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Published in the 1-15 Jan 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

East-West concerns for Secularism and Religious Pluralism
By Tahir Mahmood

Tahir Mahood
I have on my table three leading English dailies of 19th December 2003 - The Hindu, The Times of India and The Asian Age - each carrying a story stirring me into expressing an opinion. The first of these relates to France and the other two to the eastern and southern regions of India - and all are significant for the burning issues of secularism and religious freedom.

The West has seen secularism as a 'wall of separation' between religion and the State ensuring that the two never meddle with each other's affairs. The policy of "unto God what belongs to Him, unto Caesar what is his" has however never been followed with any coherence in the West. A tribal chieftain walking on the road arrogantly moving his hands across hit the nose of a passerby, they say, and on claiming that he had the freedom to walk the way he liked was countered with the passer-by's answer 'your freedom ends where my nose begins'. The rulers' tribe in the West does not want to appreciate where its 'freedom' to control people's life ends and the latter's 'nose' begins. Not too long ago, lying between the West and the East, the late USSR saw secularism as death for religion not only in the governance of the country but also in the privacy of homes. Coming to a head-on collusion with the age-old human ethos, this perception led to the death of the USSR itself. Taking an overdose of irreligion a Communist dictator of the Muslim-dominated Albania in Europe had once irreverently boasted that he had "conducted God out of our borders thanking Him for His provisional services for trying to control people's behaviour." Today, while he is resting in the dustbin of history, calls of Allah-o-Akbar can be heard again in Tirana and elsewhere across the country. Is not there a lesson for the West in these episodes of man's recent history? 
"Chirac for law against headscarves in schools" reads a prominent heading in The Hindu. 

Reporting "a major policy speech" of the French President, it quotes him asserting that "France's secular traditions are not negotiable." The apple of discord is some scarf-clad Muslim girls' demand of freedom to continue wearing it also in their government-run schools - which in a disputed case a court acting as per its judicial conscience has allowed. The proposed law will outlaw the scarf and, in a show of impartiality, also the Jewish kippa. The Christian cross is, of course, to be avoided only if "it is of plainly excessive dimensions" - only the scarf can never be allowed "whatever name we give it" (read whatever be its 'dimensions'). This is the thinking that represents the concepts of secularism and equality of citizens in that context prevailing in the West. In the UK law treats insulting Jesus alone as blasphemy; insult to any other prophet or avtar is 'outside the secular State's jurisdiction'. And, now President Chirac demands that Muslim girls can practise their religion at home, but the moment they enter a government school they become part and parcel of the professedly secular government and cannot for that reason be allowed to wear a dress that discloses their religious identity. He is in the respectable company of many of his counterparts elsewhere in the West in overlooking their own commitment to the UN documents declaring practice of religion as a basic human right. His real concern, of course, is the growing Muslim population in his country where Islam is now the second largest religion.

As against the West, in the East secularism -- wherever it has been accepted as a Constitutional ideal though unfortunately there are not many such countries -- only means a complete equality of all religions in the eyes of the State and its law. Neither banishment of religion from the society nor a rigid wall of separation between religion and the State underlies the concept of secularism in India and elsewhere in the East. This is why nobody seriously took the red regime Chief Minister of West Bengal when he recently objected to the observance of religious rituals at State functions in this country. This is also why the State has been able to enact special laws for the management of the shrines of Vaisno Devi and Ajmer in the country and is taking care of its citizens' pilgrimage to Mansarover and Makkah outside the national frontiers. 

What is reprehensible is that votaries of this admirable concept of secularism in the East often overlook its basic condition-precedent - viz, an unconditional acceptance, in theory and practice, of an absolute equality of all religions and their respective followers in the eyes of the State and its law. They sometimes discriminate between one group of its citizens and another in respect of their religious rights and even sit on judgment as to what the essential practices of a religion are. This is a contradiction that tends to convert secularism into theocracy. In India the judiciary often admirably plays its assigned role to enforce the dictates of secularism. This is what one can read in the Times of India report announcing the Supreme Court decision "Muslims in uniform can keep beard." The apex court's verdict upholds the Delhi High Court ruling on the issue and overrules the Kerala and Madras judges who had earlier held that unlike the Sikhs the Muslims did not have a religious duty to wear a beard. One may not personally share the belief of Assam Rifles' Haidar Ali that growing a beard is part of religious duties for the Muslims as well; but turning that personal thinking into law and imposing it on an unwilling community does not behove a State which subscribes to the East's concept of secularism and is indeed in a position to lead the rest of the East to the practice of that concept. 

It is equally true, however, that people often try to perpetuate some of their anachronistic practices misbelieving the same to be part of their religion - which has to be discouraged. Subjugation of the so-called lower castes among the Hindus, and of women among the Muslims, are instance of such practices misbelieved to be part of the faith. In this scenario it is gratifying to read in The Asian Age the eye-catching heading announcing "Muslim women in Tamil Nadu to build their own mosque." Reporting in its own style that "embittered by generations of discrimination and denial" a group of village women are now "wrenching space in the male-dominated society", the daily's 'spotlight' column rightly refers to many progressive Islamic teachings relating to women's rights and laments that these have fallen into disuse. Women's rights, in giving which to the human world Islam had indeed taken the lead at the time of its emergence, have unfortunately been turned into a 'weak point' for the followers of that enlightened religion through a process of misreading of its texts and by wholly ignoring the actual practice in its golden age. This erroneous perception is to be effectively corrected by the community - not by rhetoric but by deeds and actions. The Tamilnadu Muslim women's venture therefore deserves to be hailed, not thwarted.

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