Politics of Reconciliation: Secularism and Tolerance

New York University

Looking at recent events in Iran, we may contrast the predominant views of Green Movement activists participating inside Iran and the attitudes of many Iranians observing these events from abroad. Iranians inside Iran show no strong interest in defining the movement in totalizing terms as either Islamic or secular, and nor do they oppose the movement to secularism or Islam. By contrast, many Iranian intellectuals and activists outside of Iran (and other interested intellectuals) are visibly eager to place the Iranian democratic movement within one of the two either/or categories. What is surprisingly missing from our discussion is the call for tolerance, inclusion, and the politics of reconciliation. There seems to be a political anxiety among many intellectuals sometimes translating into hostility and even poisonous hate of the other as sadly demonstrated in Aramesh Dustdar’s recent letter to Jurgen Habermas.

Politics of reconciliation acknowledges that discourses, traditions, and ideologies, are all historically defined and socially constructed and therefore, they are not by nature good or evil. Neither religion nor secularism can claim to be innocent of darker historical moments.

This conundrum points to deeper political and intellectual issues about the dual capacity of a given tradition or set of ideas to be emancipatory and oppressive in different contextual moments. On this basis it is ill advised to posit fixed or essentialized identities to a given political tradition in the old metaphysical mode of traditional Aristotelian philosophy: and today we do have emerging conceptual vocabularies capable of expressing these important – sometimes dangerous – nuances.
I would like to focus on the sometimes-harmonious, sometimes-conflicting historical and intellectual relation between the “politics of reconciliation,” secularism, and tolerance. The question here is not if either religion or secularism is more tolerant than the other. Tolerance in the specific context of Iran is the capacity to embrace both religious and secular experiences and a democratic way of being and living.

If we consider secularism through a historically specific lens, shorn of universalist metaphysics (a particular construction of agency, identity, and time), we recognize the extent to which this tradition grew out of Europe’s post-Reformation/post-Christendom religious wars and political legitimacy crisis. This understanding, while by no means making us categorically reject secularism for non-European contexts (that would itself be essentialist), should qualify assumptions about secularism as an inherent or pure good in its essence. It is a complex and many-sided modern political and intellectual tradition with varied and unforeseeable ethical consequences in context-specific practice. It is helpful to see it within these critical limits, as suggested by Deweyan pragmatism or Wittgenstein’s rejection of essential definition in favour of a “net of similarities that overlap and intersect”.

European secularism concerned the creation of institutions for moderating and controlling social conflict in non-violent modes, given an understanding of religious difference at the core of uncontrolled political violence. Within each national context, for example France, Britain or in the significantly different conditions of the U.S.A. (taking us outside of Europe), polities and constitutions defined as secular were never conceptually predetermined or unambiguous – on the contrary, they grew out of unique experiences of multi-centered struggle still undergoing negotiation in varying degrees today. Secular “tolerance” functions where the state is distinguished from higher substantialist claims to truth – or else the pluralist promise of tolerance in secularism is undermined.

In the task of creating non-violent political forms, violence is itself context specific and conceptually constructed. European secularism and it’s experience of tolerance includes a specific genealogy that, reasonably enough, cannot be assumed to transfer automatically (and non-violently) to every local condition and requires adjustment while embracing the disassociation of truth-making and governing as a road to democratic non-violent forms of political organization.

In the Iranian context, violence has had partly to do with religion but also partly to do with the experience of modernization and Western secularism. Though never formally colonized, Iran was caught in the zone of inter-imperial rivalry pitting Russian expansionism and British defense of colonial India. It was occupied, partitioned, exploited and significantly reshaped politically and intellectually through these experiences. Later U.S. intervention linked to declining British interests played a tragic and scarring role in subverting popular democratic aspirations in Iran. What distinguishes Iran from Europe’s experience is the historical experience with the West, perceived rightly or wrongly as cultural aggression from the West, and most importantly a long history of secular violence in violently intolerant secular modernizing state regimes that arrogantly negated opposition and all emerging manifestations of civil society – because of an affirmed higher truth in secularism and modernity as totalizing substantive ideologies.

Seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers such as John Locke, who experienced ecular discourse as the only means to transcending the truth-violence religious linkage cemented in early European modernity. In this context secularism became a crucial adjunct in the gradual formation of Europe’s emerging democratic tradition in ethical-political theories of “how the governed are to be governed.” This vision of tolerance empowered citizens within the dialogic space of the public sphere. This public sphere was generally viewed as a Christian space (or according to Weber, an in-worldly version of the Protestant spirit), based on shared cultural and ethical understanding, where different Christian denominations could co-exist peaceably based on reason.

Conditions in Iran differ and call for slightly different ethics of being in this world. While to call for a non-clerical state is unquestionably a desirable political goal, we should not assume that religion can be reduced to the professional class of the ulema. We need to consider the altered dimensions of meaning in terms such as “tolerance.” For example; we cannot rightfully argue that Mohammed Khatemi is a less tolerant figure in Iranian politics than Ahmadinejad though the first is of the clerical class and the second of a lay background.

Iran has experienced secular as well as religious intolerance and tyrants: what are the moral-intellectual grounds for choosing one over the other? Both religious and secular states and discourses in Iran have openly embraced violence and intolerance over religious or ethnic minorities in the name of substantive claims to absolute truth. Perhaps the substantialist-ontological claim precludes the empowerment of the person that forms the political precondition for dialogic resolution of difficulties/differences in nation-making as a democratic project. In this case, the focus should be less on a substantialist ideology of secularism and more on a “politics of reconciliation” as the road to tolerance: less discursive in terms of fixed concepts (modernity/tradition, reason/unreason, etc) and more descriptive in public creation of a shared vision, less focused on absolute truth than on dialogue and exchange of ideas/experiences, less focused on religious or cultural authenticity and more on being proud of inviting the other and embracing the unknown as unknown. It is necessary to let go of our totalizing metaphysical habits in order to see the emergence of a democratic alternative in today’s popular Green Movement in Iran where it is indeed a movement for civil and democratic rights.

By ‘seeing’ and experiencing rather than upholding an abstract conception of democracy we can recognize that Gandhi’s urging of a politics of reconciliation as the most democratic and honorable way to pursue a moral politics effectively created a modern democratic tradition in India that is both locally rooted and cosmopolitan. Gandhi acknowledged positive ideas and from many different religions as well as the European Enlightenment. He was also critical of certain Indian traditions he deemed oppressive by a democratic criteria and sought to reform or abolish them. But he did not uphold a totalizing conceptual schema implying a totalitarian rejection of traditions in general. Gandhi’s very ambiguity, grounded in democratic values, demonstrates the necessary correlation between a “politics of reconciliation” and intellectual/imaginative openness: that is, tolerance of thinking and being within the limits of democratic non-violence.

There is a resemblance between this Gandhian ideal of reconciliation and the Iranian Green Movement. It expresses the hopes and desires of the Iranian population in their current troubling situation. The movement involves religious and non-religious people, people of diverse political views, yet all calling for civil and democratic rights. While calling for rights respecting the person they do not translate this democratic desire into a totalizing abstraction based on a substantive ideological conception of secularism, republicanism, or a fixed program of the kind. These multiple strands without closure, if not subordinated to a substantive ideology following the transfer of power, embody and ethic of tolerance.

This openness implies a dream (hope and tolerance) and rather than a specific discourse or ideological opia (Despair and fear). Discourses are relations of truth and power. Democracy is concerned with this but it is also more: it also concerns ways of living where power is organized in a manner not centered on claims to truth (tolerance). The Gandhian ethic resembles the Deweyan principle of social intelligence: a shared and common understanding of the world based on dialogue because the multiple views implied in difference are presupposed. To the extent that secularism presupposes a substantive truth claim about the world, it entails the imposition of ideas and assumptions external to many of us and privileges higher truth over everyday life and experience. It follows that as a state ideology it may be used violently in pursuit of a vision disempowering to the multitude of ordinary citizens, the very agents democracy should empower.

ndoubtedly certain secular secularism, as well as secular ideas and values, contain valuable moral lessons that should be held dear in the human political heritage. As an ideological dogma, however, secularism can become a force for undermining democracy as experienced in Iran and elsewhere. The practical and pragmatic should prevail over the ideal and abstract, grounded in pursuit of democratic ends. Any essentialist ideology, including secularism, taken as universal beyond all context-specific conditions, or absolute good in itself, endangers hopes for the non-violent democratic organization of society on pluralist lines. This is a problem of the modern state and its unique capacity for organized violence. All such traditions take on their moral character within a specific context, pointing to the need to privilege the ethical and practical implications of ideas. This is what the Iranian Green Movement, beyond metaphysical categories of identity, can teach us today.

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