17 Jan On Secularism in South Asia
By Anjum Altaf
I made the argument in an earlier post (The Peculiar Nature of the Pakistani Liberal) that the political debate in South Asia is confused because we have borrowed labels – “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “reactionary” – from the discourse of the European Enlightenment without adapting them to the local context. My intent was to follow up and attempt a more nuanced portrait of an individual who would be loosely identified as a liberal in Pakistan today.
I realize now that in doing so I would have to negotiate through the tricky terrain of secularism, which, like the others, is a concept that has suffered much distortion in South Asia. Therefore, I need first to state clearly how I understand secularism before I move ahead to discuss how South Asian ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives’ relate to it.
The interpretation of secularism varies even within South Asia – the countries with Muslim majorities (Pakistan and Bangladesh) give a different color to it than the others. In the former, the religiously inclined have seized the high ground by arbitrarily conflating secularism with godlessness – a strategy that automatically puts those who disagree on the defensive and more or less removes the topic from the realm of reasoned debate.
Of course, secularism is not so easily defined and there is need to explicate its contextual meaning if we are to progress to the stage of a serious discussion. Since I have been reading Olivier Roy’s Secularism Confronts Islam, I will rely on his text to outline the essence of secularism in the West adapting it to the South Asian context as and when I feel it warranted.
Because Roy is participating in the heated debate underway in France on the issue of the Muslim veil, he begins by making a clear distinction between secularization and laicite to make the point that the two are not synonymous. Secularization occurs when a society emancipates itself from a sense of the sacred that it does not necessarily deny; laicite refers to the situation in which the state uses law to define the boundary beyond which religious expression is not allowed.
“Secularization is a social phenomenon that requires no political implementation: it comes about when religion ceases to be at the center of human life, even though people still consider themselves believers; the everyday practices of people, like the meaning they give to the world, are no longer constructed under the aegis of transcendence and religion…. Secularization is not antireligious or anticlerical… it is a process. Laicite is decreed by the state, which then organizes public space… [limiting] the visibility of religion in the public space.”
“Situations differ considerably, depending upon variations in two parameters: the separation of church and state (yes or no) and the position of religion in society (strong or weak). A country may be secular but not laique, because it has an official religion (Great Britain, Denmark); it may even be laique (strictly asserting the separation of church and state) while simultaneously recognizing the role of religion in the public sphere (the United States where the Supreme Court recently upheld the recitation of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools); in a state described as laique like Turkey, where the law contains no reference to Islam, there is, in fact, no separation of church and state, because imams are government employees, as are pastors in Denmark.”
For Roy there is little need to get lost in cultural and theological debates that are not meaningful today. Rather the need is “to reconsider the constant oscillation between secularization, whereby society gradually emancipates itself from religion without necessarily denying it, and laicite, in which the political authority closes off the space of religion the better to define public space as its opposite.”
The key insight is that ‘secular’ is not an identifier in the same sense as Muslim or Hindu, and a secular individual is not, by definition, irreligious. To repeat: secularization is a social phenomenon that comes about when religion ceases to be at the center of human life even though people still consider themselves believers. Roy makes the point that “there is no abstract process of secularization” – “the forms and spaces of secularization are defined by reference to each particular religion. These spaces are the product of a history and also of a religious history. Religion inhabits society: religion has shaped society, and it returns either in a secularized form or, on the contrary, in outbreaks of fundamentalism.”
Roy describes how many very conservative Muslims have adapted very well to secularization by “reformulating their faith in terms of values rather than norms, along the lines followed by Christian conservatives. They defend the family, sexual difference, and the criticism of morals; they oppose homosexual marriage and even abortion and divorce… but they remain within the framework of legality… Centrist but conservative Islam is being restructured following the Catholic, even the Orthodox Jewish, model (for example, on the issue of dietary prohibitions)… This movement from legal norm to value is what makes acceptance of the rules of the game possible, which is the basis for laicite and democracy. It is taken for granted by traditionalist Muslims living in the West, but obviously much less so by the born again and the converts.”
“Islam has thus been transformed, on the one hand, by a process of secularization of society (one of whose manifestations is paradoxically the ambient re-Islamization, because you re-Islamize what has been secularized) and, on the other, by a negotiated political integration… Hence in every Western country, Islam is being integrated not following its own traditions [or theological reform] but according to the place that each society has defined for religion, from Anglo-Saxon indulgence to Gallic suspicion, although the former needs to be less naïve and the latter less pathological.”
And finally: “There is no reason to believe that state censorship comes primarily from clerical states like Iran. Authoritarian secular states are often just as hostile to theological innovation as they are to fundamentalism. They almost always favor conservative Islam, as we saw in the Algeria of the Front de liberation nationale, because they are suspicious of any form of intellectual freedom and critique, even in the restricted realm of theology.”
Looking at this issue from various angles, one thing stands out: In the West secularization was a social process in which people who may remain believers cease to order their political lives in accordance with religious mandates or divinely ordained values. And, even if they subscribe to such values, they accept to live by the rules of the game laid down by the state.
It should be clear from this perspective that South Asian societies are not at all secularized in the same way. Religion remains very important in the daily lives of people and therefore secularization in this context means something quite different. Sunil Khilnani captures this difference well in The Idea of India: “To Nehru, secularism was not a substitute civic religion, still less a political project to remoralize society by effacing religion and stamping a secular identity on all Indians. He fully recognized the depth and plurality of religious beliefs in India. It was precisely this that convinced him of the need to keep religious social identities outside the political arena. His energies were directed not towards installing a doctrine of secularism, but against the use of religion for political purposes, the dangers of what he called ‘communalism’.”
This should make it clear that what is being called secularism in South Asia was really an attempt at a quasi-laicite – an attempt to protect the instruments of state from the influence of religion. But unlike the strong Kemalist state in Turkey, the relatively weak states of South Asia could never quite carry off the project.
[Indeed, this is the problem in France today. The roots of French exceptionalism lie in the fact that it was the only state in Europe that faced an alternative source of power in the form of the Catholic Church. But in 1905 the state was powerful enough to dictate the rules of engagement and although the Church disagreed, it accepted the rules as the least-worst option. Today, besieged by the twin processes of Europeanization and globalization, the French state is no longer powerful enough to dictate terms in the same way.]
It is here that the relation between secularization, laicite and democracy becomes significant. It is important to keep in mind the fact that European societies secularized before the advent of democracy based on universal suffrage. It was not possible for majorities to impose sectarian religious values on others using the power of the vote.
In South Asia, on the contrary, democracy based on universal suffrage preceded the secularization of societies that in any case lacked an indigenous push for secularism. In Khilnani’s description secularism became an “instrumental ideology of the state.” “It now functioned as a legitimating cloak for the modernist elite, who used it to mask their grip at the very moment when this was being challenged by the surge of mass democracy. The use of secularism as an ideology of state power had engendered a new monster on the political landscape, a Hindu nationalism remotely linked to religion, which merely used it instrumentally to capture state power.”
It is here that the similarities between Pakistan and India become clearer. In Pakistan, the forces opposed to the ‘secular’ state began to wield their power within six months of Jinnah’s death and rolled over the ‘secularism’ of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who conceded most of the religious legislation that defines Pakistan today. This process gained a huge boost with Zia’s Islamization of education to the point that today’s ‘secular’ state is in the forefront of defending the religious provisions in the Constitution.
India saw a similar rise of demands for the state to reflect the character of society pushed by the growing force of fundamentalism. But without the intervention of a Zia-like intermediary, the ‘secular’ state and the fundamentalist forces remain locked in a standoff. It is not clear which way the balance will tilt in the future given that India is in the middle of an economic boom unlike Pakistan where an economic collapse has been underway for some time and threatens to worsen.
We are clearly in a new global environment as far as the relationship between religion and politics is concerned. Even in the US, the Christian Right has organized to use its vote to influence legislation pertaining to issues involving values that it considers non-negotiable. And in France, the old concordat shielding politics from religion is breaking down. In the face of the assertion of Muslim values a coalition of the Christian right and the secular left is mobilizing its voting power to prevent what it considers undesirable social outcomes.
Notwithstanding the above, the differences between the West and South Asia in the nature of secularism (in terms of its starting points, rationales, roots in society, and relation to mass democracy) are so significant that any loose usage of the term can only lead discussions into meaningless polemics.
Postscript: It is of interest to concretize the early debate about secularism in India and Pakistan to get a sense of the context and the conceptual borrowings from Europe.
In her book on Somanatha, Romila Thapar notes the following incident:
“In 1951, a new temple was constructed on the site… The statement that it was the Government of India that was rebuilding the temple was strongly contradicted by the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, for whom such activity was unacceptable as government activity and inimical to the policy of a secular state… In his letter to the Chief Ministers, dated 2 May 1951, Nehru states categorically:
You must have read about the coming ceremonies at Somnath temple. Many people have been attracted to this and some of my colleagues are even associated with it in their individual capacities. But it should be clearly understood that this function is not governmental and the Government of India as such has nothing to do with it. While it is easy to understand a certain measure of public support to this venture we have to remember that we must not do anything which comes in the way of our State being secular. That is the basis of our Constitution and Governments therefore, should refrain from associating themselves with anything which tends to affect the secular character of our State. There, are, unfortunately, many communal tendencies at work in India today and we have to be on our guard against them. It is important that Governments should keep the secular and non-communal ideal always before them.
However, Rajendra Prasad ignored Nehru’s advice, as well as the criticism in the Gujarati press of the President of India participating in the ceremony, as reported by Mridula Sarabhai. Nehru does record in his Autobiography that there was only a small explicitly secular group in the Indian National Congress.”
And in Pakistan, this is an excerpt from Jinnah’s address to the Constituent Assembly in August 1947:
“Today, you might say with justice that Roman Catholics and Protestants do not exist; what exists now is that every man is a citizen, an equal citizen of Great Britain and they are all members of the nation. Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state.”