The International Politics of Secularism: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Islamic Republic of Iran
Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political
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. The need to reclaim this identity, and to reaffirm the link between secularism, democracy and freedom, accounts for the fervor of U.S. opposition to Iran.
One implication of this thesis is that contrary to the "clash of civilizations" argument, animosity between the United States and Iran witnessed over the past three decades is not a function of immutable cultural difference. It is the result of a series of events in which an imperial form of secular modernity was challenged and replaced by an imperial form of religious modernity, with consequences for both communities involved. Secularists, as I argue in the third part of the article, would do well to come to terms with their mixed role in these events, rather than dismissing the revolution as an irrational embrace of Islamic tradition. As I will demonstrate, the revolution presented a much more profound challenge to secularism, and to the U.S. national identity itself, than is suggested by such accounts.
One caveat is in order. This article analyzes secularist discourse and its relation to religion, and in particular Islam. Not everything associated with secularism is subject to my critique, and I am not suggesting that secularism be discarded or that a common religion be reinstated in public space. Secular theory and practice have made commendable contributions to democratization and liberalization in many contexts. I am suggesting, however, that we examine a neglected dimension of secularism: its aspiration to serve as a universal grammar of public life that defines itself by identifying and marginalizing the religious, and in particular the Islamic. (5) This move carries with it an extraordinary degree of power. (6) This article examines this power and its consequences for international relations.
Secularism and Religion
The philosopher Eugenio Trias has argued that "it is in the struggle against religion that reason has sought to secure its own legitimacy." (7) Sociologist Jose Casanova observes that "what seems to precipitate the religious response are different types of state intervention and administrative colonization of the lifeworld and the private sphere." (8) Policy analyst Suzanne Maloney notes that "we are defined as much by whom and what we reject as different, as by references that resonate." (9) Each of these statements hints at the relationship between secularism and religion. To explore this relationship more fully, I turn to the paradox of identity and difference, described by William E. Connolly as follows: "In a world without an intrinsic design, every personal, group and collective identity is defined and specified through the way it constitutes difference. Identity ... requires difference to be, but difference also threatens the security and certainty of self-identity." (10)
The paradox of identity and difference applies to the relation between secularism and religion. Secularism depends upon the religious for its own self-identification. (11) It strives to differentiate itself vis-a-vis religious others. (12) At the same time, in order to sustain its identity as nonreligious, secularism denies this interdependence with religion. Secular order must be constantly purified. It must repeatedly emphasize the difference between a secular self and a religious other. It does so by defining the religious as a threat to the secular. As Connolly observes, "the strategy that provides the most compelling way to consolidate identity is to define a range of differences as evil, heresy, irrational, irresponsible, abnormal or sick." (13) The result is that secularists project undesirable traits, such as a proclivity toward violence or antidemocratic tendencies, onto a religious other, defined as evil or irrational. Charles Taylor has described this as a "purificatory imaginary." (14) Interestingly, this purificatory process often relies on religiously based language, even in a theoretically secular context.
Secular opposition to religion contributes to the impression that secularism is neutral, nonreligious, or postmetaphysical. This claim to neutrality, is a powerful one. It obscures a more fundamental commonality between secularism and the religion that it antagonizes. Like religion, secularism relies upon a particular set of presumptions about the relationship between the sacred and the profane. It aspires to organize this relationship, and, to varying degrees, to universalize it. Secularists deflect attention from these presumptions to cement their claim to represent the rational and the just vis-a-vis their "irrational" religious rivals.
Secularism, then, is an exercise of power. Like foreign policy, it constitutes, produces, and maintains political identities. (15) It legislates the relationship between the sacred and the profane, the religious and the secular. It legislates the relationship between that which it defines as nontransparent, incalculable, and nonrepresentable (the realm of the sacred) and that which it interprets as transparent, calculable, and representable (the realm of the profane). Secularists claim to have left the undesirable aspects of religion behind. These aspects, they claim, have been purged from secular order. They belong to someone else or to some other time.
Yet the irony is that secularists often end up repeating precisely the same pattern from which they have allegedly liberated themselves. As Rene Girard has convincingly shown, violence cannot be attributed to religion alone. (16) As it defines and excludes its religious others, secularism has the potential to jeopardize democratic politics, especially if secularists feel existentially threatened by the "opposing camp." This dynamic lurks behind state repression in the name of secularism and fuels crackdowns on intellectuals and religious activists who are perceived as threatening secular state power. (17) It contributes to animosity between the communities associated with secular and religious discourses, both domestically and internationally. An antagonistic interdependence propels relations between secularists and their religious others. (18)
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Publication information: Article title: The International Politics of Secularism: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Contributors: Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman - Author. Journal title: Alternatives: Global, Local, Political. Volume: 29. Issue: 2 Publication date: March-May 2004. Page number: 115+. © 2008 Lynne Rienner Publishers. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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