The Eurocentrism of Secularism

Weltkarte in umgedrehter Ansicht
Eine aus Satellitenaufnahmen zusammengefügte, nach Süden ausgerichtete Weltkarte (Zylinderprojektion) mit Australien in priviligierter Position (gemeinfrei).

// Lena Salaymeh, British Academy Global Professor, University of Oxford, School of Global and Area Studies - 14.09.2020


Secularism is a Eurocentric ideology because it relies on modern European ideas and practices as universalist standards.[1] The Eurocentrism of secularism is evident in the ideology's differentiation between “the secular” and “religion” – two categories that emerged in modern Europe. Rather than being neutral, objective, or superior, secularism is subjective, prejudiced, and often colonial. In this short piece, I outline some basic insights about secularism from the perspectives of historicism, critical secularism studies, and decolonial theory. In synthesizing existing critical scholarship, my objective is to highlight some aspects of secularism that are commonly misunderstood, among both scholars and non-scholars. By directing attention to these misunderstandings, I hope to elucidate how the Eurocentrism of secular ideology obfuscates historical and contemporary traditions.

First, secularism is a modern ideology. Secularism is not a phase in a human developmental process; it is not inevitable. Relatedly, “modern” and “modernity” are descriptive terms that do not imply a status or a level of development; “modernity” is a periodization category that refers to a specific block of time, often dated as beginning in the sixteenth century CE. Accordingly, modernity did not begin at diverse times in distinct regions of the world.[2] That is, modernity cannot be measured – particularly in terms of the dissemination or acceptance of secular ideology or institutions. A related concept that we often associate with secularism, “the secular,” likewise did not become common until the modern era. Since secularism and “the secular” are products of the modern era, in most cases, it is anachronistic to characterize premodern ideas or institutions as secular.

Second, since secularism is a fluctuating and diverse ideology, there is no authentic version of it. Secularism has no essence; it varies according to the specific place and period (within modernity) of its expression. The many varieties of secularism share a concern with dialogically dividing “the secular” from “religion.” That focus on distinguishing between “the secular” and “religion” does not necessarily result in freedom or liberation. A secular society can be oppressive, authoritarian, or xenophobic, just as it can be progressive, democratic, or inclusive. Secularism is what exists in the world, not what people imagine is “true secularism.” Hence, secularism is not more authentic in one context than another. Similarly, an individual can, for instance, be both secular and Muslim.

Third, while secularism is not essentially European, it is a Eurocentric ideology. Rather than having an essence, the ideology of secularism is socially constructed, variable, and changing. Consequently, there are distinctions in the European, North American, and non-Western expressions of secularism. Secular ideology can fuse with other ideologies or traditions. Case in point, secular logics and the Islamic legal tradition fuse in some contemporary legal issues; I labeled that fusion secularislamization.[3] On a broad scale, the diverse expressions of secularism share Eurocentric logics. Specifically, secularism promotes European values and practices by proposing Eurocentric notions of “the secular” and “religion.”

Fourth, secularism is not an alternative to religion; instead, secularism defines religion. Secular ideology constructs the classifications of “secular” and “non-secular,” labeling the latter as “religion.” Hence, “the secular” and “religion” are not neutral, objective, or transhistorical analytical categories; they are modern concepts delineated by secular ideology. A distinction should be made between a tradition (a changing array of ideas and practices shared by groups over time) and a religion (a set of characteristics defined by secularism). While “tradition” is a transhistorical category, “religion” is a modern, secular category.

Fifth, despite its local and historical variations, secularism – particularly in its state-based expressions – promotes Eurocentrism through the notion of religion. Just as states and societies give meaning to race and gender, so too religion. Elsewhere, I have proposed a “secularization triangle” to explain how secular ideology regulates traditions within the notion of religion. The secularization triangle is a model for clarifying that the notion of religion has three dimensions: religiosity (private belief, individual right, and autonomous choice); religious law (a divinely ordained legal code); and religious groups (public threat). When modern nation-states articulate these three dimensions of religion, they modify ideas from European Christianity (primarily Protestantism) in line with state objectives. Consequently, a state’s enforcement of the secularization triangle regulates non-Christian traditions by turning them into religions. More specifically, the category of religion forces non-secular traditions to imitate Protestant Christianity. Rather than removing religion from the public sphere, secular states and institutions generate the category of religion in ways that perpetuate Eurocentrism.

Sixth, the modern secular construct of “religion” should not be confused with traditions. Some scholars misapply the two modern categories of “the secular” and “religion” to premodern traditions. These commentators misperceive resemblances between the modern notion of religion and particular aspects of premodern traditions. By way of example, the premodern Islamic concepts of dunyā (“world”) and dīn (“tradition”) might be translated as “material” and “spiritual,” or “physical” and “metaphysical.” The relationship between the terms dunyā (“world”) and dīn (“tradition”) does not correspond to the relationship between the terms “the secular” and “the non-secular” (i.e., religion). More specifically, the Arabic term dīn is habitually mistranslated and misunderstood as “religion.” The term dīn should be conceptualized and translated as, for example, "tradition" or "law"—two of the multiple meanings conveyed in premodern Arabic texts. Construing the premodern Islamic concepts of dunyā (world) and dīn (tradition) as equivalent to “the secular” and “religion” is a secular translation (or distortion) of the Islamic tradition. It is anachronistic to presume that the categories of “the secular” or “religion” exist in premodern traditions.

Seventh, the Eurocentrism of secularism’s construction of religion can lead to judeophobia and islamophobia. Since religion is based on Eurocentric ideas, it is more compatible with European Christian practices than with non-European and non-Christian practices. Consequently, the secular objective of relegating religion to the private sphere advantages European Christians and post-Christians and disadvantages followers of non-Christian traditions. I have examined, in previous work, conflicts between the secular notion of religion and two non-Christian traditions: Judaism and Islam. In controversies surrounding circumcision, slaughter, clothing, and congregational buildings, secular states restrict or even criminalize non-Christian practices under the principle of secularism. For instance, a secular state modifies Christian ideas about the body when it classifies male circumcision as harming bodily integrity. In contrast, in the Jewish and Islamic traditions, male circumcision perfects the body, rather than damaging it. Secular legal principles are used to determine which practices should be classified as religious or cultural, obligatory or optional, or ethical or unethical. That process of classification is not impartial, but rather biased against Judaism and Islam.

Eighth, Europeans spread secular ideology to other parts of the world primarily through colonialism and neo-colonialism. Colonizers espoused a civilizing mission that included the falsehood that secularization is a key to progress. In addition, colonial governance exploited the category of “religion” as a tool of colonial power. Colonizers alleged that “the secular” and “religion” were scientific and universal categories. Depending on local circumstances, colonizers used “religion” to regulate the lives of colonized peoples or to divide and conquer them. For example, British colonizers developed the category of Hinduism as a strategy for facilitating domination of the extremely diverse colonized subjects of India. In addition, British and French colonial governance in Muslim-majority areas often controlled colonized subjects by dividing them into confessional and sectarian groups, requiring them to abide by specific religious laws, and preventing them from unifying. Introducing and emphasizing religion—including religious courts and codification of religious law—was an important component in a colonial strategy of preventing anti-colonial resistance.

Ninth, secularism is a component of coloniality. Whereas colonialism is the socio-political domination of a territory, coloniality is a mode of thought that legitimizes colonialism (and neo-colonialism) while espousing universalism. Since colonizers advanced secularism as part of their civilizing mission that justified colonialism, secularism is a component of coloniality. Coloniality is not limited to areas under direct colonial control because it is an epistemology that shapes how people—including colonized people—think. Coloniality gives secular ideology a particular form of power: colonized people are unable to reshape or to transform secular ideology because coloniality convinces them that Eurocentrism is universalism. That is, because secularism is part of coloniality, the dissemination and adoption of secularism beyond Europe have not altered the Eurocentric logics of secularism. Accordingly, both colonizers and colonized people perceive the world through the colonial concepts of “the secular” and “religion.” For instance, coloniality converts the Arabic term dīn (meaning "tradition") into “religion." Coloniality informs and demarcates the notion of religion in ways that are comparable to race and gender.

Recent scholarship on secularism and religion has exposed many of the myths propagated by secular ideology. (See recommended reading below.) The insights from this scholarship have numerous implications for understanding the past and the present. In this piece, I have highlighted the Eurocentrism of secular ideology in order to clarify why criticisms of secularism are not anti-Western; instead, such criticisms are anti-Eurocentric and anti-colonial. The problem with secular ideology is not where it began (Europe) or who initiated it (Europeans), but rather how it was and continues to be entangled in coloniality.

Many of the ideas in this blog post are elaborated in several works that are or will be available for download here. Thanks to Rhiannon Graybill and Yaacov Yadgar for their feedback.

[1] Although I refer in this piece only to Europe, European settler-colonial societies—including Australia, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, and the United States—also espouse forms of Eurocentrism.  

[2] The claim that the modern era began in a particular region of Europe and then spread to other parts of the world is a colonial presumption.

[3] Secularislamization is modern. Secularislamization is not evidence that the Islamic tradition “borrows” or is “influenced” by secularism. The notions of “borrowing” or “being influenced” are frequently unproductive and inaccurate; these notions are typically understood in unilateral ways as moving from a more powerful society to a less powerful society. Indeed, the attempt to demonstrate that the West “borrowed” from the East is intellectually unproductive because it responds to the substance of a weak framing, instead of replacing the weak framing. In my own work, I have eschewed notions of borrowing and influence, proposing social and legal recycling as an alternative model for understanding how all societies integrate preexisting and contemporaneous practices and ideas.

Recommended reading:

  • Anidjar, Gil. "Secularism." Critical Inquiry 33:1 (2006): 52-77.
  • Asad, Talal. Genealogies of religion. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
  • Asad, Talal. Secular translations: nation-state, modern self, and calculative reason. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.
  • Barton, Carlin A. and Daniel Boyarin. Imagine no religion: how modern abstractions hide ancient realities. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016.
  • Batnitzky, Leora F. How Judaism became a religion: an introduction to modern Jewish thought.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.
  • Calhoun, Craig, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen. Rethinking secularism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Dubuisson, Daniel. The Western construction of religion: myths, knowledge, and ideology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. Discourse on civility and barbarity: a critical history of religion and related categories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Martin, Craig. A critical introduction to the study of religion. London: Routledge, 2017.
  • Masuzawa, Tomoko. The invention of world religions: or, how European universalism was preserved in the language of pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
  • Nongbri, Brent. Before religion: a history of a modern concept. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.
  • Salaymeh, Lena. “Comparing Islamic and international laws of war: orthodoxy, heresy, and secularization in the category of civilians.” American Journal of Comparative Law, forthcoming.
  • Salaymeh, Lena. “Secular translations of the Islamic tradition: converting Islamic law into ‘sharia’ and ethics.” forthcoming.
  • Salaymeh, Lena. “Traductions séculières de la tradition islamique: la conversion du droit islamique en ‘charia’ et normes.” Clio@Themis, forthcoming.
  • Salaymeh, Lena and Shai Lavi. “Religion is secularized tradition: Jewish and Muslim circumcisions in Germany.” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, forthcoming.
  • Salaymeh, Lena and Shai Lavi. “Secularism.” in New Approaches to Antisemitism, edited by Sol Goldberg, Scott Ury, and Kalman Weiser, forthcoming.
  • Scott, David, and Charles Hirschkind, eds. Powers of the secular modern. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.