Theorizing Modernities article

When Politics are Sacralized?

Sign calling for the separation of church and state from a manifestation in Paris, 2013. Image via Wikimedia Commons. CC0 1.0

Let’s imagine the title of When Politics are Sacralized: Comparative Perspectives on Religious Claims and Nationalism, edited by Nadim N. Rouhana and Nadera Shaloub-Kervorkian, going the other way around: Instead of investigating when politics are sacralized what if we examined when the sacred is politicized? If we were to investigate the latter, rather than the former, would the book look the same in terms of content, analysis, and conclusions? And if so, then what does that tell us about the main contribution of the book in particular and of the literature on nationalism, religion, and the sacred, more generally? Further, let’s ask another question: What imaginary do we inhabit when we ask about the sacralization of the political? Has there been any time, era, or epoch when the political was not sacred, when it was detached or divorced from the religious? And what does a politics devoid of the sacred look like? Can we identify such a politics? In addition, is it even possible to identify such a religion before it has been political? And does religion stand by definition as the opposite to politics? Or does the title assume a certain specific conception of the political that is by definition secular? The chapters in this book bring these tensions to the surface and shed some light on these old questions that have been and continue to be at the center of the narratives of modernity and secularization.

It is common within critical circles to note that it is almost impossible to think, write, or conceptualize the secular without thinking of religion, the sacred without the profane, science without myth. It is common knowledge that these concepts are mutually constitutive, socially constructed, have different meanings in different historical epochs, and are always part of a power game. However, to argue that they are mutually constitutive is one thing, while to argue that they are one and the same, is different. It is hard to find scholars who will consider the sacred and the profane and the religious and the secular as one and the same. We know that the boundaries are always shifting, and we know that there is a politics of definition in drawing the line between concepts. We also know that drawing the line is subject to power relations and the distribution of control and symbolic resources. Still, despite the mutual constitution of these concepts, we still feel some need to use and deploy these different concepts and we are never ready to collapse them into one concept despite their mutual constitution and the fact they are socially constructed.  How are we to account for this persistence of differentiation of concepts, spheres, and disciplines? My claim is that we should be able to continue to use concepts such as these while historicizing them at the same time. This requires that we stay aware that they are part of power game and avoid the trap of essentializing them.

Modernity as the Autonomy and Purity of Spheres

One way to view the project of modernity writ large is as a project of differentiation and purification. Philosophically, it was probably Immanuel Kant who managed, with a series of endless distinctions, to separate science from religion and knowledge from faith, nature from freedom, and following that, “is” from “ought,” happiness from morality, and morality from legality. Kant offered peace between these conflicting concepts/disciplines by assigning a separate “jurisdiction” for each of them that did not invade or conflict with the jurisdiction of others. Sociologically, it was both Émile Durkheim, through his theory regarding the division of labor, and later Max Weber, who gave this separation a sociological account. Historically, it was the French revolution as a historical-political event that gave this scheme concrete content by separating the economy from politics, and politics from religion. The post-revolutionary era is one that allows us to imagine a poor person holding a high political position, and a highly rich person who lacks social or political status; it also allowed religious people to live in what looks like a secular state. The bracketing of property as a condition for entering politics—which meant the privatization of property—meant the democratization of politics and the entry of masses into politics, while the privatization of religion meant the secularization of the modern state.

The trick to establishing democracy and secularism has been achieved by introducing the distinction between the private and the public, assigning the private all those aspects that make us particular—including property, religion, and perhaps culture—leaving to the public an abstract formal domain where people meet each other as citizens within an imagined community of equals. It is this latter idea that made the modern nation a possibility.

Much of the work in critical tradition from G. W. F. Hegel to Karl Marx, Carl Schmitt to Michel Foucault,  Hannah Arendt to Bruno Latour, Duncan Kennedy to Catherine MacKinnon, questions this neat separation, and the purity of these categories. Between the moderns and the pre-moderns there are more commonalities and continuities than we imagined; there is too much myth in science and there is some rationality in myth; “is” and “ought” are not as distinguishable as we thought them to be; and while politics is separated formally from economy, the economy still controls politics indirectly.  The opposition between the rational, secular, and national to the irrational, mythical, and religious does not seem to hold anymore. That is what Talal Asad, Jose Casanova, John Milbank, and many others have been arguing for years.  Asad questions our ability to speak meaningfully about religion or the secular discourses and practices of power that have shaped and reshaped them continuously. Casanova, meanwhile, questions both the descriptive accuracy and desirability of the category of the secular. When it comes more specifically to the relation between religion and nationalism, one finds an increasing amount of literature that questions our ability to draw a line between religion and nationalism, and that in many cases both perform similar functions and use/deploy each other almost to the point of indistinguishability. The writings of Anthony D. Smith, Carlton Hayes, Carl Schmitt, Adrian Hasting, Saba Mahmood, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, and Roger Friedland are only a few examples of thinkers who make this point.

Between the moderns and the pre-moderns there are more commonalities and continuities than we imagined; there is too much myth in science and there is some rationality in myth; “is” and “ought” are not as distinguishable as we thought them to be; and while politics is separated formally from economy, the economy still controls politics indirectly.

Still, no one claims that religion and nationalism in the 21st century are the same as those that were around in the 18th century. In addition, despite the mutual constitution of these concepts, we still experience a certain need to deploy the concepts of religion and nationalism despite the fact that we know that they penetrate, influence, deploy, and constitute each other and despite the fact that we are fully aware that they are socially constructed and do not occupy a fixed core. In this sense, alongside the continuity and commonality between the modern and the premodern, or the secular and the sacred, it is important not to lose track of discontinuities, ruptures, and distinctions.

Is it still meaningful to speak of religion, nationalism, and secularism given the ongoing shifting meanings of these concepts and given the ways that they have been deployed as part of the mechanism of power in the context of colonialism, antisemitism, imperialism, capitalism, and anti-Muslim racism?

What Comes after the Disintegration of Concepts?

One thing When Politics Are Sacralized does—perhaps even unintentionally—is problematize its own title by showing the endless varieties of the meaning of religion and its different political deployments in different regions and by different groups. The richness of the test cases that the book covers—Zionism, Palestinian nationalism, Northern Ireland, India, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Serbia, among others—has a destabilizing effect that shows the endless variety of conceptions that lurk beneath the concepts and give them a concrete historical materiality. In doing so, the book offers a very important contribution. Still, the authors do deploy the terms. The terms survive the critiques somehow, despite the fact that they lose their core stable meaning.  Is there a way to deploy those terms in a non-essentialist, non-metaphysical sense? The deployment of a concept is metaphysical, in my view, when the author thinks that the mere deployment of the concept can replace the need for further arguments, data, information, and descriptions in a way that makes the concept trigger an endless series of casual and logical conclusions/inferences that are not necessarily mandated. Thus, for example, there are those who deploy the description “religious” for a certain group as a surrogate for arguing that the group is “irrational” when they did not accept a certain proposal or offer. The same happens when the deployment of the concept lumps under its wings too many varied concrete conceptions and practices, subsuming too many phenomena under one name and thus erasing differences.  Given this ongoing fear, the question is why simply not replace such loaded concepts with other less abstract and more concrete terms that have less metaphysical baggage?

I do not plan to offer a full answer to these questions here, but only to offer a few remarks as an initial response to them. My first remark questions the hope of finding a better vocabulary that is by definition less metaphysical. Karl Marx spent his life trying to escape from metaphysical German idealism, but it is far from clear whether the vocabulary that he deployed—the most obvious and simple among them is property—is any less metaphysical. Ask any legal scholar about the concept of property and they will dismiss the concept as being an utterly metaphysical one that has no core and must be disintegrated into a bundle of rights (a right to use, to transfer, to destroy, to rent, to control and manage, to mortgage, to bequeath, etc.). We are always being pulled into two directions in this regard: the more the level of abstraction is higher the more there is the risk of metaphysical thinking in a way that obscures rather than reveals what the object in question is. The issue is not simply obscuring things, but that abstract terms create a feeling of “false necessity” (to use Roberto Unger term). We start to draw conclusions that seem to us as necessary logical outcomes that flow from the abstract concepts themselves. This mode of arguing closes our imagination and fixes our thoughts, and we fall into dialectical illusions (to use Kant’s terminology this time). This entails confusing politics with logic, assuming that the realm of politics (which is the realm of freedom per excellence, as Arendt reminds us, and acts according to logical necessity).[1] This also entails the denial of our radical freedom and our political agency as it makes it appear as if these cannot be otherwise than they are, and that we are thus not the collective authors of the world that we inhabit.

The case of Zionism is revealing and allows a certain insight into the nature of the relation between religion, nationalism, and colonialism.

On the other hand, however, we have to speak in abstract terms in order to allow a conversation to take off and in order to conduct a comparative study, and to allow others to join in. For example, we might have different conceptions of what justice requires as a concept, but we are still able to recognize a conversation or a debate that tries to pin down the right conception of justice from one that is trying to pin down the right conception of art or love. The concept that hovers loosely above the conceptions allows the conversation to continue and makes it possible for differences to emerge and be discussed. Without this very loose “concept”—as a heuristic tool, not as a fixed essence—controversy becomes impossible, and instead we will talk past one another. I do not know how, when, and what level of abstraction might become mere ideology masquerading as universal truth, but that is always a risk. It is a risk that we must be fully aware of and learn to live with. It is true that our concept should hover as low as possible above the material world to avoid gross generalizations, but some level of abstraction is necessary.

But in these short comments, I would like to refer more concretely to the section of the book that deals with Zionism (as I will not be able to do justice to the richness of the book as a whole). The case of Zionism is revealing and allows a certain insight into the nature of the relation between religion, nationalism, and colonialism. In many other contexts, mainly European, one must dig deep to reveal the intimate relationship between these concepts. When I say “dig deep” I mean that one must go back to history to reveal the role of religion in the development of both nationalism and colonialism.[2] Second, in terms of geography, one must reconnect Europe to what seems to be disconnected from it—to Africa, Asia, the Americas. In Zionism, all of these are here and now in terms of time and space. But what is interesting in this section is the double movement that almost all the authors do offer. The critical move to interrogate liberal European societies is the one that usually aims to uncover the universalistic, seemingly neutral face of these countries in order to show the persistence of the particular, to question the myth of neutrality and neat separation, and the weaknesses of formalism. But in fact, that is what Zionism does all the time to Europe: it forces it to face its past in order to show that Zionism’s particularism, its deployment of religion and ethnicity, its demographic obsession, and even the colonial practices it performs, are common to it and to Europe. Zionism insisting to view itself as part of the same tradition becomes in itself a mode of critique of Europe. It reveals what Europe is trying to hide. 

Image from the first Zionist Congress in Basel, 1897. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

The double movement that most critics of Zionism do is to first join the critique of Europe’s past and the secularization thesis. But here they then find themselves too close to Zionism in terms of the persistence of the public role of religion, the impossibility of complete separation of church and state, and the critique of the formalism of the neutral modern state, etc. This forces them to offer the second move of distinguishing Zionism as a special and unique case (this is most clear in Rouhana and Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s chapters but is also present in Yadgar’s and Raz-Krakotzkin’s as well). The first move suggests that Zionism is not that different from the European model and a sincere critique of Zionism requires a critique of the original European model, which means a critique of the whole idea of the nation-state and modern sovereignty.  The second move suggests, however, that despite commonalities, Zionism offers a unique case in modernity that renders the process of its secularization more problematic. It is more problematic mainly for two reasons. One is the audience, and the second is the mission. With regard to the audience, Judaism as a religion is not simply used in the service of nationalism, for Zionism’s nationalism is unthinkable without religion. It is true that Irish nationalism, for example, is saturated with Catholicism and the Irish-English divide maps onto the Protestant-Catholic divide. Still, we can imagine Catholicism without the Irish people and Irish nationalism devoid of religious discourse. Religion is a marker, not constitutive. In Zionism, the audience of the Jewish Rabbi and the audience of Ben-Gurion or Herzl (as national figures) are almost one and the same. They almost converge. But even if they do not fully converge (and they do not) as the definition of Jew in the law of return teaches us,[3] still the issue is that there is no way to define the nationality of the Jew without resorting to the religious definition of the Jew. Thus religion is a decisive factor as to who belongs to the tribe of the nation and the Rabbis are at the end of the day the gatekeepers of the nation. The gate might be narrow or wide, but the keys are held by the religious establishment. The second element relates to the message itself: Zionism writ large is an old religious desire transferred to the realm of earthy politics. At its core, Zionism is not the political being sacralized, but the religious being politicized. Zionists took upon their shoulder a mission that presumably was assigned to God himself and claim to accomplish it. The vocabulary of Zionism is borrowed completely from the religious myth: return the redemption of land, a promised land, and so on. Religious discourse lies at the heart of Zionism as its moving power, not mere servant, and as such, it is explosive, as Gershom Scholem anticipated a century ago.[4]

In this regard, even if we accept for a moment the European model, acknowledging nationalism and colonialism as constitutive of this project, and accepting the limits of the European secular project and the claims to the neutrality of the secular state, still Zionism scores badly on that model. If one compares present-day Israel to present-day France or Britain one discovers that the role of religion in public and political life is different in substantial ways. One need not step outside the modern model to criticize Zionism, and one can accept some level of identity politics and national discourse, but still offer a genuine critique of Zionism. I must say that this double movement seems to me necessary in order to capture the complexity of Zionism and the complexity of modernity as well.

[1] This cuts through and through all of Arendt’s writings. See mainly chapter 5 from The Human Condition that discusses “action” as being distinguished from labor and work, and escapes the logic of necessity and fabrication as the site of human freedom. See as well Arendt’s skepticism of the French revolution given that it succumbed to the temptation to meet the necessities of supplying the needs of the poor and as such it subdues itself to the realm of necessity. For Arendt, politics should remain the realm of freedom, not a necessity. See also, Arendt On Revolution, 61. Arendt most clearly expresses this approach in her essay, “What is Freedom.” She ends the essay with these words “ In the realm of human affairs, we know the author of ‘miracles.’ It is men who perform them—men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own” (Between Past and Future, 171).

[2] On the nature of Zionism as a movement that reveals the nature of modernity writ large, not as an exception to it, albeit in a particular manner see my paper, “Notes on the Value of Theory: Readings in the Law of Return- a polemic.”

[3]  According to the Israeli law of return, and for the purposes of the right of Jews to immigrate to Israel and to acquire Israeli citizenship, they do not have to be proved Jewish in the religious sense. Rather it is enough that their spouse or one of their parents or grandparents is a Jew according to the Jewish definition.

[4] As he wrote in his letter to Franz Rosenzwieg in 1926, “This country is a volcano! It harbors the language! One speaks here of many matters that may make us fail. More than anything else we are concerned today about the Arab. But much more sinister than the Arab problem is another threat, a threat which the Zionist enterprise unavoidably has had to face: the “actualization” of Hebrew. Must not the conundrum of a holy language break open again now, when the language is to be handed down to our children? Granted, one does not know how it will all turn out. Many believe that the language has been secularized, and the apocalyptic thorn has been pulled out. But this is not true at all. The secularization of the language is only a facon de parler, a phrase! It is impossible to empty out words which are filled to the breaking point.” Quoted in William Cutter, “Ghostly Hebrew, Ghastly Speech: Scholem to Rosenzweig,” 417.

Raef Zreik
Raef Zreik holds an LLB and LLM from Hebrew University, an LLM from Columbia University, and an SJD from Harvard Law School. His dissertation deals with Kant’s philosophy of right. He is an associate professor of Jurisprudence at Ono academic College, Israel and senior researcher at the Jerusalem Van Leer Institute. His main fields of research include legal and political philosophy. Recent publications include “Historical Justice: On First Order and Second Order Arguments for Justice," Theoretical Inquiries in Law (2020): 491–529; “The Ethics of the Intellectual: Rereading Edward Said,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 47.1 (2021): 130–48; “On the Political Theology of Zionism,” forthcoming in Political Theology; “Kant on the Future,” forthcoming in Iyyun, and he just finished a book titled Kant’s Struggle for Autonomy: On the Structure of Practical Reason (forthcoming, Lexington Books).

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