Stepping into Secularism: Complicating Jean-Luc Marion’s Post-“Charlie Hebdo” Advice to Muslims

Jean-Luc Marion is best known for his influential works of philosophy, phenomenology, and theology, but, after the massacre at “Charlie Hebdo,” he wrote in a far less (although still somewhat) abstract vein, identifying the tragedy as an incident in a long-ranging conflict and recommending a path forward for followers of the Muslim faith in French society. According to Marion, the most essential step for the Muslim faith to take, in order to successfully step “into the secularism that the other religions embrace in France,” is to open “itself up to a close analysis” (Marion). Marion sees this “opening up” as a necessary step for Islam to be incorporated as a peaceful and functional part of French society, positioning the analysis as temporally and causally prior to the “secularism.” With respect to Marion’s eminence as a philosopher and his emotions in the moment of this response’s composition, I would like to argue that Marion’s recommendation to French Muslims (and Muslims generally) is impossible to realize, because of the way he inverts the necessary causal relationship between secularism and the kind of analysis he describes. This does not necessarily indicate that Marion’s end-goal of integration within a secularist framework is not a worthy one, but this complication of the means he recommends does force us to reconsider how (if at all) that end can be attained.

Marion’s description of the analysis that Islam must undergo implies the operation of a certain critical mindset. Marion refers to this process, one already undergone by Catholic traditions, Protestant traditions, and Judaism, as “tests of their religious validity” (Marion). This testing of Islam should include “philological analysis to understand how its texts came into being, an assessment of the interpretation of these texts, in-depth research into their actual religious history, etc.” (Marion). Such a process might sound quite natural to those shaped by traditions that have already undergone it, and the component steps laid out by Marion might sound to many of us essential to any such study. And indeed they are, but in order to embrace, or even make sense of, such a study certain assumptions about the nature of belief and truth as applied to religion are necessary. The kind of analysis Marion speaks about here cannot be undertaken unless one adopts a critical lens that holds simultaneously the possibility of a religion’s truth or falsity. Even if one already believes in the religion under investigation, the intellectual process of analysis must be understood as causally, if not temporally, prior to belief. The religion in question must be viewed as a thing, like many other things, that may or may not be believed, contingent on the results of analytical inquiry. Reality apart from the religion must be conceptually accepted as a possibility before such an analysis can be begun.

However, according to the eponymous Charles Taylor and those who follow his influential definition of secularism, the mindset that I have described above is precisely what constitutes secularism itself. In Taylor’s A Secular Age, he offers a hefty analysis of the origins of that titular phenomenon, finding that the critical difference between secularism now and secularism as it has been understood in the past is the fundamental assumption that belief in a particular religion (as well as non-belief in any religion) are equally viable possibilities. Not believing in the religion in which one believes is always understood as a possibility, and belief is thus seen as a choice. This way of thinking, as we have seen, underlies the kind of analysis and testing that Marion contends Islam must undergo to become a thriving participant in secular society.

But this is a problem since it means that, before undergoing the kind of analysis Marion mandates for induction into secularism, the mindset of Muslims (a rather nebulous body referred to by Marion) must be secular. In other words, secularism becomes a prerequisite for secularism. Marion identifies the problem underlying the discord between secular French society and Islam as the fact that Islam is not secular, but his plan for bringing Islam into the fold of secularism requires a condition which, by Marion’s own reasoning, cannot be fulfilled. Further complicating the issue is the fact that Marion might well be roughly correct in his diagnosis of the problem, even if his solution is lacking. Saba Mahmood has pointed out, in her incisive analysis of the Muslim response to the depiction of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, that responses of this kind arise from a Muslim understanding of faith that stands in contrast to the secular conception of faith as a choice (Mahmood 844). Indeed, Mahmood goes on to consider the ways that imaging Muhammad can affect Muslim believers, ways that are reminiscent of Taylor’s distinction between the porous self and the modern, secular buffered self.

So where does all of this leave us? The answer might seem to be “nowhere particularly good.” It appears that Marion might be right insofar as he suggests that traditional Islam remains incompatible with key aspects of French (and generally Western) society, because that society is secular and Islam, traditionally conceived, is not. However, secularism cannot be tidily manufactured through the process Marion recommends, nor through any similarly timely and intentional program. Western secularism evolved over centuries through a very particular series of events, culminating in a mindset incommensurable with many other modes of thought. Of course, Marion rather ignores a great deal of scholarly analysis of Islam already being undertaken by individuals who have accepted the necessary secularist positions, so perhaps we could look toward such trends as a potential solution. On the other hand, such academic inquiry, like most academic inquiry at present, is far removed from the lives and habits of most people and thus from most sincere followers of the Islamic faith. At present, the best that seculars and non-seculars can do might be to simply agree to disagree, but even such a goal as that is a fraught one when the very idea of “disagreement” itself is understood fundamentally differently within a secular or non-secular framework.

Works Cited:

Mahmood, Saba. “Religious Reason and Secular Affect.” Critical Inquiry. Summer 2009.

Marion, Jean-Luc. “After the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Massacre: Islam Must Open Itself to Critique–Jean-Luc Marion.”

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