Secularism in a Philosopher’s View

A Review of a new book by Akeel Bilgrami Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment, The Hindu, April 13, 2015

In a recent conference on minorities in India in Punjab University, I tried hard to highlight the need to correct our collective intellectual failure to put forward the obvious connection between secularism and democracy in India’s public discourse. A connection that should be apparent to everyone has become almost non-existent in India’s public debate; consequently creating enough space for the Hindu right in India and religious right elsewhere to argue that secularism is trivial and as an ideology is electorally motivated. During the 2014 elections, Narendra Modi literally left no stone unturned to convince voters that secularism is all about vote bank politics, and has harmed Indian Muslims. For decades, the Hindu right has been quite aggressive in contending that secularism is a Muslim agenda, and has been quite successful in creating a distorted image of India’s Muslim community as a pampered one. Philosopher Bilgrami’s book is a valuable resource to further our understanding about this all-important theme of secularism, together with many other ideas about law, multi-culturalism, identity, Gandhi, Marx — and most importantly — Edward Said.

This book has been in the making for several years. Some of its essays were already published but have been revised for this publication. The chapter on secularism offers very rich insights. Relevance of secularism, we learn, is contextual in very specific ways. He further explains three particular aspects about the discussion on secularism: firstly, it is a stance to be taken about religion; secondly; it is a political doctrine; and thirdly; secularism being restricted to polity as part of its contextual relations with religion is not a good in itself. But then the essay on secularism stands out because of its engagement with the works of other philosophers such as John Rawls, and Charles Taylor in particular and also at length. He uses much of his personal communication with Taylor to further his argument. Unlike other writings on secularism that revolve around political events and personalities in India, this chapter makes restricted use of such resources of India — but does a very persuasive job in articulating the argument in the realm of political philosophy and political theory.

The chapter is on secularism, multi-culturalism and the concept of law pushes the boundary of the debate further. In his words, “It is no small irony that multi-culturalism as a special form of attentiveness to the needs and demands of minority cultures came to be seen as a necessity because secularism was insensitive to those needs — for it was secularism that was initially intended to repair the damage of majoritarianism in Europe’s nation-building exercises.” He then proceeds further in engaging the idea of law, and largely deliberates with various arguments presented by philosophers, and finally, concludes by calling for the need to grasp the complex relationship of law with secularism and multi-culturalism in order to address the misgivings arising out of the political practice of these two ideas.

The volume has two chapters on Gandhi. In one, Bilgrami attempts a comparison of Gandhi with Marx. One wonders how either Gandhi or Marx would have responded to this exercise! But both Gandhians and Marxists would profit a lot from this attempt to revisit many stereotypes of these two major thinkers. He celebrates Gandhi as the greatest ever campaigner against imperialism, and reminds us about Gandhi’s criticism of key elements of capitalism in his remarks on the Lancashire cotton industry’s effect on India. Unlike Marx, Gandhi enjoys the popular image as an apologist of capitalism. He then goes on to explain the failure of Gandhi to formulate ideas on class and class struggle like Marx, which he elaborates as, “failures of nerve, more likely of temperament.” While this essay has enormous analytical richness, the decision not to engage with Ambedkar in this analysis seemingly is one of its major shortcomings. Ambedkar’s analysis of caste is very fundamental to the understanding of class and class struggle in Indian context, something from which perhaps even Marx would have profited, had he had the opportunity. But then Bilgrami is not alone, there are generations of prominent radical thinkers and scholars who have often failed to see the veil of caste in the body of class.

On the other hand, many Ambedkarites failed to appreciate the value of Gandhi’s anti-imperialist work, which Bilgrami recognises. To do justice to these debates, it is necessary for scholars and writers on all sides to contain the temptation for sweeping generalisations. In a recent work Arundhati Roy literally trivialises Gandhi’s work owing to the same reason. All Ambedkarites in addition to Marxists and Gandhians — or writers of a unique radical thinking — especially Arundhati Roy, would profit enormously by reading these two chapters.

Among others, the chapter “What Is A Muslim?”, is a very valuable one. My favourite section in the book, however, is the part on activist scholar, Edward Said. It has two essays that directly deal with Said’s ideas. The chapter “Intellectual and Personal Tribute” shows the personal side of Said’s life, his warm and friendly nature and also his sense of humour. No doubt, he was one of the most outstanding voices of dissent and reason in the 20 century. At a time when Middle East needs him most, he is not around. It is almost impossible to imagine — how much global public debate is deprived or depraved in the absence of Said’s voice today!

No doubt, different sections of the book grapple with many core ideas that have enormous value and relevance for the promotion of human rights in the modern world today. This is a rare book that combines key political ideas with serious works of political philosophy. It is a major contribution and a must read for all social scientists who are interested in adding intensity and rigour to their scholarship.

Text by Shaikh Mujibur Rehman