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  • Secularism is Inseparable from Religion
  • Tabish Khair (bio)

If one talks of secularisation or secularism, one often has two very different meanings in mind. The smaller meaning relates to the non-participation of the government in religion. It insists that matters to do with governance cannot be identified or justified with reference to religion or religious belief. I will call this secular governance; usually this means a separation of state and religion, though it can also be interpreted, as it often seems to be in India, as an equal pandering to all religions by the state—a problematic position that, by default, slips over to a preference for the majority religion or accusations of state bias in favour of either minority or majority religions.

Leaving the drawbacks aside, the notion of secular governance is often seen as tied to the larger notion of secularisation or secularism, which exceeds the practicalities of governance and refers to a worldview where the secular, sometimes equated with the scientific or the rational, is seen as inherently separate from and even opposed to the religious. This worldview is then supposed to inform the existence of secular governance, too.

However, this is not the case. Secular governance is a pragmatic discourse, justified not just by the fact that all nations and cultures contain various religious beliefs, but also by the prior fact that even singular religions grow and differentiate across time and space. If the notions of democracy and human rights are added to this, secular governance becomes the only option for a nation – even one with just a single religion at that historical moment—that wants to avoid a future of slavery for the minorities, perennial conflict for all, and probably both at the same time. Here religion is a different sphere than governance, which relates to the secular business of running a state, and it is simply pragmatic to keep them separate.

However, this is not the case with the larger—shall we say, philosophical and cultural—notion of secularism. This kind of secularism is intricately tied to religion: It can never exist as a separate sphere, contrary to what many secularists and rationalists claim. Actually, it is not possible to be secular in that larger sense except in the context of your own religious (which can also be identified culturally) heritage. Hence, a Muslim can only be secular with reference to and, if necessary, in opposition to, Islam, a Christian to Christianity, a Hindu to Hinduism.

The claim that you are secular with reference to the other's belief or inheritance is basically an oxymoron. If you are from a Hindu background, you cannot claim to be secular because you do not believe that Jesus is the son of God. If you are from a Muslim heritage, you are not secular because you do not believe in the ten incarnations of Vishnu. Whatever secularism may be administratively and politically, its cultural meaning is always self-referential. That is why secularism is not just disbelief in religion but an on-going permutation of religious symbols and festivals into secular ones. The two go hand in hand. And both contain dangers.

If one defines secularism as mere anti-religiosity, it is very easy to define it against other religions: hence today, in Europe, many Christians who claim to be secular while practicing Christian customs as a cultural inheritance, accuse Muslim immigrants of working against their national ethos of secularism. Similarly, Muslims in Muslim-minority places, like India, often demand secular governance, but do not see the need to question their belief in the Quran as a revelation containing all answers—a belief that, for instance, automatically raises issues like the need for sharia law, a demand that, no matter how it is defined, is essentially anti-secular. For secularism to be effective, it has to be turned inwards; it is not about the other but about the self, though it is born out of the necessary perception that the other can never be the self-same.

The second danger is the slippage of secularism into basically that which the other lacks. As I noted earlier, secularism, because it relates finally to the self and the...


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