Xavier Flory | Secularism: A western conceit

The Gadfly | Our notions of secularism are inadequate to the realities of religion on the Indian subcontinent

· February 25, 2013, 10:43 pm

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Xavier Flory
The Gadfly

Secularism is not a uniquely Western concept, but the concept today is based on the western experience with it.

A secular state is generally defined as a nation without a state religion, with a clear separation between politics and religion and with guarantees of religious freedom. The United States was conceived as such a nation, and although there is religious freedom, we still haven’t succeeded in completely separating religion from politics.

Our president is still sworn in with one hand on the Bible, and Obama was called the “pastor in chief” by Rev. Andy Stanley at the pre-inaugural worship service. Moreover, we still haven’t had a major presidential candidate of either party identify himself as atheist.

If this definition is problematic in the United States — a nation founded on a diversity of religion and largely composed of peoples fleeing religious persecution in Europe — it’s not surprising that it founders abroad.

Take the Indian subcontinent. Although there were secular Muslim states in the nearby Middle East as early as the Middle Ages, today’s situation is more complex.

Pakistan was founded because the large Muslim minority felt they couldn’t live in secular, multi-confessional India. The idea that religion could ever be separated from politics in the subcontinent certainly seems naive in hindsight.

A multi-confessional state makes sense in the United States. But on the Indian subcontinent, where Islam and Hinduism make up well over 80 percent of the population and have a turbulent shared history, secularism based on the Western model is problematic.

Given the pervasive and historically questionable narratives of temple desecration by Muslim rulers, could the huge minority of Muslims ever consent to a Hindu majority?

Second — and this is a problem with the notion of secularism that extends well beyond the Indian subcontinent — is it possible to disentangle religion from the broader culture of a nation?

The line between religion and broader culture is especially fluid in India, where the definition of Hinduism as a unified religion is contentious and fairly recent. The word “Hindu” has its origins in the Sanskrit “Sindhu,” referring to the area around the Indus River, and had ethnic and geographic connotations long before it referred to the religion of Hinduism.

Even if you manage to disentangle Hinduism as a religious practice from the cultural connotations of the word, the religious will always color the cultural. Take the issuing of state history books in India. Many Hindus and Muslims disagree on the portrayal of Muslim conquest and rule during the Middle Ages. Was the Muslim conqueror Mahmud of Ghazni a hero or a temple destroyer?

Thus we see that secularism as understood today, although a great idea in the West, isn’t always exportable. The problem is that secularism is not a neutral concept but has positive associations with modernity and democracy.

It’s easy to see why secularism has such positive connotations in Europe. Criticism of the church in Europe was often part of a larger fight against monarchical despotism. In the case of Galileo and many other scientific and cultural advances, it was the church — not the state — holding progress back.

But we need to understand that although religious toleration is inherently good, secularism isn’t. It is arguable that the state is the best instrument to carry out Sharia, and in a state that is 90 percent Muslim, it makes sense. We let our culture color our laws (think guns and freedom in the United States), and religion is but another part of that culture.

Because of its positive moniker, secularism is often more of a label than a reality. Much of what goes on in “secular” India, such as the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya and subsequent religious riots in 1992, has been anything but that. Also, the label of nonsecular carries connotations of backwardness and fundamentalism.

Ultimately, secularism is but one concept that distorts our image of the world and makes us see and judge the world according to European models.

As the entrepreneurs, academics and politicians of tomorrow, let’s come up with a more specific, less distortive vocabulary for understanding the world.

Xavier Flory is a College sophomore from Nokesville, Va. His email address is xflory@sas.upenn.edu. Follow him @FloryXavier. “The Gadfly” appears every other Monday.

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