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)

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)

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.