bitter sanity

Wake up and smell the grjklbrxwg, earth beings.

Saturday, March 15, 2003

[posted by jaed at 8:09 PM]
Two continents separated by a common language:
"Unilateral" may not be the only word that means something different when Europeans use it and when Americans use it. Consider the word "secular".

To an American, "secular" means "disentangled from religion" or nonreligious. Possibly neutral to religion, possibly hostile to it, but the term rules out promotion of religion.

I keep hearing Saddam Hussein described as a "secularist" (usually in the context of an argument that he can't possibly work with jihadists, they hate him, etc.). And it keeps puzzling me, because this is a ruler who's just spent millions building the world's second-largest mosque, who had a Koran written in his own blood, and whose state-directed imams are, shall we say, vociferous in their sermons, specifically calling upon ideas of religious duty. I can't say whether he actually believes in God or the religion of Islam, but he certainly acts like a religious devotee. And I don't think a government that builds mosques and pays prayer leaders can be called secular, either.

On the other hand, many European governments have a state religion, and all the things (such as paying clergy and labeling their citizens by religion) that go with that status. It finally dawned on me that "secular" is being used in the sense of "a state where the government is supreme over religious institutions". And by that definition, Iraq is indeed "secular", and Saddam Hussein a "secularist".

Which makes me wonder, in turn, whether Europeans consider the United States a truly secular country. I sometimes wonder, considering the degree and kind of both handwringing and insult emanating from European pens over the general level of religiousity in America. (Particularly over the scandalous fact that the current president is openly a devout Christian.) This country is formally neutral to religion, in practice occasionally hostile and occasionally promotional... but the government certainly doesn't control religion here. No state church, no licensing of clergy, none of that.

Anyway, mixing these two meanings may be responsible for some of the confusion I perceive in the argument that jihadists can't ally with Ba'athists. "Secular" in this sense does not mean "nonreligious" or "hostile to religion", not at all.

(And yes, I know I'm talking primarily about countries whose primary language isn't English, but I couldn't think of another headline. The language of diplomacy... the language of political analysis... work with me here!)

Update: Entre Nous has some interesting thoughts about European vs American attitudes toward religion that go partway to confirming the third-to-last paragraph above for me.

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