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The Euro-Islamic Roots of Secularity: A Difficult Equation

Author(s): Armando Salvatore

Source: Asian Journal of Social Science, Vol. 33, No. 3, SPECIAL FOCUS: Islam between
Holism and Secularism (2005), pp. 412-437
Published by: Brill
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The Euro-Islamic Roots of
Secularity: A Difficult Equation
Armando Salvatore

Institute of Social Science

Humboldt University

This article probes into the issue of secularity as a main node of the historic constr
tion of modem power and the modem state in Europe. It builds an interpretative arc
ranging from the Spanish Reconquista, stretching through the European Wars of Religio
and the resistance to the "Turkish Threat" of the encroaching Ottoman armies, and rea
ing into the contemporary predicament of the presence of a growing population of Musli
background in the key states of Western Europe, notably those involved in the Reconquist
the resistance to the "Turkish Threat", and in the Wars of Religion. The analysis match
the interpretation of these historical traumata with philosophical and sociological reflections
from Spinoza and Vico to Asad and Casanova. The conclusions point to the inhere
ambivalence and arbitrary character of the modem secular distinction between religion an
politics. They suggest that the philosophical utopia of secularity is still an open issue fo
the European states and that the growing presence of Islam in Europe helps give eviden
of the limits of the secular arrangements reigning in the continent thus far.

The Two Segments of the Historic Euro-Islamic

In the novel Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (1993 [1991]), the writer and
film-maker Tariq Ali paints a vivid picture of the ideological siege of the
politically defeated Muslims of al-Andalus after the military collapse of its
last stronghold, the Sultanate of Gharnata (Grenada). The main plot focuses
on the prolonged agony of the noble clan of al-Hudayl before its final
annihilation. The spotlight is also focused on two characters among the
encroaching Christians, a religious personality and a political leader, who
lead their camp to the final show-down that precipitated the catastrophe
of the Andalusi way of life, portrayed by Ali as highly civilized but polit
ically fragile. Ximenes de Cisneros is the Franciscan monk who took up
the post of Archbishop of Grenada, ordered a bonfire of all treasures of
the Arab-Islamic heritage located in the city and, in the face of opposi
tion from the Dominicans, initiated a policy of forced conversions aided
by the newly introduced Inquisition. Cisneros's close ally is the holder of
the Castilian crown and the effective sovereign of the unified Spanish king
dom, the iron lady Queen Isabella. In the chess set of Yazid, the youngest
member of the al-Hudayl clan, she impersonates the Black Queen "whose
eyes shone with evil, in brutal contrast with the miniature Madonna hang
ing around her neck" and whose "lips were painted the color of blood"

A.J.S.S. 33:3 (412-437) also available online

2005 Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden see

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The Euro-Islamic Roots of Secutan f: A Difficult Equation *413

(Ali, 1993:7). In this novel, religious fanaticism is clearly located on the

Christian side, while more than one character within and around the al
Hudayl clan displays a healthy dose of scepticism an indispensable anti
dote to excesses of zeal in the implementation of religious law.
Leaving aside the artistic dimension of the novel, the message of the
acclaimed, progressive Muslim author is, firstly, a reiteration of the well
known motif of the intellectual climate of tolerance and exchange among
the al-Andalus, albeit coupled with political weakness and short-sighted fac
tionalism. Thanks to the author's intellectual honesty in attempting to sit
uate the conflict in its proper historical context, which has a much wider
significance than the tragic collapse of a highly civilized way of life, one
detects an additional and more subtle motif that emerges from the dia
logue among some of the characters. This additional motif consists of a
deeper examination of the fact that the tolerance of the Muslims of al
Andalus was, in the final analysis, a weakness, while the fanaticism of the
partnership between the Spanish crown and the Catholic cross was a fac
tor of strength. This self-criticism unfolds at the precise moment of the
conventional historic transition to modernity in Europe, which coincides
not only with Columbus's discovery of America, but also with the build
ing of a unified Spanish state in the wake of the triumphant Reconquista.
The message of the novel demonstrates how the zealous state-build
ing of the Spanish crown was intrinsically married to religious intransi
gence. With the latter, the homogenizing fury unleashed, not only against
Islam and Judaism as religions but also against the Arabic language and
the written Arabic-Islamic heritage, becomes a political imperative that
justifies the genocide. It appears that the Christian-Spanish encroachers
lucidly perceived that the obliteration of treasures of knowledge from addi
tional areas such as medicine and agriculture was a necessary sacrifice for
the superior goal of the obliteration of a culture whose survival would have
threatened the state-building imperative of religious and cultural homoge
nization. Thus, the religious fanaticism of Cisneros appears cruel and crim
inal, but also perfectly rational, while Islamic culturedness and tolerance
proved old-fashioned and unmodern. As the story unfolds, fanaticism appears
in the final analysis as a necessary instrument of ethnic cleansing, confiscation
of property and power centralization in the course of a heightened state
building and proto-colonial momentum. The sixteen-year-old captain who
raids the village and estate of al-Hudayl and massacres every single inhab
itant in the final scene of the novel is no less than Hernn Corts. His
early training for the later extermination of the Indios of America con
sisted of performing genocidal raids against the powerless Muslims in south
ern Spain after the fall of Granada.
The main topic of this paper is secularity. Remembering the tragic
outcome of the Reconquista through the fictionally diagnostic judgment of a
contemporary Muslim intellectual helps us to approach one main historical

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414 Armando Sakatore

and conceptual node that affects the place of "religion" and "secularity"
in the Euro-Islamic equation. Reaching its climax in the events of the late
fifteenth century which saw the collapse of Muslim rule, the genocidal
persecution of the Muslim population, the unification of the Spanish crown
and the beginning of colonial exploitation of the Americas this story
provides us with one of the two main segments of the equation. The other
main segment is a result of the intra-Christian Wars of Religion that would
hold sway in Western and Central Europe soon thereafter, in tandem with
the beginnings of colonial enterprises and the deepening of state-building
processes. The first segment of the equation, which is also its necessary
condition, suggests that a specific form of religious fanaticism was func
tional to the mobilization of a new modern type of state-centred violence,
to which earlier forms of tolerance, co-existence, pluralism and cultural
exchange were sheer obstacles. The second segment of the equation, or its
sufficient condition, embraces the sectarianism of the various ramifications
moderate and radical of the Protestant Reformation and the ensu

ing Wars of Religion in Europe up to the Peace of Westphalia (1648).

This treaty fortified and sanctioned the necessity of a centralization of
power in the hands of rulers who acquired tight control over religious sen
timents and activism (cuius regio eius religi). The task of the cultural and
even linguistic homogenization (with its latent need for ethnic cleansing
and cultural genocide as ultima ratio) of what were emerging as the kernels
of nation-states was further legitimized.
While it managed to successfully shield itself against the Protestant
Reformation thanks to, among other reasons, the religio-cultural-linguistic
compactness recently acquired through the militant impetus of the last
phase of the Reconquista, ethnically-cleansed Christian Spain became involved
in the so-called Wars of Religion mainly through a dynastic link to the
imperial crown of Charles V. In this way, Spain constituted the first suc
cessful example of the construction of a culturally, linguistically and reli
giously homogeneous nation-state in Europe. This homogeneity was the
pre-condition for the next stage of neutralization of divisive religious sen
timents and militancy, and for the subsequent emergence of secularity as
a new form of governance within the emerging, modern political forma
tions. Spain's experience of fierce battles, and a cruel civil war, waged
between obscurantist clericalism and radical anti-clericalism well into the

twentieth century does not invalidate the equation, but points to the inde
terminacy on which the equation rests. Is "religion" structurally on the los
ing side in the construction of modern power? If not, why do we assume
that secularity is quintessentially modern? Does it become essential to the
construction of the modern European state due to its power to erase, mar
ginalize and privatize religion or, instead, its capacity to shape "religion"
in a particularly effective way?
If we merely examine the equation not in terms of a static binary

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The Euro-Islamic Roots of Secularity: A Difficult Equation *415

logic that tells us that "religion" as based on potentially fanatical reli

gious sentiment and activism and "secularity" as the institutional
and cultural set of rules that contains religion within secure limits (within
a "religious field") are logically antithetical, the indeterminacy dissolves
into a complex set of variables. The outcome of the process of secular
ization, as inscribed in the political and constitutional frameworks of most
Western and Central European nation-states (in the area previously identified,
up to the Reformation, as Latin Christian, Catholic Europe), tells us that
they are, indeed, opposites. We cannot, however, analyse the process of
their genesis by anachronistically starting from the results, which include
the production of these two concepts as opposites, and then projecting the
two notions back onto some purported "origin" of the modern culture of
secularity. We need a more plastic genealogical method.
That a pure analysis of static concepts is not of great help is demon
strated by identifying the difficulties associated with equating "secularity"
with "tolerance" or with a simple attitude of cultural immunization against
religious excess, fanaticism and sectarianism. The latter features of toler
ance are certainly abundant in Islamic history and particularly well rep
resented in the intellectual history of al-Andalus. We need to link the
historic Euro-Islamic equation to recent debates on the understanding of
"secularity" as a typically European political-institutional and discursive
intellectual construct. Is it correct to define the secularity of the modern
state as "European" in spite of the diversity of institutional regulations of
the religious field in the various European countries, and notwithstanding
the existence or even popularity of what everyday discourse terms
secular cultures at large in the non-Western and, including or especially,
the Islamic, social and cultural worlds?
I prefer to use the term "secularity" in connection with, but also as
distinct from, an ideological and normative school ("secularism"), and from
the theoretical perspective of a necessary social process of differentiation
of a religious sphere, linked to modernization ("secularization"). While being
at the root of both secularism and secularization, secularity manifests itself
most directly in concrete modes of governance and in the way religion is
reconstructed as experience and belief to be confined to the private sphere
of life (see Asad, 2003). This is a sphere whose intangibility is protected
by the state under the condition that its counterpart, the public sphere, is
safeguarded as the dominion of the symbols of allegiance to the state against
the penetration of religious sentiments and "beliefs". At the same time, we
should be aware that the entire semantic area circumscribing the "secu
lar" is, not surprisingly, much older that the range of processes, discourses
and institutions associated with modern secularity.
The notion of saeculum had some importance in medieval theological
discourses and worldviews within Latin Christendom. It was intended, first
of all, as the sphere of religious life external to the regula, the monastic

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416* Armando Sahatore

rule and, therefore, as the locus of the care of the souls of the lay peo
ple. Once the modern notion of individual property started to gain ground,
this idea of passage from a self-enclosed religious life building the kernel
of a holistic conception of humanity in the service of God, to an expanded
domain of common life, was transposed into the market realm. Secularization
ended up designating the release of ecclesiastical property into private hands
and market circulation (Asad, 2003:192). On the other hand, the notion
of secularity that crystallizes after the Enlightenment and, in particular,
within anthropological and sociological theory in a singular symbiosis
with the transformations of theological discourse can no longer be under
stood as the outcome of further shifts and transpositions of its medieval
meaning. As a result of an epistemic rupture, the other end of the spec
trum that is, the religious life broke free from its link to the saecu
lum and ended up signifying "a variety of overlapping social usages rooted
in changing and heterogeneous forms of life". Social science discourse,
however, squeezed these "into a single immutable essence" designated "the
object of a universal human experience called 'religious'" [ibid.: 31). Asad
indicts Durkheim for establishing, on the basis of this insulation of "reli
gion", a transhistorical opposition between sacred and profane; hence,
between the "religious" and the "secular".

The Modern Emergence of "Religion"

This modern redefinition undoubtedly re-actualizes, under deeply trans
formed sociopolitical conditions, a polarity that was present in ancient
"pagan" cultures through the process of a crystallization of all main reli
gious, social and political institutions. In the Middle Ages, however, this
polarity was reframed within the idea of a concert between "spiritual" and
"temporal" powers. In agreement with earlier works by Asad, but some
what in contrast with his most recent book explicitly dedicated to secu
larity, I deem it important to consider how the institutional kernel of
secularity is itself the outcome of a complex metamorphosis of the idea of
religion that goes back to the "Axial Renaissance" of the late Middle Ages.
In this era, a series of thinkers linked to new movements (such as the men
dicant orders) and institutions (such as universities) revived and redefined
the main tenets of the "Axial Age" (Eisenstadt, 1986). Focusing for a
moment on the Axial Renaissance of the late Middle Ages can also ren
der more comprehensible the traumatic and genocidal first segment of the
modern Euro-Islamic equation, which is iconically illustrated by the fate
of the Banu Hudayl.
The conflict between the pope and the emperor during the Axial
Renaissance prompted attempts to resystematize the relationship between
spiritual and temporal authorities that had been first formulated by Pope

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The Euro-Islamic Roots of Secularity: A Difficult Equation 417

Gelasius I in the late fifth century (see Szakolczai, 2001:357). Aquinas's

anthropology, which operated on the idea of the free and mature Christian
subject, represented a major milestone in the intellectual development of
a political theology for the new era. This Christian subject is a complex
creature and quite distinct from the simpler Aristotelian zoon politikon ("polit
ical animal"), a free agemt who is capable of inhabiting a natural com
munity that nourishes his virtues. Unlike the Aristotelian approach, whereby
the concept of individual freedom is the one with the virtues, Aquinas asso
ciates freedom with the idea of multitudo. Human partnership is the result
of free and creative co-operation among the multitudes. It must be a part
nership sustained by sharing in the love of God and by implementing direc
tionality, the telos of a human life of mutual help geared towards the
attainment of eternal beatitude. Love of God is the warrant of the human
bond of affection (Voegelin, 1997:219). Having reconstructed the homo
Christianus in this way, the Dominican monk claims that this type of man
is indeed an animal politicum, but with the important qualification that the
socio-anthropological roots of politics are defined in a quite un-Aristotelian
way. As illustrated by Voegelin, the degree of innovation in Aquinas's view
cannot be overestimated:

Under the hands of Thomas [Aquinas] the term political begins to assume
its modem meaning; the Gelasian dichotomy of spiritual and temporal pow
ers began to be replaced by the modem dichotomy between religion and
politics. With Thomas, the political sphere, in the modern sense, was still
completely oriented towards the spiritual, but the beginning of the momen
tous evolution that led, through the Lockean privatization of religion and
the assignment of a public monopoly to politics, to the totalitarian integra
tion of an intramundane spirituality into the public sphere of politics can be
discerned {ibid.: 220).

The internal impetus, but also the contradictions of the Axial Renaissance,
are best revealed through its vanguards the new monastic and popu
lar movements whose lan and power climaxed with the activities of the
new mendicant orders that were formed in the early nineteenth century.
The Dominicans and the Franciscans drew their force from the emerging
secular worlds of the towns and from the thriving urban economies, whereby
saeculum was still mainly intended in its above-explained medieval meaning
and was not yet married to the power machinery of the modern state.
Keeping these historic precedents in mind, we need to dismantle and
redefine the loaded notion of secularity by avoiding a pre-emptive cultur
alization of its meaning and by paying all due attention to the power rela
tions it entails between state authorities and religious groups, and also to
the metamorphosed notion of power that it incorporates. The hypothesis
pursued here is that secularity manifests itself in concrete power relations

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418* Armando Sahatore

and modes of governance, and in the way religion is reconstructed as expe

rience and belief to be confined to the private sphere of life. The impli
cations of secularity go beyond this mere reduction and confinement of
religion to a "sphere" of individual or, at most, "community" life. "Religion"
itself, as redefined through its privatization, becomes a new source of
empowerment to be shaped and channelled by the state. The Protestant
Reformation triggered by the Augustinian monk Martin Luther in the six
teenth century lent a new traumatic quality to the dialectics of challenge
and reform, and radicalized the entwining of "religion" and "politics" that
had first gained visibility in several innovative theoretical systematizations
by Dominican and Franciscan scholars during the Axial Renaissance.
In the course of this traumatic early modern European experience,
"religion" started to be considered as legitimate in the public sphere if and
only if it helped to overcome discord and moralize public life while fitting
into the general framework of political and moral values of its society, or
simply by coinciding with the religious affiliation of the ruler [cuius regio eius
religio). The state's domestication of religion gradually became a cement of
national unity and, hence, a factor in the political transformation in Europe.
In many ways, modern religion is virtually a "political religion" by default,
either in the hands of radical sectarians or of the state that restores the
order and guarantees the pact of subjection in exchange for the preserva
tion of the security of the subjects (soon citizens) and the promotion of
their prosperity.
The quasi-sanctification of the political fragmentation sanctioned by
the cuius and the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, and the increasingly unchal
lenged recognition of the sovereignty of independent states went hand in
hand with the consecration of a principled reconstruction of mechanisms
of power resting on a fundamental redefinition of religion. An increasingly
consequential and self-conscious notion of secularity provided the required
principle and became a factor of ideological homogeneity in Europe, along
side its drifting political fragmentation and territorial and colonial competition.
The decisive process of the refinement of the notion of secularity goes
back to further ruptures in the political and intellectual history of some
parts of Europe in the aftermath of the Peace of Westphalia, during the
period that Jonathan Israel (2001) defined as "the radical Enlightenment"
(1650-1750). This is not surprising since this is the buffer period between
the Wars of Religion and the golden era of the European nation-states,
the "mature" Enlightenment, and a full-blown colonial modernity. Since
then, a family of conceptions of secularity in the various nation-states has
provided discrete, locally adapted approximations to the institutional prin
ciple of state neutrality towards religion, which should be regarded as the
kernel of secularity at both an institutional and an ideological level. The
case of the Netherlands is particularly instructive, since it provides a pro
totype of the attempt to transform the sectarian divisiveness unleashed by

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The Euro-Islamic Roots of Secularity: A Difficult Equation 419

the Protestant Reformation into an orderly principle of national cohesion

of a republican type. Moreover, the emerging Dutch religio-political prob
lmatique can be seen as spanning the border between the liberal English
and Scottish, later British, models, on the one hand; and the continental
republican ones, on the other. More generally, the Dutch model emerged
out of ongoing conflicts that were clearly specific to North-Western Europe.
Ethical Spinozism provided the most elegant and theoretically cogent
justification of this secular kernel of republicanism found in the Netherlands
during the century of the radical Enlightenment. The importance of the
philosophy of Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza for several vanguards of the
European Enlightenment and for the modern self-understanding of Europe
right up to the present day cannot be overestimated. It is mostly neglected,
however, that his thought was heir to the vibrant cultural world of al
Andalus. As pointed out by Voegelin, with him, the son of a Sephardi
Jewish family that had resettled in Amsterdam due to the persecution of
the Catholics, "the Mediterranean irrupts again into Western thought"
(Voegelin, 1999:126). He pieced together distinct motives, some of which
echo the most daring visions of Islamic philosophy and rationalist specu
lative theology, those most strenuously combated by the Muslim legists.
His family legacy reflects the tragedy of the persecution and expulsion of
Muslims and Jews in the early days of the nationalization and Christianization
of Spain reflected on by Tariq Ali in the fictional family saga mentioned
at the beginning, and in which we could see the roots of modern European
Judeophobia and Islamophobia.
Spinoza's reflections on religion, power and the state combine origi
nally this tragic legacy (the first segment of the Euro-Islamic equation) with
the experience of the bloody sectarianism unleashed by the Protestant
Reformation, and of the destruction of the ensuing Wars of Religion (the
second segment of the equation). Moreover, his system of thought is deeply
indebted to Jewish mysticism and Islamic philosophy, and to the heritage
of al-Farabi, Ibn Sina and, especially, the Andalusian Ibn-Rushd and
Maimonides; however, Spinoza's will to remain detached from any specific
cultural and religious tradition means that these roots go unacknowledged
in his work.

For Spinoza, a sharp critic of priestly power and superstition, the only
criteria for judging the truth of religions is practical, that is, through the
assessment of their capacity to institute justice and caritas. These clearly
do not exist and here he agrees with Hobbes in the state of nature
(Preus, 1989:90-91). Religion is constituted pragmatically for its appeal to
the imagination of the common man and for its capacity to instill in him
the dispositions that support the social link between ego and alter. He sees
the kernel of thus conceived religion in practical action rooted in good dis
positions and, therefore, as separated, in principle, from the external realms
of politics and law: "Inasmuch as [religion] consists not so much in outward

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420 Armando Salvatore

actions as in simplicity and truth of character, it stands outside the realm

of law and public authority". For him, the key to this "true religion" is
"faithful and brotherly admonition, sound education, and, above all, free
use of the individual judgment" (Spinoza, 1951 [1670]: 118).
Spinoza saw religion as historically based in the prophetic discourse
that attempts to bring the ideas of justice and caritas into harmony with
the practical needs of the common people, therefore, instituting the very
notion of the common good. This is a secular approach in that the exhor
tative discourse of faith is conceived as a conversation among human agents
and does not need to be located, theologically, in God. God matters here
solely as the initiator of human power, as the source of divine sparks pre
sent in individual beings who constitute a heterogeneous multitude nei
ther depending on priestly authority. This Spinozian vision was not simply
the product of a sharply critical mind, but was part of the efforts to come
to terms with the threat of chaos represented by the religious sectarianism
that did not seem to be completely subdued after the Peace of Westphalia
and the promulgation, at the highest level, of the cuius regio dus religion,
which had become an attractive principle of order after the initial erup
tion of the Reformation.
These dilemmas featured prominendy in public debate and in the col
lective imagination in the early eighteenth century, as witnessed by an
interesting and popular piece of fiction staging typically Spinozian motifs.
The work in question is the novel, Description of the Mighty Kingdom of Krinke
Kesmes, which was published in the Netherlands in 1708 (Smeeks, 1976
[1708]). Its author, Hendrik Smeeks, delivered nothing less than a Utopian
story in the style of Robinson Crusoe, similarly including a message on the
delicacy of the construction and maintenance of the social bond but explic
itly related to the issue of the divisiveness of religion and, hence, to the
need for secularity. It constructs an ingenious plot around the idea of the
threat that unbridled religion, that is, religious sectarianism, poses to pub
lic order and to the very possibility of a peaceful and civil society.
Like Robinson Crusoe, it is the story of the aftermath of a shipwreck.
A Dutch-Spanish merchant, with a mixed Protestant and Catholic back
ground, is shipwrecked in the then legendary land of Australis, in the South
Sea. Astonishingly, the indigenous population knows all of the main lan
guages and religions of Eurasia. This was made possible by a previous
shipwreck, which occurred some centuries earlier when a Persian ship head
ing to Mecca and carrying Muslim pilgrims along with their Christian and
Jewish slaves sank. The wise king of Krinke Kesmes had ordered the sal
vage and classification of all the precious texts in Hebrew, Arabic, Latin
and Greek, which were found in the foundered vessel. Small teams among
the kingdom's inhabitants had then delved into the theological and philo
sophical tenets of the various religious doctrines included in the texts.

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The Euro-Islamic Roots of Secularity: A Difficult Equation 421

The next move was a truly sociopolitical experiment. The king ordered
the construction of a large cathedral with several pulpits for the various
"reconstructed" religious sects. The goal was to ascertain through public
discourse and open dialogue which group was closer to religious truth. The
outcome proved the opposite of what was expected: there was no end to
the mutual attacks among the religious representatives who denounced one
another as false and heretical. An acute threat to public order became
apparent. The wise king had to draw the obvious conclusion, with wisdom
here implying a readiness to take an uncompromising, sovereign decision
to ban all religious disputes from the public sphere, and to grant religious
freedom to all.

The motif that emerges from the story is one of the failed attempt at
instituting a neutral public cult as desired by Spinoza while keeping and
even strengthening the principle that the basic value for the republic is
public order, the sine qua non of res publica. This outcome, however, is
not purely celebratory in the novel. The emerging secular principle pre
vents conflict but suffocates dialogue, and makes diversity invisible. Any
religious identity has to be made private enough so as not to diminish
public loyalty to the state, which is essential to the preservation of the
state's authority and the rights of individual citizens. This is conducive to
a monological political culture. The message is that "religion derives from
the political regime and not the political regime from religion" (quoted in
Israel 2001:321). Outward religion has to comply with political considera
tions. Inward religion cannot go public, however, it cannot be obviously
banned as the subject is sovereign in the inner forum. This motif has
become crucial to modern and contemporary notions of secularity. Secularity
rests, therefore, on a combined idea of inwardness, subjectivity, sovereignty,
agency, and responsibility. As remarked by Talal Asad:

At least as far back as John Locke, 'person' was theorized as a forensic term
that called for the integration of a single subject with a continuous con
sciousness in a single body. The development of property law in a nascent
capitalism was important to this conception. But equally important was the
way attributing an essence to him helped the human subject to become an
object of social discipline. (Asad 2003:74)

Even more importantly, this conception facilitated a split between legality

and morality; these were then reconnected in new ways through a dialec
tic among powers that are both external and internal to the person. This
dynamic is conjured up by the institutional dependence of subjective agency
on the tutelage of Leviathan, who warrants security but also the enforce
ment of agreements. The bridling of religion recalls the essentially abso
lutist kernel of the modern state, even if it takes a republican or a liberal
shape. Surveillance and, increasingly, biopolitics whose roots we can

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422 Armando Sahiatore

detect in the story of Krinke Kesmes are necessary to the making of

those accountable persons who internalize the moral force of religion.
Religious neutrality is not just a rational postulate, it has to rely on sophis
ticated discursive and institutional machinery guaranteeing and delimiting
religious freedom.
The early eighteenth-entury Dutch novel shows the extent to which
the banning of religious confessions from the public sphere began to be
considered as an eminently rational solution to an acute problem of pub
lic order. It is perhaps no coincidence that this achievement was integral
to colonial narratives of expansion of the horizons of knowledge and con
trol that were intimately tied to the crystallization of the powers of mod
ern nation-states and their agents. What links this second segment of the
Euro-Islamic equation to the first is that the postulate of outward con
formism and religious homogenization first implemented by the Spanish
Inquisition in an exemplary fashion became increasingly independent from
the help of the church. Ever more refined forms of Leviathan's power
became the condition for a newly formulated inner freedom.
One cannot, however, appreciate the Spinozian approach to religion,
power, and what Spinoza himself defined in classical terms as "civil soci
ety" (societas civilis), without reassessing his key concepts and how they could
be potentially employed for a modern reconstruction of secularity that
differs from the modalities through which secularity finds institutional expres
sion in contemporary post-Christian European societies. One could spec
ulate that an alternative reconstruction of this kind would have the potential
to alter the postulates of cultural homogeneity and the basically monolog
ical character of political cultures in the European state, and help propose
solutions to the contemporary Euro-Islamic equation. For Spinoza, God is
the supreme good but is mainly, though not completely, identified with
nature and deprived of any anthropomorphic attributes. Man can only
realize his nature and pursue good in company with other men. Political
society should be constructed in such a way that the pursuit of good is
possible for the largest number. Spinoza recombined key elements drawn
from Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions in order to achieve a revo
lutionary synthesis. In this sense, his theory is distinctive in that it is sin
gularly exempt from a need for self-justification vis--vis Christianity.
Acquiescentia is the keyword in Spinoza's recipe for good life. Interesting
and contrary not only to traditional theologies but also modern liberal
anthropologies is the fact that neither man nor God is conceived by
him as a personality. The human personality is nothing other than a per
manent undulation in the flux of natural necessity and divine order. Spinoza's
acquiescentia cannot be properly translated into any modern European lan
guage. Voegelin insists that it simply means Islam, that is, in the sense of
trustful surrender to God (Voegelin, 1999:129) although it is without doubt

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the Islam of the philosophers and some Sufis rather than the Islam of the
ulamaThis vision clearly unsetdes traditional telos but strives towards its
arduous, piecemeal and, therefore, potentially revolutionary reconstruction.
Human beings are multitudes, as recognized by Aquinas, but not ineluctably
disintegrated, as asserted by Hobbes. The needed res publica is not neces
sarily a Leviathan that devours all heterogeneity. Ethnic cleansing and cul
tural assimilation are not the markers of such a state.

Like all other natural beings, human beings in their multitude

exist by the power of God, so that the extent and nature of their power
to act is co-extensive with the power they receive from God. For Spinoza,
the terminology of "rights" is an exoteric device; an almost superstitious
symbolization inadequate to capture the essence of this power. The struc
ture of reality consists of powers, not of rights. Whereas by nature men
are multitudes of monads individually empowered by God, the problem of
commanding right and prohibiting wrong can only be raised at the moment
individuals pool their powers into a common power, thereby creating rules
concerning the relation between ego and alter and within wider solidarity
groups. A man's life as an isolated Hobbesian power monad is not only
theoretically inconceivable, since it is men who decide to pool their pow
ers or not, but contradicts a life of reason, security and comfort. Therefore,
Spinoza is radically innovative in seeing the common good (res publica) as
the product of a conscious option for power sharing while adhering to the
idea of a shared supreme good that cannot be erased if the telos is the
good life of reason and acquiescientia. Sharing (a verb much abused by mod
ern communitarian theories), however, is not really the right word here.
Two monads do not share anything; rather, the divine sparks that animate
them enter a positive or negative, creative or destructive tension. Such is
the construction of the common. Correspondingly, the body politic is a
variable that is entirely dependent on the fluency of the existence of human
multitudes and on the ability of human powers to create a proper and
creative balance among themselves (cf. Voegelin, 1999:130-32).
Spinoza clearly saw that, far from realizing a new freedom, the rup
tures in medieval Christian civilization had unleashed sectarian passions in
the form of unredeemed wills to power. As the recipe for a balance of
powers leading to collective enjoyment, his Jewish-Islamic mysticism of rea
son and restraint was a radical antithesis to the sectarian furor released by
the Protestant Reformation, but also to the Judephobia and Islamophobia
that remain, to our day, the key markers of Europe's claims to cultural
homogeneity. For all the merits of his daring and intriguing vision, his
view was quite elitist. In spite of itself, it implied a privatization of God
as the supreme good (ibid.: 136). The emerging state was unable to com
pletely absorb the pious passions of early modernity which, although manip
ulated by subsequent waves of self-appointed reformers, had real roots in

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424 Armando Sahiatore

the sensibilities of urban strata in continual upheaval. The story of Krinke

Kesmes reflects these popular sensibilities and radicalism probably better
than the esoteric and geometric political theory of the saint lac Spinoza.
An important implication of Spinoza's position is that he subverts
older and newer conceptions of "natural law", either related or unrelated
to "divine decree." He is daring and uncompromising in arguing that the
image of God as legislating from his throne is an anthropomorphism based
on biblical parabolic discourse and prophetic speech, and is the equivalent
of the Axial claim that the moral universe is moved by a transcendent
will. When the evaluation of the primal structure of the "law" that regu
lates human society and nourishes civic institutions is at stake, however,
Spinoza like Vico, another, albeit later and more vehement, leading
personality of the "radical Enlightenment" is more eager than Aquinas
to appreciate it as a creation of the human imagination and intentional
ity, which are endorsed, as Spinoza admits, by custom or revelation (Preus,
1989:90). A further implication of this clear analysis of religion as Axial
discourse is Spinoza's outright rejection of what was to become one main
thrust of some influential currents within later Enlightenment thought, the
idea of a "natural religion." This is an absurdity for him, because religion
is instituted by human creativity, which is another way of saying that it is
inscribed by God in the human mind as part of a repertoire of "common
notions". Vico's position on this key issue is similar, but more nuanced,
and clarifies the extent to which a reinterpretation of Axial transcendence
is necessary for explaining the process of definition of the common good;
also at a legal level, as in the tradition of Roman law, which managed
fine without a monotheistic doctrine at the beginning and at several stages
of its development.
The lack of orientation in the new directionality of telos in Spinoza
prompted Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) to analyse how the necessities
and utilities of social life could be grasped by some form of common sense,
prior to reflection, reason and even to language, and especially prior to
any capacity to enter into contractual arrangements and define the corre
sponding "rights" and underlying ties of trust. In the course of his search
for a new telos, Vico who unlike the saint lac Spinoza has been por
trayed as a pious Catholic by some, and as an astute radical thinker in a
conformist garb by others took a drastic new step towards the secu
larization of telos. While, in Vico's opinion, the founders of human civi
lization were clearly not the rare philosophers, the Axial authors of prophetic
speech could not be considered as prime movers either, since discourse
had to rest on some other form of knowledge. Thus, Vico concludes that
the founders of human society and religion were "poets." They contributed
a keen imaginative grasp of the necessities and Utilities of social life to civ
ilization and the notion of a common good (Preus, 1989:92). In other
words, necessities and utilities are first grasped creatively, and then pur

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sued through a convenient degree of co-operation among humans (Vico,

1999 [1744]). In this way, Vico pursues Spinoza's project of secularizing
the origins of religion in a radical way without, however, secularly sancti
fying the current state powers in formation.

Secularity in Contemporary Europe

The innovative and sophisticated inroads made into the semantic and inter
actional fields of religion and politics, and into their complex relations by
thinkers of the "radical Enlightenment" such as Spinoza and Vico were
later stultified into a rigid differentiation of competencies between actors
in the distinct fields of "religion" and "politics". This post-Enlightenment
understanding and regulation of religion is common to the part of Europe
that is the heir to Latin Christendom. In spite of differences in the degrees
of its institutional enforcement, and notwithstanding a variety of power
relations among state authorities, established churches and non-established
religious groups, this commonality is rooted in the idea of a religious field
regulating religious belief and practice, along with the range of social and
cultural (therefore, non-political) competencies radiating from religious com
mitment. In Western and Central Europe, this type of arrangement is the
lowest common denominator representing the basic secular character of
the institutional landscape.
This outcome simplifies and rigidifies the historic complexity of the
Euro-Islamic equation. There is no doubt that the principle of the reli
gious neutrality of the state was often promoted by non-conformist and
non-established religious groups. While this principle, however, was the
result of a movement that pushed for its acceptance and institutionaliza
tion, it had to feed into the logic of concentration and sophistication of
power and control that became the trademark of the nation-state in Europe.
Therefore, at the basis of the principle of religious neutrality, there is an
inherent tension between the tolerance of the other and the constraining
of this potential openness into rigid rules enforced by the state. The twin
principles of the religious neutrality of the state and of religious tolerance
imposed as a rule on all citizens operate as factors of separation that pro
vide, on the one hand, a potential for promoting civic life and securing
public order, but might be inimical to communication and dialogue on the
other. Therefore, in its variety of institutional and ideological forms, from
laicite to state church, the separation between religion and politics in Europe
is far from unproblematic. The predicament of Muslims in contemporary
Europe is merely the last, overdramatized and twisted formulation of the
Euro-Islamic equation. Fear of confrontation might inhibit dialogue, which
is the lifeline of any effective public sphere and, therefore, also a condi
tion for a vital public religion. The Krinke Kesmes paradigm is a very
fragile arrangement for post-colonial Europe.

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426 Armando Sahatore

The basically liberal modern understanding (also and especially in its

republican variant) of the separation between religion and politics tends to
bracket out the function of institutional regulation in maintaining the sep
aration; thus, it operates a shift from function to essence in the under
standing of "religion" (Becci, 2002). The legitimate question or suspicion
that has been raised by some sociologists of religion is whether the dis
ciplining action of the state in circumscribing and delimiting a "religious
field" is the real process while the establishment of the autonomy of reli
gion is a mere byproduct of the process, although one embraced by those
religious groups or sects that had to combat dominant later, "estab
lished" churches (ibid.). The secularity of the European state should be
understood in this light. Even more radically, Talal Asad has suggested
that it is misleading to understand the emergence of secularity as the
enforcement of the autonomy of religion because since early modernity,
the power machinery of the rising states has been simultaneously applied
"to control the increasingly mobile poor in city and countryside, to gov
ern mutually hostile Christian sects within a sovereign territory, and to
regulate the commercial, military, and colonizing expansion of Europe over
seas" (Asad, 2003:192). To underwrite the liberal notion of "religion" that
was the outcome of such larger processes of secularization as substantially,
transculturally and transhistorically valid is, therefore, a plain distortion
from the viewpoint of the sociology of religion. As Asad puts it:

What we now retrospectively call the social, that all inclusive secular space
that we distinguish conceptually from variables like 'religion', 'state', 'national
economy', and so forth, and on which the latter can be constructed, reformed, and
plotted, didn't exist prior to the nineteenth century. Yet it was precisely the
emergence of society as an organizable secular space that made it possible for
the state to oversee and facilitate an original task by redefining religion's
competence: the unceasing material and moral transformation of its entire
national population regardless of their diverse 'religious' allegiances (Asad,

It was this liberal modern essentialization of "religion" that transformed

the claim to a religious neutrality of the state agitated by radical fringes
of non-established groups into secularity as a principle of power manage
ment. This process released the following axioms, all of which had already
been incorporated into the story of Krinke Kesmes (cf. also Bielefeldt,

a) Religion is a source of divisiveness if it becomes public speech.

b) Religion belongs to an inner forum.
c) Religious freedom in non-public space is a matter of public order,
which is a prerogative of Leviathan.

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The largely neglected corollary to these three axioms is that:

d) State neutrality is not really neutral as to what religion is/should

be since, in the era of modern nation-states, religion is primarily
defined by the state, either autonomously or in concert with religious
institutions to which the state assigns factual or juridical privileges,
thereby, contradicting the principle of neutrality.

No further historical excursions are needed to note that both the diag
nostic and the legally binding dimensions of this trajectory of secularity
and religion in Europe does not fit well into the variety of historical expe
riences of the Muslim world, nor do they cover adequately the history and
vicissitudes of those parts of former Latin Christian Europe where religion
was not so divisive. In those regions, religion did not produce sectarian
radicalism mainly due to the capacity of the Catholic Church to close
ranks and institute state-like instruments of repression and control after the

This idea of secularity, and the concomitant concept of secularization

championed by the sociology of religion up to the 1970s and after, have
been challenged by Jos Casanova's attempts to redefine the conditions
under which the "going public" (or publicization) of religion situates sec
ularity in a more elastic and realistic perspective. Secularity is interpreted
here as the product of a malleable transformation of religion's access to
the public sphere, and not as the marker of religion's inexorable privati
zation. This approach has generated a seminal debate between him and
Talal Asad, who has expressed a theoretically-founded scepticism with
regard to the malleability of secularity.
The rest of this paper attempts to mediate conceptually in the debate
between Casanova and Asad by also referring briefly to concrete public
controversies involving Islam in Europe and the conditions of its "publi
cization" as part of a complex trajectory of the transformation of secular
ity. This trajectory appears far from exhausted and, according to both
interpretations and recent developments (such as the enactment in 2004 of
a law against religious symbols in public educational institutions in France),
has reached a dead end where it clashes with postulates of individual rights,
whose relation to secularity becomes highly ambivalent. It is at this cru
cial passage of the transformation of secularity that "public Islam" enters
the stage. The question arises, however, as to whether it is a legitimate
challenger of European secularity within the same public sphere(s). Or is
it (or the fact itself that it can be conceptualized as such) an indicator of
the parochial, post-Christian character of European secularity? (see also
Salvatore, 2001; Salvatore and Eickelman, 2004; Salvatore and LeVine,

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428 Armando Sahatore

The root of the idea of public Islam can be found in Jos Casanova's
definition of "public religion" and is strictly related to a discussion of sec
ularity. From his book, Public Religions in the Modern World (1994), to a more
recent essay explicidy embracing Islam as the present and future candi
date for a positive role as a public religion (2001), Casanova has brought
fresh insights into a situation of conceptual deadlock concerning the ques
tion of whether secularity allows or prevents public religion(s) to emerge
and thrive. The kernel of Casanova's argument is interestingly related to
the redefinition of religion that goes back to Spinoza; this redefinition is
eminendy functional (though not functionalist) and, thus, one full step back
from the liberal secular essentialization of religion. For Casanova, justice
and doing-good-to-others (caritas in the Christian terminology of virtues)
are enduring and even expanding parts of the code of most religious groups,
including the established ones. Discourses of justice and human solidarity
increase in importance for those communities and groups that see their
mandate as a global one. These codes do not simply "invade" the arena
of politics, but create an organic link between "social" and "political" fields.
The late-Enlightenment dream of creating a pure field of politics governed
by a discourse of reason mediated in the public sphere is eroded by the
transversal penetration of a religious code that finds ramifications, new
allies and new foes in broad sectors of society.
By reconstructing a Toquevillean model of civil and public religion,
Casanova reinterprets secularity as fair play governed by the rules of the
public democratic game. Therefore, it does not impinge on forms of life,
but facilitates a representation of values in the democratic process within
the public sphere. Among those representing values publicly, religious groups
have probably the best cultural equipment in society. This capacity legit
imizes "public religion" in an institutionally secular environment. At the
very least, this reinterpretation of secularity evidences tensions and cross
currents within it: Is secularity more than sheer rule-setting? Or does it
entail the risk of being value-indifferent or even promoting negative (for
its own stated goals) values if public religion does not come to its rescue?
Can forms of a-religious humanism survive without keeping a religious sub
stratum of cultivation of human values? Is secularity, then, an essentially
contested and contestable concept, or does it predetermine modes of gov
ernance or even life forms even if it is not meant to do that?

Islam in Europe as a Test of European Secularity

Not surprisingly, and the "American" bias of the early nineteenth-century
European observer, Tocqueville, notwithstanding, both Casanova and Asad
view Europe as a major testing ground for assessing secularity. Is it a set
of rules not intrinsically hostile to public religion but ideologically open

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The Euro-Islamic Roots of Secularity: A Difficult Equation 429

and contestable (Casanova), or a sociocultural and political "formation"

affecting modes of governance and forms of life so as to delegitimize "pub
lic religion" (Asad)? In either case, the evaluation of secularity predeter
mines the opportunities and limits of public religion and, in particular, of
public Islam. In numerous writings and especially in his recent book (2003),
Talal Asad has expressed serious doubts about the possibility that, through
Muslim actors, movements and discourses, Islam might be allowed to pro
duce and unfold Islamic approaches to the public use of argument in a
secular European socio-political context due to the institutional rigidities of
the European secular formations. At its best, when it is not a yardstick for
blindly castigating alien political cultures and securing the cultural homog
enization of the body politic, secularism (the compact political discourse
based on secularity) provides a normative and constitutional approach that
covers and protects secularity as a form of life and as a mode of gover
nance; in a nutshell, this is Asad's argument. Secularism promotes notions
of personal rights and a loyalty to the state authorities that protect these
rights, but it also delimits the type and range of public arguments that can
be legitimately used.
Jos Casanova is more optimistic and bases his argument on a com
parative analysis of the public role of religion in various sociopolitical set
tings in North and South America, and in Western and Eastern Europe.
This exploration is then incorporated into a conceptualization of the move
ment of "de-privatizing" religion and, therefore, of building a "public reli
gion". He sees public religion as inherently beneficial to the public sphere
in a liberal-democratic context since he holds that religious traditions in
general, and specifically those sprouting from the Axial-Abrahamic tree,
have the potential to contribute decisively to public discussions of issues
involving basic societal values, such as justice, the protection of human life
and the environment, peace and solidarity with disadvantaged social strata.
Indeed, religions in general, and Abrahamic religions in particular, artic
ulate views of forbearance, piety, "doing good" and also friendship. These
configure, more than abstract values, dispositional methods for turning
those values concrete in the crucial yet elementary relation between ego
and alter, on which the social bond is based.
Casanova contends, however, that this potential of religions to sustain
public action can only become effective if religious authorities play by the
rules of the game of democratic politics. In other words, like or even more
than any other social and political actors accessing the public sphere, the
public representatives of a given religion must rely on persuasion via pub
lic discourse. They cannot invoke traditional authority and the concomi
tant repertoires of authoritative means for disciplining religious practitioners
into complying with religious norms and morals. Therefore, religious val
ues of justice, humanness, solidarity and peace can contribute to the com

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430 Armando Sahatore

mon good, according to Casanova, only if framed by discourses geared to

persuading the general public or the majority thereof. On this side of the
equation, public religion is almost a necessity. Casanova delivers nothing
less than a counter-manifesto to Krinke Kesmes and its syndrome of pub
licness. Yet in some ways, and his Toquevillian background notwithstand
ing, one could detect a potential Spinozian, genuinely Euro-Islamic
problematic behind his arguments.
It remains that for Casanova, the de-privatization of religion is a
defence of traditional life worlds against state and market penetration, and
is legitimate to the extent it can trigger public and collective reflections on
normative structures of modern societies and on their adherence to the

common good, an issue that needs be increasingly defined in global and

universal terms (Casanova, 2001:1048-49). Public religion can be best legit
imated in Tocquevillian terms: "Tocqueville saw religious associations as
'the schools' of civil and political associationism crucial for a democratic
republic" (ibid.: 1057). Can there be a "public Islam" as an instance of
public religion? "The Tocquevillian argument can easily be applied to
Islam" (ibid.: 1058). Even more explicitly: "The public reflexive elabora
tion of Islam's normative traditions in response to modern challenges, polit
ical learning experiences and global discourses has a chance to generate
various forms of public civil Islam which may be conducive to democra
tization" (ibid.: 1076).
The Toquevillian-American framing of the core question risks dilut
ing the deeper European dilemmas of religion and power. It prompts
Casanova to reinterpret the positive legacy of secularization as an "objec
tive" process of differentiation of societal spheres that is not, therefore,
inherently tied to any particular discourse, ideology or "formation". Religion
has (a particularly strong) potential for addressing the common good in
secularized societies and motivating citizens into civic and political partic
ipation in the name of universal values that secular doctrines too often
proclaim but neglect, due to the frequent prevalence of particularistic inter
ests and egoism. In a sense, Casanova regards religion as the permanent
and most secure source of those universal values; hence, a secular politi
cal formation without public religion might be in danger of losing touch
with these underlying values. He dares to take a further step when he
argues that

the very resurgence or reassertion of religious traditions may be viewed as

a sign of the failure of the Enlightenment to redeem its own promises.
Religious traditions are now confronting the differentiated secular spheres,
challenging them to face their own obscurantist, ideological, and inauthen
tic claims. In many of these confrontations, it is religion which, as often as
not, appears to be on the side of human enlightenment (Casanova, 1994:

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Casanova is consistent in maintaining that for many followers of this or

that religious tradition, a commitment to freedom, starting from the ele
mentary freedom of conscience, has never been based on liberal secular
values. This potential of religious traditions, however, can only be incor
porated into the secular rules of the game. This process lays a premium
on the capacity to mobilize and persuade without threatening the state's
monopoly of the institutional instruments of coercion and consensus-build
ing, and without impinging on citizens' freedom of conscience. Not sur
prisingly, it is that Asad has focused on this latter point in his critique.
He remarks that Casanova highlights the dependence of the legitimacy of
religion "on how religion becomes public", (Asad, 2003:182) and that this
is a quite narrow conceptual and operational bottleneck, since "the only
option religious spokespersons have in that situation is to act as secular
politicians do in liberal democracy" (ibid.: 187).
How should this critique be assessed? Let us take stock and try to
ascertain what is at stake in this controversy. Casanova's approach has the
merit of deflating the notion of secularization by eliminating its underly
ing teleological assumption about the decline of religion and its normative
assumption about the privatization of religion. Yet, it preserves the idea
of secularization as an institutional differentiation between religion and pol
itics as the hub of his notion of public religion. The model of public reli
gion is based on the normative presupposition that whoever has legitimate
credentials to speak in the name of a religion or of a religious group is
called to distill "values" out of the religious commitment, and build a per
suasive ethical discourse that can legitimately intervene in the political
process. The problem is that even the above cursory look at the European
history of the formation of modern secular nation-states (and lately of
European integration) shows that the separation between religion and pol
itics has never been fully institutionalized as the discourse of secularization
claims it to be. Whatever the claims of the official discourses of public
authorities, the relation between religion and politics within European
modernity has crystallized into a field of permanent and shifting tensions
more than into a stable configuration of institutional and constitutional
The problem with this tension, and this is where Asad's critique finds
fertile ground, is that the keys to its management are in the hands of the
state, which uses an essentialized yet flexible enough view of religion to
devise contingent solutions compatible with its imperatives of control and
public order. In other words, the fairness of the so-called secular rules of
the public game, as assumed by Casanova's thesis, cannot be taken for
granted, not just in their application (all games might be rigged) but also
in their institutional formulations. This fairness is heavily dependent on the
kind of rational and enlightened understanding nurtured, however, by

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432 Armando Salvatore

a religious sensibility of secularity that precedes the tragedies of colo

nialism, the great nationalist wars and the late-modern Judeophobia and
Islamophobia more than on how secularity was reconfigured through all
these events. On top of all of these dramas or rather, underneath them,
one cannot ignore the resilience of a Christian substratum of European
culture as the key to both Europe's fragmentation and unity. This sub
stratum can be mobilized in concrete political batdes, for example, when
the less-than-public, discretely disseminated call for abstention from the ref
erendum on artificial insemination by the Catholic Church in Italy in June
2005 has evidenced that political religion can be even more effective in a
European secular environment if it does not expose itself too publicly, thus
escaping a direct, open and fair discursive confrontation with its opponents
and, instead, coercing the freedom of conscience of citizens by declaring
the incompatibility of certain ideas of regulation or deregulation with essen
tial Christian values.

The Post-Christian Imprint of European Secularity

That the claim of the Christian character of European culture is politi
cally alive and well despite its absence from the preamble of the draft of
European constitution which was rejected in referendums in France and
Holland May and June 2005 is also shown by the arguments advanced
by various political forces against the accession of Turkey to the European
Union. We also cannot disavow those arguments as deprived of historical
consistency. As observed above, the new political formations that emerged
through the lengthy dissolution of the medieval political ideal of a sacrum
imperium, incorporating the values of the respublica Christiana and based on a
concerted harmony between spiritual and temporal powers, were not the
product of a sudden Enlightenment. It is symptomatic than in several legal
acts and theories (up to the work of the leading legal philosopher Hugo
Grotius and beyond) during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which
were formulated under the heading of the "Turkish Threat" (the label that
identified the continuing military and political advances of the Ottomans
into a Europe perceived as the last stronghold of Christianity; see Hfert,
2000), the "Christian republic" was still explicitly considered the ideal polit
ical entity and corresponding identity under threat by the Muslim
armies. Tracts and treaties called for a unitas Christiana in the very epoch
during which this unity had internally collapsed and given way to what
Eric Voegelin has called the reciprocally schismatic formations of the mod
ern national states. This means that the internal division in Europe, polit
ical and religious, and the search for an overarching ideological cohesion
that was largely divorced from political realities went hand in hand.
The nineteenth-century idea of a "European concert" (within which

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the Ottoman state was dubbed, with dubious taste, the "Sick Man of
Europe") was a fragile interlude before the twisting of imperial rivalries at
the turn to the twentieth century. It was again, however, a Grotian idea
to proclaim "infidels were neighbors and so should be the object of protec
tion and love" provided they did not violate natural law as developed from
within Christian European philosophical and legal theories (Asad, 2003:163).
What excluded the Ottomans from the European scene until the balance
of power was definitively tilted in favour of the European powers was no
longer the fact that they were "infidels", but simply that they were not,
or not yet considered, adequate subjects of natural law: they were simply
seen as inferior on a civilizational scale centred on the emerging political
cultures of North-Western Europe (ibid.: 164).
In this long-term process of building secularity and inscribing it not
only into state law but into international law, we see an increasing imma
nentization and essentialization of religion based on transformed Christian
tenets of natural law. This secularity is a far cry from the nostalgic Islamo
Jewish tolerance of Tariq Ali and his Banu Hudayl. Are Tariq Ali's char
acters longing for an "alternative model" of Euro-Islamic secularity? One
thing cannot be denied: it would be a huge misconstruction to try to rein
vent Spinoza, who is the hero of the ethicization and immanentization of
the Andalusian Islamo-Jewish heritage as applied to European Christian
sectarian warfare, as a critic of the modern, optimally republican state that
was on its way to secularity at his time. In many ways, Spinoza was the
apologist of this type of state power. Spinoza metabolized the Euro-Islamic
equation into a purely European one. Indeed, the only alternative for the
Banu Hudayl was not any existing counter-model, but just their dream of
being rescued by the Ottoman Sultan against the genocidal encroachment
performed by the sacred alliance between the cross and the crown. This
help never arrived.
The decline of the political and military power of the Ottoman Empire
in the nineteenth century and the construction of colonial empires by the
European powers secularized the European religious self-understanding into
the racialized idea of the "white man's burden" in the task of civilizing
non-Europe. At the same time, when the imperialistic expansion and conflicts
were spiraling, Europe's dominant classes deepened their ambitions to purify
national cultures from identities and allegiances considered dangerous to
the homogeneity of the polity. The culmination of the rivalry between
European imperial powers in the two devastating world wars and the
Holocaust gave way, in the second half of the twentieth century, to a
process of economic and, later, political integration that was marked, at
its very outset, by a renewed search for a collective European identity that
racial imperialism, Islamophobia and Judeophobia had substantiated in the
era of nationalism and imperialism.

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434 Armando Salvatore

It is remarkable how slowly and reluctantly the idea of a Christian

republic, the historical religious antecedent to the secular idea of Europe,
came to be replaced even on the part of some of the intellectual heroes
of European modernity by the consecration of a differentiation and sep
aration of competencies between "religion" and "politics" within the emerg
ing nation-states. The theoretical seeds of this differentiation, which was
ordained for the sake of cultural homogeneity, were sown by none other
than Aquinas. The prevalent post-Enlightenment understanding of religion,
now common to the whole of Europe despite all differences, is intimately
connected to these differentiation processes and, therefore, to the idea of
a differentiated religious field. Here, Casanova is right in reinterpreting
secularization as a differentiation of social spheres, and not as an inevitable
decline and privatization of religion; therefore, since religion is neither dis
appearing nor always privatized, as a process that favours a renewed pub
lic role of religion. In Europe, this legally pinpointed differentiation and
its accompanying institutional arrangements are, on the one hand, the least
common denominator representing the basic secular character of the insti
tutional landscape; however, on the other, they cannot account for the
complexity and at times fluidity of the relationship between religious and
political cultures that often have to be combined, albeit in disguised ways,
in order to meet imperatives of identity and order. Here, Casanova's re
distillation of the theorem of secularization is put to a quite severe test.
As maintained by Asad,

If the secularization thesis no longer carries the conviction it once did, this
is because the categories of 'politics' and 'religion' turn out to implicate each
other more profoundly than we thought. . . Trae, the 'proper domain of
religion' is distinguished from and separated by the state in modern secular
constitutions. But formal constitutions never give the whole story. On the
one hand objects, sites, practices, words, representations even the minds
and bodies of worshippers cannot be confined within the exclusive space
of what secularism names 'religion.' They have their own ways of being. The
historical element of what come to be conceptualized as religion have dis
parate trajectories. . . . The unceasing pursuit of the new in productive effort,
aesthetic experience, and claims to knowledge, as well as the unending strug
gle to extend individual self-creation, undermines the stability of established
boundaries (Asad, 2003:201).

However sharp Asad's critique, it does not confute, but confirms, the pos
sibility or even necessity of public religion as theorized by Casanova, pro
vided we acknowledge: a) that in the case of the Catholic Church, we are
still far away from a fair acknowledgement of the political rules of the
game; and b) that the publicness of public religion can only become legit
imate if it overcomes the post-Christian bias of majority political cultures
and states in Europe. Public Islam can only become viable and legitimate

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The Euro-Islamic Roots of Secularity: A Difficult Equation 435

under these two crucial conditions. Such a scenario could develop into a
third segment of the Euro-Islamic equation, potentially including the key
variables in its solution. The condition for public religion to unfold and
thrive would be that all religious groups and institutions are allowed to
play a crucial role within the reproduction and negotiation of value sys
tems on a fair and equal basis.
Nonetheless, we should heed Asad's warnings that the root of the
problem, and the limitation of the solutions currently traded, lie in the fact
that secularity is not easily soluble into post-secular arrangements based on
any type of "cultural dialogue" because its institutional kernel the insti
tutions of modern citizenship within nation-states is intrinsically built
on the European post-Christian, post-Enlightenment and post-imperial, cul
tural self-understanding of majorities. These are intended that is, they
understand themselves not merely as fluctuating political-electoral but
as stable cultural and national, sometimes even civilizational majorities.
Every group that does not belong to such a majority is, therefore, con
sidered a minority to be watched and monitored, and is continuously
required to prove its loyalty. Therefore, hopes for a cultural dialogue and
a fair participation of religious groups in public life depend on whether a
dialogic re-foundation of the European public sphere by eroding the
mythical, ethnic and cultural foundations of the nation-states will dis
solve the idea of cultural majorities and overcome the limitations of polit
ical and religious tolerance as conceived and practiced so far, and open
the way to public Islam as an important instance of public religion as
identified by Casanova to become one of the factors of the new Europe.
Usually, however, a public dialogue and pattern of fairness, as exemplified
by the above-mentioned work of Vico, cannot be established merely by
the intrinsic virtue of a political programme but can only emerge through

These are not merely communicative conflicts. As shown by de-veiling

laws from Atatrk's Turkish republic to contemporary France the
conflict impinges on human bodies. Everywhere in Europe, there is a fierce
struggle over the control of the public display and posture of "Muslim
female" bodies between the women themselves (whom an ethical and
humanist vision of human rights fails to make the sole owners of their
bodies), their families, the state and self-appointed defenders of the
Enlightenment (including white feminist groups). At the moment, they are
inserted into the Euro-Islamic equation; the universality of human rights
and women's rights is severely shaken. This is not too surprising since, as
Spinoza who represents in this analysis the fragile but central axis of
the Euro-Islamic equation observed, rights are permanently at risk of
becoming the new fetishes of secularity if one does not seriously cope with
their underlying powers.
It seems that the wise king of Krinke Kesmes solved one problem,

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436 Armando Salvatore

but created another that exists at a deeper level and appears to be more
intractable, as demonstrated by the current stalemate of the Euro-Islamic
equation. It is difficult to deny that secularity encroaches on the concrete
life forms and modes of governance of populations and their bodies, and
feeds into biopolitical machineries. It is clear that the implications of sec
ularity go beyond this mere reduction and confinement of religion to a
"sphere" of individual or, at most, non-political "community" life. Secularity
presupposes and continuously produces notions of agency, that is, action
and passion. Current liberal secular parlance well reflected in the dis
course of NGOs is entrenched in a specific legal notion of the agent,
pointing to "the act of giving power to someone and to someone's power
to act [that] becomes a metaphysical quality defining secular human agency"
(Asad, 2003:79). There is not enough space in the official legal-public sphere
for notions of empowerment and agency based on less subjectivist and
more relational views. Yet, these alternative notions do gain public space
and make it more complex through the actions and movements of indi
vidual and collective actors who reconstruct religious identities and notions
of justice. In contemporary Europe, these include several Muslim groups
that play on a number of levels by expounding on "their" Islam (or lack
thereof) in various and often conflicting ways.
While European societies appear to be seeking new secular balances,
the institutional mechanisms of the state are at risk of becoming ever more
entrenched in a surpassed and ineffective vision of secularity. The syn
drome of Krinke Kesmes represents the actual predicament of the Euro
Islamic landscape. While Casanova's view of the legitimacy of public religion
is analytically insightful and enriches the Euro-Islamic equation in positive
ways, one cannot turn a blind eye to the dark side of the current predica
ment, as highlighted by Asad's following warning:

If Europe cannot be articulated in terms of complex space and complex

timethat allow for multiple ways of life (and not merely multiple identities) to
flourish, it may be fated to be no more than the common market of an
imperial civilization, always anxious about (Muslim) exiles within its gates
and (Muslim) barbarians beyond (Asad, 2003:180).


1. Rahman, 1958 for the complex relationship between philosophy and "ortho
doxy" in Sunni Islam, in particular with regard to the interpretations of prophecy
that had a crucial impact on Spinoza's approach.

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The Euro-Islamic Roots of Secularity: A Difficult Equation *437


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