The International Politics of Secularism: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Islamic Republic of Iran

Article excerpt

    The Iranian people did not rebel against their own failed rulers but
    against ours.
    --Robert J. Allison

In his study of religious nationalism and modern politics, Mark Juergensmeyer describes secular nationalism and religion as two opposing "ideologies of order." (1) These ideologies, he explains, have a great deal in common. They "conceive of the world in coherent, manageable ways; they both suggest that there are levels of meaning beneath the day-to-day world that give coherence to things unseen; and they both provide the authority that gives the social and political order its reason for being." After a lengthy analysis in which he portrays religion and nationalism as opposing ideologies, Juergensmeyer concludes that "there can ultimately be no convergence between religious and secular political ideologies." (2)

Juergensmeyer takes us some distance toward an understanding of the relationship between secular nationalism and religion. However, I want to take his insight into this relationship in a direction that he does not explore. For while he convincingly shows how secular and religious worldviews differ from each other, Juergensmeyer does not explore the extent to which secular order itself is created and maintained through its opposition to religion. Secularism has developed over centuries of experimentation and innovation. A curious relationship exists between this tradition and its religious counterparts. This article explores this relationship in the context of twentieth-century relations between the United States and Iran.

To understand U.S. foreign policy toward Iran. I believe that we need to shift our attention away from religious threats to secular modernity and toward secular attempts to identify the "religious." There are two varieties of secularism in the West. The first is laicism, or the attempt to expel religion from public life. In this form of secularism, the "sacred" and the "religious" are expelled from public discourse and practice. (3)

The second is what I call Judeo-Christian secularism, in which sacred aspects of Judeo-Christianity quietly inform public discourse and practice. Secularism has a rather cozy relationship with Judeo-Christian tradition. Judeo-Christian secularists believe that their religious tradition has culminated in the unique Western achievement of the separation of church and state. Secularization, then, is understood as the realization of a Western religious tradition. Both of these varieties of secularism are extremely unsympathetic toward the Islamic religion. Both chastise Islamic activists for attempting to import their religion into a would-be secular (either laicist or Judeo-Christian) democratic public sphere. (4) Both, in other words, are sustained through the identification and marginalization of Islam. When I refer to secularism, I am referring to both of these varieties.

The argument is divided into three parts: The first sets out the conceptual framework that underlies my argument, the paradox of identity and difference; the second part applies this framework to relations between the United States and Iran. In particular I explain why the Islamic Revolution was perceived as such a profound threat to the United States. In challenging the automatic linkage between secularism, democracy, and freedom, the revolution threatened U.S. nationalism, in which these ideals are tightly interwoven. To counter this threat, Americans projected all of the negative traits that had been associated with secular modernity under the shah--violence, tyranny, and lack of democracy--onto an Islamic other. This projection served two functions: it exculpated the United States from its association with the shah's regime and it cemented the association of the United States with secular democracy in opposition to its nemesis, religious tyranny. My argument, then, in the third part, is that the very identity of the United States as secular and democratic was at stake in the Iranian Revolution. …