The Crisis in Egypt and the “Secular”

Egypt, UprisingOn July 3rd, the latest instalment in a remarkable series of political events in Egypt occurred in the form of what most people are calling a coup d’état. The now former President Mohamed Morsi was “deposed” by the Egyptian military after his election just last year in July, revealing the nation’s already unstable political situation to be even more complicated than what could have been imagined just a couple weeks ago. Of course, this story has been covered from many different angles in many different venues, but one complication in particular speaks powerfully to an issue dear to The Humanist Lens: namely, the coup’s implications for the concept and role of the “secular sphere” in a democratic Egypt.

In broad strokes, the major players on the contemporary Egyptian scene are: the military, which is essentially a faction with its own leadership; the Muslim Brotherhood, whose influence extends into the Arab world as a whole and whose stated goal is the unilateral authority of the Qu’ran and Sunnah in all matters political; and the “protesters”, who have been involved on the streets in millions for the sake of a more populist brand of democracy that is attentive to the needs of the majority on the ground.

It is the popular media’s characterization of the latter group as “secular” that is especially interesting for those familiar with the project of articulating a Christian humanism that can adequately account for contemporary social developments in various contexts. As Martin Schlag says, after all, Christian humanism aims to provide “a cultural transformation of values, practices and institutions” for the sake of human flourishing.

The truth is, the protestors on the streets in Cairo are not “secular”–at least, if what we mean by secular is a naive picture of the “secular humanism” of a tiny fraction of Western modernity’s scientistic elite (à la Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris) who exist happily and vocally outside of any and all religious traditions. If anything, in calling them secular, mainstream media outlets in the West reveal their clumsy adherence to the “subtraction narrative” of the secular that suffers a devastating critique in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. This problematic logic usually assumes that any protest against a theocratic regime must come from outside the religious tradition that produces it. This “outside space” is the neutral (and correct) ground of the secular. 

The facts just do not bear this out, and this is no surprise, given the philosophical weakness of such a position to begin with. As Jens Zimmermann remarks of the secular political philosopher Jurgen Habermas in Humanism and Religion, “With the discrediting of secularism’s subtraction narrative, and with the growing inability of secularist reason to make sense of human existence…” it has become necessary to “acknowledge religious sources for society’s values, and religious reasoning has to acknowledge at its very heart the legitimacy of a secular, common government.”

The political crisis in Egypt presents a haunting plethora of dangerous problems for the people’s happiness there, and of course no ideological re-adjustment can begin to alleviate the concreteness of the situation. Still, there are important lessons to be drawn from these momentous events in the Middle East–not least of which include the serious role religious traditions play in the public, political sphere. When religious traditions converge, the discussion has to move forward in light of the fundamental claims about human dignity–the ones readily and perhaps even exclusively available in those religious traditions themselves. Further, more trivially, this is exactly what is happening precisely because any attempt to bracket these ultimate questions is inauthentic by definition.

Beyond just the concrete situation in Egypt, this religiously informed humanism provides a more confident picture of humanity that is so desperately needed today.

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