Is secular fundamentalism the answer to religious extremism?

Secular Fundamentalism will Not Defeat Religious Fundamentalism: A Response to Pervez Hoodbhoy

fundamentalism

Sher Ali Tareen |

In a relatively recent opinion piece published in the Dawn newspaper, entitled “Textbooks-Kudos to Punjab,” Pervez Hoodbhoy, the self-professed expert on all things religion, society, and politics, lavished effusive praise on recent changes to school textbooks and curriculum inaugurated by the Punjab government. Hoodbhoy could hardly hide his glee at what one might describe in a nutshell as the imposition of a ‘textbook’ (pun intended) liberal fundamentalist vision of knowledge and society.

At the crux of this vision is the uncritical embrace of Western liberal modernity and its alleged fruits of secularism and rationalism as universal indices of societal progress and achievement. This now thoroughly debunked enlightenment narrative hinging on the modern Western eclipse of tradition and religion is unfortunately alive and kicking in the social imaginaries of Pakistani liberal fundamentalists like Hoodbhoy.

Who seem to have missed the boat on the most basic theoretical interventions of the past few decades that have brought into fatal doubt self-congratulatory narratives of modern liberal secularism as the culminating achievement and aspiration of human life.

As an academic in the humanities, I would be thrilled to see curricular reform aimed at generating critical thinking among students, as a way to complicate simplified and suffocating nationalist histories. But that is not what is happening with the Punjab government’s curricular initiatives that seem to have so warmly cockled Hoodbhoy’s heart. Rather, what is at work here is an insidious operation of producing knowledge, especially knowledge concerning religion, that best fits and promotes a Western neo-liberal understanding of ‘good religion.’

In this scheme, ‘good religion’ is religion that advances Western, especially American political hegemony by normalizing liberal secular dogmas about the meaning, place, and purpose of religion in the modern world. Such operations of social engineering, inspired by and conducted under the pressure of Western neo-imperial power can hardly advance the project of critical thinking about either the Western or the Muslim humanities. To make my point in more concrete terms, let me briefly provide two illustrations (there could be many) of some of the yawning problems and fallacies afflicting Hoodbhoy’s thought.

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My first example comes from his rapturous celebration of teaching science in isolation from religion, Islam, and Muslim scholars. As he wrote, while lauding changes to science textbooks in the new Punjab curriculum: “instead of beating the tired old drum of Muslim scientists from a thousand years ago, one now sees a genuine attempt to teach actual science — how plants grow and breathe, objects move, water makes droplets or freezes, etc.” Certainly, it is true that valorizing simplistic accounts of Muslim scientific glory don’t help the cause of nuanced learning.

But at work in Hoodbhoy’s telling description is a dogmatically unquestioning acceptance of a Western enlightenment narrative whereby the certainty of “modern Western science” has indelibly surpassed the supposed irrationality of Eastern/Islamic religious knowledge. “Actual” science stands readily opposed to and in contrast with “pseudo religiously inflected science.” This is a blatantly Orientalist narrative that is as historically untenable as it is conceptually clunky.

Had Hoodbhoy read the shining recent book of the prominent scholar Peter Harrison Territories of Science and Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2015), he would have known that the very binary between religion and science as representing opposed and opposite domains of life is a recent modern Western invention. In the pre-modern era, many religious scholars were immersed in forms of knowledge and practice that we today associate with science, and vice versa, across religious traditions. Moreover, the formation of the binary between the rational scientific West and the irrational superstitious (read religious) East is inseparable to the violence (physical and otherwise) of colonialism. Hoodbhoy unhesitatingly accepts this colonial narrative in his celebration of “modern Western science” because he does not know better.

Agents of empire like Hoodbhoy remind one of the great Martinique philosopher Frantz Fanon’s famous category of the “Comprador bourgeoisie,” native elite who gladly and self-servingly do the empire’s bidding.  Such people are both politically and intellectually fulsome.

But even more fundamentally, his prescription of excising the heritage of Muslim knowledge traditions is hardly a recipe for the cultivation of wisdom and critical thought. Again, there is no denying that theatrically triumphalist readings of pre-modern Muslim political and intellectual glory are far too simplistic. They also suffer from a rise and fall model of history whereby the present is always seen as a wretched remainder of a glorious bygone past. Here one is reminded of the evocative Hadith of the Prophet: “My community is like rain shower; one does not know whether the beginning of a rain shower is better or its end.” So yes, Hoodbhoy is correct to point to the problem of pathological attachments to imperialist histories and political theologies.

But he is absolutely incorrect in his call for abandoning the study of Muslim intellectual traditions, including and especially Muslim rational sciences, in favor of embracing an equally if not more pathological narrative of the triumph of modern Western science over the rest of humanity. Rather than dumping the heritage of the Muslim intellectual tradition, wrestling with its resources in a nuanced and critical fashion is a much wiser recipe for engaging the possibilities and problems of that tradition.

This brings me to another moment in Hoodbhoy’s essay that amplifies his inferior thinking and reading list. While almost casually applauding the inclusion of Qa’id-i ‘Azam’s August 11, 1947 speech in a social studies textbook, he treats readers to a telling set of remarks that nicely encapsulates the underlying normative commitments driving the Punjab education program and Hoodbhoy’s thundering endorsement of that program.

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He wrote, “But here’s the wonder of wonders: an Urdu translation of Quaid-i-Azam’s famous speech of Aug 11, 1947, has finally found its way into at least one social studies book! This declares that religion is a matter for the individual citizen and not of the state.” Now there is obviously nothing wrong with the inclusion of this speech in a textbook. Though one may remark in passing that a more holistic and careful examination of the Qa’id’s many speeches, positions, and activities might generate a far more complicated image of his religious and political personality than that of a dyed-in-the-wool secularist that Pakistani liberal fundamentalists seem to so religiously cherish.

Though, in their rush to apportion all blame on the bearded brown man, the ire and critique of liberal fundamentalists often ignores the crucial point that the textbooks for this process of radicalization were printed in good ‘ole Nebraska in Midwestern USA.

But that is not my point here. I want to instead probe the normative understanding of and assumptions about religion that undergird his comments; comments that are as revealing as they are problematic. What Hoodbhoy does not realize is that his notion of what religion in the modern world should look like, namely a private inner experience unencumbered from institutional and other forms external authority, is in fact a resoundingly Christian Protestant understanding of modern religion.

Moreover, the imposition of such an understanding of ideal religion on non-Western people and societies was integral to the logic of Western colonialism and to contemporary insidious forms of neo-imperial power. In proposing such a view of religion, Hoodbhoy is unwittingly (at least I hope unwittingly) pimping for the violence of colonialism and American neo-imperialism. The central flaw in his thinking, as indeed in the thought of other liberal secular fundamentalists of his kind, is their inability to think about secularism as anything but the opposite or inverse of religion.

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As some excellent recent scholarship has shown, rather than the inverse of religion, secularism is best understood as a form of power that constantly manages and regulates what religion in the modern world should look like, most often generating a notion of “good religion” most conducive to Western hegemony over the global south. See the outstanding recent book Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton University Press, 2015) by prominent anthropologist Saba Mahmood for arguably the most sophisticated exposition of this argument.

Rather than dumping the heritage of the Muslim intellectual tradition, wrestling with its resources in a nuanced and critical fashion is a much wiser recipe for engaging the possibilities and problems of that tradition.

The irony in all this is that it is precisely people like Hoodbhoy who bemoan (rightly so) the deliberate manufacturing of radicals and militants in the 1980s for what was then seen as a necessary battle between the righteous Americans (and their proxies), and the godless Soviets. Though, in their rush to apportion all blame on the bearded brown man, the ire and critique of liberal fundamentalists often ignores the crucial point that the textbooks for this process of radicalization were printed in good ‘ole Nebraska in Midwestern USA.

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Today, imperial priorities have changed, but the imperial power driving the agenda is the same, only more powerful and manipulative. Agents of empire like Hoodbhoy remind one of the great Martinique philosopher Frantz Fanon’s famous category of the “Comprador bourgeoisie,” native elite who gladly and self-servingly do the empire’s bidding.  Such people are both politically and intellectually fulsome.

Dawn News does its readers a tremendous disservice by populating its opinion pieces with the verbiage of intellectual lightweights like Hoodbhoy, Nadeem Paracha, Cyril Almeida etc. (there are certainly rare exceptions) who seem to have missed the boat on the most basic theoretical interventions of the past few decades that have brought into fatal doubt self-congratulatory narratives of modern liberal secularism as the culminating achievement and aspiration of human life. Indeed, if there is anyone who will serve to benefit from some new textbooks or from an expansion in reading lists, it is Hoodbhoy and his tribe.

Sher Ali Tareen is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College, USA. He received his Ph.D. from Duke University in 2012. thetareen@gmail.com. The views expressed in this article are authors own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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