(Consider this post to be the other half of the Tudor Farm & Charles Taylor post I put up this morning.)
In the previous post, I wrote about how the philosopher Charles Taylor, in his genealogy of ideas and events that led to our “secular age,” said that the “exclusive humanism” of our time — that is, the idea that the only things that are real are material, and that transcendence does not exist — is only a “take” on reality. There is no way to prove its claims. The secularism of our age consists not in the fact that everybody is Godless, but that all narratives — religious and anti-religious — are contestable.
This leads me to a remarkable report in the current issue of The New Yorker, written by Elif Batuman, a writer who is the daughter of secular Turkish parents who immigrated to America and raised her here. Batuman writes about a trip she made to Turkey a few years ago to report on the discovery of a new archaeological site in the ancient city of Urfa, which is heavily Muslim — and how it gave her a glimpse of an alternate reality that she might have lived, and — being a daughter of a secular age (in the Charles Taylor sense), might choose to live.
Some background first. Her parents, she said, are ardent Kemalists, meaning they fully accepted the modernist revolution Kemal Atatürk imposed on Turkey in the 1920s. They assumed the secular supersessionist narrative: that religion and tradition were things of the past, and the future was rightly going to be secular and Western. The persistence of Islamic belief among the poor and working class in modern Turkey, and the coming to power of Erdogan and the AKP, radically calls that conviction into question.
Batuman, a secular Turkish-American, goes to her ancestral homeland in 2011 to report on the archaeological find. She does not cover her head with a scarf. Everyone is cold, even hostile, to her. But then:
One day, when I had been visiting Abraham’s cave, I forgot to take the scarf off. Walking back through the park, I almost immediately felt that something was different. I passed two beautiful young women in scarves, walking arm-in-arm and laughing about something. When I looked at them, they looked right back into my face and met my eyes, still smiling, as if we were all in the presence of a great joke. I realized that no young women had met my eyes or smiled at me in Urfa till then. As I walked on, I felt a rising sense of freedom, as if for the first time I could look wherever I wanted and not risk receiving a hostile glance. So I kept the scarf on. And then I went back into the city.
This isn’t a scientific study; I didn’t try it multiple times, or measure anything. All I have is my subjective impression, which is this: 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.
How long can I keep wearing it? I found myself thinking, as the bus lurched into motion and cars honked around us. The rest of the day? Forever?
At that point, another thought came to me, a kind of fantasy, so foreign that I could barely articulate it even to myself: What if I really did it? What if I wore a scarf not as a disguise but somehow for real? I was thirty-four, and I’d been having a lot of doubts about the direction my life was taking. I had had an abortion the previous year, with some reluctance, and everything—every minor defeat, every sign of unfriendliness—still hurt a little extra. I had never felt so alone, and in a way that seemed suddenly to have been of my design, as if I had chosen this life without realizing it, years earlier, when I set out to become a writer. 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. You had children—not maybe but definitely. You didn’t have to worry that your social value was irrevocably tied to your sexual value. You had less freedom, true. But what was so great about freedom? What was so great about being a journalist and going around being a pain in everyone’s ass, having people either be suspicious and mean to you or try to use you for their P.R. strategy? Travelling alone, especially as a woman, especially in a patriarchal culture, can be really stressful. It can make you question the most basic priorities around which your life is arranged. Like: Why do I have a job that makes me travel alone? For literature? What’s literature?
Batuman wonders what she has given up to have the life she has in Manhattan. She’s successful in her job, true, but she’s 34, unmarried, childless and … well, what is life about, anyway? She talks about Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission, and how it makes living a more traditional Islamic life feel, well, reasonable compared to the emptiness of the consumerist-hedonist life in the post-Christian West. She writes:
Houellebecq’s vision of an Islamic state, for all its cartoonishness, has a certain imaginative generosity. He portrays Islam not as a depersonalized creeping menace, or as an ideological last resort to which those disenfranchised by the West may be “vulnerable,” but as a system of beliefs that is enormously appealing to many people, many of whom have other options. It’s the same realization I reached in Urfa. Nobody has everything; everyone is trading certain things for others.
Nobody has everything; everyone is trading certain things for others. That’s a profound truth.
There is no such place as Utopia; everything is a trade-off. To make a choice is to implicitly exclude other possibilities. But you must choose. You have only one life to live.
What makes you think that you have no choice but to live the disenchanted, disembedded life of a 21st century person? You know it’s only a story, right? That it’s not the truth, or at least not an exclusive truth. Putting the scarf on — I’m speaking symbolically — could reveal layers of meaning to life that we cannot see in our present condition.
This is, in a way, the point of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. Putting on the “headscarf” of life in a small Southern town, and accepting its limitations, opened up a new world to me. A different kind of freedom.
We all can identify the symbolic headscarves in our lives, the way of life that we recoil from, thinking it must be too oppressive or at least unpleasant, but that we secretly fear might be just the thing we need. I recall the big-city pastor who once told me that he was counseling a young woman in his congregation, an extremely accomplished up-and-comer who was rising and rising and rising in the meritocracy, but who was perfectly miserable. The pastor said he could see that more than anything, this young woman wanted to be married and the mother of children. But she was blind to it. The exclusive narrative in the culture she inhabited said that the only real meaning and substance to her life was to be found in academic and professional achievement. For all her worldly success, she was blind to what her pastor could see was the satisfaction of her deepest longings — hence the persistence and deepening of her misery, which was a mystery to her.
We all understand, of course, what Batuman says about the liberated lives women in Atatürk’s Turkish Republic had — this, versus the strictly circumscribed lives in traditional Islamic society. That is the dominant narrative here in our culture too, adapted to our own circumstances, of course. Staying in the small town, or remaining in a religiously rigorous way of life, or leaving the workplace (if you’re a woman), or having big families — all of these things are headscarves to us.
But: taking Batuman’s example, would you rather be an unmarried, childless woman standing at a Manhattan reception, in high heels that hurt, being chatted up by a stranger who wants to use you to promote his or her business interests? Or a headscarf-wearing wife and mom living in Urfa, with a sense of direction, meaning, companionship, and fulfillment? The choice seems obvious to us in the West, but as Batuman (who came back to her Manhattan life) indicates, it is by no means clear that she has a better life than the headscarf-wearing women she passed on the street in Urfa.
Who is to say that the headscarf is a symbol of oppression? It may be. But can also be a symbol of liberation. It depends on what you think of as sacred, as meaningful, as fully human. The secular West has a narrative. But it is only that: a narrative.
One of the main points of the Benedict Option is to show that a more traditional, religiously rich way of life, including its restrictions, is not only plausible, s more suited to our flourishing and our ultimate happiness — and therefore, for most people, in most cases, worth the trade-off. It could well be that the militant secularism that characterized Atatürk and his Kemalist successors, and which is now so brittle, is also what’s going to happen to the “exclusive humanism” vision that exercises so much hegemony over our own culture.
And then what?
UPDATE: From Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age:
This kind of multiplicity of faiths has little effect as long as it is neutralized by the sense that being like them is not really an option for me. As long as the alternative is strange and other, perhaps despised, but perhaps just too different, too weird, too incomprehensible, so that becoming that isn’t really conceivable for me, so long will their difference not undermine my embedding in my own faith. This changes when through increased contact, interchange, even perhaps inter-marriage, the other becomes more and more like me, in everything else but faith: same activities, professions, opinions, tastes, etc. Then the issue posed by the difference becomes more insistent: why my way, and not hers? There is no other difference left to make the shift preposterous or unimaginable.
That’s not exactly what Batuman encountered, but it’s close. That is, her “faith” — secular humanism — was shaken when by keeping the headscarf on opened up another realm of possibility to her. She could be like the women she saw on the street. She could have their life, if she wanted it. She had been raised to think that putting on the headscarf (and all that this entails religiously and socially) was incomprehensible, unthinkable. But now it became comprehensible and thinkable for her, because it was a lot more pleasant than she imagined, and it offered a glimpse of fulfillment that was lacking in her life as a secular humanist. And this took her by surprise.
We all know the story: religious believers see that life without God can actually be fulfilling, and lost their faith. What we don’t see — at least not in popular media — is that that goes both ways. And this is what Charles Taylor is trying to make us understand.