I’m reading The Study Quran this year, along with several books on secularism. Why? Because Islam and secularism present the two biggest challenges to global Christianity in our generation.
Muslims and Secularists. Going from one to the other is like getting out of a hot tub and then jumping into a pool.
But there are times when my study of Islam and secularism overlap in curious ways. The most recent example is Elif Batuman’s vulnerable first-person account in The New Yorker about how she was drawn to the Muslim head scarf and the life it represents.
A secularist seduced by a scarf? Sort of. Here’s a summary of her story.
A Secular Upbringing
Elif’s family hails from the Turkish Republic founded in 1923, a secular society with a Western-style legal code. When secularism was established, men were no longer allowed to wear the fez or turban. Women were strongly discouraged from wearing the head scarf.
Raised in New Jersey, Elif describes her upbringing in terms of secularism’s positive vision of life. Religion was “something unnecessary, unscientific, provincial – essentially, uncool,” she writes.
“Both my parents always told me that, in order to be a good person, it was neither necessary nor desirable to believe in God; it was more noble and efficient to do good for disinterested reasons, without thoughts of Heaven.”
The Secular Question Mark
Then, the political and religious situation changed in Turkey, and Elif began to question some of her basic assumptions. A center-right party with Islamist roots won a landslide victory in 2003, and the culture shifted. Elif describes the change:
“Suddenly, it was the secularists who seemed stodgy: racist, authoritarian, élitist, and slavishly pro-Western.”
Whenever Turkish secularists protested the new regime, they were criticized for their snobbish disdain toward religiously observant Muslims. Elif’s liberal friends thought the secular regime was wrong for repressing Islamic aspects of Turkish culture.
Caught between these polarizing camps (Western secularists and pious Muslims), Elif moved to Istanbul for three years. Although she sympathized with some of the criticisms directed against the secularists, she could never support the Islamic leader’s view of abortion and birth control. Islam was off limits to her because of these positions.
Seduced By the Scarf
But the Islamic head scarf became a source of strange fascination for Elif. The Muslim taxi-drivers she met spoke highly of the scarf, describing it as a beautiful thing, a “feminist gesture” that made clear the woman was “demanding respect.” Failing to cover her head might open the door to misunderstanding. (Elif thought they may have been implying that an uncovered woman was asking to be raped.)
One day, Elif accidentally went outside with her head covered, and her experience made a lasting impression:
“Walking through the city with a head scarf was a completely different experience. People were so much nicer. Nobody looked away when I approached. I felt less jostled; men seemed to step aside, to give me more room. When I went into a store, a man held the door for me, and I realized that it was the first time anyone had reached a door before me without going in first and letting it shut in my face. Most incredibly, when I got to a bus stop shortly after the bus had pulled away, the departing vehicle stopped in the middle of the street, the door opened, and a man reached out his hand to help me in, calling me ‘sister.’ It felt amazing. To feel so welcomed and accepted and safe, to be able to look into someone’s face and smile, and have the smile returned—it was a wonderful gift.”
The scarf was not just a scarf. It was an initiation into the world of Islam, a community she could take part in, where the cold and lonely world of radical autonomy melted into a warm sense of belonging.
Elif began to fantasize about wearing the scarf “for real” and not just as a disguise. Her nagging doubts about her direction in life, an abortion she had the year before, all the loneliness that marks the life of a traveling writer – they all came rushing into her heart, and for a moment, she saw that her life could be different.
“And now a glimmer appeared before me of a totally different way of being than any I had imagined, a life with clear rules and duties that you followed, in exchange for which you were respected and honored and safe.”
Secularism’s Sad Trade-Off
Could a successful writer trade her freedom for that kind of life? Elif doesn’t hold back in describing the appeal of Islam’s strict hierarchy and communal ideal.
Wouldn’t it be great to live in a world where her social value was no longer “irrevocably tied to her sexual value?” Why not give up her career as a journalist, especially since her work had never been the ticket to happiness she expected it to be? She wouldn’t be a free woman, but “what was so great about freedom?”
In Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, a satirical novel that imagines France in 2022 ruled by Islamic moderates, the protagonist looks back at the women he once dated and sees how lonely they are. The joys of a career and personal autonomy do not substitute for the roles and responsibilities that accompany domestic life among friends and family. The Islamic world may sacrifice the autonomy of women, but what’s so great about autonomy?
The Void of Secularism
Elif Butaman’s experiment with the head scarf gives us a fascinating glimpse into the void of secularism. Elif understands the appeal of Islam, even to those who have other options. “Nobody has everything,” she writes. “Everyone is trading certain things for others.”
In the end, Elif takes off the scarf off and continues on like before. But in her personal reflection, we see the attraction of a comprehensive worldview (in this case, Islam) as well as the self-doubt that haunts many people in a secular age.
The dynamic of a scarf was able to sneak past all the walls she erected against the Islamic doctrines she disavows. The scarf was seductive in the secular world that reduces freedom to radical human autonomy.
The Church in a Secular Age
How might the church respond to people like Elif?
Some would recommend we recast the Christian faith in terms more acceptable to a secular society. As a result, we would present Jesus Christ as the way to reach the goal of secularism — freedom defined as radical human autonomy. But what if, as Elif’s story shows, the weary secularist is more likely to embrace a worldview that questions and redefines that definition of freedom, instead of merely reinforcing it?
The challenge for Christians in a secular age is to maintain a comprehensive worldview that touches every area of life, and to showcase that worldview through beliefs and practices embodied in communities of faith. In Elif’s case, a physical scarf and what it represented was enough to make her question her commitment to secularism.
Maybe that’s a sign we should more fully embrace the symbols and heritage of Christianity – the robust faith once for all delivered to the saints, and the embodied practices that characterize a lasting faith.
We won’t counter secularism merely by arguing against it, but by cultivating a communal life that displays the beauty of the gospel. After all, loneliness is not answered by an argument, but by a Church.