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  • Transcendence and Tradition:Two Attempts to Revive the Concept of the Secular
  • Bridget Purcell
Olivier Roy , Secularism Confronts Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, 144 pp.
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im , Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari'a. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008, 336 pp.

In these monographs, Olivier Roy and Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na'im both argue for the emergence of a progressive, democratic Islam adapted to a globalized and increasingly secular world. In recent years, "secularism" has come under intense critical scrutiny; the paradigmatic supersessionary narrative that views the secular as naturally replacing religion has been widely challenged by religious and nonreligious scholars on both the left and the right. Students of the Middle East, in particular, have criticized secularism as a normative Western ideal presumed to be a "universal" standard by which all can be measured. As such, they argue, it has served as a tool for Western imperialism. Thus many scholars, and especially anthropologists, have begun dismantling the "self-evident" character of the secular, revealing not [End Page 821] only its historical particularity but also its coercive and ideological functions (Asad 2003, Mahmoud 2005, Butler 2008). Although the concept remains largely intact in public and popular discourse (Hitchens 2007, Hirsi Ali 2007, Lilla 2007), its decline in certain academic circles has been so precipitous that sociologist Jose Casanova began his famous work on the subject by wryly asking "Who still believes in the myth of secularization?" (1994: 11).

The two books under review here attempt to recuperate the idea of the secular as a viable option for Muslims. They are examples of an approach which reconsiders the value of "universal" concepts like secularism and asks what is left out in blanket denunciations of (Western-born) universals. Both books thus mark a turn away from the tendency to champion local culture or "tradition" against imperialist globalizing forces. They consider how, in the age of globalization, even ideologically loaded concepts and paradigms may become unmoored from their initial contexts, traveling to new sites and becoming adapted and transformed in practice. Such an approach breaks down the dichotomy between local " resistance" and the hegemony of the global, revealing that universal concepts can and do act "as much for resistance as for power" (Tsing 214).

Although both authors wish to demonstrate the compatibility of Islam with secularism, they do so from drastically different perspectives and employ contrasting analytic methods. Roy, a French sociologist, argues that Islam is becoming an a "purely religious" phenomenon that transcends any particular culture or tradition and that as such, it poses no threat to the secular world of power and politics. An-Na'im, a Sudanese legal scholar and Islamic reformer, argues from within Islam, attempting to demonstrate that the adoption of a secular state needn't necessitate the transcendence or dissolution of Islamic culture and tradition. Rather, he maintains that some version of secularism is consistent with (and necessary for) the continuation of that tradition.

Olivier Roy is deeply concerned with the state of the European conversation about Islam. On one level, Secularism Confronts Islam responds to the panicked question haunting this discussion: is Islam compatible with secular Europe? Many insist that it is not, arguing that Islam recognizes no distinction between politics and religion and thus by its very nature cannot adapt to a secular democratic world. Such arguments "attribute to Islam an essence that is heterogeneous to the essence of Western culture" [End Page 822] (34). Roy refutes this essentialist viewpoint by claiming that in the contemporary world, Islam has detached itself from its traditional roots and can now exist in any ethnic or cultural setting. This sober, conciliatory outlook is a valuable corrective and contribution to the public conversation about Islam in Europe.

This review focuses on two of Roy's main arguments. First is the claim that globalization has effectively decoupled religion from culture: Roy argues that Islam is becoming "just a religion" rather than a cultural heritage which comprises distinctive ways of thinking and acting in the world. The second claim is that secularism constitutes a framework or a form that is universally applicable: its origin in the recent history of Western nation states...


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