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Multiple Modernities and Postsecular Societies

Multiple Modernities and Postsecular Societies brings together the two recently much discussed concepts in its title and explores them through a number of case studies.


Multiple Modernities and Postsecular Societies brings together the two recently much discussed concepts in its title and explores them through a number of case studies. The introduction by Massimo Rosati and Kristina Stoeckl, the volume’s editors, provides a useful recapitulation of these two ideas and draws attention to their potential links. The framework of multiple modernities, as developed by Shmuel Eisenstadt and further articulated by a number of his colleagues and students, contains many advantages over its intellectual alternatives. While it allows the comparative analysis of the modern features of different world societies, it has a much less rigid structure than classical modernization theory. The latter assumed that all societies would follow more or less the same (Western) trajectory of modernization and eventually converge in their cultural and institutional features. The multiple modernities model avoids the ideological underpinnings of its precursor by positing that each society selectively appropriates and interprets the cultural program and institutional patterns of modernity in line with its preexisting cultural characteristics. Thus, societal patterns that diverge from their Western counterparts are not automatically labeled non-modern. Finally, the decoupling of modernity from Westernization and the attribution of reflectivity and creativity to non-Western cultures provides an important alternative against simplistic versions of civilizational analysis in the Huntingtonian mold.

The association of modernity with secularity has increasingly come under question within the last three decades. The concept of postsecular society has arguably emerged as the most coherent response to this challenge in philosophy and the social sciences. The editors of the present volume largely adopt Habermas’s definition of the concept: the postsecular refers to the understanding that religion has and will continue to have a vital presence in modern societies, leading to the co-existence of secular and religious worldviews and practices in the public sphere. As a normative ideal, postsecularity requires reflectivity and openness to communication on the part of both secular and religious citizens.

The notions of multiple modernities and postsecular society seem to be a natural fit. Secular public spheres may be said to be largely a feature of West European modernity (adopted by Westernizing elites elsewhere with varying degrees of success), while religion tends to have a strong public presence outside Europe. The contention that religious actors and discourses have a legitimate place in the public spheres of modern societies (as José Casanova has eloquently argued in Public Religions in the Modern World) thus supports the idea that non-Western societies represent distinctive interpretations of modernity, not deviations from a singular, universal model. The rigid assumptions of radical Enlightenment thinking which have deeply influenced the social sciences—the association of modernity with the privatization of religion and the historical experience of Western Europe—are giving way to a more contingent and pluralistic understanding of modernity, and the concepts of multiple modernities and the postsecular both play a role in this intellectual shift. While challenging these old certainties, however, the proponents of the multiple modernities paradigm still hold on to the notion that there are certain common cultural and institutional characteristics shared by all forms of modernity. The theorists of postsecular society similarly stress that postsecular does not mean “de-secularized”; the concept presupposes the differentiation of religious and political authorities and a pluralistically oriented civil society.

The volume contains eight chapters besides the editors’ introduction. Due to limitations of space, I will mainly focus on the four chapters on Turkey and Russia, two settings that provide, according to the editors, privileged sites for the study of the postsecular outside of Western Europe and North America.

Uğur Kömeçoğlu’s and Kristina Stoeckl’s chapters emphasize the analytical importance of Turkey as “a laboratory in the making of a postsecular society” (p.75), as the secular national identity and public sphere institutionalized by the Kemalist regime in the early republican period have been significantly challenged within the last quarter century by the increasing public presence of religious actors and the rise of Islamic parties.

Kömeçoğlu’s chapter discusses Islamic forms of public life and the consumption patterns of the Muslim middle class in Turkey, focusing on phenomena such as Islamic cafés, headscarf fashion, and Islamic holiday resorts. The chapter follows in the footsteps of Nilüfer Göle whose important contribution to the multiple modernities debate, “Snapshots of Islamic Modernities” (2000), explored modern Islamic subjects in the Turkish public sphere. While Göle did not use the term postsecular in the article (she referred, however, to post-Islamism), she pointed out that Muslim public actors challenged the secularist presuppositions of the modernist project and constructed an alternative, Islamic modernity. Göle and her students, along with a number of anthropologists, have since investigated in detail Muslim feminists and intellectuals, Islamic fashion shows and luxury hotels, and religious popular culture and mass media. Written more than a decade after “Snapshots of Islamic Modernities,” Kömeçoğlu’s brief discussion of some of the modern manifestations of Muslim agency in Turkish public life fails to make an original contribution to the existing literature. A more innovative analysis would have made use of the analytical leverage provided by the concept of the postsecular, which emphasizes complementary learning processes among religious and secular citizens. Recent examples of such learning processes in Turkey include the collaboration of secular environmental organizations and anti-capitalist Muslim movements in opposing urban renewal projects and the vocal support of secular feminists for the right of Muslim women to wear headscarves in public office.

Rosati’s chapter offers a cultural analysis of three symbolic phenomena in contemporary Turkey, including the uses of the images of Atatürk, the emergence of Hrant Dink as a symbol of a pluralistic and democratic Turkey, and debates on opening Hagia Sophia to worship. Part of this chapter focuses on secularist citizens’ widespread display of Atatürk images in the 1990s in response to the increasing public visibility of Islam and the rise of the Welfare Party. Rosati argues that secularist individuals’ display of these pictures in their homes and businesses, these images’ “humanized” depiction of Atatürk in everyday activities, and the commercialized nature of Atatürk paraphernalia denote “the retreat of secularism into the private space” (p.63), which in turn expresses “a deep revision ... of the Kemalist understanding of secularism” (p.66).

While extensively relying on Esra Özyürek’s and Yael Navaro-Yashin’s books, Rosati’s analysis completely neglects the critical aspects of their work. The title of Özyürek’s book, Nostalgia for the Modern, stressed the irony of longing for the “modernity” of Atatürk’s early republic, a single-party regime. Navaro-Yashin’s Faces of the State similarly questioned how civil the “civil Kemalism” of the 1990s really was. The display of citizens’ voluntary adherence to secular nationalism in this period was largely a strategy to restore the legitimacy of Kemalism, which had come under extensive criticism as an official ideology imposed from above. Spectacles of civil Kemalism were in fact often—though not always—orchestrated by Kemalist state actors. Furthermore, the refusal to tolerate public religion and the suppression of differences in the name of national unity continued to characterize this neo-Kemalist wave, which was deeply implicated in the military intervention known as the February 28 process. Rosati’s decidedly positive—and insufficiently critical—mode of analysis causes him to overlook the fact that the neo-Kemalist resurgence of the 1990s shared little common ground with the normative ideals of a postsecular society.

The main shortcoming of Kömeçoğlu’s and Rosati’s chapters is that they completely neglect the authoritarian tendencies of religious-conservative forces in contemporary Turkey. Kömeçoğlu takes the Turkish polity as the epitome of secularist authoritarianism (and thus as the mirror image of the religious authoritarianism in Iran) and portrays the presence of Muslim voices in the public sphere as a challenge to this secularist hegemony. This is a puzzling assertion about present-day Turkey (the book was published in December 2012 and several passages indicate that the chapters were completed in the second half of 2011). Kömeçoğlu is right to point out that women wearing headscarves are still barred from from entering the parliament and working in most civil service jobs in Turkey. However, after a decade of the Islamic-conservative AK Party in government—and especially after the party overcame the opposition within the military, high judiciary, and civil service—the depiction of Turkey as a “secularist authoritarian” polity is deeply misleading.

In recent years, the AK Party government has increasingly adopted religious-conservative policies, including opposition to abortion, stricter limitations on the advertisement, sale, and public consumption of alcohol, and regulation of media content with reference to the moral values of the nation. It has significantly strengthened religious education by reopening religious middle schools and adding elective courses on the Quran and the prophet’s life to the regular curriculum (which already contained mandatory religious instruction). The hegemony of religious-conservative values is not limited to government policy and discourse. The widely discussed study by Binnaz Toprak and her collaborators, Being Different in Turkey (2008), demonstrates that religious-conservative citizens in Turkey routinely discriminate against religious minorities, citizens with non-conservative political orientations, and individuals with non-traditional lifestyles. Alevis are often denied employment, excluded from commercial networks, and subjected to insults by their Sunni neighbors. Conservative landlords regularly refuse to rent apartments to unmarried male students and to female students who do not wear headscarves. Most recently, numerous atheists have been subject to lawsuits for their public criticisms of Islam, leading to the convictions of an internationally renowned pianist and an author for “publicly insulting religious values”.

Given this picture, Köseoğlu’s characerization of present-day Turkey as a bastion of secular authoritarianism seems out of touch with current realities. Turkey today might be more correctly characterized as a country where authoritarian secularism has lost its institutional underpinnings and the authoritarian tendencies of religious conservatism have consistently been on the rise. Islamic voices in the Turkish public sphere, whether they seek monopoly or peaceful co-existence, can no longer be seen as challengers of a secularist hegemony. Increasingly, it is the religious minorities, non-believers, and individuals with non-traditional lifestyles who are excluded from the legitimate public realm sanctioned by the government and guarded by religious-conservative forces in civil society.

A similar observation may be made about Rosati’s characterization of the AK Party as a carrier of postsecular ideals. The AK Party, according to Rosati, “seems to be committed to bridging not only Turkey and Europe, but also different sectors of Turkish society: Kemalist and Islamists, Kurds and Turks, Turks and Armenians, Sunnis and Alevis, Muslims and other religious minorities” (p.67). This verdict curiously neglects that the AK Party has wavered in its commitment to EU-related reforms since 2007 and consistently refused Alevi demands for equal treatment by the state during its tenure. Furthermore, the budget of the Directorate of Religious Affairs has increased nearly threefold (in real terms) under AK Party  governments. This state agency supports an immense religious infrastructure and a large body of religious personnel, which in turn reinforce the hegemony of Sunni Islam in the Turkish religious field. If religious pluralism is a central value and state-supported religious monopolies are highly suspect in postsecular societies—as the editors argue in their introduction—then Rosati should have been more critical in his evaluation of the policies and discourses of the AK Party.

Contemporary Russia is another postsecular society in the basic sense, where religious actors have a significant presence in the public sphere alongside secular ones. According to Alexander Agadjanian, there are two simultaneous but contradictory trends in post-Soviet Russia: the emergence of a moderate, European-style secularism (in place of the Soviet policy of forced secularization and imposition of “an alternative system of sacralized ideas and practices” (p.90)) and the central presence of religion as a source of identity and ideology in the public realm. Agadjanian emphasizes, however, that even religious actors mostly operate within the prevailing secular framework of the Russian public sphere. Stoeckl too observes postsecular tendencies in post-Soviet Russia, as the Russian Orthodox Church has defined itself as independent from the state and sought partial reconciliation with secular modernity in its documents on social doctrine and human rights. However, the church takes a defensive posture vis-à-vis other religions and secular worldviews and occasionally makes hegemonic claims on Russian culture.

Agadjanian’s chapter offers the most direct challenge to the theoretical contentions that inform the rest of the volume. His main argument, succinctly put, is that “the basic package of modernity is largely the same, and secularity is always included” (p.88). According to Agadjanian, Europe has provided the content of modernity, which merely takes different forms in other parts of the world. Although Agadjanian’s criteria for distinguishing content from form are not entirely clear, this argument does not necessarily contradict Eisenstadt’s contention that all modernities share some characteristics, which originated in Europe. The main problem with the theory of multiple modernities, according to Agadjanian, is its insistence on the authenticity of non-Western modernities, which neglects the global cultural hegemony exerted by Western secular modernity. While acknowledging the enduring relevance of religion in the modern world, Agadjanian draws on Taylor’s A Secular Age to argue that secularity is a “magisterial trend” in modernization projects both in and outside the West.

Stoeckl’s chapter makes a valuable contribution to the multiple modernities literature by delineating two different versions of this paradigm. The comparative-civilizational variant conceives of alternative modernities as rooted in distinctive Axial Age civilizations, “which, in turn, crystallize around religions” (p.102). Stoeckl rightly points out that the assumption of relatively homogenous and stable civilizational units is far-fetched. Drawing on the work of Arnason, she argues that the reproduction of civilizational patterns, when it occurs, must be studied as a function of cultural projects backed by political power. The second, postsecular variant of the multiple modernities paradigm focuses on specific actors rather than on civilizations. This more flexible framework allows for the reconstitution of modernity in a variety of sites through the reflective engagement of religious and secular actors with their own worldviews and with each other. Although its empirical case studies leave much to be desired, Multiple Modernities and Postsecular Societies will provide a valuable reference for future research in this vein.

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