Interview with Akeel Bilgrami ‘left needed now more than ever before’


Akeel Bilgrami PHOTO/Ismaili Mail

THE following is the second part of the interview with Akeel Bilgrami.

Secularism is essentially a modern idea that originated in European circumstances where the epistemological premise and actual practice of secularism was based on the simple idea of separation of church and state. But in multireligious societies such as India, defining secularism both theoretically and practically gets difficult. Some say that secularism is pseudo and Western and not suited to India. Some others—and this is generally accepted—such as S. Radhakrishnan, and later the Supreme Court of India, characterised secularism as “Sarva Dharma Sambhava” in the Indian context. You go beyond that and bring the priority of political ideals while defining secularism. Is Indian secularism flawed? How would you define secularism?

The first thing we need to do is to distinguish between secularisation and secularism. “Secularisation” is the name of a process of social and ideational transformation. The process was first studied under that name by Max Weber. Weber used such terms as “disenchantment” to further elaborate the nature of the process of secularisation. This transformation was characterised in two different rhetorics—“the death of God” and “the decline of magic”. These different ways of characterising it were respectively tracking a decrease in belief or doctrine on the one hand, and religious practice and rituals on the other. Loss of belief in God or in the myths of creation and so on was one aspect, the doctrinal aspect of secularisation. Decrease in churchgoing and in religious dietary habits or pious habits of dress and so on was the other aspect, the practical aspect of secularisation.

“Secularism”, by contrast, is not the name for a general process of social and ideational transformation of this sort, but the name of a much more specific thing, a political doctrine. It’s not concerned with loss of religious belief and practice but is rather an attempt to steer the polity and its institutions and its laws away from the direct influence of religion. (Indirect influence is another matter. Where there is not much secularisation, there is bound to be some indirect influence of religion on the polity, but secularism seeks to prevent any direct bearing of religion on the polity.)

This distinction, even though it is important, is obvious. It is obvious because it is possible for a person to be secularist without being secularised. A highly devout (therefore not secularised) person can be completely secularist. Also, some place can be completely secularist without being much secularised at all—such as the heartland of the United States.

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