Religion in a Secular Age. The Case of Tunisia

Master's Thesis, 2015
76 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents:

1 . Introduction

2. Chapter I: A Critique of the Universal Rational Modernity

3. Chapter II: Secular Modernization and the Middle Eastern Elite

4. Chapter III: Modern Secular Tunisia and the “Pre-modern” Religious Veil

5. Conclusion

6. Biography



“The notion of the secular has almost come to embody the notion of modernity.” (Barnett, 37)

The debates over the relationship between a Western secular modernity associated with specific historical practices and secular modernity as a universal category have never lost their momentum as a controversial topic in the discourse of modernization and the nature of both the modern society and individual While according to the prevailing discourse in the West a universal secularism is based on a universal reason valid to all cultures, other Western as well as non-Western thinkers and sociologists, in particular postcolonial scholars, refute the possibility of a singular secular paradigm valid for all times. They argue that such a universal paradigm with its Western ideals negates non- Western histories and philosophies and thus is a hegemonic model of modernity.

This paper is a critique of the unveiled secular modern / veiled religious traditional divide in the modernist discourse in light of current debates of both postmodernists and neo-secularists. Following the secularization process in postcolonial Tunisia as part of the state´s modernization movement, this paper sheds light on the suppression of the non-Western religious actor under the narrative of a universal rational modernity in the modern age.


A wide range of scholars and researchers consider Tunisia a model of a modern liberal state that has to be followed by its neighbouring Arab Muslim countries. Those scholars and researchers make an association between the claimed atmosphere of freedom and the unprecedented revolutionary secular reforms in the Arab world which aimed at undermining the religious authority in both the social and political domain as part of its modernization movement after its political independence in 1956.( Cf.Abu-Zeid,174)

It seems, however, that the freedom promised by those secular reforms was not granted for all Tunisians on an equal basis. In postcolonial Tunisia, in the name of secular modernization, head-scarf wearers were deprived of their right to practice their religious rituals which they have chosen of their own will. Those Tunisians who insisted on practising their religious rituals in the public sphere, as their belief urges them to, were subjected not only to harassment, but were also not allowed into educational institutions nor public work places, even though those rights are granted to them by the constitution along with their freedom of conscience and expression. This manifested itself in Saida Adali´s case. In 2002, “Saida Adali” a school teacher, who was suspended from her work for three months for wearing the banned Islamic headscarf, lodged a complaint with her lawyer Saida Akremi, a prominent human rights attorney. In 2006 the administrative court ruled against the Ministry of Education’s decision on the grounds that it is considered an infringement of the individual´s freedom referring to the constitutional right expressed in Article 5 of the Tunisian constitution which states, “The Tunisian Republic guarantees the inviolability of the individual, freedom of conscience and freedom of religious worship”. (Perkins 2012, 545)

Nevertheless, the government officials refused to reinforce the court´s decision for all Tunisian head-scarf wearers under two arguments. Firstly, the promulgation of Circular 102 which bans the veil in educational institutions and public work places claiming that the Islamic head-scarf is “viewed as disturbing the public 5

order”(Perkins 2012, 547) of the modern secular state. Secondly, they claimed that, allowing women to wear the Islamic headscarf undermines their struggle against what president Habib Bourguiba, the first Tunisian president after its political independence, described as an “odious rag” belonged to the pre-modern age. (Charred 1997, 284)

Many headscarf wearers continued to be forced to take off their hijab before being allowed into educational institutions, public work places , and some were even subjected to harassment and violence on the streets and forced to take off their head-scarf and to sign a commitment to not wear it again by the police .(Amnesty 2008,15)

Drawing on the ban on the Islamic veil in postcolonial secular Tunisia, this paper is a critique of the unveiled secular modern /veiled religious traditional divide in the modernist discourse in light of current debates of both neo-secular philosophy which argues that religion has not disappeared as a pre-modern phenomenon from all enlightened modern societies, and postmodern philosophy which rejects the claim that there is a universal rational paradigm of modernity valid to all cultures around the world.

I argue that deeming Islamic hijab as a pre-modern practice that has no place in the modern secular age is problematic in three main ways. Firstly, it projects Western history and cultural ideals onto non-Western cultures, negating their histories and cultures in which past religious consciousness continues to play a vital role in their modern age.

Secondly, in identifying modern women as unveiled secular in contrast to pre-modern veiled religious women, Western modernist discourse negates non-Westerners´ imagination and attempt at modernity in line with their histories and philosophies. This contradicts modernity´s ideal of modernity as an unfinished process. Marshall Berman in his All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity wrote, “To be modern . . . is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one’s world and oneself in perpetual disintegration”, modernity “brings our energies and imaginations to life, drives us to grasp and to confront the world that modernization makes, and to strive to make it our own.” (Bermann, 354-346)

Thirdly, the elimination of the religious practice of veiling under the narrative of a universal secular modernity could be read as a political doctrine trapping the spiritual masses in a power struggle between traditionalist nativists and Western-oriented modernizers.

In chapter I, I will deal with the development of secular thinking followed by a critique of the religious pre-modern / secular modern divide in Western modernist discourse in light of postmodern as well as neo-secular philosophies who firstly, negate the nineteenth century´s historical consciousness of evolutionary historical development. Secondly, they claim that rationality differs according to time and place. This leads us to expect different modern cultures with different paradigms of secularity.

In chapter II, I will deal with the secular modernization resulting in the clash between the secular Western-oriented modernizers and religious nativists in the postcolonial Middle East.

My third chapter is a detailed study of the modern secular attitude towards religious head -scarf wearers in postcolonial secular Tunisia. In this chapter, I will show how the voice of spiritual individuals has disappeared in post-independent Tunisia; during Habib Bourguiba’s era, they were caught in the battle between positivist modernizers and religious-oriented nativists and were suppressed and their attempt to modernize themselves in line with their history and culture was rejected during Zine el Abidine Bin Ali’s reign because of the politicizing of religious head-scarf in the struggle for power between the Islamists and secular government.

My goal for choosing Tunisia is firstly precisely because Tunisia is the only Arab Muslim country to take such revolutionary secular reforms aiming at establishing a modern liberal nation-state in line with Western ideals and values of the modern age.

secondly, the immediate surge in the number of head-scarf wearers after the downfall of secular president Zine el Abidine Bin Ali in 2011 despite Tunisia´s long history of secularism.(CF.McCarthy, 739) This calls into question the claimed discursive relationship between the spread of modern secular thinking and the decline of “pre-modern” religious practices in the modern age.

Chapter I A Critique of the Universal Rational Modernity

The term “modern society” has been used to describe the north-Western societies that experienced a process of social transformation as a result of a new attitude towards individuals and society which cast its shadow on European culture during the eighteenth century Enlightenment or what is referred to as the era of modernity. These modern Western societies are those where religious and cultural beliefs lost their influence on individuals’ behaviour in contrast to traditional societies where individuals have not liberated themselves yet from their “pre-modern” false consciousness represented in their loyalties to religious and cultural beliefs. According to Western sociologists and theorists, religious beliefs as well as cultural creeds belong to the pre-modern age, and will witness a gradual decline with the spread of mass education and reliance on rational thinking. (CF. Wanger, 3- 5)

This claim manifests itself in C. Wright Mill’s words, “Once the world was filled with the sacred – in thought, practice, and institutional form. After the Reformation and the Renaissance, the forces of modernization swept across the globe and secularization, a corollary historical process, loosened the dominance of the sacred. In due course, the sacred shall disappear altogether except, possibly, in the private realm.”(Mills,32-33)

This gradual decline of religious influence and religious practices in the modern age has been called secularization. In this context, it is important to start with defining both “secular” and “religion” and their positions in modernist discourse.

Religion: Although sociologists claim that religion plays a vital role in human history and that no nation can claim itself to not have embraced religious beliefs over its history; sociologists, as well as philosophers have found it difficult to provide an “analytical definition” of religion. (Turner, 3) They, however, define it in light of the practices which represent it. Therefore, since there is not only one definition of religion, I chose two definitions of it which I believe can give us a sufficient meaning of the word “religion” as it is seen by a wide range of sociologists and philosophers. Simon Grote defines religion as “a sense or idea of the sacred, the divine, or the supernatural; belief in miracles; belief in revealed truths; places and practices of worship; specific members of the clergy; ecclesiastical offices and institutions; metaphysics; and theology.” (Grote, 146)

Also E. R. Leach defines religion through the different kinds of human actions. According to Leach, human actions can be divided into two categories;“actions which are entirely profane, entirely functional, technique pure and simple” and “actions which are entirely sacred, strictly aesthetic, technically non-functional”. Therefore, Leach claims that all the sacred, non-functional, and aesthetic actions are religious actions. (Leach cited in Horton, 202)

Secularism is not less difficult to define than the word religion, since there is not one definition that I refer to as secularism ;the word “secular” has been derived from the Latin word “saeculum” which means “an age or a life-time”. In mediaeval Latin, the word“ saeculum” turned into “ad saeculasaeculorum” and was used by Christians to identify priests who were doing their religious services outside the monasteries “in the world”, unlike those who were restricted to their life in the monasteries and were called “religious”. In this context, the word “secular” was used to mean “the world we live in” in contrast to a divine “other world”. (Geering, 5)

In the theories of social science, based on Western modernity, the term secular came mainly to mean “without religion”; for instance, Owen Chadwick defines Secularisation as “a growing tendency in mankind to do without religion, or to try to do without religion”.(Chadwick 1975, 17)

The term secular has three largely entangled connotations ; secularism , a term which was coined by George Jacob Holyoake in the 1840s (Cf. Monshipouri, 10) and which involves undermining the religious authority in the state´s politics through separating the state from religious institutions; namely it refers to the political domain. Secularization, a term usually used among sociologists to identify the process of institutional differentiation; that is, the separation between the (religious, political, economic, scientific) sphere. A process which is often referred at as the process of “emancipation” in the light of emancipating those different spheres from the theological authority and religious norms in the Middle Ages (CF. Casanova, 6, Sahr &Burchardt, 881).

The third term is secularity which denotes an individual’s identification with secular rational behaviour based on scientific reason in contrast to pre-modern individuals believing in cultural and religious supernatural powers orchestrating their life. (CF.Kosmin, 1). Here, Secularity refers more to the social and cultural aspect of term. (CF. Sahr & Burchardt, 881)

In my paper I will deal with the social and cultural aspect of the term secular and also give attention to the process of declaration as well as its political aspect; since in the postcolonial world the process of secularism was a top- down process imposed on the masses by the political leaders and supported by the Westernized elite and not an indigenously social and cultural phenomenon.

A. Religions´ Positions in the Modern Age:

1.Secular Thinking and the Transition to the Modern Age:

The philosophy of rationalism was a direct consequence of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries´ scientific revolution which began with Nicolaus Copernicus´ theory which affirmed that the sun is the centre of the universe contradicting Ptolemy´s claim that Earth is the centre of the universe, a belief held since antiquity. Isaac Newton then followed putting forth his grand scientific laws “the laws of gravity” later in the same century relying on scientific observation and mathematical order as his instrument to knowledge.

Those discoveries not only challenged the authority of the Bible’s account of the origin of the universe, but also asserted that the whole universe and its phenomena could be explained relying on mathematical laws and scientific reason without any association to religious hypotheses. This was not only able to shake the relationship between “God, nature, and human experience”, but also encouraged contemporary and future philosophers and thinkers to reflect on their own acquired knowledge. (Cf. Bate, 4-9)

Western philosophers and thinkers started to call into question all their past beliefs and knowledge and put them under empirical reason. Herbert of Cherbury (1583- 1648) who is considered the “father of English deism,” negated all abstract knowledge even if it was considered a revelation. Herbert negated the assumption of any positive religion to be revealed by God and made a distinction between believing in God as a creator of the universe and “false religions which filled human beings with superstitious fears and persuaded them to accept credulous and absurd beliefs” referring to the revelation, miracles, and prophecies which, according to him, contradict rational thinking. Therefore, for Holbach, positive “religion was superstitious and based on the illusion that human beings could rely on a power outside themselves for help” and were used as a pretext of the priests and clerks´ corruption misleading people and abusing them under the guise of religion. (Hudson1-4)

Among the most influential characters which played a vital role in the social and political transformation through developing the philosophy of rationalism in Europe during this period , is Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650), the religious scientist and mathematician, who relied on scientific reason to free himself from what he considered the illusion of truth based upon past beliefs and superstitions. Descartes started by doubting everything he believed and knew before. In his famous words “I think therefore I am”, Descartes argued that he would depend only on his human reason to form “clear and distinct ideas” as a ground to believe in them. (Smith 1985, 91 – 144)

Another important figure is Francis Bacon, the most influential character in the Enlightenment, (Wilson, 24 – 30) who rejected all the past myths and superstitions as well as religious rituals which were not based upon reason and called them “idols of knowledge”. Therefore, convinced that one should not rely on any religious hypothesis in gaining knowledge, Bacon called for “a total reconstruction of the sciences, arts, and all human knowledge, raised upon the proper foundations”. (Watson, 489,490)

This philosophy of rationalism culminated in the emergence of what has been known as “the deist movement or freethinking movement” (Outram, 34) led by influential thinkers and philosophers and supported by their governments especially in England, France, and Germany in the eighteenth century. Deists are those who believe in Christian God as a single creator of the universe and at the same time believe that God does not intervene in individuals´ present or future. God according to them is “usually remote from everyday human concerns.” Therefore, the deists of the eighteenth century wished to eradicate all “superstition and clerical influence, which they understood as a key barrier to human progress. The philosophers hoped to renew society. They wished to bring about a new rational, humane and progressive social order, in which the faculty of reason would be free to work for the benefit of all humanity.” (Barnett, 17)

The deists’ writings and ideas gathered wide support in Europe during this period. Locating Enlightenment which has been known as the age of “modernity” in the eighteenth century by historians, (Young, 5) it became secular thinking which characterized modern individuals and “the notion of the secular has almost come to embody the notion of modernity.” (Barnett, 37)

2.The Rational modernization and its Critique of Religions:

Turning towards the nineteenth century, European philosophers and thinkers started not only to differentiate between secular modern individuals and pre-modern spiritual individuals( Hebermas,39, Hall,214-218,Chacrabarty,241), but also to believe that rational scientific thinking and religious practices were incompatible in the modern age, considering religion a negative force of the pre-modern age. For instance; the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) saw religion as “the self-alienation of human consciousness, the projection of the human essence as other”. According to Feuerbach, religion is an outcome of a “delusional feeling” of the human need of the “real existence” arguing that such “representation of feeling in religious consciousness produced the most fundamental access of the human being to knowledge of its own species´ nature.” (Hodson, 5-6)

In line with Feuerbach´s perspective of religion, Karl Marx agreed that religion has no existence in the real world but he rejected Feuerbach´s claim that religious feeling is the projection of the “human essence”. For Marx, religious feelings are the reflection of the social relations and social forms in a given society or even social forms that are not yet realized in real life which he called “embedded tendencies” that people endeavour to develop. (CF. Marx and Engels, 666-667)

Marx saw religion as a kind of illusory feeling of the human beings to mitigate their misery in their actual world. He describes religion as “the heart of a heartless world, the sigh of a distressed creature, a protest against misery, and, most important of all, ‘the spirit of a spiritless condition.” (Marx, 175) Nevertheless, even with the advantages of relief provided by religion to those impoverished people, Marx criticized religion on the grounds that it distracts individuals from their own real situations.

Reading religion as a negative force, either it was regarded as mere superstitions that caused individuals´ ignorance, self- projected feelings of need, or a product of hard socio-economic circumstances that distract the masses from their real situations, religion started to be seen as a hindrance towards human progress and development relying on their human ability.

This was the rational intellectual milieu that not only sought to liberate the social domain from its pre-modern irrational sentiments, but also insisted on crucial steps to modernize the political domain through the separation of the church and state to undermine the theological interference in everyday affairs, (CF. Grote, 138) an attitude which enjoyed popular support not only because of the belief in reason as a main source of knowledge but also because of their negative impression of religion as generating a divisive environment after the bloody religious wars.(CF. Naser, 85-115)

The intellectuals´ belief of the incompatibility of rational thinking and the belief in supernatural powers in the modern age has been enhanced by the process of progressive decline in religious practices and rituals amongst Europeans which started in 1950. European sociologists universalized the recession of religious practices as the universal result of the modernization of society. They claimed that as society modernizes, religiosity is expected to decline among individuals and therefore religious decline is considered a “normal and “progressive” outcome of being “modern” and “enlightened”. (CF. Casanova 2006, 8)

For instance, Max Weber claims that religion has no place in a rational “disenchanted” world. (CF. Bracke&Fadil, 2) Weber describes the modern world as a place where “…no mysterious incalculable forces (that) come into play—but rather that one can in principle master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourses to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savages, for whom much mysterious powers existed”.(Weber 1958, 117)

For those sociologists, society has evolved from a “theological, through a metaphysic into a privatist phase” when religion will inevitably disappear. (CF. Bracke & Fadil, 2). Therefore, considering their society as the most advanced type of societies with its new “modern” values, those Western sociologists and thinkers expected all modern societies to replicate their secular modern European society, where individuals had liberated themselves from all their irrational “pre-modern” cultural and religious practices. Religion, thus, started to play a central role in defining the “modern” and differentiating itself from the other “not yet” modern. (Asad2003, 14).

Opposing this view, postmodernists as well as neo-secularists argue that the problem is not the recession in religious practices in modern European societies that was the outcome of internal historical experiences as well as social forces, rather it is their universalizing of the features of secular European societies as the only paradigm for modern society and the expectation is that others have to catch up with them to inaugurate their modern age. (CF. Casanova 2006, 8-9)

Postmodern scholars, in particular postcolonial scholars, argue that the universal theories of modernity in deeming religion as a pre-modern phenomenon in relation to the European paradigm of modern society are hegemonic Eurocentric theories which negate non-Western histories and philosophies as Spivak puts it, “if there is one universal, it cannot be inclusive for difference”, (Spivak 1992, 75) rather the universality here is to be read as “a particular becoming dominant."(Laclau, 61)

Moreover, postmodernists argue that Western sociologists and thinkers in their theory of “universalism” relied mainly on the nineteenth century´s “evolutionist" thought assuming human history is a linear process. According to that evolutionary historical development, the differences in non-Western societies, like the religious practice of veiling , are not treated as intrinsic to the different nature of cultural forms but as an indicator of their unfinished process of modernity. (Stocking, 185)

In the following part, I will deal with the aforementioned two arguments upon which postmodernists predicate their negation of the theory of a universal paradigm of secular modernity which deems the religious / spiritual actor as a “pre-modern” individual expected to catch up with the secular European to achieve his/ her modernity.

B. Europe Colonizes Modernity:

1. Modern Historicism and the Non-Western Past:

The secular thinking of eighteenth century was one of the main reasons behind modern historical consciousness or “historicism”. Historicism which is considered one of the essential features of modern Western thought, was developed by German scholars during the second half of the eighteenth century and flourished during the nineteenth century. It denotes the modern progressive linear time unlike the religious (Biblical) time that “started with the creation of the earth and ends with Judgement Day”. (Lorenz& Bevernage, 19)

This modern historical consciousness is characterized by two essential features; firstly, it identifies each epoch by its features; setting borders between the past, present, and future. Secondly, the inevitability of the future of the less developed cultures (Cf. Chacrabarty, 238-244) based on the view that “the course of history is determined by transparent general laws and that knowledge of these laws makes it possible to predict social developments” as defined by Karl Popper. (Bos, 131)

This modern historical consciousness has been problematized by non-Western thinkers and theorists, in particular postcolonial scholars, referring to two main reasons. First, one cannot set a clear border between past consciousness and present consciousness and therefore cannot utterly free himself/ herself from their past practices and rituals.

Second, how historians measure time is dependent on where they are “located in space”. (Lorenz& Bevernage, 19) Therefore, universalising European historiography which deems those who do not share with the West the same historical features in modern age as “not yet” modern would be a Eurocentric view of history based on Western historical development.

1. A. European Past and Non-Western Histories:

“There can be no history without time- but what exactly is historical time? This question has only rarely been posed and even fewer satisfactory answers to it have been found… Historians differentiate between “present”, “past” and “future” and relate these temporal modes to each other. The main question is how much historians themselves shape history, and what ethical and consequences of their actions are?" (Lorenz& Bevenrage, 26)

In his Nineteenth-Century Historicism and Its Predecessors: Historical Experience, Historical Ontology and Historical Method, Jacques Bos claims that the Quarrel of “the Ancients and the Moderns” resulted in the modern secular historical consciousness which tended to separate between their past and its values and traditions and the present “modernity” and its newly embraced ideals. For them, the “past could no longer serve as a source of examples for the present, but came to be seen in the light of the privileged condition of the present and the even more magnificent future”. (Bos, 138)

In this vein, Jürgen Habermas in Modernity: An Unfinished Project: Critical Essays on the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity argues that the word modern was not used for the first time to describe the enlightened individuals of the eighteenth century, since it has always been used to denote a transition from a primitive to more advanced period of history with its new values. For instance, it was used to describe those who converted to Christianity and their newly embraced values unlike the pagans during the Roman past in fifth century Europe. Also in the twelfth century during the era of Charlemagne, people identified themselves as modern. Nevertheless, modern individuals of eighteenth century Europe differ from the past modern individuals of every new era who tended to “renew their relationships to classical antiquity”. Eighteenth century modern individuals, developing their self-content model of morals, law, commerce, and politics, which predicated on their new scientific knowledge, made a radical break between the Middle Ages and its values as their pre-modern past and their enlightened modern age with its modern rational ideals. (cf. Habermas, 39)

In this context, objectifying the Middle Ages´ past and its traditions, setting a border between past traditions and present values, was in fact an outcome of the Western internal historical experience. Nevertheless, all other cultures that have not rid themselves of their loyalties to their past traditions and embraced only rational values of the modern secular European society were deemed as “not yet” completely modern placed by “the European historicist thought” in the imaginary waiting room” of modernity. (Chakrabarty, 10)

Europe breaks –up with its Past:

Costantin Fasolt in his Breaking up time - Escaping from Time: Self Assertion and Knowledge of the Past discusses the process of breaking – up with past Middle Ages’ religious knowledge as socialyl accepted knowledge through illustrating the relationship between the individual´s transition from a given shared believed true knowledge to a new shared, agreed upon. true knowledge.

Fasolt argues that since dividing time into past “pre-modern” and present “modern” in a given society is to be made by its members, the question which poses itself is who are those members who break up with the past time and its knowledge as wrong beliefs in contrast to new true facts based only on reason in their present “modern” age? Are they the intellectuals, pelicans, common people, men, or women? How can a society as a whole make a break with past time and its lifestyle to new form of life based utterly on modern rational knowledge excluding all past Medieval religious knowledge?

Fasolt argues that breaking up with time, treating the past as an “ object” is possible only in so far as individuals in a given society as a whole agreed upon a certain new knowledge as their true present, negating the intrusion of the past knowledge that they deemed as false knowledge.

This, however, can occur only under certain circumstances. For instance to block the ways to confrontation among individuals in a given society in which a large section believed only the present knowledge as the true knowledge. Here, Fasolt argues, they transform the past to what he called an object of society´s imagination”; that is history and leaving the past behind them to start our new present.

Here comes the role of the historians who played an essential role in recovering us from our loyalties to the past and its values through asserting that the past now is gone and it became only “ history”.

This is what was done in Europe after the Enlightenment or to be more precise, after the French revolution. Historians and intellectuals divided history into that before the French Revolution (pre-modern) and the history after it (modern). (Fasolt in Lorenz &Baverage 176-196)

It was, however, not only the historians as the only factor that helped in objectifying the past of Europe and its values, but also it was the French Revolution itself with its whole new system of social, political , economic, and human knowledge that could help in the transition to an utterly modern society with its new truth.

Frank Ankersmit in his book Sublime Historical Experience claims that the French Revolution played the most essential role in the development of the “historical consciousness in Europe” or historicist thought, which tends to draw lines between the past and present. He claims that, similar to the experience during the Renaissance, where Machiavelli´s and Guicciardini´s works showed a “tragic sense of loss” due to the dramatic events caused by the wars and the invasion of Italy by the French in 1494 and by the Germans in 1527, their past “Italian city-styles” were utterly destroyed. This not only disconnected them from their past, but also caused a gap between the past and present to offer a possibility for the past to be seen “as an object of research dissociated from the present”- an experience which occurred again in Europe because of the French Revolution, which caused a major break in “the course of history” during the eighteenth century. This had a crucial impact on the development of historicism, which affected not only the historical field but also was able to influence all other fields in the whole culture during the nineteenth century. (Bos, 134-140)

Imposing this modern historical consciousness, which tends to see the past as “dead”, serving only as “an object of investigation” on the whole world, (Chakrabarty, 244) has been problematized by many postcolonial scholars. In his Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that, according to that historicism, any phenomenon has to be seen as a “unity in itself” and in its historical development. This assumes that for individuals to be modern, they have to free themselves from all their bonds of the past to start their “true present”, which is “the full power of the idea of modernity”, a state which he sees as an unattainable. (Chakrabarty, 244)

Chakrabarty, however, affirms our present´s “lack of totality” and “the constant fragmentariness that constitutes one’s present”. (Chakrabarty, 243) According to Chacrabarty, our past is never dead. It haunts our present in every practice of our everyday activities. He quotes Martin Heidegger, writing “I am as I have been”; since our past “is always there in taste, in practices of embodiment, in the cultural training the senses have received over generations. They are there in practices I sometimes do not even know I engage in”. (Chakrabarty, 251)

Therefore, Chakrabarty negates the possibility of the abandoning of one’s past spiritual practices to reach his /her rational modern time (present); since the past spiritual consciousness, represented in the past religious practices, became part and parcel of present culture which will not cease to play a significant role in the modern age. Chakrabarty calls this state “hetrotemporality”. (Chacrabarty, 239)

One can see Charckrabary´s argument in the postcolonial context, where secularization was an external phenomenon coming from the West during the nineteenth century’s so-called “civilizing mission”. Those societies, although having adopted the scientific attitude of modern ages, have not forsaken their past spiritual practises. For instance, in Egypt, which has long been described as one of the most modernized countries in the Arab world, you can glimpse both the excessive presence of “pre-modern” religious practices along with the ethos of modern materialism wherever you go as Lee and Shitrit put it, “One image of contemporary Egypt is that of air-conditioned shopping malls drawing wealthy, bourgeois women whose stylish and fashionable Islamic dress seems intended to temper materialism with piety”.( Lee& Shitrit,214)

A similar picture is present in postcolonial India.Partha Chatterjee,in his Anderson’s Utopia, describes contemporary Indian society writing, “In those places” where “one could show industrial capitalists waiting to close a business deal because they hadn’t yet had word from their respective astrologers”.(Chatterjee, 170) Here, Chatterjee agrees with Chakrabarty and argues that those postcolonial individuals who make use of modern technology adopting the highest technological methods in their daily life´s aspects, are not likely to abandon their past “pre-modern” spiritual practices which became part and parcel of their cultural identity.(Chatterjee, 166)

Chatterjee negates identifying this presence of pre-modern practices in the modern age as “anachronism”, according to the historicist thought, rather he calls this co-existence the “heterogeneous time of modernity”. He wrote, “To call this the co-presence of several times – the time of the modern and the times of the pre-modern – is only to endorse the utopianism of Western modernity. I prefer to call it the heterogeneous time of modernity.”(Chatterjee, 166)

The co-existence of spiritual and secular practices in the modern age, however, is not exclusive to non-Western cultures; studies show that religious practices are still present in the long- established modern Western democracies as well. For instance, polls as well as church attendance in the United States, which is higher than any European country, reflect the religious influence on individuals in the modern age. (Cf.Keddie, 39) This led Kosmin to write that ,“The contemporary United States exhibits both high modernity and substantial religiosity among the populace and so shows that secularization has not been sweeping, thorough and total.”(Kosmin in Kaysar & Kosmin, 8)

In these cultures, Catherine Ewing argues, it seems that people could blend between living in a secular society while not abandoning their spiritual practices; a case she calls "illusion of wholeness”; namely, the ability of people to shift between contradictory sets of views without being troubled by them". (Schielke, 166)

All in all, this affirms the postcolonial scholars´ argument that the existence of the modern and pre-modern styles of life in the same time, which is regarded by Western historicism as “anachronism”, does not hinder those non-European individuals from being modern.

1. B. Inevitable Future of the Latecomers:

“Changing behind the veil is being made along lines of Western imitation in clothes with a steady improvement in taste and more discrimination as to suitability in dress… Social life within the harem now definitely follows the European model." (Woodsmall, 48)

As the above-quoted words suggest, Europeans, in compliance with the nineteenth century historicist thought, have predicted the future of other non-Western cultures in light of Western historical development. According to Western sociologists and theorists, these non-Western traditions represent a given historical stage of Western history which the less developed non-Western societies are still passing through.

In this vein, Chakrabarty negates this historical consciousness and its differentiation between modern and pre-modern individuals according to Western historical development and experiences; he argues that how historians measure time is dependent on where they are “located in space.” (Lorenz&Bevernage, 19) .In this vein, Chakrabarty quots Ranajit Guha, writing “What seemed traditional in this modernity were traditional only in so far as [their] roots could be traced back to pre-colonial times, but [they were] by no means archaic in the sense of being outmoded”. (Chakrabarty, 15)

He argues that historicism is a “spatialisation of time, meaning: the implicit connecting of space and time by dividing the world into regions that are ahead in time and regions that lag behind, waiting to catch up”. (Lorenz &Bevernage, 19) Therefore, for Chacrabarty, historicism is an ideology which tends to valorise what has been achieved by the West as an inevitable future of the “not yet” less-developed societies stressing the ideology that claims “first in Europe, then elsewhere.” (Chrakrabarty, 7)

All in all this leads postcolonial scholars to negate the tendency to view the present secular European society as a universal model for modern societies of the modern age, rather reading the European paradigm of secular modernity in its social and historical context as Casanova points out. Casanova argues that the demise of religious practices in the European context was not because they moved from a pre-modern spiritual era to a more developed rational age, rather it was an outcome of the internal and external historical factors which helped in transforming “Western European Christianity from the Middle Ages to the present. (CF. Casanova 2006, 12)

Therefore, one can consider this transformation in its context while taking into consideration other cultures in which past religious consciousness will continue to be present in the modern age as a part of their cultural identity. That persistence of religious practices and rituals in their life may hinder the repetition of the Western model in their transition to modernity. Their different paradigm of modernity than that of the European secular society, however, does not mean that they cannot be modernized or that they will come later, but rather that they are instead taking different paths to modernity, in line with their philosophies and histories.


Excerpt out of 76 pages


Religion in a Secular Age. The Case of Tunisia
University of Potsdam  (Institute for Amerkanstik und Anglistik)
Anglophne Modernities in Literature and Culture
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
717 KB
Quote paper
Amany Abdelrazik (Author), 2015, Religion in a Secular Age. The Case of Tunisia, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Religion in a Secular Age. The Case of Tunisia

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free