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Secularization and Secularism

Secularism And Its Opponents Since 1914

Since World War I there was at first a rise in secularism in the Global South, but then a rise in antisecularist forces, both in the United States and in the Global South, along with a decline in optimism about the future. The biggest impetus to secular nationalism came after World War I, with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881–1938) in Turkey, whose leaders wanted a strong secular national state to catch up with the West. Ataturk's secularizing measures included Romanization of the script, outlawing the use of Arabic, ending religious education and the shari'a, basing personal status law on the Swiss Civil Code, votes for women, and discouragement of veiling. His were the strongest measures outside the communist world, and after World War II, when political parties competed, some of his measures were eased. While in the early twenty-first century Turkey has seen Islamist or partially Islamist parties in power, there has been little change in secular laws and practices, which have been guarded by periodic interventions of the secularist army.

In Iran Reza Shah, (r. 1925–41) imitated Ataturk. He promoted the secular nationalist view of Iran earlier favored by oppositionists, glorifying pre-Islamic Iran and denigrating the Arabs and Islam. He forced men and later women to adopt Western dress, promoted a secular public school system, and so forth. His son, Muhammad Reza Shah (194l-1979), continued secularist measures. With secular opposition cowed, and secular nationalism partly associated with the status quo and subservience to the United States, support grew for a religious opposition that appealed to anti-Western and antityrannical feelings and triumphed in 1979. Since then, however, secular opposition and thought have revived.

In Egypt the secular nationalism of Gamal Abdel-Nasser was undermined by defeats by Israel, and his secular successors followed unpopular economic and political policies. A growing Islamist movement there has influenced policy. Islamism is strong in the Muslim world, though several governments have suppressed it. The association of secularism with Western dominance helps account for this growth of Islamism; even the strict rulers of Saudi Arabia are attacked as infidels dependent on the United States. When Muslims want to be free of Western interference, and associate the West with support for Israel, many do not want to imitate ideologically the secular West.

In Pakistan and Israel religious identity was the raison d'être of movements to create nations. The early Zionist leaders were, however, secularists, and much of the population is still secularist. Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876–1948) of Pakistan was also a secularist. Reactions against secularism, organized into several parties have, however, taken advantage of both states' religious basis, and have grown. Both states incorporate significant bodies of religious law, including religious courts for some matters.

India, where there are several major religions, is more complex. While Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh movements have grown, the secular Indian National Congress represented the main trend of the national liberation movement. Once the Muslim League adopted and agitated for the creation of Pakistan in the 1940s, communal-religious feelings were aroused, culminating in partition in l947. A Hindu political party ruled for some years until the secular Congress Party ousted it in 2004. Religiously based political movements have caused a weakening of secularist commitments in the Global South, at the same time as most governments continue to follow secular policies in education, welfare, and economics.

The other major area where secularism has been on the defensive and religious politics on the rise is the United States. Although the United States is very different from the Global South, the rise of religious politics in both since around 1970 is to some degree a reaction to governmental secular measures. The Supreme Court, partly responding to cases brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, began rulings favoring church-state separation in the states only in the 1930s. After World War II there were several secularizing governmental measures, but antisecular opposition has focused on two Supreme Court decisions, the outlawing of school prayer in 1962 and the legalization of abortion in 1973. The earlier concern of the religious right with evolution has also continued, as well as focus on opposition to schools' teaching about homosexuality or even about sex. Many feel that after 2001 the U.S.. government under President George W. Bush became less secular, endorsing federal funds for "faith-based" programs and acquiescing to religious objections to stem-cell research and to funding international programs that include mention of abortion.

In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the end of communism unleashed some backlash and restatement of traditions, though secularism remains strong. Even among secularists, concern over contemporary behavior patterns has been added to antisecularist ideologies. Among worldwide trends decried by antisecularists are the rise of freer sexual habits and of sexually transmitted diseases, a rise in crime rates, and a decline in community action and spirit. Some find in revived religious ties and morality an answer to such problems. Many traditions have come to be romanticized and seen as belonging to religion. The religious right creates a picture of harmony that never existed, generally idealizing the past family situation and social relations. Antisecularists everywhere appeal to the past to create religious roadblocks to the liberation of, and equal rights for, women.

In the past, when secular ideologies like nationalism, socialism, free market capitalism, and others had not been widely tried they could be seen as panaceas, while religion in government existed widely, and its faults were obvious. In the early twenty-first century this situation has reversed, with secular ideologies having been tried and shown problems, and religious groups able to present alternative ideologies and create effective religio-political organizations.

Many of the changes instituted by governmental secularization have been retained or reinstated when religious parties come to power, as seen in Iran. The Islamic Republic adopted a largely secular constitution and its economy and schools are mainly secular, despite a religious overlay, which, as with the U.S. religious right, concerns mainly questions of gender and sexuality. Secularist ideas are also popular and religious government unpopular.

The backlash to secularism can produce its own backlash, as is happening in the early twenty-first century in Iran and possibly in India. Taking the whole world, secularism is not in dramatic retreat, although antisecular ideologies are stronger than they were. Religious politics are not important in the large, secular Japan and China, nor are they in most of Europe. Secularism seems strongest in countries that are growing in prosperity and in those that have considerable resources devoted to social safety nets, like Western Europe and Canada. The presence of large Muslim populations in Western Europe discriminated against and sometimes following Islamist ideologies and gender practices that disfavor women has created problems for European secularism, however. The most dramatic expression of secularism in the face of such problems has been the controversial French outlawing of wearing religious symbols, including the headscarf, in the schools in 2003.


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Nikki R. Keddie

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