Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Can Islam be Secular: On how the question predetermines your answer

A week ago, I had the opportunity of being present at the lecture of a friend in the Dutch university town of Nijmegen. Shahrukh Alam, one of the founder-members of The Patna Collective, had been invited to the Soeterbeeck lecture series to present her views as to whether Islam can be secular. Like me, Shahrukh Alam has her reservations about the theory and practice of the political ideal of secularism, both in India and internationally, and I looked forward to what she would have to say on this occasion.

Rather interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, what Shahrukh did was to invert the question. She pointed out that our answers are always structured by the logic of the question. The answer must necessarily conform to the logic of the question, for if it does not, the answer tends to be viewed as nonsensical. But this is not to say that the issues that are being raised are necessarily nonsensical. They become nonsensical only within the context of the question. The question in this case, is being asked from a location of power that perhaps refuses to get off its pedestal and engage equally with the concerns that result in the question being raised in the first place.

Thus Shahrukh reformulated the question to ask, if it was not the case that there was something wrong with the idea and practice of secularism in the first place? Rather than isolate the idea and practice of secularism from other practices of the national and international order, Shahrukh chose, quite sensibly in my opinion, to pose the question about secularism in the context of development. Like the questions that are being raised against secularism, there are questions being raised about the model of development that is followed by the Indian nation-state. The reasons for the opposition to both secularism and development she argued, is because they are both based on a similar position. Both secularism and development are based on the recognition of a certain standard of the ‘good life’. Certain socio-economic and political conditions are determined as the best possible conditions for life and are they imposed almost unilaterally on all. There is no choice to develop an alternative conception and practice of the good life. You just have to march to the tune that has been developed for you.

But the issue is not only about the manner in which this ideal is formulated. The problem lies also with the manner in which it is implemented. Thus, while secularism suggests that members of all religious groups will be treated equally, this is not at all the case. Take the example of the Netherlands for example, where national holidays are almost universally linked to the history and religion of white Dutch Christians. Despite their long association with South East Asian cultures, the long presence of the Turks and Moroccans, Muslim or South-east Asian feasts do not appear in the calendar of holidays. The promise of secularism falls short therefore.

Those of us who follow the histories of developmental projects similarly know that the promises of the good life that were to follow from the realization of these projects have not materialized. Those displaced by these projects have been pushed deeper into poverty. Where projects were meant to benefit the rural, we see the harnessing of these resources for the dreams and aspirations of India’s urban elite. There is thus a problem both with the manner of the formulation of the ideal, as well as the implementation of the ideal that results in the opposition to both these centralizing projects.

Having made the connection between secularism and development, indicating both to be manifestations of the intolerance of the state to its preferred ideals, Shahrukh was now able to point out that the problem with secularism is not about Muslims alone. There are plenty of people who oppose these unilateral, exclusive visions of the State. There are Muslims, there are tribals, dalits, marginal farmers, the list is potentially endless. What these people are asking for is not separation, but inclusion. Where the State excludes them in practice, their demand, maybe oftentimes plea, is for inclusion. It is then the stubborn commitment to exclusion by the State and its associated elites that is at the root of the problem.

Shahrukh did not however end by letting the Islamicists off the hook. She pointed out that when Islam is mobilized politically, to support claims of inclusion, very often the Islamicists use Islam in precisely the same reason as the secularists use religion, as an empty tool to advance political arguments and gains. There is thus not too much of a difference between the two. Given that I would like to explore this issue in some detail, I’ll leave this for another column. The central point that is worth emphasizing however is once more we are being encouraged to see beyond the divisions that liberalism encourages us to make in our real lives. Once we see the underlying similarity between secularism and development, we see that the problem is not about Muslims, but about many other groups that have been shut out of the operations of the State. A fantastic local example would be the partisans of the demand for recognition for Romi-Konkani. Despite their making a fairly simple claim for recognition and inclusion, their claim is constantly brushed aside and they are asked to be ‘secular’. Brush off a group, and caricature them long enough and you can be assured that they will emerge as the demon you accuse them of being. To return to Shahrukh’s argument however, the problems with secularism, are not those only of Muslims, but of any sensible person who wishes to lead a whole and complete life. The argument is not one that comes for a disrespect of difference, but a demand for the recognition and valuing of difference.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 18 Nov 2009)

1 comment:

Ton said...

On your column for tomorrow, 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.