Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The lament for Secularism: Secularism’s perils within a liberal democracy

It is perhaps time that this column addresses the matter clearly and directly. The concern to make matters clear stems from a few comments I have received, inquiring if I don’t believe in secularism anymore. ‘Are you another one of those anti-secular intellectuals’ I was asked, the question also implying my uncritical support for Islamist movements. Another suggested that while she got the point I was trying to make, surely the problem was not with the idea of secularism but with the manner in which the idea was implemented? To these responses then, allow me to present my defence.

One should not gain privilege or loose opportunities for reason of the religion that one follows. This principle lies at the theoretical heart of secularism as practiced in
India and elsewhere. This is a principle that surely none of us can argue against. However, my arguments over the past few weeks have been to point out that there have been problems in the manner in which this principle has been operationalised. The point however is that the problem does not lie merely with the operationalisation. The problem lies in the manner in which the principle is thought through. The problem lies with the words we use to describe it. Most persons when asked to describe secularism would almost instantly say ‘tolerance’. As sweet as it sounds, the word tolerance is based on certain assumptions. It presumes a standard, basic religion that ought to dominate, and then goes on to recognize that this religion must restrict itself and for a variety of reasons ‘tolerate’ the others. Tolerance therefore presumes the priority of certain religious traditions over others. When such an understanding of secularism informs our actions, it is little wonder then that there is a problem in operationalising it; little wonder that people have come to resent its operation. As we can see, there is reason for both sides of the fence to resent it. Those who are ‘tolerating’ as well as those who are being ‘tolerated’.

is today understood to be a Catholic country. However, prior to Catholicism becoming the dominant religion, Spain, especially southern Spain was a complex society hosting Jews, Muslims and Christians. For the most part, we are told, these people lived amicably, without much conflict, in a spirit that some historians call ‘Convivencia’. Convivencia, or living together, describes ideally the spirit that ought to animate secularism. The challenge however, lies in realizing this ideal within the contours of the liberal democracies that we live in.

In an earlier column I had indicated the problem lies with the kind of representative
politics that liberal democracies thrive on. The problem was perhaps best illustrated by the events subsequent to Shahrukh Alam’s lecture at Nijmegen (an event referred to in the last column). Subsequent to her lecture, a young Dutch man, of Bosnian Muslim extraction, was invited to offer privileged comment. Unfortunately this man did not speak to Shahrukh’s presentation, but presented his own take on the idea of secularism and Islam. This take involved asserting that Islam appreciated the sentiments of secularism, but if secularism did not allow Islam to be practiced, then it would find Islam its strongest opponent.

I have to confess that despite my Islamist ‘sympathies’ I found this presentation most distasteful. What struck me most however, was the restraint of the audience. Sharing with friends after the event, I remarked that had this been India we would have had a shouting match, if not a riot after such comments. Perhaps this then, is what secularism as ‘tolerance’ is all about! We need to recognize that there is a context to this man’s rant. The rant of this young man was made in the face of the suffocation that Dutch liberal secularism actually affords in the name of secularism. However, as a part of its tolerance, Dutch society will allow him to rant. More than this, it will subsequently allow him representation, and try to accommodate him within its structure of secular multiculturalism. This presents a number of problems however. First, we realise that we have to first shout and scream to get any attention from the State. Thus, he who screams and shouts loudest, and best, gets attention. In this process, it is the State that is creating the foundations for radical Islam (or other fundamentalisms). Not only are we encouraging an environment of resentment, but we are also forcing the formation of a monolithic identity of Muslims. This community of Muslims does not really exist. Responding to this young Dutch man, a Muslim woman of Surinamese origin stood up and countered him. ‘Please don’t represent all Muslims’, she said, ‘in Holland, we have Moroccans, Turks, Surinami-Indians, all of who are Muslims, but who have different cultures (of Islam)’. She made a valid point, but her (and it is invariably a She) voice is not normally the one that is heard. Thus it is that difference is in fact suffocated in the system of representation that secular multiculturalism presents to us. He (and it is invariably a He) who shouts loudest gets noticed, and groups that cannot shout, groups that are marginal, get sidelined. Despite its liberal protestations, the State does not negotiate endlessly with individuals. It negotiates only with groups, and this, is really a problem. To briefly refer to this Surinamese woman, when the State does recognise her, it recognizes her not as a Muslim, but as a woman, and a Muslim woman, in the process once more setting up Islam as the problem, when in fact it is its own representative politics that is creating and supporting radical and patriarchal Islam.

The idea of not having to suffer for the cause of the religious faith one professes is a welcome idea. The idea of living together in peace is similarly a desirable condition. The question is how exactly do we operationalise these ideas. The project of Secularism is compromised by the multiple ideas within which it works, which ensures that the promise is often time not recognized. By and large it has allowed for toleration under the hegemony of a dominant religious-cultural tradition. The demand I make, along with my many companions then, is not for thrusting the idea of convivencia into the dustbin of history, we ask merely that it be taken more seriously.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 25 Nov 2009)

1 comment:

Ton said...

On your column Jason: yes, tolerance and respect are the core ethos of what we called 'benevolent secularism'. They are also perfect strategies for non-engagement, 'noli me tangere', the guardian for the comfort zone of secular liberal existence. The difference in response to our Bosnian muslim in India and in Holland, might be explained because a Dutch audience does not feel threatened by these statements. We consider our secular worldview so superior to any of these deficient life forms, that we don't even bother to engage. We welcome anyone, of course on the condition that one neutralizes ones claims to a contesting worldview. And hence the superiority of the secular worldview becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.