De-secularization as a condition for the dialogue of civilizations

We know that Civilizations do not dialogue between them. There are people who enter in conversations. Conversations of people belonging to different civilizations (and therefore, having been brought up speaking a given language, nurtured in certain religious beliefs, belonging to certain ethical formations in the family and in the school) are not too difficult. The Rhodes World Public Forum is one example. Academic life all over the world is another good example of dialogue of people belonging to different civilizations. There are constant exchanges and dialogues in workshops and conferences, in public lectures and symposia of scholars, men and women, living in different countries, speaking regularly different languages, of different religious persuasions, etc. etc. So where is the problem addressed when a Public Forum focuses on dialogue of civilizations.”  We all know that it is a way of countering Harvard political theorist Samuel Huntington. It is well known today that his article and then book on The Clash of Civilizations (1995) either a forecast or a global design, has to be countered. The “dialogue of Civilizations” that counts is at the level of international relations, that is to say, at the level of the States and the Corporations.


In this regard, the statement for Panel 6 “Post-secularism” asks this question:

Can religious traditions and communities contribute to the needed dialogue of civilizations and to the fostering of a ‘culture of peace’? Since the beginning of the new millennium the WPF “Dialogue of Civilizations” has provided a forum representative of religious communities, civil society organizations, intellectuals, policy-makers and has contributed to the international context that sees today the emergence of an interfaith initiative aimed at having the United Nations declaring 2011-2020 as “UN Decade of Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, Understanding and Cooperation for Peace”,

The answer to this question could be pursued in two directions. One would be the inter-faith dialogue. As such, they have a crucial role today given the degree of unethical conduct at the level of the States and of the Corporations. I witnessed a consensus at the 9th edition of the Rhodes World Public Forum, not only in Panel 6 but as well as other panels I have attended, and also in the opening and closing panels: The Washington Consensus and the Neoliberal Doctrine were a resounding failure and the world is today paying the consequences. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations was part of the mentality and the hopes that the US government and its organic intellectuals dreamed, romantically, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now the world is waking up. And we are already, and have been living, in an era of turmoil, radical global changes. I would suggest that we, on the planet, are witnessing a closing of a 500-year cycle—the emergence, consolidation and world domination of Western Civilization. So that if we are told that there is a clash of civilization between Western Christians and Eastern Muslims, we are at the same time witnessing the crash of a civilization rather than the clash of civilizations. However, the second is a consequence of the former.

It is in this context that the question about (post) secularism makes sense. I have two points to make about the word and the idea of (post) secularism. One point refers to the idea of the post- and the other to the idea of secularism.

The idea of the “post” entered the vocabulary of the social and human sciences and was filtered in the media as a prefix of “modern” and “modernity.”  Post-modern and post-modernity were un-known or little used words before Jean-Francois Lyotard The Postmodern Condition (1978). Indicating transitions with the prefix “post” is a frame of Western Civilization and Western Civilization along. The fact that the word began to be used in China and in South America, in Africa, India or Indonesia only means that the point of origination of the word had different routes of dispersion because, precisely, of the global scope of Western Civilization. The post-modern condition could only make sense in China, Indonesia or Latin America as a marker of European (for the very concept of postmodernity is European, and then migrated to the US) interference in local histories; local histories that did not need the concept of post-modernity to deal with their present and imagine their future. On the contrary, the question of the non-European world by the late seventies was that of decoloniality not that of postmodernity. Local histories of any other place in the world are only indirectly related to the European philosophical and historical “post.”  More so, local histories in the non-Euro-US world have had their histories linked to Western histories between 500 and 150 years—the Americas and Africa for 500 years, China for 150 years; the Middle East chiefly since the end of the nineteenth century and the discovery of oil in the region. Certainly, the “post” doesn’t make sense in the local history of China, in the local history of the Turkey emerging from the dismantling of the Ottoman Sultanate, from where Iraq emerged, or the South America and the Caribbean where modernity was from the very beginning tied up with coloniality. Therefore, if we talk about post-modernity in South America and the Caribbean , in Iraq or China, we have to talk about post-coloniality as new form of imperial/colonial control. That is what the “post” means in the non-European-US world is simply a re-articulation of Western imperialism.

Now let’s examine secularism. Secularism also is a Western phenomenon. It originated in Europe to solve the problems of brutal religious wars between Christians. And it emerged also as the ideology of an emerging ethno-class that was taking political and economic control: the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie. The commercial bourgeoisie solidified their position through the rich commerce of South America and the Caribbean (at that point, Indias Occidentales or America). And took over with the Industrial Revolution. Secularism then served to separate the Church from the State and prevent future bloody wars and was at the same time the ideology upon which the bourgeoisie could establish and detach itself from the Church and from the monarchic aristocracy.  However, the underlying philosophical structure of Western Civilization was nothing else than the secularization of Christian theology. In fact, German legal philosopher Carl Schmitt described and conceived “political theology” as a conceptual structure that emerged from the two of the most sophisticated institutions of “Western rationalism” (his expression): the juridical rationality of the Catholic Church and the secular State of the jus publicum europeum, which was still assumed to be Christian in Thomas Hobbes’s system.

Secularism was the companion of the second wave of Western imperial expansion. The secular State became one of the main weapons of political colonialism. The expectations that Islamic countries should uncouple the state from religious institutions are generally taken for granted by governments, the media and intellectuals. Beyond the complexity of the issues and the debates of the past 8 years, the only point I want to stress here is the following: in the same way that “post” is a Western temporal marker, “secularism” is a Western concept of rationality and ethic. “Secularism” has its reasons for coming into being (the religious war) and has its right to remain in place. But there is no reason to expect that non-Western civilizations would detach the state from religious institutions. They may or may not. Russia has a history different to that of Islamic countries in the Middle East or in South East Asia. The Christian Orthodox Church of Russia is beyond the borders of Western Civilizations. Its relation to the state was severed under secular communism. Furthermore, since the Westernization of Russia started by Peter the Great and continued by Catherine the Great, Russia, the Church and the State took complementary but separate paths. To talk about post-secularism in China and the division between the state and religions institutions makes indeed very little sense. Confucianism that is being revived today was never a “religion” in the sense of Judaism, Islamism and Christianity but an ethic without sacred rituals. Dialogue of Civilization requires, in the case of China, a revision of the term in which the project is being advanced.

What is necessary, in short, it is “de-secularization” rather that “post-secularism.”  De-secularization means that while the separation of the state and religion was a necessity within core Western countries, there is no reason to expect that it will work for the rest of the world. The reason is simple: secularism unfolded from Europe own local history while it is alien to most of the local histories of non-European countries and regions.

But de-secularization is meaningful not only for the dialogue of civilizations in which state and religious institutions are either united or separated, but it is also important for dialogue of civilizations in which religious institutions were not imbedded in the local histories of countries and regions such as China. It is also important for dialogue among civilizations that are basically secular. In this case the problem to confront is that of the state and the nation, rather than the state and the church.

One of the myths secular discourses and practice created was that of the Nation-State. It was a form of governmentality that served very well the raising ethno-class, the bourgeoisie that needed to emancipate itself from the monarchy and from the Church. The image of the Oriental “despot” began to proliferate in European political theory since John Locke. At home, instead, the real enemy was not the oriental despot but the structure of government controlled by the monarch and the Church.

And it was relatively easy to implement the form-State and to attach it to one Nation. Indeed, the population where the modern Nation-State emerged were in homogeneous populations where a high percent of it was by far of the same ethnicity. There were religious differences between Catholic and Protestants but they were, on the one hand, all Christians and, on the other, one of the function of the secularism and coming of the Nation-State was precisely to overcome religious was after the Treaty of Westfalia (1648). One State for one ethno-class (Nation) was a solution for Europe internal social organization. And it proved to be also one of the most effective instruments of imperial expansion: the rest of the world began to believe or desire that the Nation-State was a solution—the Nation-State began to travel with Secularism as company. Or vice versa, Secularism began its tour having the Nation-State as company.

There were two problems however whose consequences are haunting us today. One is that the local histories civilizations that were not built upon the legacies of Greece and Rome (as China, India or the Kingdom of Africa before the European appropriated it after the Berlin Conference in 1884), did not need the Nation-State to solve the problem they may have had. Europe did. And they found their solution. The problem was that they thought that the Nation-State and Secularism were to solve the problems that non-Western Civilizations had. Either a na?f or a perverse way of thinking, but that way of thinking was behind the “civilizing mission” advanced by France and Britain. The second problem was that beyond the confines of Western Europe, in Africa (North and Sub-Saharan), Asia (Central, South and East), South America and the Caribbean, the population was not homogeneous—there were and still are many Nations to accommodate within one state. One example, when the British invented Nigeria and highlighted the three larger nations (among a couple of hundreds): Igbo, Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba it was obvious very soon that a Nation-State in Africa was not going to work like in Germany, France and British where all were white, Christians and educated in the Greco-Latin tradition. And it did not work. Between 1967 and 1970 devastating war erupted in Nigeria  (that is, a war fomented by the invention of a Nation-State—Nigeria) and it was called “civil” by analogy with the liberal and secular idea of the civil society.  That is another example of the “barbarism of civilization” as Hobsbawn will have it.  Dialogue of civilization cannot be limited to dialogue among religions or between secular and sacred realms.

De-secularization is another way of saying that the need is not to overcome secularism (like in post-secularism) but to decolonize it. Decolonize it means to undo its wrong doings. Certainly secularism has the right to exist, for it was what Europe needed at that time. But those who “believe” in secularism have no right to “believe” that its value is universal. There are many other belief systems, religions and  “decolonizing the secular.” And decolonizing the secular means at least two things. One is that Secularism is not a preferable system of ideas and code of conduct preferable to any non-Secular belief system be it in the sense of Religion proper or in beliefs systems that are, like Confucianism, codes of conduct on earth detached from sacred belief.    Confucianism is indeed a Secular way of thinking so that there is no reason for Western minds, politicians, journalist and pundits to expect that China shall replace a version of the Secular by another, to replace Confucianism by (Neo) liberalism and (Neo) Marxism.

In Bolivia and Ecuador the problem was addressed in the new Constitutions of both countries.  Both countries are defined in the Constitutions as “plurinational states.”  Plurinational State is a decolonial response to the mononational modern European states inherited in the formation of South American republics after the French Revolution. It declared secular but also plurinational. Plurinationality within one single State requires the principle that guides any “dialogue of civilization” for what is at stake in Bolivia and Ecuador are, on the one hand, the European civilization transplanted to the Americas and the Andean millenarian civilizations which are, in the America, the equivalent of Rome and Greece for the Europeans or Confucius and Mencius for China or the Koran for Islam.

In sum, since the modern/colonial world, from 1500 to 2000, was tantamount with Western Civilization (there is no Western Civilization before 1500), any project addressing “dialogues of civilizations” has to confront the building of Western Civilization since 1500 and it world hegemony since the nineteenth century. For dialogues to be successful it is necessary to decolonize secularism, the modern political theory of the State and its complicity with capitalist economy. The consensus I found at the Nine Rhodes World Political Forum was a consensus about the limits and the closure of Secularism in political theory and economy, the Washington Consensus and the Neo-Liberal Doctrine. 

I closed my statement, at the Forum, by outlining three trajectories being defined in the present that will be dominant in building global futures. We should not expect that one of them will “win” and reign. The future will be negotiated among projects that we can very well call “civilizational projects”, civilizational projects that will end the era or barbarism outlined by Hobsbawn. Civilizational projects are projects of civility, of communal social organization (neither communist nor commonwealth). These three trajectories are in a nutshell: a) re-westernization lead by the US and the European Union (that is, France, Germany and England); b) Dewesternization (lead by East Asia, South East Asia, Russia, Brazil and Turkey); and decoloniality (lead by the emerging political society, social movements, uprising of the “outreached”, intellectuals, artists, dissenting journalists, video and film makers, etc.). 

“Dialogues of Civilization” is tantamount, in the argument I am presenting, with “decolonial cosmopolitanism.”  That is, while Kantian cosmopolitanism was an imperial project (one idea of civilization impinged over the cosmos), decolonial cosmopolitanism is what dewesternization and decoloniality are projecting—a cosmopolitanism of dialogue of civilizations rather than a cosmopolitanism of homogeneizing the globe under the same umbrella (which was precisely the idea of the Washington Consensus and the Neoliberal Doctrine).