lie one clue at least as to why such men could find some purpose in the wanton killing of civilians.

They tell us that there are as many as three hundred different languages spoken in London, and the photographs of those missing in the bombings depict a multiplicity of ethnicities and presumably religions. Since the world has transited from empires to states to globalization, it is no wonder that identities are muddled and that there is some confusion about what it means to be British or European, local or foreign.

Trouble is, as people struggle to find their place in societies in flux, individuals and minorities may find themselves labelled–as Muslims or Asians or "other"–just because of how they look. This phenomenon has gathered pace in the context of the "war on terrorism". Secularism is offered as an answer, but that is a matter for the state; it is inadequate as a source of identity in and of itself.

Secularism is also not an ideology in itself. It gained salience as a facet of western democracy and of Soviet-style socialism. Its role within nationalist agendas of different Arab states differed from place to place. In Saudi Arabia religion is a pillar of the state. In Baathist Syria, by contrast, secularism and religious tolerance are now touted as benefits of the system.

But faith-based political platforms are gaining adherents, and not only in the Arab and Muslim states. Whether people support these platforms out of religious conviction is another matter. In so far as Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood give voice to popular frustration with foreign influence, occupation, or failures of the existing political elites, they may enjoy increased popular support.

But such support does not necessarily mean a new-found faith in the Almighty to deliver justice or meaning in life. Equally secular Iraqi nationalists may welcome the role of Islamist extremist groups in opposing the foreign forces in Iraq, while not buying into their worldviews or agendas. Presumably they expect to tackle their differences later, once occupation has ended.

In the Iranian revolution of 1979, secularists made common cause with the clerics but lost the battle for power in the aftermath. A parallel outcome no doubt haunts secularist members of the democratization movements in Egypt, Iraq and Palestine.

Meanwhile, in Europe people are turning to religion as a source of identity. According to the French scholar Olivier Roy, some European Christians and Muslims are adopting exclusivist versions of these creeds as affirmation of minority status and pride within what they see as a degenerate, amorphous host culture.

As with nationalist movements, the tendency is to develop a sense of self and belonging in antagonism to a dangerous or erosive "other". Conceivably, European religious fanatics could complicate Middle Eastern politics by depicting that region as the battleground for their ideals, demanding that local groups adhere to purist agendas and eschew pragmatism and compromise.

In the disorientating context of globalization or armed conflict, people need community, a sense of belonging. As Londoners are finding out, pride in being just that, a cosmopolitan community that can pull together at the level of the city and defy those who would divide it, is solace in a time of crisis.

Globalization and war challenge religion and the state. Both are fighting back. But over-emphasis on the apparent dichotomy between the secular and the religious is not working. While the battle goes on, a rejuvenation of local community identity, inclusive of diversity, could rescue many from the resort to extremism.

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