In the global fight against Terrorism and Fundamentalism, sometimes it appears that governments around the world have tied their own hands behind their backs, by assuming ultra-liberal political postures. This policy seems to be favouring the wicked terrorists.
As modern democratic societies struggle to cope with increasing religious and sectarian divide, one is forced to ask the question- How should the governments around the world deal with matters arising out of religious and cultural issues? Sectarian issues are becoming increasingly important in view of large scale migrations of people, and consequent intermingling of communities.
Hitherto, most of the countries of the world have adopted a policy of Secularism – which implies a “hands-off” approach of the State, towards issues pertaining to religious communities.
Secularism is certainly a noble concept. Secularism implies that the State shall not interfere in the religious affairs, and that the state shall not give preferential treatment to any religious group or sect. It implies that the state shall not discriminate on the basis of the religion or faith of a person.
Secularism, in reality means that the government should keep itself away from religious affairs. However, the policy of secularism in no way implies that the strictly ‘cultural’ aspects of a society, which require reform, should also not be dealt with by the government.
After the recent terrorist attack on Nov 13th 2015 on the Bataclan Theater in Paris in which 130 people were killed, there was a very interesting comment made by the French ambassador to the US.
Gerard Araud, the French ambassador, remarked in a TV interview “…. In the present day and age, there is a need to look at the policy of secularism in the correct perspective. Whereas secularism in the French context implies protecting the State from the Church, in the US it implies protecting the Church from the State…”.
The implication of the above statement is clear. Even at the time of the French revolution, the institution of the Church was a tremendously powerful body in Europe, therefore there was a need to protect the nascent democracy of France from the Church’s influence.
On the other hand, following the American war of independence, the State had emerged as a powerful force, accompanied with all the great ideals of freedom and fundamental rights, and in the light of the strong Protestant movement, there was a need to protect the religious institutions from the unbridled power of the State.
The point being made was that the policy of secularism was open to interpretation and adaptation, depending upon the circumstances. The obvious conclusion was that in face of the present day threat to peace, arising out of Islamic fundamentalism, the State must be flexible in adapting the policy of secularism to suit its needs and combat the issue of extremism more effectively.
Having clearly distinguished the concepts of religion and culture in a previous article, entitled “Religion & Culture”, it has been seen that culture plays an important role in the day-to-day running, organizing and ordering of the human society, whereas religion deals with issues beyond life and mundane existence.
It was also established that religion is almost inextricably intertwined with culture, in all societies, all over the world. In modern societies therefore, there seemed to be an urgent need for identification and separations of religious or divine aspects, from cultural aspects.
Now, the philosophy of secularism forbids the State from interfering with religion and religious institutions.
However, if a clearer distinction is made between issues of culture and religious aspects, a different interpretation of the philosophy of secularism may no longer forbid the state from dealing with only cultural issues.
The obvious implication being that the State would actually be ‘free’, to deal actively with various issues arising out of ‘clash of cultures’ as long as the issues were confined to the cultural domain.
The Muslim community displays a tremendous amount of resistance to change, as ordinary Muslims cling emotionally to perceived Islamic values. For example, when the French government moved to ban the wearing of face covering veil called ‘Hizab’, there was an outcry of “Islam under attack” by Muslims around the world.
However, to any rational and modern human being, the linking of a simple dress to a religion appears to be quite unnecessary and inconsequential. If the government had taken pains to explain to the people, that a piece of cloth has really nothing to do with religious beliefs, perhaps Muslims would have reacted differently.
There is a dire need to challenge the clerics and the ancient texts. The governments of the day must come down openly on the side of rationality and scientific temper. They must stop succumbing to naked populism and politically correct posturing, and face the real threats in a more effective way.
By reinterpreting the philosophy of Secularism, the state can legitimately entitle themselves to deal with the seemingly cultural issues, as distinct from the strictly religious or doctrinal issues.
The implications of such an interpretation of secularism can be far reaching and wide.
This would entitle the governments across the globe to engage actively in social change, and help in modernizing the outlook of the societies at large. It will also help governments and socio-political institutions to actively work towards eradicating obscurantist and medieval thoughts from the minds of the people.
Thus it may be concluded that in the present day circumstances around the world, especially in light of threats of rising fundamentalism and extremism, it is important that a wider interpretation of the philosophy of Secularism is evolved.
Such an approach would enable the governemtns to untie their own hands, which they have tied behind their backs, by adopting ultra- liberal and utopian postures.
It would enable a reinterpretation of religions doctrines by the society at large, after separating the cultural issues from the strictly religious or spiritual aspects, and allow governments to take more effective action in combating the ever present threat from terrorists..