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Secularism and Secularization


The article below is a summary of a speech given by Nagore Rizwan, the President of SIO Tamil Nadu at a seminar organized by Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (Tamil Nadu) in Chennai on the topic of Secularism and translated from Tamil by Shan Nawas.

Secularism as an idea emerged from modernity. A lot of discussions are going on in academia regarding this. Many scholars critically examine secularism from the Islamic perspective and other ideological foundations. Charles Tyler, Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, Naqib Al-Attas, etc., have contributed greatly to the debate on secularism. We need to study their works and sharpen our critical perspective because in many countries today, Muslims live under the secular system. So, this doctrine has become an aspect concerning the existence of Muslims.

Secularism can be simply defined as the separation of religion and state. It manifests itself in various forms in different countries. In countries like India, Britain, and America, it is considered inclusive secularism. Whereas the secularism of France, called ‘Laïcité’, is characterised by the complete separation of religion from the state. Turkey’s secularism is called ‘Laiklik’. It intervenes more directly in religion than in France.

Thus, there are differences in the way secularism is practised. However, we must not fail to notice the primary and essential character of secularism which is exhibited in all secular countries, i.e., marginalisation of religion and religious symbols. We shall discuss it later.

Historical background of secularism

How do progressives present the history of secularism in general? It goes like this, “In the beginning, man was ignorant and superstitious. He was scared of and was running away from everything, be it thunder, lightning, or heavy rain. Later, he sought to interpret and define them all in one way or another. Thus, rituals were developed and eventually, they evolved into a religion. Then time progressed, intellectual development moved to the next stage and man attained secular thinking.”

Today is better than yesterday and tomorrow is better than today. This is the basic tenet of Progressivism. They argue that man is constantly progressing in every way, be it knowledge, culture, or morality. They present the above view based on this argument.

When examining the background of secularism, we usually discuss the disagreements between the Catholic Church and scientists and the effects that have had on history. It is true that Galileo was persecuted for saying that the world is round and not flat. (However, there is an alternative narrative among western Christian philosophers of science who say that he was persecuted or challenged not for his views on the shape or position of the earth but for opposing the existing scientific paradigm). He was placed under house arrest. History has it that another Italian scientist like him, Bruno, was sentenced and burned to death for his scientific discovery.

It is worth bearing in mind that apart from the conflicts between the Catholic Church and scientists, some other historical events have also played a crucial role in the rise of secularism. Particularly, in the 16th century, the extreme discord and fierce conflict between Catholics and Protestants was an important factor in the development of secularism. Due to these conflicts, the Treaty of Augsburg was signed in 1555 between Catholics and Protestants. Calvinist Christians, who belonged to the sect of Protestants, objected to it. The Augsburg Treaty failed to end these conflicts.

Then the 30-year Great War in Central Europe, beginning in 1618, was the most important event that contributed to the formation of secularism. Many countries like Sweden, Denmark, and France participated in it. The resulting Treaty of Westphalia has had a major impact on the theorization of secularism. Thus, secularism was formed as a result of Christian historical experiences. The term secular comes from the Latin word ‘Saeculum’ which means ‘Dunya’ (‘this world’ or ‘worldly life’). This, too, has originated from Christianity’s worldview.

How does secularism work?

We need to understand how secularism works within the modern nation-state. But, prior to that, we need to understand what a nation-state is. The system of governance that we have today, is it equal to the one that we had in pre-modern times? Of course not. The system of governance of the Byzantine Empire, Roman Empire, Islamic Empires, etc., is no more. Today we have several nation-states like India, Australia, America, Britain, etc. This structure is in existence only for at most two hundred to three hundred years.

Secularism works in this framework by defining what is religious and what is secular. We have seen earlier that secularism is the separation of state and religion. Today, modern nation-states are the institutions that have the power to decide how much religion can interfere in one’s personal life and what can be allowed in the public sphere. Anthropologist Talal Asad says that it is the state that defines, regulates, and represents religion.

A few examples are worth mentioning here. A student’s mother sued an Italian school over a crucifix hanging in the classroom. This case is known as Lautsi vs Italy. Lautsi argued that placing the cross, a religious symbol, in the classroom was against the secular nature of the school. What should have been the verdict in that case? Do you think the cross was removed to preserve secularism? No, the cross was not removed. The verdict ruled that the cross was not a religious symbol but a historical heritage of the country.

Similarly, a few years ago, a secularism bill was introduced in the Canadian province of Quebec, banning hijab, turban, etc., for government employees. The irony is that the cross was still hung in the Quebec legislature itself. It did not seem like a religious symbol to them. Those who introduced the law reasoned that it was a part of the country’s tradition and history.

Let us take India. Here it is argued that Article 25 provides freedom of religion. Accordingly, they say that one has the full right to adopt, practice, and propagate a religion. When the Hijab was banned in Karnataka, we argued against it in the High Court citing this fundamental right. What was the verdict? The verdict said the Hijab is not obligatory in Islam.

Who decides what is obligatory and what is not obligatory in Islam? Only God and His Messenger can decide, isn’t it? Only religious scholars can provide the guidelines, right? However, we must note that today, the State and its Organs are deciding it.

Today, the State decides: what is religious and what is secular; what signs should be allowed in public, and what should not be allowed. In fact, from the case of the Hijab ban, we realised that the prescriptions of Islam are not even taken into account for consideration.

Although secularism manifests itself in different forms in each country, its common characteristic is to erase religion and religious symbols from the public sphere gradually. This process is called secularisation. If there is an opposition during the secularisation process, the state will back down a bit, and give up something temporarily. However, when it gets back the chance, it will resume narrowing down the space for religion and religious expressions.

Freedom of religion is an illusion

Do we have complete freedom to practice our religion? Think for a moment about what aspects of Islam are allowed to be practised by this nation-state. The state does not allow us to follow anything beyond a few personal acts of worship and a couple of family laws. Education policy, economic policy, social values, and politics are not based on divine guidelines. And even if we try to follow Islam in its totality, we might be accused of committing a crime by the law.

So what is the freedom of religion that they give us? They put us in a glass jar or put us in a small circle and then they assure us that we can be whatever we want to be and that we have all the rights. If we transgress their limits by crossing the small circle, we will have to face severe consequences and even punishments.

The world has completely changed from the pre-modern times and its socio-political order. In pre-modern times, the family system was the centre of society. This was a common phenomenon, not only in Muslim communities but across all communities. The family system had the responsibility to impart education. Commercial activities were also centred around that system. Each member of the community had a specific authority.

However, in the modern age, a reversal has taken place. Family-centric society has been transformed into a state-centric/corporate-centric society. Earlier, the hierarchy of power structure used to be bottom-up but now it has become top-down. State and corporations are the centres of power today. They are the ones who make decisions/policies about our education, health, politics, transactions, business, and so on; Not the common people.

Everything from birth to death is under their control. If a child is born we must first inform the government and register it. Otherwise, the child will not be considered as a citizen of this country. Governments and corporations take up a large portion of school-going children’s time. They make decisions about every aspect of children’s lives from knowledge, energy, and entertainment to their future and careers. Parents are not given full rights to have any say in their children’s life.

In the pre-modern era, if there was a dispute between husband and wife, they would settle it within the family and community. Even their town would be like an extended family to them. However, in current times, this social structure has been modified. As a result, if there is a problem between a couple today, they have to go to court. The most important issue here is about the basis on which the state or its organs seek to provide a solution to a problem. Their basis is certainly not Islam.

Foundation of Secularization

The process of secularisation (removal of religion) from education to all aspects of social life is being vigorously pursued. A comedy scene from a Tamil movie comes to mind as an example of this. There will be a signboard saying ‘Fresh fishes are being sold here’. The person who comes intending to empty the board and the shop, first, erases the word ‘fresh’ from the board saying ‘are you the only one selling fresh fishes here’ and then he will erase another word citing another reason and eventually he will erase the entire board and will empty the shop. A similar trick is being practised among us. Educational programs and socio-political policies are designed to remove religion completely from the entire society. The process of secularisation is taking place silently with the intention of eventually making the religious practices disappear.

Liberalism is the ideology that underpins that process. To be even more precise, it is Humanism. We are theists who approach everything with God as the centre. The complete opposite is the modern thought of anthropocentrism. It makes us think man-centred rather than God-centred. It is against this background that modern thinkers like Nietzsche said that God is dead and we have killed him. Contemporary modern governments operate based on these human-centred principles.

Modern thinkers have morphed the basic existential questions of human life such as who is man, what is the relationship between God and man and what is man’s relationship with the Universe etc into irrational, unauthentic, and irrelevant questions. And this way of thinking has been imposed on us through education programs, media, etc. Thus, secularists decide how much space should be given to God in human life.

Unfortunately, we who live within this secular system have failed to examine this critically. In today’s situation, we are forced to be afraid even to think critically as that will make our very existence questionable and uncertain. This attitude needs to be changed in the Muslim community. When the colonialists invaded the Muslim world, the Muslims were weak and had a susceptible mentality to readily get invaded. Algerian thinker Malek Bennabi would use the term “Coloniability” to denote this receptive weak mentality.

Even today, Muslim societies continue to have the “coloniability” mentality. They need to develop a clear perspective and critical thinking towards the prevailing socio-political environment. Only then can we think in the right direction about the future.