OPINIONISTA: Secularism faces a grave threat from religion and identity politics

You walk a fine line when discussing secularism and Islam, or any religion, for that matter. A step to the left and you’re an Islamophobe, disrespectful of a religion and (at the extreme) you may be beheaded. A step to the right, and you’re a fundamentalist, a fanatic or a radical who wants to spread Sharia law, and (yourself) behead people.

The politics of either-or, and responses to savage individual cruelty in the name of a larger group or set of beliefs places you on a very fine line of discussion. With a world drenched in ethno-nationalism, searches for purity, anti-globalism, opposition to multiculturalism, and a rather pernicious type of identity politics – the type that identifies, separates, and demonises, or outright persecutes “others” or “outsiders” – there are dangers everywhere. Walking this line is dangerous, and any misstep, in the “right” or “wrong” direction (depending on time and place) could be fatal. 

It is like the day after the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11 2001. There was only one position to take…. Anyway, we know, by now, that the US went to war against the people of Iraq, and the people of Afghanistan. I am reminded of what the Indian writer Arundhati Roy wrote at the time:

“Once war begins, it will develop a momentum, a logic and a justification of its own, and we’ll lose sight of why it’s being fought in the first place.”

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I recall that passage because I have been reflecting on the beheading and the gruesome murder of people in France and the UK (in the name of a religion) and Emmanuel Macron’s defence of France’s secularism. Part of my reflection was on the way that India’s secularism, enshrined in that country’s Constitution, has effectively been replaced by Hindu (ethnic) nationalism under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Indian prime minister, according to Roy, was determined to turn India away from its secularist moorings and into a Hindu nation “commandeered by a Hindu supremacist organization that believes in a doctrine of One Nation, One Language, One Religion, One Constitution.”

Secularism’s tenuous hold on society

Roy was not exactly triumphalist about India’s secularism, which is not unlike the way non-racialism has been eroded in South Africa. But it remains what held India together, she said.

“We use the word ‘secular’ in a slightly different sense from the rest of the world – for us, it’s code for a society in which all religions have equal standing in the eyes of the law. In practice, India has been neither secular nor socialist. It has always functioned as an upper-caste Hindu state. But the conceit of secularism, hypocritical though it may be, is the only shard of coherence that makes India possible. That hypocrisy was the best thing we had. Without it, India will end,” Roy explained.

And so we get to Macron’s defence of French secularism, which, in the wake of a series of gruesome murders, he believes may be under threat because of increased Islamic radicalism in that country. Speaking in the wake of the beheading of Samuel Paty, a history and geography teacher who had shown his class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, Macron said, “our fellow citizens today must be protected” (including French Muslims), “against this evil that is radical Islam”. 

“The problem is that we are living in societies that exclude each other – and that’s giving us our issues. The compromise lies in including each other and understanding one another. We should be on the same page, instead of looking at Islam as a strange and extreme religion, as an extreme religion, that we can’t deal with. Islam is part of society. Muslims are European citizens and they have the right to be here. But they have to invest to make it more part of any kind of society. We have to find a way to talk as partners, instead of as victims and accused,” Macron said.

Is there a defence of secularism?

It seems ridiculous to even contemplate the above question – at least from my point of view. I do not want to live in a theocracy of any type. At this point, it’s probably worth providing a very basic introduction, a bit late in the essay, of what is referred to here as secularism. It is the separation of government institutions, agencies and agents of the state, from religious institutions and religious fundamentalism. In short, it’s keeping state and church apart – and that’s a good thing. 

Can one even defend secularism in a world dominated by ethno-nationalism, where the search for purity, anti-globalism and opposition to multiculturalism is defined by an identity politics that separates, demonises, or persecutes “others” or “outsiders”? Well, I believe it is necessary to do so.

I refer, above, to a fine line that one treads when discussing these things. With religion, and Islam (currently), a step to the left and you’re an Islamophobe, disrespectful of a religion and (at the extreme) you may be beheaded. A step to the right, and you’re a fundamentalist, a fanatic or a radical, who wants to spread Sharia law and (also) behead people.

It is probably unfair to say that the person who beheaded Paty in France was not a “true Muslim”, that he was not representative of more than a billion Muslims around the world, and “does not” represent Islam. But the sight of a beheading with a cry that “god is great”, and in opposition to free speech is horripilating. Especially if you have lived through the persecution of censorship and fought for free speech – as many of us did during the 1980s.

There have been very many responses to the Paty beheading. Some go back to French misdeeds in its colonies 50 years ago, others reference the Palestinian struggle, and each has its merits. One argument is that Islam is in crisis, much like the way that the French state is in search of a new (secular) ethos. One misstep along that fine line can cost you your life….

To conclude, then. I always come out on the side of non-violence – something I adopted from Jainism (to live a life of harmlessness and renunciation). Secularism and humanism are always my preferred positions. I part ways with Macron over his insistence on the primacy of the European Enlightenment – a discussion brought back to life by Stephen Pinker in order to place Western liberalism on the right side of history – but that is for another essay.

For now, we remain transfixed by sanctimony, justifications, invocations of historical injustices – and people who are losing their heads, literally. DM


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