Sex and Secularism, by Joan Wallach Scott

An attack on the foundation of modern Western society has an absolutist ring to Jane O’Grady

January 4, 2018
Muslim women protest against the proposal to ban headscarves in French state schools
Source: Getty
Muslim women protest against the proposal to ban headscarves in French state schools

Originally the Early English adjective “secular” applied to lay, as opposed to monastic, clergy; by the time of the French Revolution, it distinguished the non-religious from the religious. The noun “secularism”, coined in 1851, offered a solidified alternative to organised religion, which, over the next hundred years, promoted humanism, equality and political and sexual freedom. Or so it has, simplistically, seemed.

The sociologist Joan Wallach Scott is part of a new trend that aims to discredit this upbeat notion of secularism and dismantle “the myth of liberalism”. In the 19th century, “imperial powers pointed to the ‘barbaric’ mistreatment [of] ‘native’ women” so as to assert racial superiority and justify their “civilizing mission” in conquering Arab lands. And yet, says Scott, modern Western societies were “founded on gender inequality” – which persists. The current vaunting of Western female and gay rights is a veil for Islamophobia, and not even accurate. Female sexuality has been commandeered by consumer capitalism, which distracts us from economic and social inequality by focusing on licence, beautification and fashion.

Scott’s is a useful attempt to redress Western self-congratulation, but it subjects the West to uniquely purist standards. Herodotus’ claim that “each race of men…think that their own customs are by far the best” is evidenced in the religious and literary texts of all cultures, many of which, over the centuries, were dedicated to conquering and proselytising others. Britain and other European countries were simply more lastingly, recently and ruthlessly successful in doing so. Scott claims to espouse Michel Foucault’s “genealogical” approach, yet she is anachronistic, ahistorical and oddly absolutist in demanding from 19th-century Europeans moral attitudes that tally with her own. In any case, her anti-Enlightenment stance is itself a product of the anti-Eurocentric self-critiquing that Enlightenment thinkers, even if they failed properly to practise it, initiated.

Scott disparagingly quotes the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas: “The individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.” That Christianity is now invoked as the ally, even source, of secularism is, she says, the Islamophobic equivalent of Cold War Soviet-bashing, since Islam is often seen as secularism’s non-rational, illiberal opponent. But a hundred years before the Cold War, Friedrich Nietzsche diagnosed liberalism as the wimpish offspring of Judaeo-Christian compassion and aligned Islam with the ruthless warriors he admired. Auguste Comte said, “Liberalism is Christianity more and more attenuated”. Who could deny the misogyny and oppression that Christians have perpetrated, but it is neither new nor unreasonable to argue that Christianity has humane roots, to which, its fangs now drawn, it has returned.

It is indeed suspect that many right-wing people, never previously interested in feminism or gay rights, suddenly emerge as their advocates when discussing Islam. But Scott’s ad hominem argument often resembles the way people deflect criticism of Israel by claiming that such criticism is motivated by anti-Semitism. It sometimes is, but a critic’s motivation does not invalidate their criticism, nor should it be cited to defend the malpractices being criticised. When Scott says that unveiled women are “advertising their sexual availability” rather than “exercising their independent sexual agency”, is she claiming that capitulation to the male gaze is the only alternative to the hijab?

Jane O’Grady is a founder of the London School of Philosophy, and taught philosophy of psychology at City, University of London.


Sex and Secularism
By Joan Wallach Scott
Princeton University Press
256pp, £22.95
ISBN 9780691160641 and 9781400888580 (e‑book)
Published 15 November 2017

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Print headline: Enlightenment heresies

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