Islam, nihilism and liberal secularity

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The theme of nihilism offers fertile avenues for exploring the antinomies of classical liberalism. In its instantiation as violence, nihilism challenges classical liberalism and its recognised political settlement, notably received arrangements harnessed to cultivate uncontrolled passions or religious fervour. In its affinity to Islam, nihilism defies the secular settlement through its appeals to transcendence. By seeking legitimacy in the sacred, nihilism disrupts established boundaries between the religious and the secular. Nihilism exposes the difficulty of forging worlds of transcendence on the modern register of immanence. Transcendence affords the possibility of escape, immanence closure. The two can be reversed in politics, as the experience in several Islamic Cultural Zones (ICZs) suggests. Appeals to transcendence seek to reorganise the social world in the name of escaping it. Immanence, on the other hand, can rework notions of redemption and salvation into secular stories of progress. This paper explores how the presumed nihilistic tendency appearing in the ICZs destabilises the liberal settlement, not in the conventional sense of presenting a religious counterpoint, but in reworking religious themes into secularity. Nihilism illustrates both the contradictory character of modernity and modernity's potential to generate varied societal projects, including those informed by the sacred. The recognition that modernity can spawn discordant impulses in reconciling religion and politics helps rethink post-secular lives under the long shadow of disenchantment.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1
Pages (from-to)272-289
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of International Relations and Development
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2012


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