States, religious diversity, and the crisis of secularism

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Author: Rajeev Bhargava
Date: Fall 2010
From: The Hedgehog Review(Vol. 12, Issue 3)
Publisher: Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture
Document Type: Viewpoint essay
Length: 6,479 words

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Over the last three decades, secular states, virtually everywhere, have come under strain. It is hardly surprising then that political secularism, the doctrine that defends them, has also been subjected to severe criticism. Some scholars have concluded that this critique is ethically and morally so profound and justified that it is time to abandon political secularism. I reject this conclusion. I argue that the criticism of secularism looks indefeasible only because critics have focused on mainstream conceptions developed in largely religiously homogenous societies. It is time we shifted focus away from doctrines underpinning some western secular states and towards the normative practices of a wide variety of states, including the best practices of nonwestern stares such as India. Once we do this, we will begin to see secularism differently, as a critical ethical and moral perspective not against religion but against religious homogenization and institutionalized (inter- and intrareligious) domination. Of all available alternatives, secularism remains our best bet to help us deal with ever deepening religious diversity and the problems endemic to it.

I begin with the assumption that ethical reasoning must be both contextual and comparative. Given this, if we value freedom and equality and are sensitive to religion-related domination, then we must find theocratic states and states with established religions, which privilege one or some religions, to be morally and ethically defective. Such states perpetuate interreligious and intrareligious domination.

Crisis of Secular States?

For a start, it is worth asking if secular states and their underlying ideology, political secularism, are really under siege everywhere. Secularism was severely jolted with the establishment of the first modern theocracy in 1979 in Iran. By the late 1980s, Islamic political movements had emerged in Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Chad, Senegal, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even in Bangladesh. (1)

Movements challenging secular states were hardly restricted to Muslim societies. Protestant movements decrying secularism emerged in Kenya, Guatemala, and the Philippines. Protestant fundamentalism became a force in American politics. Singhalese Buddhist nationalists in Sri Lanka, Hindu nationalists in India, religious ultraorthodoxy in Israel, and Sikh nationalists in the state of Punjab in India, as well as among diasporic communities in Canada and Britain, began to question the separation of state and religion. (2)

In short, western conceptions of political secularism do not appear to have travelled all that well to other societies. What is surprising is that such conceptions and the secular states they underpin are coming under strain even in Europe where only some time back they were believed to be firmly entrenched and secure.

Why so? It is true that substantive secularization of European societies has also brought in its wake extensive secularization of European states. Regardless of their religious affiliation, citizens have a large basket of civil and political rights unheard of in religion-centered states, past or present. But still, two problems remain.

First, migration from former colonies and an intensified globalization have thrown together on western public spaces pre-Christian faiths, Christianity, and Islam. (3) The cumulative result is...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Bhargava, Rajeev. "States, religious diversity, and the crisis of secularism." The Hedgehog Review, vol. 12, no. 3, fall 2010, pp. 8+. Accessed 5 Oct. 2022.
  

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