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Michel Wieviorka
Laurent Lévi-Strauss
Gwenaëlle Lieppe

Religion, culture et sécularisation

Secularism after Western hegemony

Rajeev Bhargava

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1The current conjuncture in the world is witness to a dramatic, almost irreversible breakdown of the hegemony of mainstream intellectual traditions of the West. Ideas and practices associated with the modern West have been subjected to critique for long, both from within the West and outside it. They have been viewed with suspicion and rejected, rightly or wrongly, in the past. But never before in modern times has the impact of this critique been so profound as to lead to a real possibility in the transformation of the social and political imaginary of large numbers of people throughout the world. A new historical dynamics has been set in motion in recent times that has fundamentally altered the relationship between what formerly were the centres and their peripheries. The centre has been pluralized. We now live, as Eisenstadt said, in a world of continuously shifting hegemonies. Modern Western traditions are just ‘one among many’, with certain strengths and several weaknesses, as much—as Gandhi once put it—in need of cure as all others. They have clearly fallen of their high pedestal. With this, we see the beginning of the end of what might be called the colonization of the mind and intellectual cultures, of what may be called epistemic injustice. Nowadays, instead, a space has emerged of real intellectual and civilizational equality between a much-weakened hegemon and a previously hegemonized world. At such times we can expect new non-Western conception to emerge—and this is no doubt happening.

2Yet we must not assume that such conceptions were not invented earlier. However, it is a feature of living under a strong hegemon that it doesn’t allow one to notice these evolving conceptions and even when one notices them to see or proclaim their novelty and distinctiveness. In fact those who innovate themselves timidly pass them off as Western. This is disastrous for, when brought to the notice of the West, these are naturally not taken seriously: why pay attention to second hand versions when the original is so close to hand? And in their own home they are condemned to further neglect because when real issues to which they relate grip the public mind, discussions around them tend to happen in terms of older hegemonic conception. Thus to take one example—when Hindu nationalism was resurgent in India in the 1980’s, plunging secularism into crisis and forcing contestation over it, both those who defended it and those who opposed it shared common assumptions about secularism, indeed shared the same conception, namely that (a) there is just one secularism; (b) it developed in the West—a gift of Christianity, born out of a dialectic between Protestantism and Enlightenment; (c) it meant a strict separation between church and state, possibly between religion and state and in some cases between religion and public life altogether.

3Secularism entails, it was assumed, that religion ought to be a private matter. Defenders believed that it was a worthy ideal. Opponents, that it was undesirable or unworkable in the cultural context of India, or both.

4No one bothered to see which conception is really embedded in the best practices of the Indian state, or examine the Constitution and the public discourse at the time of the legislative assembly debates.

5In short, no one really grasped the actual contours of Indian secularism, to see its difference from Western conception or its distinctiveness, leave alone what transcultural potential it promised. So this is what I propose to do—to outline its difference, and distinctiveness. Indeed I shall claim that there emerged two such conceptions, each of which was distinctive. Perhaps it is best to contrast them with the mainstream European conception and to do so I focus on the background conditions presupposed by European secularism and which shape it. The account has to be brief and sketchy but for my purposes I hope it will do.

6The broad story—and it’s only an idealized sketch not meant to be historically accurate—that I wish to allude to here concerns tumultuous events in Europe between 1550 and 1650. This is the period in the immediate aftermath of the Reformation and the consequent collapse of Western or Latin Christendom. The unity of Western Christendom was broken with the birth of Protestantism and with its further division into many sub-sects. This was followed or accompanied by the so-called wars of religion. Societies were riven with rival, fiercely combative ideological camps that fought for territory, wealth, power and the loyalty of populations, but above all for their belief. For many, intolerance was a constitutive feature of piety. The more true one was to his doctrine, the more intense his piety, the less tolerant he simply had to be towards religious dissenters or opponents. Thus, religious wars resulted in extermination of rival ideologues. Fuel to the already raging fire was added by the introduction of cuius regio eius religio as also the principle of ‘one king, one law, one faith’. According to this principle, the subjects of a particular territory could be forced to have whatever religion their king happened to choose. From now on religious dissenters became political dissidents. Those who happened not to have the same religion as that of the prince overnight became traitors to be weeded out from the kingdom. Extermination of people became more intense, accompanied by massive expulsions of dissenting populations. This led to the birth of confessional states. Religious diversity was liquidated and religiously homogenous societies began to take root in virtually all of Europe. So, England became Anglican, Netherlands became Calvinist, Scandinavian countries became Lutheran, Poland became Catholic and so on. Second, another important constituent of this background condition was this—institutional separation of church and state had already occurred in such societies to a very large degree, which of course is one reason why it is profoundly mistaken to identify secularism with mere church-state separation. The state had already wrested a lot of power from the church. Yet it didn’t even occur to any one that the state needed to more thoroughly severe its link with the church, in order to become secular. It was inconceivable at that time that the state wouldn’t be religious. So most states retained a formal and legal tie with religion. There were strongly institutionalized religious (confessional) states.

7The principal point to be underlined here is that just when political power was delinked from the centralized power of Roman Catholicism and led to institutional and personnel separation, just then it almost immediately led to the intensification of formal and legal ties between the state and national churches. One form of church-state connection was replaced by another form routed through disconnection. While a semi-theocratic rule of the Holy Roman Empire may have weakened, states with strongly established religions or confessional states were born. It is simply not true that the seeds of political secularism were sown with the collapse of Western Christendom and the breakout of religious wars.

8So when and where was political secularism born? The birth of the idea of political secularism—an idea that finds little institutional expression until the 20th century—happened with an abrupt break with the past, with the Revolution in France. The French revolutionaries tried to deconfessionalize the French state, rejected toleration and sought the strict separation of church-based religion and state not only at the level of institutions and personnel but also at the level of ends. The state had to be separated from the objectives of the church for the sake of an emancipatory agenda. The enormous social power of the church had to be curbed in order to grant liberty and equality to all individuals. Even more important was the equality of individuals as citizens of a common republic, now made available to all regardless of religion. They could have it, provided they left behind their communal identity and entered the public domain merely as individuals. They would be treated as full citizens as long as they left behind their religion in the private domain and entered the public domain without it. Political secularism here meant the privatization not just of powerless religions but equally of the most powerful religion in France—Catholicism. And not only was separation of church-based religion and state introduced here but separation itself was given a new meaning. For the French, it meant one-sided exclusion. From now on the state could intervene in every matter of all religions, to help or hinder them but no corresponding power was available to any religion including Catholicism. No other state in Europe had even a faint idea of political secularism at that time. Indeed, even in France, this conception of laïcité had a chequered journey. It hardly grew in a linear manner but endured many reversals and setbacks. It is this model, however, which has travelled to Turkey, Russia, China and other countries. The idea of French laïcité is exceptional because it makes a break from everything abroad in Europe at that time: strong church state intermingling and intermittent practice of toleration and intolerance.

9So when institutionally secure secularism was born—this, as I mentioned, didn’t really occur until the 20th century—it meant deconfessionalization in single-religion societies and involved a further weakening of ties of the state with the church. The church came increasingly to be seen as a very repressive component of the wider social domain, which, along with the state, threatened the freedom of and equality between individuals. Henceforth, the principle of secularism became part of an emancipatory agenda, one which emerges in response to what one might call intrareligious domination.

10I have presented one way of telling a part of the story of the background conditions of the birth of secularism. There are others. One other way of relating it involves the use of categories of self and the other. In this narrative, religious homogenization came in the wake of a persistent, deep and pervasive anxiety about the other, about both the other outside one’s religion and, potentially, the other within. The other was viewed and felt as an existential threat. So doctrinal differences were not mere intellectual disagreements but were cast in order to undermine the basic trust in one another. The other couldn’t be lived with but simply had to be expelled or exterminated. This was the experience of most European countries. Even if in what is called the middle belt of Europe, that included what today forms Holland, Belgium, parts of Switzerland and Germany, some form of toleration existed. It is important however to understand what the practice of toleration meant for those who partook in it. Members of the tolerated religion could no longer have their churches on the main high street. These had to be tucked away in by-lanes in buildings which could not look like churches. I am referring here to the phenomenon of schuilkerk. In short, these powerless religions were privatized and their privatization meant their invisibilization. So the granting by a state of monopolistic privilege to a single church to dominate the public life of a society was accompanied in some places by practices of toleration. Indeed, such toleration went hand in hand with the intensification of confessionalism. Most European states either had relentless confessionalization or confessionalization with some tolerance. But such toleration could hardly have been a precursor of political secularism.

11The background conditions in India—again an idealized quasi-historical outline rather than a historically accurate account—were different, at least till the advent of colonial modernity. For a start, different faiths, modes of worship, philosophical outlooks, and ways of practicing existed. Deep diversity was accepted as part of the natural landscape—all were at home. Syrian Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, Muslims (Arab traders on the Malabar coast), Turks, and Afghans, who came initially as conquerors—not to speak of a variety of South Asian faiths—were all at home. To feel and be secure was a basic psychosocial condition on the Indian subcontinent. They all exhibited basic collective self-confidence, possible only when there is trust between communities.

12In short, the presence of the other was never questioned. There was no deep anxiety; instead a basic level of comfort existed. The other did not present an existential threat. This is not to say that there were no deep intellectual disagreements and conflicts, some of which led even to violent skirmishes, but these did not issue in major wars or religious persecution. There was no collective physical assault on the other on a major scale.

13It was not until the advent of colonial modernity and the formation of Hindus and Muslims as national communities that this background condition was unsettled. Religious coexistence could now no longer be taken for granted, forced itself upon the public arena and became a problematic issue to be spoken about and articulated. An explicit invocation and defence of the idea became necessary that all religions must be at peace with one another, that there should be trust, a basic level of comfort among them, and that, if undermined, mutual confidence must be restored. This was sometimes put normatively and sometimes merely affirmed. The term used by Gandhi for this was ‘communal harmony’. Soon after Independence, this idea found political articulation as secularism, strictly speaking, political secularism. The state must show sarvadharma sambhāv—be equally well disposed to all paths, god, or gods, all religions, even all philosophical conceptions of the ultimate good. But this should not be confused with what is called ‘multiple establishment’, where the state has formal ties with all religions, endorses all of them, and helps all of them, and where it allows each to flourish in the direction in which it found them, to let them grow with all their excrescences, as for example, in the Millet system and the imperial British rule. Rather the task of the state as an entity separate from all religions was to ensure trust between religious communities, to restore basic confidence if and when it was undermined. This happens under conditions when there is a threat of interreligious domination, when a majority religion threatens to marginalize minority religions. So here secularism is pitted against communalism.

14To generalize even more, secularism came to be used for a certain comportment of the state, whereby it must distance itself from all religious and philosophical conceptions in order to perform its primary function, i.e. to promote a certain quality of sociability, to foster a certain quality of relations among religious communities, perhaps even interreligious equality under conditions of deep religious diversity.

15A second conception developed too, even more ambitious, that tried to combine the major aim of fostering better quality of social relations with an emancipatory agenda, to not only respect all religions and philosophies but to protect individuals of the oppressive features of their own religions or religious communities—or to put it differently, to confront and fight both interreligious and intrareligious domination, simultaneously. This is the constitutional secularism of India.

16Several features of this model are worth mentioning. First, multiple religions are not optional extras added on as an afterthought but were present at Indian secularism’s starting point as part of its foundation. Indian secularism is inextricably tied to deep religious diversity. Second, this form of secularism has a commitment to multiple values, namely liberty, equality and fraternity—not conceived narrowly as pertaining to individuals but interpreted broadly to cover the relative autonomy of religious communities and their equality of status in society—as well as other more basic values such as peace, toleration and mutual respect between communities. It has a place not only for the right of individuals to profess their religious beliefs but also for the right of religious communities to establish and maintain educational institutions crucial for the survival and sustenance of their distinctive religious traditions.

17The acceptance of community-specific rights brings me to the third feature of Indian secularism. Because it was born in a deeply multireligious society, it is concerned as much with interreligious domination as it is with intrareligious domination. Whereas the two Western conceptions of secularism have provided benefits to minorities only incidentally (Jews benefited in some European countries such as France not because their special needs and demands were met but because of a change in the general climate of the society), under the Indian conception even community-specific political rights (through political reservations for religious minorities) were almost granted during the drafting of the Constitution but were withheld in the last instance only for contextual reasons. In fact, it is arguable that a conceptual space is still available for these rights within the Indian Constitution.

18Fourth, Indian secularism does not erect a wall of separation between religion and state. There are boundaries, of course, but they are porous. This situation allows the state to intervene in religions in order to help or hinder them without the impulse to control or destroy them. This intervention can include granting aid to educational institutions of religious communities on a non-preferential basis and interfering in socio-religious institutions that deny equal dignity and status to members of their own religion or to those of others—for example, the ban on untouchability and the obligation to allow everyone, irrespective of their caste, to enter Hindu temples, as well as, potentially, other actions to correct gender inequalities. In short, Indian secularism interprets separation to mean not strict exclusion or strict neutrality but what I call ‘principled distance’, which is poles apart from one-sided exclusion, mutual exclusion, strict neutrality, and equidistance. When I say that principled distance allows for both engagement with or disengagement from and do so by allowing differential treatment, what kind of treatment do I have in mind? First, religious groups have sought exemptions when states have intervened in religious practices by promulgating laws designed to apply neutrally across society. This demand for non-interference is made on the grounds either that the law requires them to do things not permitted by their religion or that it prevents them from doing things mandated by their religion. For example, Sikhs demand exemptions from mandatory helmet laws and from police dress codes to accommodate religiously required turbans. Muslim women and girls demand that the state not interfere in the religious requirement that they wear the chador. Rightly or wrongly, religiously grounded personal laws may be exempted. Elsewhere, Jews and Muslims seek exemptions from Sunday closing laws on the grounds that such closing is not required by their religion. Principled distance allows a practice that is banned or regulated in the majority culture to be permitted in the minority culture because of the distinctive status and meaning it has for the minority culture’s members. For other conceptions of secularism, this variability is a problem because of a simple and somewhat absolutist morality that attributes overwhelming importance to one value—particularly to equal treatment, equal liberty, or equality of individual citizenship. Religious groups may demand that the state refrain from interference in their practices, but they may equally demand that the state interfere in such a way as to give them special assistance so that they are able to secure what other groups are routinely able to acquire by virtue of their social dominance in the political community. The state may grant authority to religious officials to perform legally binding marriages or to have their own rules for or methods of obtaining a divorce. Principled distance allows the possibility of such policies on the grounds that holding people accountable to a law to which they have not consented might be unfair. Furthermore, it does not discourage public justification—that is, justification based on reasons endorsable by all. Indeed, it encourages people to pursue public justification. However, if the attempt to arrive at public justification fails, it enjoins religiously minded citizens to support coercive laws that, although based purely on religious reasons, are consistent with freedom and equality.

19Principled distance is not just a recipe for differential treatment in the form of special exemptions. It may even require state intervention and moreover, in some religions more than in others, considering the historical and social condition of all relevant religions. To take first examples of positive engagement, some holidays of all majority and minority religions are granted national status. Subsidies are provided to schools run by all religious communities. Minority religions are granted a constitutional right to establish and maintain their educational institutions. Limited funding is available to Muslims for Hajj. But state engagement can also take a negative interventionist form. For the promotion of a particular value constitutive of secularism, some religion, relative to other religions, may require more interference from the state. For example, suppose that the value to be advanced is social equality. This requires in part undermining caste and gender hierarchies. Thus there is a constitutional ban on untouchability, Hindu temples were thrown open to all, particularly to former untouchables should they choose to enter them. Child marriage was banned among Hindus and a right to divorce was introduced.

20A fifth feature of Indian secularism is this: it is not entirely averse to the public character of religions. Although the state is not identified with a particular religion or with religion more generally, official and therefore public recognition is granted to religious communities. The model admits a distinction between de-publicization and de-politicization, as well as between different kinds of de-politicization. Because it is not hostile to the public presence of religion, it does not aim to de-publicize it. It accepts the importance of one form of de-politicization of religion. Sixth, this model shows that in responding to religion, we do not have to choose between active hostility and passive indifference or between disrespectful hostility and respectful indifference. We can combine the two, permitting the necessary hostility as long as there is also active respect. The state may intervene to inhibit some practices as long as it shows respect for other practices of the religious community and does so by publicly lending support to them. This is a complex dialectical attitude to religion that I have called ‘critical respect’. So, on the one hand, the state protects all religions, makes them feel equally at home, especially vulnerable religious communities, by granting them community-specific rights. For instance, the right to establish and maintain their own educational institutions and the provision of subsidies to schools run by religious communities. But the state also hits hard at religion-based oppression, exclusion, and discrimination. Thus the state is committed to actively abolishing the hierarchical caste order. It has banned untouchability and forcibly opened all Hindu temples to ex-untouchables, should they wish to enter them.

21Seventh, by not fixing its commitment from the start exclusively to individual or community values and by not marking rigid boundaries between the public and the private, India’s constitutional secularism allows decisions on these matters (all matters pertaining to religion at level 3) to be made either within the open dynamics of democratic politics or by contextual reasoning in the courts. Finally, the commitment to multiple values and principled distance means that the state tries to balance different, ambiguous, but equally important values. This makes its secular ideal more like a contextual, ethically sensitive, politically negotiated arrangement—which it really is—rather than a scientific doctrine conjured by ideologues and merely implemented by political agents.

22A somewhat forced, formulaic articulation of Indian secularism goes something like this: the state must keep a principled distance from all public or private and individual-oriented or community-oriented religious institutions for the sake of the equally significant—and sometimes conflicting—values of peace, worldly goods, dignity, liberty, equality and fraternity in all of its complicated individualistic and non-individualistic versions.

23What relevance do these conceptions have? Why do they have the potential to be noticed today? Secular states and the doctrine underpinning them have come under strain elsewhere. Secularism was severely jolted with the establishment in Iran of the first modern theocracy, rejected partly because of the perception that it was a Western idea. By the late 1980s similar Islamic political movements had emerged in Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Chad, Senegal, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even Bangladesh. 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, practitioners of religious ultra-orthodoxy in Israel, and diasporic communities in Canada and Britain all began to question the separation of state and religion.

24The hegemonic Western conceptions of political secularism do not appear to have travelled all that well in other societies. What is surprising is that such conceptions and the secular states they underpin are coming under strain even in Europe, where, until recently, they were believed to be firmly entrenched and secure. Why so? It is true that the substantive secularization of European societies has brought about the extensive secularization of European states; regardless of their religious affiliation, citizens have a large basket of civil and political rights unheard of in religion-centred states, past or present. Nevertheless, two problems remain.

25First, migration from former colonies and intensified globalization have thrown together in Western public spaces Christian, Islamic, and pre-Christian faiths such as Hinduism. The cumulative result is unprecedented religious diversity, the weakening of the public monopoly of single religions, and the generation of mutual suspicion, distrust, hostility, and conflict. This is evident in Germany and Britain but was dramatically highlighted by the headscarf issue in France, the ‘cartoon affair’ in Denmark and the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands shortly after the release of his controversial film about Islamic culture.

  • 1 Jytte Klausen, The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe, Cambridge and New Yo (...)

26Second, despite substantial secularization, in some European states inequities resulting from the formal establishment of the dominant religion have done little to bolster better intercommunity relations or to reduce religious discrimination. With the deepening of religious diversity, the religious biases of European states have become increasingly visible. European states have continued to privilege Christianity in one form or another. They have publicly funded religious schools, maintained clerical salaries and real estate holdings of Christian churches, facilitated the control by churches of cemeteries, and trained the clergy. In short, there has been no impartiality within the domain of religion, and despite formal ‘equality’ this privileging of Christianity continues to have a far-reaching impact on the rest of society1. Even the widespread belief regarding the existence of a secular European public sphere is based largely on a myth. As a result, the formal or informal establishment of a single religion, even the weaker variety of establishment, continues to be part of the problem.

27In these circumstances, as societies become religiously diverse or recognize religious diversity in their midst, the world has much to learn from these conceptions of secularism that are emerging from the shadow of the previously hegemonic models. My principal objective here is to draw attention to the point that political theorists do not see the normative potential in the secular practices of these different states because they are obsessed with the normativity of mainstream, hegemonic model of Western secularism. Western states need to improve their understanding of their own secular practices, just as Western secularism needs a better theoretical self-understanding. Rather than get stuck on models they developed at a particular time in their history, they would do well to more carefully examine the normative potential in their own political practices or to learn from original Indian variants.


1 Jytte Klausen, The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe, Cambridge and New York, Oxford University Press, 2005.


Rajeev Bhargava est docteur en économie, actuellement directeur du Centre pour l’étude des sociétés en développement (Delhi). Il a été professeur au Centre d’études politiques à l’université Jawaharlal Nehru, à New Delhi, et, entre 2001 et 2005, directeur du département de science politique à l’université de Delhi. Il a notamment publié : Individualism in Social Science (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1992) ; What is Political Theory and Why Do We Need It? (New Delhi, Oxford University Press India, 2010) ; and The Promise of India’s Secular Democracy (New Delhi, Oxford University Press India, 2010). Il a également dirigé : Secularism and Its Critics (New Delhi/New York, Oxford University Press, 1998) and Politics and Ethics of the Indian Constitution (New Delhi, Oxford University Press India, 2008). Son travail sur la laïcité et l’individualisme méthodologique est reconnu internationalement. Il a contribué à la Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy et au Oxford Handbook of Political Theory. Rajeev Bhargava est membre du conseil consultatif de plusieurs institutions nationales et internationales, et a été consultant pour le rapport du PNUD sur la liberté culturelle.

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