Today's date:
Fall 2008

The Challenges of Non-Western and Post-Secular Modernity

Shanghai—We are discovering something new in the 21st century: modernity can be non-Western and post-secular. This is illustrated by the renaissance of Chinese civilization that is emerging along with rapid economic growth, the governance of Turkey’s secular state by an Islamist-rooted party, the broad-based endurance of faith in affluent, technologically advanced America and the turn of secular Europe’s political and intellectual leaders toward a preoccupation with the role of religion in society.

In the last issue of NPQ, Fareed Zakaria argued correctly that after 500 years of the rise of the West followed by the rise of American dominance within the West, we were now seeing “the rise of the rest” led by China. But, confusing form and essence, Zakaria is wrong in his view that China, in particular, is only treading down the well-worn path laid by the West. Certainly, China has traversed the Western detour of Marxist-Leninism and then the capitalist road. But beneath a skyline marked by the logos of Hyatt and Citigroup the soul of old Confucius is stirring.

In his comprehensive study, The Rise of the Modern Chinese Thought, Wang Hui dispels the notion that modernity first came to China through its encounter with Western colonialism. Indeed, he argues that China became the first modern nation in the 10th century Song Dynasty, with its stable borders, global trade, widely-used currency and national administration by learned bureaucrats based on meritocratic examination.

But more important to the future is the ancient Confucian idea of truth rooted in concrete realities, not abstract ideologies that apply everywhere. Thus the principle of “non-universality” and the practice of coexistence and pragmatic discourse with others instead of domination. Tan Chung calls this the “geocivilizational” paradigm. It is from within this sensibility that Zheng Bijian, the powerful ideologist and former vice chair of the Central Party School, argues that China’s path avoids either the “clash of civilizations” or the domination of the triumphant West at “the end of history.” Taking its own road, China, accordingly, does not seek hegemony but a “peaceful rise.”

Some will ask about Tibet, where the Dalai Lama has charged cultural genocide is taking place. And because the Communist Party continues to hang on to power, one is tempted to treat all this with the “cynical realism” that is the hallmark of China’s hot contemporary art, filled with those broad, toothful, ironic smiles, expressionless faces or advertising integrated into Maoist propanganda that is garnering millions from Western collectors. Yet, to simply regard the rhetoric of China’s political class as one big lie fails to grasp the civilizational impulse behind that nation’s remarkable advance.

Turkey today is the great experiment of both non-Western and post-secular modernity. Can it replace the authoritarian modernity imposed by Kemal Ataturk and European-oriented elites with a bottom-up modernization led by a democratically elected regime of Asian-Islamic lineage?

Zeynep Karahan Uslu, a vice chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), agrees that Ataturk’s project has successfully facilitated material progress and created a Turkish identity. But, “it also entailed a scientific-based positivistic understanding of the world, thus promoting a non-religious Western type of society as the precondition for progress.” This created a split between the central elites, who are secular, and the public in the Antatolian periphery, who are devout Muslims. Now, the religious masses are trying to remake modernity in their own image.

The theologian Martin Marty has long marveled at the hybrid nature of “religio-secular” American society, where, for the most part, the scientific fruits of the Enlightenment have been readily absorbed into practical life, while the hole in the soul left by secularism has been filled by abiding religiosity. With the exception of periodic bouts of “awakening,” including the current eruption of the religious right, faith, though pervasive, has, in Marty’s view, been mostly a private matter.

What is far more intriguing is the recent shifts of European political and intellectuals leaders. Tony Blair, who converted to Catholicism in his political afterlife and established a Faith Foundation for “religious literacy,” argues that religious belief is so widespread in today’s interdependent world that, as 9/11 signaled, we only ignore it at our peril. The choice for the secular West and religious societies, he argues, “is coexistence or catastrophe.” Then, in a remarkable comment that would have made the philosophes roll over in their graves, he declares “you cannot understand the modern world unless you understand the importance of religious faith. [the emphasis is mine].”

In France, the birthplace of the secular Enlightenment, President Nicholas Sarkozy recently scandalized the lay establishment by saying that “rejecting a dialogue with religion would be a cultural and intellectual error.” During the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in September, he called for “a positive secularism that debates, respects and includes, not a secularism that rejects.”

The theoretical grounding for such a stance comes from Jürgen Habermas, perhaps continental Europe’s most prominent secular liberal intellectual. Of late, Habermas has become concerned about the inability of post-religious Europe to generate its own values, relying instead on the heritage of the Judeo-Christian tradition for such foundational notions as human dignity. The secular community thus has much to learn from the religious community.

Echoing Sarkozy’s critique of the overbearing secular establishment, Habermas chastises “Enlightenment fundamentalists” who argue that “in light of the liberal constitution, religion must be tolerated, but it cannot lay claim to provide a cultural resource for the self-understanding of any truly modern mind.” When secular citizens encounter those with a religious mindset and don’t take them seriously as modern contemporaries, Habermas continues, they are engaging in a “modus vivendi” and not “shared citizenship.” Thus, like Blair, Habermas calls for religious and secular mentalities not to seek a world apart, but to learn from each other.

In a conversation with NPQ last spring, Francis Fukuyama agreed that, especially in an age of integrating globalization, a “modus vivendi” approach is not viable. “We live in large national communities going global where you have to have civility, deliberation and democratic discourse. You can’t decentralize into a zillion self-regarding communities. It is particularly not a solution in a world of such penetrating flows of people and information.”

A Chinese perspective adds some conditions. “Confucianism,” says Zhang Xianglong of Beijing University’s philosophy department, “will resist the invasion of all kinds of universalisms.” Apart from its non-universality and anti-conflict principles, “Confucianism also insists on a ‘free-to-terminate-relations’ principle in global cultural interaction. There must be a mutual respect among all for original lifestyles and cultures. Coercion to ‘open up,’ such as the kind of pressure put on China by 19th-century Western powers, cannot be tolerated. Every culture has its home, and therefore has the right to determine whether to open its doors and whom to open them for. Intercultural discourse must first guarantee the original right-to-survival of all sides. Only then can there be real discourse, and not universalist coercion under various elaborate names—democracy, science, enlightenment.”

Here we begin to see the terms of the new discourse as non-Western modernity and post-secularism settle across the globe.

Nathan Gardels, editor