If Habermas Could Read Our WhatsApp Posts

If Habermas Could Read Our WhatsApp Posts
WhatsApp groups can be both instructive and disconcerting. The information or occasional debate can be useful; equally, and that’s where disconcerting comes in, much of the content can be very disturbing. The negative content far outnumbers useful information for the simple reason that when you have smartphones in the hands of a very large number of people who can push their biases and heuristics online, statistically speaking, you will get more chaff than grain.

For the most part, given the surfeit of garbage one encounters on social media platforms and its sheer volume, one ignores such stuff and moves on. Occasionally, however, one comes across stuff that compels one to push back, especially when one receives it in a close-knit group. That’s what happened a couple of days ago. That’s also the prompt for this article.

This is a group of retired professionals. We were all together in our late teens. The group is meant to keep us together, share memories, laugh at our follies and foibles when we were green behind the ears and now, as we have aged, to inform one another of what’s happening in our lives.

Except, amidst the light banter, I began to notice expressions of increased piety. One particular member also got into the habit of forwarding sub-par political messages and memes that emanate from the keyboard warrior of a certain political party that considers honesty to be its exclusive reserve. Recently, the group also saw a spate of forwards about mostly apocryphal anecdotes from the early and medieval days of Islam, focusing on the glory and unity of the ummah and contrasting the great early rulers with the post-colonial flawed and failed leadership that the ummah is afflicted with. I suggested to the administrator a few times that the group, given the members background, should steer clear of politics and religion because both can be divisive. That didn’t really work out.

Then came a message a couple of days ago that needed a firm pushback. It was a video which called on Muslims to beware of the actions and proselytisation of the Ahmadiyya, a minority that was excommunicated through the 2nd amendment in the 1973 Constitution and whose members have since lived under constant fear. Many affluent families have left this country; others who cannot live with a target on their backs. Many have, over decades, been killed. Incidentally, the Ahmadiyya have produced some of the most noted and noble Pakistanis, including the only Nobel Laureate, Dr Abdus Salam. That list is long and known so I shan’t dwell on it.

I told the member to refrain from sending out such posts and videos and listed reasons for why the group should not entertain such posts. My objection was politely, though firmly-worded. I was surprised when the sender doubled down in defence of his post. He had completely missed my point with reference to what this kind of hate speech has done to this country and continues to take its toll. I had no option but to exit from the group. It seems that some other members also objected to that post after I exited for which I am grateful to them.

But recounting this has a broader purpose. We all know how religion has played out in this country; we also know how much violence has been perpetrated and perpetuated in the name of religion in this country and elsewhere in the Muslim world; how such violence has even visited mosques and prayer places. In other words, I don’t have to present evidence of this.

My purpose here is also not to take refuge in the somewhat lazy (though understandable) argument that the only way to get out of our present misery is to banish religion. There’s no way anyone can do that. Religion is not just a very important part of human life, it very often defines who we are and how we interact with the external world.

One can also argue that while man has generated much violence in the name of religion, one can place a similar charge at the door of modern nation-state and man-made ideologies. From Raskolnikov (Moravia called him “a people’s commissar”) to Kirilov’s ‘logical suicide’ in the absence of God to Ivan Karamazov’s positivism (some call him a hopeless romantic) and its expression in Smerdyakov’s parricide, we see this tension play out between secular reason and sacred knowledge.

I borrow the terms from Jurgen Habermas’ essay, An Awareness of What is Missing. The essay was published in a volume of the same title which also has essays by representatives of the Jesuit School. The compilation ends with Habermas’ reply to the four essays that follow his opening essay.

It’s a remarkable volume, though a tough read. Habermas begins his essay (it was actually a speech) with a fascinating story about the memorial service for Max Frisch, an agnostic Swiss playwright and novelist. The service was held in St. Peter’s Church in Zurich without any priests or blessings (Amen). Habermas was intrigued  by the form and place of the service: “Clearly, Max Frisch, an agnostic who rejected any profession of faith, had sensed the awkwardness of non-religious burial practices and, by his choice of place, publicly declared that the enlightened modern age has failed to find a suitable replacement for a religious ways of coping with the final rite de passage which brings life to a close.”

The rest of the essay is an attempt to capture both the strengths of secular reason and its limitations and whether one can reconcile the “philosophically enlightened self-understanding of modernity” to a “theological self-understanding”, especially when they “[stand] in a peculiar dialectical relationship” and religion “[intrudes] into this modernity as the most awkward element from its past.”

Habermas believes it is “not a question of an unstable compromise between irreconcilable elements.” It’s not about trying “to dodge the alternative between an anthropocentric orientation and the view from afar of theocentric or cosmocentric think- ing.” What’s important is “whether we speak with one another or merely about one another.”

But Habermas is also clear that if we want to avoid speaking about each other, “two presuppositions must be fulfilled: the religious side must accept the authority of ‘natural’ reason as the fallible results of the institutionalised sciences and the basic principles of universalistic egalitarianism in law and morality. Conversely, secular reason may not set itself up as the judge concerning truths of faith, even though in the end it can accept as reasonable only what it can translate into its own, in principle universally accessible, discourses. The one presupposition is no more trivial from a theological perspective than the other is from that of philosophy.”

I have limited understanding of Habermas’ thought so I turned to my brother, a SOAS graduate who has studied Religion in Global Politics. His short response to me was that “Habermas’s context of a post-secular society is different. We haven’t reached the stage where we can have these debates.”

It seems to me that what Habermas is trying to reconcile presupposes enlightened thinking on both sides and an acceptance of jurisdictional legitimacy which is very hard to come by, especially if religion is considered (as in Islam) a ‘complete way of life’ which must dominate all spheres of human individual and collective existence.

It should be evident that this claim grounds itself in faith-based knowledge and faith itself emanates from revelation. So the real problem here is the all-encompassing pervasiveness to which religion lays claim. For its practitioners it does not matter  if in practice religion has developed multiple exegetical fault-lines.

Equally important is the State’s role in balancing these spheres. This is not a state that is “neutral towards worldviews”. It has and continues to push an identity sacralised by a certain approach to religion. It simply does not have the capacity, beyond generating violence when it feels threatened, to address the problem of inclusivity.

It is in this landscape that our discourse, if it can be called that, unfolds. In other words, our problem goes beyond the garbage in digital space.

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.