Hear hear. It is difficult for the so-called secular liberal west to accept this because it lays bare its conceits:
1.) the ideology that religion is a superfluous remnant from the past that we ought to have 'gotten over', something that has no relevance in today's world, effectively marginalises the plight of the overwhelming majority of the world's population who are struggling against environmental and/or sociopolitical hardship and for whom their faith offers the only horizon of hope;
2.) the conceptualisation of 'religion' in this ideology derives from a specific European cultural history and cannot be unambiguously applied to knowledge practices around the world that appear to share formal elements;
3.) the view that secularism is diametrically opposed to religion is a myopic one that mis-recognises how 'secularism' developed out of and continues to be shaped by Christian outlooks, and how the deployment of 'the secular' in contemporary politics in fact produces those 'religious' problems it grapples with.
For me, what is most exciting about the Arab Spring is not so much Islam in and of itself (though I do appreciate some of its sacred wisdom), but the new configurations between religion, culture, and politics that it might inaugurate--new configurations that would give the so-called secular liberal west (whose privileges I enjoy btw, and would have great difficulty giving up) a much needed slap in the face, as if to say, 'Recognise your own history. Take responsibility for the continuing effects of your imperialistic egocentrism and greed. Don't be smug, don't be hypocritical. Stop abusing the rhetoric of 'freedom' and 'equality'; stop using it to avoid confronting how you are still driven by the same egocentrism and greed.'The overwhelming majority of the other comments do not share my views. Most of them made the usual arguments about the 'evils' of Islam (and religion more generally) and how it is totally incompatible with secular democracy. I wasn't surprised by such responses; they've been articulated many, many times. But I was somewhat disappointed that very few seemed willing to engage with the article. To my reading, the article is saying: 'Look, these Muslims are genuinely struggling for secular democracy. Yet, they are also committed to their religion. If we are truly committed to the ideals of democracy (which involves, amongst other things, the freedom to participate in religion), we have to seriously consider the possibility that for these societies, religion, politics, and culture are tightly interwoven. So let's not denigrate the effort that the people of the Arab world are exerting to secure a better future for themselves. Let's re-examine (western-centric) assumptions about Islam.'
Now, regardless of whether you agree with my comments (which, btw, are based on current critical scholarship on the political and ideological effects of 'secularism') or with the points raised in the article, I think it is not unreasonable to say that the reluctance to engage with Islam--the unwillingness to reconsider assumptions about the religion despite the fact that it plays a crucial role in the everyday lives of millions who are struggling against real hardship--this unwillingness to accept difference, to allow others to be 'other', suggests a severe lack of empathy in those 'secularists' or 'non-believers' who dogmatically refuse to examine their own position (this applies to dogmatic folks of all persuasions, really).
This is where Phil Spector comes in. On the night before I read the article, I was watching the documentary, The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector. What I want to talk about is not Spector's trial--I think regardless of whether he is guilty or not, it's quite obvious that the man has a lot of issues; he is clearly a nutjob, albeit one with AMAZING musical talents. What I'd like to talk about is his relationship with George Harrison and John Lennon. At one point in the program, the interviewer asked Spector how he could, on the one hand, work with George Harrison to produce songs like 'My Sweet Lord' (which be seen as an expression of 'belief'), and on the other, work with John Lennon to produce songs like 'Imagine' and 'God' (which can be seen as expressions of 'non-belief'). Spector, who had proclaimed early in the program that he doesn't believe in God, said something to the effect of: 'All I had to do was convince George that I could believe as he believed.... Likewise, I had to believe as John believed.'
These songs by George and John have had a huge impact on many over the years. I've personally been moved by them; there's an intensity and authenticity to these songs that is hard to ignore. But as I'm sure you've encountered in interviews with musicians/producers, a song is only as good as its production. Yes, George and John were the ones who wrote the songs. But Phil Spector has to be credited for the production, for bringing out the potentials of these songs, for helping George and John communicate what they felt. I doubt Spector would have been able to do so if he had not, on some level or another, genuinely empathised with the sentiments of the songs and felt what George/John felt. I think this is what he was trying to express when he said that he had to 'believe as George/John believed.' I don't think he was suggesting that he had to literally believe in Krishna as George had. Rather, I'd say that what he meant was that he could empathise with George's thoughts and feelings, and enter into a relationship of trust and good faith whilst they were together, and thereby produce a song about God even though he doesn't believe in it himself. Similarly, he could empathise with John's thoughts and feelings, and enter into a relationship of trust and good faith whilst they were together, and thereby produce a song that refuses to believe in any higher entity. At one point, Spector said, 'If George and John could get along [i.e. maintain a friendship and make music despite their differing beliefs] then why can't I?'
This, I believe, is what we can learn from Phil Spector, George Harrison, and John Lennon: empathy, the willingness to relate to another with trust and good faith, to feel as they feel, whilst letting the other be other, be different, be not-me, not-I, not-mine. On that note, I'll leave you with the two songs from the opposite ends of the spectrum, 'My Sweet Lord' and 'God'--I must, of course, post the album versions of the songs as a gesture of respect to Phil Spector: