A year ago, I participated in a wonderful symposium on secularism in the contemporary Middle East, sponsored by the Oasis Foundation in Venice. The conversations at the symposium made clear that secularism is very much a contested term, particularly in majority Muslim societies, which often view secularism as a Western, even Christian concept. The University of Michigan Press has published an interesting-looking new book on the subject by Alev Cinar (Mugla University, Turkey), Srirupa Roy (Göttingen), and Maha Yahya (UN), Visualizing Secularism and Religion: Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, India (2012). The publisher’s description follows.
Over the past two decades secular polities across the globe have witnessed an increasing turn to religion-based political movements, such as the rise of political Islam and Hindu nationalism, which have been fueling new and alternative notions of nationhood and national ideologies. The rise of such movements has initiated widespread debates over the meaning, efficacy, and normative worth of secularism. Visualizing Secularism and Religion examines the constitutive role of religion in the formation of secular-national public spheres in the Middle East and South Asia, arguing that in order to establish secularism as the dominant national ideology of countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, and India, the discourses, practices, and institutions of secular nation-building include rather than exclude religion as a presence within the public sphere. The contributors examine three fields—urban space and architecture, media, and public rituals such as parades, processions, and commemorative festivals—with a view to exploring how the relation between secularism, religion, and nationalism is displayed and performed. This approach demands a reconceptualization of secularism as an array of contextually specific practices, ideologies, subjectivities, and “performances” rather than as simply an abstract legal bundle of rights and policies.