Religion and Secularism: A Misleading Dichotomy


By Sana Shah

THE recent incident of beheading of a teacher in France, as a reaction to the images of the Prophet Muhammad, shown by a history teacher, that had first been published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo (Pailliez, 2020), and then a racist attack on two Muslim women at Eiffel Tower in the same country in quick succession have further exposed the fault lines vis a vis the debate on Secularism. In addition to that, the remarks of the French President serves a reminder that the debate around Secularism continues to be a point of contention across the globe for decades now and it seems far from settled.

Three Erroneous Linkages

Against this backdrop, the questions around the configuration of relationship between religion and the state assume a momentum of another kind. However, three commonly erroneous affixations and links that bedeck the discussion around the relationship of religion and politics in democracies can be sensed in the present moment too and should be addressed at the earliest. One is to do with the misplaced linkage drawn between liberalism and secularism, while branding everything that is wrong with secularism under the “Liberal” tag- this without stopping to care for explaining what the term actually implies. So much so, that secularism is being essentialised as an attribute of Liberalism, which is logically incorrect. Secondly, secularism is being understood as another definitive feature of democracy, which again shows the extent to which the idea of secularism is central to one’s understanding of democracy, but it nonetheless is a misleading linkage and we can have democracies that exist independent of secularism and yet can fit the definition of a functional democracy. At the same time, we can have non-liberal states that are secular too. Third, is the very concept of secularism and its relationship with religion. More often than not, secularism is being understood as the chucking out the religion out of the public sphere, thus calling for greater privatization of religion. Again, this is only one way of understanding secularism, and strictly speaking this has never been the dominant strand within political theory and practice, when one studies how various states operationalize the concept of Secularism.

Now, before proceeding further, it is pertinent to mention, that so far, the three erroneous links that have been listed, is not to deny the limitations in the concept of Secularism or a crisis brooding within for democracies on account of secular exhaustion. This, therefore should just be seen as an attempt to simplify certain misconceptions around the idea of secularism, to attain the clarity of air around the linkages that we tend to draw, often carelessly. We often employ the three words: ‘democracy’, ‘liberalism’ and ‘Secularism’ in the same breath, which might at times unnecessarily and unfairly burden one term with the conceptual weight of the other. It also must be remembered that Secularism in function clearly predates the rise of Liberal democracies.

The corporatisation of religion, even within liberalism is a much later development and has often been contested even internally. Even Liberal thinkers differ on the terms of relationship between religion and the state- therefore one must abstain from referring to liberal as a monolith tag. It is also possible for the state to exist relatively autonomous of the religion and that can well work without eliminating religion from the public sphere. Afterall, what is secularism but the idea that the state or the political authority shall exist in such a way that it does not have to depend on nor derive its legitimacy from the religious authority, plainly speaking. For this to be made possible, one does not require the absence of religion at all from the public sphere, nor the invisibilisation or demeaning of the same.

Secularism and the Question of Religious Identity

At the same time, it is to be mentioned, that whatever backlash the concept of secularism is facing or whatever exhaustion it is that one can think of vis a vis secularism, emanates from two broad issues. One, the tradition of toleration within which one roots secularism, and second, religion in terms of not just beliefs and practices, but in terms of identity and the claims emanating from the same. Hence, the crisis of secularism is not a reaction against the excess of certain religious identities but the refusal to accommodate or acknowledge a set of other religious identities within the political discourse on part of the state and the social hostility towards it. In simple words, the problem is not why a state is for example funding a church or a temple, but rather why is the same measure being denied to say a mosque, for that matter.

Further, while Secularism can be practiced in diverse modes, to simply do away with it by attributing it to the West entirely is again an ill-founded argument; for it is true that Secularism arose in the West due to the demands thrown up by the political conditions of the time; however, by referring to it as a Western idea- it not only obliterates the contestations and diverse debates around secularism within the West itself but it also reduces the internal diversity intrinsic to the practice of secularism as seen from the differential experiences of many countries, to a homogenous practice redacted of its diverse historical and cultural contexts. As a simple example, Secularism in the US would be different than say the one being practiced in France or UK or Germany and these models come with its own distinct set of problems.

Cultural Racism and Deepening Faultlines

One final word on the existing framework employed to understand secularism: while the debates around secularism find themselves strongly opted within the tradition of toleration, one must at the same time remember that it is this tradition which also sets the limits on the working of secularism. For instance, when it comes to religious toleration, the premise inevitably fixes itself around the distinction of religious beliefs and practices and therefore any incident of “intolerance” is countered by questioning the religious beliefs and practices approved of within that religion, in the name of which perpetrator of intolerance acts or commits the hate crimes. This is not helpful however, and is limiting in many ways.

The tradition of toleration not only makes one oblivious to the domain of religion as identity and the force of religious identity, it also renders the entire debate more around individuals and less about the groups and communities, in addition to arguing for maintaining strict lines of divide between the public and the private. If one then follows the arguments within the tradition of toleration, one will fail to situate the hate crimes so committed as a form of racism, or cultural racism to be precise. However, what makes these attacks racist, is that they emanate from a hatred directed against the people of a particular religious identity, and while religious beliefs and practices can and do overlap with religious identity and are often a source of the same, these attacks more often than not are not really a litmus test of how true one is as a Muslim or a Christian vis a vis the practices. One’s name or symbol that marks one’s religious identity is enough to make one the recipient of such hate. Hence forcing one community to take an apologetic stance, invoking the authenticity of approval around their religious beliefs or practices in the midst of such spree of incidents is not really a solution, when the problem is not really about the beliefs and practices but beyond it. For example, when one talks about the recent beheading incident, here, it is also important to situate the incident in the context of cultural racism and Islamophobia, where in Muslims have been at the receiving end for a long time now. Say for example, commenting on such incidents committed out of hate for a particular community, without taking into account the historical context against which a particular identity comes to be racialised will be an error of judgement. Thus, Islamophobia is not just a form of intolerance; it has gone beyond that years ago, rather it is a form of racism. The tradition of toleration will do little to help us understand this and deal with certain chain reactions as these, for here the question is less about one’s religious beliefs and practices and more about the people marked by religious identity. It is needless to say that no amount of violence can be justified as a reaction to any expression that one finds hurtful or hurts the religious sentiments of a community, and at the same time a multilogue is essential to understand why are certain points hurtful for a community within the domain of freedom of enquiry. No one is arguing that one’s religion is beyond questioning and yet it is pertinent to reiterate that the freedom of enquiry can be exercised in ways that do not have to be necessarily hostile or hurtful to a particular community.

The Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015 and the later analysis that followed was a stark reminder that behind the simple facts of the case was a larger narrative about the alienation of the Algerian Muslim community in France and its perception that French secularism was being interpreted in a way that was meant to specifically humiliate and disenfranchise them. Further, the cartoons in the Charlie Hebdo magazine are analogous to the ethnic cartoons of Jews in Nazi Germany or the be speckled, buck-toothed drawings of Japanese in American World War II posters. These kinds of images demean a whole race or culture. (Juergensmeyer, 2017). The question then arises- should we be comfortable with a culture that sees no issues with racializing a particular identity or not mind the same because that is the acceptable sense of humour in that culture? For instance, questioning holocaust or the holocaust denial is hurtful and extremely insensitive and is thus punishable in sixteen European nations as well; on similar lines there can be certain issues to which certain other communities can be sensitive about and a dialogue to understand this, while institutionalising this process of understanding would do no harm to anyone.

Such incidents or acts committed out of hate cannot really be seen at the level of individual alone, while you want the entire community to apologise for the same despite being comfortable with the culture of alienation that you impose upon them- for it obfuscates at times genuine grievances and the chain reaction that perpetuated those grievances for a period of time.

If a set of thinkers started batting for a separation of church and state in sixteenth and seventeenth century, it was not in relation to a particular radical individual unleashing violence in the name of religion- it was in relation to a confluence of events rooted in sectarian conflict and a chain of incidents linked to the same. The refusal to acknowledge the same would be of no avail in understanding the gravity of the situation and the pragmatic solution that the tradition of toleration brought for the people in that particular time period. And while we must be mindful of the same, in the present moment certainly the situation has changed and a lot of other factors have come into play which must be taken into account and not denied, for a viable solution to be thought of suited to the need and demands of the time- one that is inclusive and does not look down upon any particular identity, or does not require the breeding ground of demeaning the other, for it to thrive on.

  • The author is a research scholar working in the area of Liberal theory and Religion at JNU

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