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The changing face of secularism

G Parthasarathy | Updated on May 01, 2019 Published on May 01, 2019

Like in most parts of the world, agnosticism has faded in India too. But that shouldn’t give way to religious bigotry

The collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union led to the rejection of communist/atheistic state structures and ideologies, across Europe. These developments gave a new impetus to the revival and enhancement of religious influence worldwide. Religion has now become more important on how nations think and behave, both internally and in the conduct of foreign and security policies today, than what prevailed, around three decades ago.

Putin, the communist, would never have been seen near a Russian Orthodox Church. As Russia’s President today, Putin pays high respect to the Russian Orthodox Church and clergy. He observes Orthodox Christian rituals quite regularly. The doctrines of Karl Marx, many claim, are in the “dustbin of history”, even as Samuel Huntington prophesises a doomsday “Clash of Civilizations,” across religious fault-lines.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, by Al-Qaeda terrorists, comprising largely Saudi Arabians, set the stage for a new world order, where discourse on religion and particularly on Islam, has become increasingly bigoted, especially in the US and Europe. There is little understanding that Islamic countries are largely divided along sectarian, Shia-Sunni, and civilisational, Arab-Persian, lines.

The approach of President Trump and his close aides presents a classic example of such thinking, with many in the US claiming that Islamic “values,” are contrary to those practising “Judaic-Christian” faiths. Such thinking now increasingly moulds US immigration and visa policies. Trump himself is on record of asserting: “I think Islam hates us”. According to American analysts, “Islamophobia” is now increasingly afflicting right wing think tanks, websites and radio and television stations.

Moreover, reputed American journals aver that Trump has appointed several persons who are afflicted by “Islamophobia,” to key posts. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, amongst others, are named in a list of Trump’s advisers, who are “anti-Islamic”.

Bigotry in the US is echoed across Europe. The situation in Europe is complicated by the continuing stream of Muslim refugees, which has polarised opinion. There is growing public support in Europe for rejection, repatriation and return of Muslim refugees. There is also a growing tendency to declare refugees from Islamic countries as a “threat” to European traditions of tolerance, democracy and freedom.

While some European countries favour banning the hijab, others like Switzerland have adopted measures like imposing a national ban on the construction of minarets. European fears about Muslim immigration have been accentuated in countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and France, where Muslim immigrants, influenced by extremist groups like the ISIS, have resorted to violence and terrorism.

Strife in Islamic world too

All this is occurring when the Islamic world itself is being torn apart by sectarian and civilisational rivalries and tensions. This has been accentuated by American led military actions in Afghanistan, against the Taliban, and in Iraq and Syria, against the ISIS. These actions have dispersed but not destroyed the Al-Qaeda, Taliban, or ISIS.

Expressing deep regret about the travails of Muslims and the prejudices they face, particularly in the US and Europe, the Secretary General of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Conference, recently noted: “Islamophobia has been growing strongly in the West and has continued to take root through intensive campaigns and public discourses disseminating fear of Islam, and through a significant number of incidents targeting Muslims, mosques, Islamic centres, Islamic attire, Islam’s sacred shrines, Muslim individuals and communities, and women wearing the veil or hijab.

“Mosques and Islamic centres are the most common target, as a significant number of incidents of vandalism and arson involving mosques and prayer facilities are occurring in the US, Canada, Germany, Sweden, UK and Netherlands. The current main hotspots of Islamophobia remain the US and Europe.”

India, unlike the European Union and the US, is not perceived in the eyes of the Islamic world as discriminating against Muslims. China, however, has been ruthless in dealing with its Muslim population in its Xinjiang Province, to which the Islamic world has, interestingly, turned a blind eye. While there is lively debate over the term “secularism’ in India, we do not impose restrictions or discriminate on religious practices, through actions like banning minarets, or regulating customary attire of Muslim women.

But politically, differences on minorities remain controversial, notably on interpretation of the term “secularism”. But, even here, things change. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, an agnostic, was strongly opposed to the participation of Sardar Patel in actions to reopen the Somnath Temple, destroyed by Mahmud Ghazni in 1025 AD. President Rajendra Prasad, however, flatly refused to abide by Nehru’s advice and participated in the opening, averring: “I believe in my religion and cannot cut myself away from it.”

The old leftist/communist, intellectual characterisation of “secularism,” which amounts to abstention from religious practices and virtual agnosticism, now lacks relevance. Agnosticism is no longer regarded as an electoral asset. Both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi understood the importance of religious symbolisms and visited Hindu and Sufi shrines regularly, even during election campaigns. Renouncing his great-grandfather’s inclinations, Rahul Gandhi recently paid a high profile visit to the Somnath Temple in Gujarat — something BJP leaders and Indian pilgrims do routinely. This made the aversion and concern Rahul Gandhi voiced to US Ambassador Timothy Roemer about “Hindu” terror, somewhat astonishing and inexplicable.

Resort to religious symbolisms remains an important element of electoral politics, protestations about “secularism” notwithstanding. There is, however, a taboo, sadly not observed consistently, on not appealing to voters for support in terms of their religious beliefs.

It is now clear that like in most parts of the world, agnosticism has little or no place in India. What should, however, remain unacceptable in India is any action involving religious bigotry, use of violence or coercion, or appealing to voters in the name of religion.

Fair treatment

I have been lucky, spending all my working life, commencing from days of Jawaharlal Nehru, in two institutions — the Army and the Indian Foreign Service. One has been trained and motivated in these institutions to treat all Indians and indeed human beings equally and fairly, without religious biases.

Religion and religious beliefs of members of the public have no place in how they and their problems are dealt with. The edifice of the national civil service institutions and judiciary, built by Sardar Patel and Dr Ambedkar, has functioned reasonably well for seven decades now, respecting the provisions of the Constitution. Changes in structures, procedures and practices are, however, always needed to meet challenges posed by the passage of time.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on May 01, 2019
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