February 14, 2011
— Martin E. Marty
“C’est une révolte,” said King Louis XVI to his messenger about events on July 14, 1789. “Non, Sire, C’est une révolution,” the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt corrected him. With this exchange Hannah Arendt pointed to a difference between a revolt—we have seen many of such—and a revolution, which we saw on television and kindred instruments last week in Egypt. The Wall Street Journal was listening, as weren’t we all, to the shouts of protesters in Cairo and elsewhere. “[I]t’s worth noting that the words heard most often . . . have been ‘dignity,’ ‘modernity,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘jobs.’” Words like these “appear to have displaced Allah as the galvanizing ideas for the young in Egypt and Tunisia.”
Add to their words one more, advanced by columnists left, right, and center: it was a “secular” revolution. And millions cheered. They keep hoping that in the chancy post-revolutionary days, Egypt will stay “secular.” Similarly, many have been watching Turkey, as it makes its way among polities and policies. They hope that, however much its people give voice to religious elements, it will also stay “secular.” In Egypt’s case, the hope of millions is that there will be no official religion or that no overwhelming religious voice--in this case the waiting-in-the-wings Muslim Brotherhood—will win at the expense of the religious and other freedoms of others.
One hears first from the talking-heads among some cable TV network commentators and their print-media colleagues, who in the Egyptian case hope for secular resolutions, and then to those same heads commenting on domestic polities where they do all they can to promote legal privileging of one particular religious ethos and framework: theirs. Each month religious newswriters receive dozens of notices that on local, state, and national levels in America there are school-board meetings, legislative proposals and court cases focused on attempts to privilege a particular “God” in salutes, pledges, and tax-supported expressions at the expense of others.
If Egypt succeeds in living with a novus ordo seclorum, that national slogan you can read on your dollar bills, a “new order of ages,” it will match what the American founders succeeded in doing through an article of the U. S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and with which most of us happily lived in less threatening times than our own. Time for a pause. Critics ask: What’s so good about “secular,” whether in Egypt and the Muslim world or in America and the Western-influenced Christian or “Judeo-Christian” world? Not everything by any means is “good.” The “secular” can turn ideological, as in “secularism.” It can represent a beliefless, soulless spiritual landscape that leaves whole publics in the shallows. The downsides are obvious, but . . .
If Europe and North America are turning ever more secular, it is not just because governments are not legally privileging religion. The zones of voluntary expression in life within these spheres are enormous, and the freedom to make use of religious symbols and arguments is almost limitless in those zones. “Secular” in the legal sphere can be liberating. The downgrading of the “religious” in the secular-turning orbits, be it noted, results chiefly from indifference, distraction, spiritual laziness, or godless free choice by citizens. Fearful as we are that Egypt in its post-revolution might turn officially “religious,” one hopes that it can become “secular,” in ways we were intended to be.
Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (Penguin Books, 1965).
"Egypt After Mubarak," Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2011.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.