Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Ghazi and the Bhatcar: Islamicism and the perils of bridging the secular divide

This week I crave your indulgence to continue with a discussion this column began last week. The column posed a challenge to the division that Eduardo Faleiro and a number of others were seeking to effect; the division between the secular and the religious. However the division they sought to effect was not one in the ‘secular’ sphere, but in fact in the religious. Taking the logic of secularism to absurd levels, they argued that priests being ‘religious’ ought to ideally restrict themselves to apostolic work, and not deal with issues of property. As with most arguments for secularism in Christian societies, this argument too was being pushed to allow for the eventual take over of Church properties by dominant private interests within the fold of the Church. It seems that the argument was being made precisely by secularized Catholics; i.e. those who are not believers anymore, but merely cultural Catholics, that is to say, Christmas, Easter and feast-day Catholics. These individuals tend to have political ambitions (not necessarily linked to electoral politics), and have upper-caste, upper-class backgrounds. It is for this reason, that I found Teotonio De Souza’s employing of the ‘subaltern’ argument in his column in the Herald hugely amusing. If anything, the move by Faleiro and the others represents the move by groups who having benefited from the economic and social consolidation provided by the Church (as a social institution), now wish to harness the economic (and social) power of Church properties for other purposes. If there is any group that is not making the argument for the release of the management of Church properties into lay hands entirely, it is in fact the Catholic subaltern classes, who would stand to benefit from the communal management of properties (though it needs to be maintained that more energy needs to be given to systematizing the forms of management).

But this concern need not engage us here today. What I would like to engage with is this whole divide between the secular and the spiritual. Why is it that the world (led by the Western power centers and media) fear and denounce the Islamicist movements through much of the world? To be sure, the tendencies that some of these movements display towards forms of violence is one major reason. There is the debatable suppression of the rights of women, and the politics of democracy. However, in my opinion, the eventual reason for this fear of the Islamicist movements is their refusal to separate the religious or the spiritual from the material. Islam, they say, provides a structure for our entire life, not just our ‘religious’, or for our ‘private’. It preaches a whole way of life that we are not willing to throw away, for the doubtful pleasures of westernized (read capitalist) forms of social (and political) life.

It is the rejection of the division of life into this binary, and the subsequent attendant divisions that shape contemporary political and social life, that causes the fear with which Islamicists movements are responded to. In their book Culture and the State, speaking in a different context, the authors David Llyod and Paul Thomas suggest that this fear is based on the recognition that when these binaries are challenged and overcome, the entire edifice of contemporary liberal bourgeois democracy will come crashing down. In the course of their argument they quote Rousseau who observed in his Essay on the Origin of Languages, that ‘to keep subjects apart; …is the first maxim of contemporary politics.’ This keeping apart, is managed by the whole process of representative democracy (a system which we Goans are having a particularly troublesome time right now). However, this keeping apart can only be done within a larger intellectual environment where conjoined spheres of life are kept apart. Thus, the division of life into the material, and the religious; and subsequently the division of individuals across boundaries such as nations, constituencies, wards. All of these are based on imaginary lines drawn across realities where people would otherwise be vibrantly engaging. The result of these imaginary lines is a transfer of our political power to higher beings who are expected to represent us. We alienate our political power to these individuals who are expected to operate for us. In doing so, our lives lose some of the reality that would otherwise be invested in it. Like members of a film-viewing audience, (remember that watching a film always requires first that we recognize, for however short a time, that what is happening on screen is, or was, real), we believe that the real world of politics, is out there, in the halls of parliament, in the closed council and cabinet meetings, not in our lives and daily decisions. The result of the system is that we are forced to believe in our lack of capacity to challenge the system. In the words of Robert Wokler ‘we have been numbed and made passive, displaced from the centre of cultural life and herded into the pits and mews. Transformed from agents of what we do into witnesses of what happens to us, we are, in the modern world, turned into a hushed audience and taught deference and timidity.’

The intellectual origins of Islamicist movements across the globe have recognized this fundamental scam that has been played on us. They recognized it just as Llyod and Thomas argue the early radical worker’s and Jacobin movements recognized this scam and opposed it. This intellectual move represents such a challenge to the contemporary global political order that it must be crushed, ridiculed and dismissed. And this is exactly what is happening. To this extent, the actions of Faleiro and the others are actions along this line of liberal politics. They seek to extend and maintain the order built on the separation of one life into different spheres. There would be some of you that would read this column as an indictment of the evil of Mr. Eduardo Faleiro. This column is least concerned with such an indictment. Very often, despite what we think of ourselves and our intellectual abilities, we are merely unconscious tools of larger systemic movements in the world. I seek to only highlight the possible systemic moves that Mr. Faleiro and the others are enabling.

Every intellectual move is fraught with the possibilities of its corruption when translated into reality. The Islamicist organizations across the globe are no exception. A large number are caught within the trap of parochialism, patriarchy, and other suffocating value systems. Nevertheless in challenging the boundaries that have been erected in our lives they fulfill their historical role, and for that we should thank them.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 4 Nov 2009)

* Bhatcar - literally the owner of a bhat or orchard, hence landlord.

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