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Evolving Secularism: An Enquiry into its Different Forms

By Shohan Mohapatra

“Religion is like a pair of shoes … Find one that fits you, but don’t make me wear your shoes.” – This quote by George Carlin is one of the several ways to look at one of the most contested concepts that exist in many polities – secularism. Secularism is a characteristic, or at the very least a principle for operation in many countries in the contemporary world, where homogeneity of the population has become a distant past. Various aspects of secularism can be found throughout the history of various rulers and empires, from the Maurya Empire under Ashoka to that of modern-day India and more radically in that of Turkey. Therefore, the evolution of secularism in the past, and more importantly its applicability in different societies in the present, through different means, is the aspect we will try to address. 

The rise and development of secularism has been shaped and brought about throughout time, and through different societies. Considering how different societies have had different forms of interaction with religion, it would be accurate to say that different societies have different forms or rather requirements of secularism. Semiha Topal, a scholar in this subject, points out a very important concern regarding this in her paper as she elaborates on how its development has largely taken place under a Christian setting. She writes how “the carriers of the process of secularization are distinctly of Western and Christian origin”. Even the broad contemporary classification of secularism is rooted in two different western societies, American secularism and French laicism. Even these western forms of secularism have differences amongst themselves, as they capture different societies and different goals. As Joan W. Scott argues, “In America, … the separation between church and state was meant to protect religions from unwarranted government intervention … In France, separation was intended to secure the allegiance of individuals to the republic … In France, the state protects individuals from religion; in America, religions are protected from the state and the state from religion”. This shows how secularism as a contemporary concept is predominantly western, and consequently was mainly built for the separation of the state and the “church”. 

The dilemma that then exists in most of the non-western countries, where Christianity isn’t the major religion, is if the western practices of secularism would fit into their societies. We find this dilemma in Turkey, which had been the heart of the Ottoman Empire for more than six centuries and hence has a long history of Islam-state relationship that built elaborate theories on Islamic governing. This creates the difficulty of amalgamating the culture and identity around the religion itself, and religion becomes entrenched as a fundamental identity of the people and the nation. Therefore, Turkey and other non-western societies, which have evolved differently from the western Christian society, need to find a way to integrate secularism in a way that would work for them and not necessarily adopt any of the broader western versions of it.

Though regardless of which version of secularism is adopted, a problem that exists in the core of secularism is that of the rigidity associated with the division of state and religion. To distinguish or separate religion from the state, it becomes necessary to first define what constitutes a religion. The problem associated with this is how it lets the state institutionalise religion, defining what practices come under religion, and even who shall belong to a particular religion. Hence, we start secularism with an intervention from the state itself as it establishes what a religion is. Laura Robson gives an instance of this in her book States of Separation, where she writes about the instances of the British establishing separate electorates for the Hindus and the Muslims. This in her opinion created a new political landscape, making rigid new political categories out of previously more flexible social ones and defining Muslims and Hindus as essentially different, politically and culturally. We see from this how the official formulation of the division between religions can bring a fixed approach towards religion, a sort of pre-determined parameter. Similarly, we see a similar concern expressed by Jinnah, during the Khilafat movement where Congress under Gandhi’s leadership were keen on garnering the support of the Muslims for the cause of saving the Caliphate of the Ottoman Empire. For him, seeing the Muslims as merely a religious group was a flaw as they were both too numerous, and … too distinct a group constitutionally to exist merely as a religious community. Here we see how taking the Muslims as just a religious group instead of a political one, in essence how defining religion in one way could lead to complications. Furthermore, it becomes a conundrum in societies where the clear distinction between religion and culture isn’t clear. For example, is wearing a headscarf a part of culture or religion, or both as it is intertwined into both. In such a case, will it be non-secular on the part of the state to intervene in such matters? This becomes a particular concern for countries such as France and Turkey, which follow a separatist form of secularism, where they practice to rule out religion from the public domain of the society and keep it as a private affair. 

At instances we see this distinction of public and private taking a strong turn, as it did in Turkey where some can argue Turkey intervenes in religion to maintain secularism. This state intervention in religion is another major contradiction that has been in place in many countries. As mentioned previously, this takes place mostly in countries that are more inclined towards separatism, where there is a greater thrust towards ‘saving the people from religion’. We find this in the Kemalist-secularism of Turkey, where we see an active intervention of the state into religion, with several steps like the setting up of ‘Directorate of Religious Affairs’ and further the state offering an “official Islam”. We see here how along with a separatist policy of secularism, there exists a regulating or controlling policy of secularism, where religion is officially defined to the liking of the state, and for the people to follow. This can be seen to be motivated to meet a particularly important goal of the policymakers- state-making. As Topal argues, in the control account, the state does not aim to reduce religion into an affair of the individual, because it needs religion as a tool in the process of nation-building. Turkey created influence over the religious institutions to make them accede to the state’s definition and expectations of the religion, and therefore instead of privatising religion (as was the case in most western secular countries), it laicized the clergy. We further see another paradoxical situation in the case of Egypt, which had a similar situation to that of Turkey. It had also been a largely Islamic society for most of the past five-six centuries, and it too adopted a path of secularism similar to that of Turkey where there would not be religious prominence in the governance of the state, but just like Turkey, there was a framework of state control over religion. As Abou-El-Fadl mentions, “freedom of religion was guaranteed within the limits of the law”. Hence, here too we see how religion was a contributing tool used by the state for the penultimate goal of state-building, and further how state control of religion makes the problem of assignment of the rigid definition of religion and hence secularism as a whole more conspicuous.

Therefore, we see how complicated the principle of secularism can be, from the point of why to follow secularism or what the goal is for adopting secularism, to the question of which secularism to follow. This is further aggravated considering how modern secularism was developed by and mainly for the western society. For this we see how different societies have different views and situations, which can’t be solved by any single strain of secular theory, rather the concept of secularism is adopted on the need of different societies. We further point out the problem of rigidity associated with secularism which arises as a fundamental result of secularism. At last, we see by taking the example of Turkey and Egypt how more contradictions can arise from secularism. And we note the particular contradiction of the state intervening in religion to promote secularism. Therefore, at most times the question isn’t if there should be secularism or not, rather it remains as to which secularism is to be there, and how is it to be implemented.

Shohan is an undergraduate student of Political Science and International Relations in Ashoka University, Sonipat.

Image credits – Modern Diplomacy

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