OPINION: Whether it be India or Turkey, the secular ideal has failed

Secularism, over a period of time, has become a vehicle of marginalisation

hagia sophia reuters A worshipper outside Hagia Sophia | Reuters

Turkey is caught in the midst of an identity crisis. The cantankerous debate over the Hagia Sophia will not abate anytime soon. The has-been museum is now a mosque, with Friday prayers resuming on July 24, after almost a gap of 86 years. The battle lines are drawn among the Turks, liberals, conservatives, secularists, Muslims, Christians, atheists and what have you. The world chatterati is engaged in a war of attrition, with positions hardening across all trenches. This matter, though, is elusive and escapes easy resolution; it is akin to untying a Gordian knot.

Yet, this row, among other things, gives us another opportunity to evaluate the place and relevance of secularism in societies outside Europe—societies that have been deeply religious and continue to be so—wherein, secularism did not flourish organically, but was transplanted from without.

I do not support the controversial, perhaps entirely needless, decision of the Turkish government—under the baton of mercurial President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—to convert the iconic Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque. This is an act of desperation, unjustified from the point of view of Islam, as I understand it.

To my mind, Erdogan has consciously indulged in an unprincipled nationalist-populist gimmick—in short, this is a spectacle designed to keep him afloat, and in power, amid turbulence that Turkey faces on multiple fronts. The economy is floundering; unemployment is on the rise. Erdogan’s goodwill has depleted in the West. And, with Turkey’s differences with Russia on Syria leading to military skirmishes, Erdogan has found an easy refuge in the sanctuary of religion.

Let me also add in the same breath that my reason for opposing this change originates not in any desire to defend secularism. Secularism is not a creed for me, and I do not believe—as many of its adherents doggedly do—that, come what may, it should materialise as a value.

The Hagia Sophia is a monument that is almost a millennium-and-half old. A brief acquaintance with its long saga is necessary, should we have to—as we must—delve into the more complex questions of principle. It has had a chequered history of twists and turns. Of passing from one faith to another. Of being a symbol of power and piety. It has the distinction of being cherished as a “trophy” by the victor and a “just cause” by the vanquished.

The Hagia Sophia was inaugurated as a Greek Orthodox basilica in 360AD. It has been built and rebuilt several times, and the structure that stands today was completed in 537AD. In its long life, the Hagia Sophia has served as a Roman Catholic church, a mosque and a museum; and now, it is back to being a mosque again in 2020. It would be a wild goose chase to locate justice and injustice in such a tumultuous, treacherous, terrain where history, myth, legend, faith and power have all converged.

Only politics can navigate this slippery slope. Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, knew this acutely. But politics is done rarely, if ever, for justice; it is about power. In 1934, Kemal Ataturk conjured up a museum out of the Hagia Sophia mosque. This was certainly not the opening salvo by Ataturk. He did much more in Turkey early on, after seizing power in 1923. His comprehensive reforms like secularising schools, modernising law and abolishing the Caliphate significantly changed the identity of Turkey as a country. “Kemalism”—the modernist-secularist ideology that Ataturk fathered—has been her bedrock for close to a century, and it was kept securely in the saddle under the aegis of the army.

However, there is no gainsaying that the closure of the prestigious Hagia Sophia mosque, and morphing it into a museum, was an epochal event in the life of modern Turkey. It eased her passage into the modern West. Turkey was, as it were, rescued from the quagmire of Asiatic “medievalism” and her derogatory epithet, “the sick man of Europe”, was finally consigned to the dustbin of history. The Hagia Sophia museum became the most prominent façade of a “secular” Turkey to the rest of the world; a beacon showcasing her inter-faith heritage, and the entwined destinies of Islam and Christianity.

Much water has flown under the bridge since. The wheel of time has turned. Ataturk is now a divisive figure in Turkey. His unabashed, unapologetic desire to fashion a new Turkey, somewhat detached from its Muslim moorings and the Ottoman past, is now being resented, especially as revivalist forces gain ground. Since the failed military coup in 2016, Erdogan has come to represent, with renewed vigour, a whole new politics of Islamisation. His Justice & Development Party (AKP) has found support among the people.

The army has been the bearer of “Kemalism” in Turkey. It has historically acted as the guardian of the secular constitution, intervening with coups when necessary. It can be argued that the army perhaps overplayed its hand in 2016 in attempting to dislodge Erdogan. Consequently, it is less influential now than ever before.

This has emboldened Erdogan, made him more powerful, even arrogant, as his writ now runs unchallenged in Turkey. The conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is driven more by Erdogan’s desire to tighten his grip on power than any concern for religion. But, at the same time, one has to acknowledge that Erdogan’s attempts have received a considerable fillip possibly because of a latent, perhaps long suppressed, urge among a vocal section of the Turkish people to break free from the regime of forced irreligiosity foisted upon them by Kemal Ataturk who made Turkey take a sudden leap from its Islamist Ottoman bearings to a French-type secular order. In all fairness, however, it is important to record that young people, mostly students, in Turkey, are at the same time resisting the new-fangled growth of religion.

Secular only in name

This newfound desire in people to own up the Ottoman past coincides with the unprecedented popularity of Ertugrul, a web series about the exploits of the father of Osman the first, the founder of the Ottoman empire. The craze for Ertugrul has spread like wildfire in Turkey, and in the wider Islamic world. An interesting parallel can be drawn here with India. The telecast of Ramayan and Mahabharat on Doordarshan, in the late 1980s and early 90s, also revived religious sentiment in the Hindi heartland, and riding on this fortuitous wave, the Hindu nationalist BJP soon got catapulted to power.

Syed Areesh Ahmad Syed Areesh Ahmad

I do not wish to weigh the Turkish society on the scale of how secular it is. Let us work with the assumption that it is more secular than most Muslim countries. But, the question that begs itself is that if a desire to free religion from the cage of the private sphere can strike a chord with people in a society that has been relatively secular for a long time, then how successful can secularism be in hemming in religion to the private realm in deeply religious societies like India, or the ones which obtain in South Asia?

The experience of Pakistan and Bangladesh is well known. I do not have to belabour the point. The eventual rise of Hindutva in India—the last bastion of secularism in the subcontinent—in what seems to be a flourish of finality, is the like the final nail in the coffin. Yes, Jawaharlal Nehru’s charisma and the robust institutions he built insulated the state, at the top echelons, but only for a while, from the debilitating effects of the pervading religiosity of its personnel; yet, even in those early times, the state, at its far reaches, was in the grips of both religion and caste. Now, with the advent of Narendra Modi, all hope is lost as institutions have crumbled, and the ‘Hinduisation’ of Indian polity is driven from the top with pride.

A secular state—instituted by law—in a religious society like India will always be precariously perched on the horns of a dilemma, until it gradually erodes; and finally, there will come a moment, when it is consumed by religion and become a sorry caricature of itself. The secular state in India unfortunately has come to this pass, and it is now only secular in form.

To take a cue from Aristotle: the purpose of a “thing” lies in its functions. If it stops performing its functions, it no longer can be logically said to be that “thing”, except in name. Aristotle gives us the famous example of a “hand” severed from the body. It may yet be called a “hand”, but because it cannot perform any of the functions that a limb performs, it is a “hand” only in name. That is the long and short of the state in India. Now, it is secular only in name.

With the prime minister all set to perform “bhoomi pujan” at the Ram mandir site, one can only marvel at how this fits with any known definition of secularism. C.E.M Joad, the British philosopher, once said that “Socialism is like a hat that has lost its shape because everyone wears it.” The same holds true for secularism too, especially in India. It is bereft of any meaning; or, should I say that the intended meaning—the content—has been evacuated from the word by the duplicity of the BJP and RSS. Curiously now, secularism has been stretched thin to imply a Hindu polity. Consider how even the Supreme Court of India—to accommodate the majority’s wishes for a Ram temple—went outside the fold of law, and ruled that in order to do “complete justice”, a Ram mandir should be built on the site of the “illegally” razed Babri mosque to satisfy “the faith and belief” of the Hindus. Or, how the Parliament put its seal on the blatantly discriminatory and communal Citizenship (Amendment) Act, one that mutilates the soul and the spirit of the Indian Constitution.

Down the dogmatic spiral

Whether it be India or Turkey, the secular ideal has failed. It has come a cropper in winning the hearts and minds of ordinary folk. In the absence of any real rootedness in the psyche of people, and as merely a state-led project, secularism’s capacity to instil loyalty for itself among people is fairly negligible. No wonder, the Quran, the Bible and the Gita, evoke a lot more awe and trust in people than any constitution ever can. The pallbearers of secularism must answer why it could not integrate itself in the life of our societies, and failed to become a value in our communities?

Understandably, there is no dearth of academic literature on secularism in the West or even in decolonised societies like India. Reams and reams have been written to indulge in complex hair splitting, to weigh nuances, to explore different possible models. Yet, rarely will you find an engaging discussion on why people at large still continue to repose faith in religion, or why religion refuses to be boxed in the private sphere. It is not my brief here to evaluate the diverse theories on secularism. However, it must be said that there is a fundamental flaw in the way in which both modernity and secularism see religion. Religion has never been a private affair, or merely a matter of conscience, especially in the East. Ritualism, more than belief, lies at the core of how religion is practised and “lived” in the public realm, with deep linkages to the community.

Secularism is at loggerheads with religion, and at best can only “tolerate” it outside the confines of the public sphere—the realm of politics. It seeks to imprison religion in the private universe of the individual, while at the same time attempting to negate its supposedly superstitious foundations from the minds of believers. The idea is to create a new society, a new individual, a being of reason alone—torn apart from natural sentiments, emotions and the human proclivity to have faith. It is in this sense that secularism is intrinsically intertwined with modernity. It partakes in the search for a universal, abstract, socius of a human being, cast in the mould of a selfish maximalist. A transactional creature armed with what Bentham calls the faculty of felicific calculus.

The trouble though is that human beings do not behave like that in the real world. They are irrational, sentimental and passionate. They live in organic communities and have moral codes that often trump the selfish pursuit of individual interest. They also have spiritual urges. They believe in unseen and unproven things. They have religion. And God. The pursuit of secularism as an end is doomed, for religion has never taken a backseat for long: It did not in Soviet Russia, and it will not in Turkey.

Therefore, to arrogantly criticise religion as “irrational” is to refuse to engage with it. It is also Euro-centric, and parochial to understand faith as merely a “private” matter. Upon this skewed understanding, it becomes easy to characterise the public realm as a sphere of reason, of politics and of men. Consequently, the private realm then becomes a dark dungeon of sentiments, religion and women. Joan Scott, the renowned feminist historian, has argued that secularism conflates religion and women by privatising them both. She also says that it might be a misreading of secularism to see it as a guarantor of gender equality.

But, worrying signs were always there. Modernity has had articulate critics since its very inception. We just did not pay heed to their warnings. As is our wont, we incrementally calibrated the system to offer symptomatic relief. Rousseau in the West, Gandhi in the East—both of them focus on “love” as the basic ingredient of human nature instead of reason or self-interest. They argued for political systems based on real human emotions: Passions, feelings and sentiments are natural. Faith is an intrinsic part of authentic human experience.

Gandhi, in particular, specifically argued against the separation of religion and politics. Secularism pretends to dismiss this with disdain. In more recent times, Foucault has brilliantly exposed how the modern secular order, under the pretext of creating “scientific knowledge,” becomes a willing handmaiden of powers that rule; and, how it becomes oppressive to those on the margins. Secularism arrogates to itself a monopoly of truth and triumphantly calls it “reason”. Isn’t it imperative to dissent in the face of such cocksure certitude that might put religious fundamentalists to shame? Or, must we fall back into a dogmatic spiral?

Ruptures of religious difference

Having said this, I must confess that with every passing year, I am more inclined to believe that secularism is a moribund project of modernity. It is doomed to fade away in the twilight, as it can only nest in the imaginary clouds of abstraction—far removed from the “lived experiences” of peoples and societies. Reason and science, since their ascendancy, have begotten their distinct dogmas. Secularism is perhaps one such dogma. Often, this makes for a cold and distant relationship with real, empirical, human beings, who live, breathe, and have faith—unlike the universal, rational, singular “man” who inhabits the world of high theory.

Recent decolonial theories on religion also suggest that the so-called “secular” constitutions of the West bear a strong imprint of Christianity. Even modernity draws freely from Christian theology. It is not farfetched, therefore, to argue that the secular-modern visage of the West hides an underlying Christian morality, which lurks beneath, albeit without the clergy. Colonisation, and the concomitant imposition of a secular-modern mode of being on the vanquished colonies, in operative terms, meant that Christianity was privileged over native religions, which were perceived to be superstitious and devoid of reason. Under the garb of universality, secularism has been able to deepen the dominance of Christian, western, values, and ways of thinking and being.

One example is the adherence to Sunday as a public holiday even in countries where there is a negligible Christian population. Another example is the acceptance of the Gregorian calendar by the non-western world. “Common Era” is only the secular name for a Christian religious calendar. The notion of secular time is rooted in Christianity and, in that sense, an ingenious way of propagating European hegemony over the world, especially during the era of colonisation. I agree that now we perhaps acquiesce in many such things as fait accompli; however, it is important to understand how Christian morality, belief and practice disguise themselves as “universal”, under the banner of secularism. This unintended conquest continues even after decolonisation, causing its own hurt and humiliation—it is also a part of the reason why secularism has never been fully embraced by our societies, despite the ceaseless prodding by the state.

The most major drawback of secularism, as evidence shows, is its inability to accommodate “difference” in societies that have a religious majority. This is also true for countries like France, which practice a supposedly “hardcore” form of secularism. India, on the other hand, has tried to a work with a “diluted” form of secularism wherein—short of not declaring a state religion—the boundary between religion and state is already blurred. This tendency has accentuated in recent years. Society now dictates the state; the power structures of the society have become the power structures of the state; all the ills of the society—patriarchy, communalism and caste—have now manifested as the ills of the state. It can be shown conclusively that the state goes out of its way to mollify the majority; it incorporates the culture, language and festivals of the majority in its grammar and idiom, which is then put forth to the minorities as secular.

Once, modernity and secularism get sucked into the vortex of capitalism, there is, in any case, little chance of deeply engaging with the root causes of the malaise. Principal tensions between religion, state, minorities and society that have tenuously existed since the beginning, under the arch-umbrella of secularism, and yet ignored, are now causing greater ruptures and schisms. Under the false veneer of calmness, a raging storm of discontent brewed. The fall of Soviet Russia and the success of globalisation carved out a new space and desire for “identity politics”, away from the pressing material issues of the day. The “citizen” took a backseat, and suppressed, or often newly fashioned identities strove to take the centre-stage. Religion, too, began to assert itself everywhere, but especially in post-colonial societies where the secular wireframe has now become a festering wound in the flesh. Stoked continuously for the sake of power by populist, often authoritarian leaders, the majority religion, in countries like Turkey and India, is beginning to breach the wall of separation and puncture the organs of the state.

Secularism, therefore, stealthily, over a period of time, has become a vehicle of marginalisation. It consciously assumes a universalist language, while at the same time legitimising the domination of the majority religion in contestations over values. Unfortunately, in India it has become the very gun that Hindu nationalists are able to load and fire at Muslims with. What was true for Christianity in the days of colonisation—its privileged position vis-à-vis native faiths—is now equally true for various majority religions in different locations, as secularism has mutated into regional variants. India and USA. France or Turkey. In other words, whether the model adopted was “political secularism” as in India and USA, or the more austere and stricter “philosophical secularism” as in France or Turkey, its incapacity to throw off religious majorities from its back continues, irrespective of time and space. This foregrounds how spectacularly the ideal of secularism has failed in the context of protecting religious minorities. Clearly, something has gone terribly wrong.

New modes and orders

The secular age is over. It is a dream that has soured. Secularism might still linger on for a while; but, as mounting evidence in numerous countries shows, it would be only a shadow of its former self, as religion reclaims lost ground in the high halls of the state. Even while it lives on, secularism can only do so by betraying itself, and by accepting the suzerainty of the dominant religion.

Let us not forget that the initial success of secularism was partly because of the collusion between kings and the new rising class of traders and entrepreneurs in Europe—both wishing to free themselves from the yoke of Christian clergy, which stifled the growth of nationalism and capitalism alike. Hence, secularism from the very beginning was a political project; it was principally directed at the power wielded by the religious bureaucracy in the political realm, but it unwittingly also attacked the faith of the common people. Well, it had to because the clergy derived its power from the belief of ordinary folk, the laity, in God almighty. This pits secularism against the people in the long run.

All said and done, it would be foolish to ignore that an overwhelming majority believes in God and professes a religion. Rather than fruitlessly trying to change people and wean them away from how they have lived for centuries, it would perhaps be more prudent to alter political systems, and build models which can take root in the authentic, lived, ways of being and becoming.

I, therefore, write from an urge to negotiate for new “modes and orders” (I am decontextualizing from Machiavelli to borrow his famous phrase). Modes and orders will accommodate religion, faith and belief into the fabric of the social and political. Not strive to ostracise them, or even expunge them, from the public sphere, as secularism has notoriously done in the last few centuries and failed. However, these new “modes and orders” must also search for a plausible architecture of a just society, which is reasonably possible in the universe of human belief and action.

The time has come to explore for those possibilities. To do that, we must liberate ourselves from the tyranny of reason. An unwarranted devotion to the idea of secularism as the final destination for humanity has stifled possibilities of fresh thought. This reminds me of a gem from Aristotle's vast oeuvre. He says that one may build imaginary castles in the air—in short, a utopia—as his master Plato did, but a possible political system is one which is rooted in the raw material of politics—real men and women, not idealistic fantasies of who they ought to be.

The principal question is whether it is possible to have a plural society, outside the ambit of a secular order, where communities professing different religions can cohabit in peace without the tyranny of highfalutin reason denigrating their everyday faith and hacking away at their dignity? One wishes to argue that the search for a just society is not, and should not be, held hostage to the dogma of reason. A plural methodology is far more suited to take us to the destination than the unreasonable insistence that all should walk the secular highway. I refuse to believe that the values of “accommodation” and “justice” are exclusive to modernity, or for that matter to secularism. There are viable grounds for those in other modes of being—modes which have popular sanction, and which have origins in the lived life of a people. The search for such solutions must begin in the right earnest.

I am inclined to believe that a "negotiated" position is more viable than a "rational" one in the context of democracies, especially in societies which have a diverse religious population. Secularism, unfortunately, happens to be rigidly rational, leaving no scope for dialogue. As has been explained above, its rationality only turns out to be a garb for propagating the core values of the dominant religion. In all other respects, secularism ends up imposing abstract or universal notions that appear as “alien” to the people, including to those who belong to the majority. Hence, it suffers from a double whammy: Neither can it protect the minorities, nor is it able to win the loyalty of the majority, which it so meekly panders to.

A way forward is shown by Jürgen Habermas, who took a “post-secular turn” in his later writings. He is among the few who accept and acknowledge the rise of religion. Although, he speaks of a “post-secular” society in the context of Europe, his central argument that religious and secular mentalities can learn from each other is valid across the spectrum. A “dialogue” between the two assumes mutual recognition. This is already moving far away from the hard secularist stance that holds religion irrational. He argues for a dialogical settlement between faith and reason. Habermas asserts that the post-secular order embraces the “complementary” endeavours of both religion and secularity in the collaborative enterprise of knowledge, ethics and existence. The days of secular elitism are over; or should be if better sense prevailed.

It is evident that this new modus vivendi, should it emerge, will be tailored to the peculiar requirements of a society. It also will result in “thick conceptions”—rich with the contextual, historical, locational, religious and cultural particularities of a society in question—of the “modes and orders” for regulating life. I need not reiterate that the erstwhile “thin conceptions” of secularism—those that will hopefully be discarded—were fraught with abstraction, inaccessibility and universality. That is why the imposed secular-modern mode of life was so keenly detested by real, empirical people, who always live in the here and now, and do not have either the intellect or the patience to imagine a dream-world governed solely by reason.

It may be worthwhile to take note of the Shaheen Bagh Protests, against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act, in Delhi. The protestors, mostly Muslim women, were able to radically redefine secularism—to the extent of negating its purported meaning—by shedding reticence about their religion, its symbols, its vocabulary, its artefacts, its slogans, and having the courage of conviction to proudly display these alongside the national anthem, or the Constitution. The intertwining of the religious and the secular was an embodiment of the kind of “complementarity” Habermas alluded to. The “public square” belongs to all, not just the secular motifs of the state.

This quest will obviously be a work in progress, but in the least it rules out secularism. The task of exploring an alternative falls on all of us. To all the naysayers, and to the mushrooming breed of secular fundamentalists, I can only say that if one disagrees with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ remedy, which modernity and secularism push down our throats, one does not become a revivalist. To suggest that since there is no alternative and therefore, we must not excoriate secularism for its monumental failures is, I am sorry, like saying that we ought to bear with the likes of Trump, Modi, or Erdogan because we do not have substitutes for them in the moment.

Syed Areesh Ahmad teaches political philosophy at Ramjas College, University of Delhi.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK.

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