After the Revolutions: Different Paths to Democracy
Rajeev Bhargava, in a conversation with Giancarlo Bosetti 18 July 2012

I would like to start this interview by asking you to describe your concept of secularism. Drawing on India’s exceptional experience of pluralism, what may be defined as the “Indian model”, you have been working on secularism and multiculturalism for a long time now and you have addressed many of the criticisms leveled on secularism from several points of view. The Mediterranean area is now experiencing profound changes; the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ is shifting the region towards democracy, but the concept of secularism itself – mainly due to the fact that the previous regimes were themselves secular – now appears to be in trouble. It seems that now we will have to deal with something they call “religious democracy”.

I think there are two conceptions of secularism, both produced in the West, which have traveled to many parts of the world. One is a model which understands secularism as the separation of State and religion. And there is another model that understands it as a “one-way” separation of religion from the State: this conception supports the idea that the State shouldn’t be stopped from interfering in religion. In other words, religion has to be excluded and kept out from the State, but the State does not exclude itself from religion. State has to control religion, because the latter implies a lot of emotion, passion and religious frenzy: it is a storehouse of superstition and obscurantism, it’s archaic, it’s primitive and not scientific and so on. This means that religion has to be controlled, and the State therefore has to reserve the right to interfere, but religion shouldn’t be allowed to interfere in the State.

Now, this conception has an antireligious stance built into it. You can sometimes find instances of this kind in France, though not always, as you could find them in the Soviet Union, in China, in Turkey. This sort of model goes around everywhere, and it is clear that at the moment this kind of antireligious idea will not be accepted in the Arab world. There, religion is very strong, and democracy has come to these places with a pretty strong religious sensibility.

Within this conception can something like a “religious democracy” ever be accepted?

This conception won’t accept religious democracy, because this idea of secularism is incompatible with the one of a religious democracy. Here, democracy has to be a secular democracy, meaning that religion has to be kept out from the public domain, and at least from the political domain. Obviously, the Arab world will not accept this.

There is another conception of secularism, which has also traveled. It is the Jeffersonian model, where the idea is that religion must be kept out of the State and politics, and the State must be kept out of religion. Here again, religion is believed to be a matter of concern only for individuals: individuals can voluntarily associate and make a religious organization, they can open a church, there can be all kinds of denominations and pluralism, but the State doesn’t take any initiative in helping religion, nor in inhibiting it. The State just keeps out.

The first point is that these two models won’t be accepted by the Arab world, because I think that the Arab world would like a slightly stronger connection between religion and the State. And it will not accept the idea that religion must be kept totally separate from the State, and that the State mustn’t help nor hinder religion. Certainly, this issue is a real problem for many people in the Arab world.

The second point is that the Arab world is right to reject not only these two “models” of secularism, but also a secularism that is authoritarian, because if the military dictators were “secular”, they have undermined secularism by being dictatorial. Authoritarian and dictatorial secularism is not going to work anymore, because it is incompatible with democracy. In the past there have been other dictatorial and authoritarian secularisms: we know that sometimes France has moved in that direction, although not far enough; Atatürk’s Turkey had taken a move in that direction too; in the Soviet Union, China and the former communist countries this situation was pretty straight forward. China is known to have destroyed so many religious institutions at the time of the Cultural Revolution. So, this third “model” of secularism is also out of question.

A common aspect of liberal views about what a good organization of the State should look like is freedom of religion. Isn’t the American model a positive one? The State welcomes religions, but it is neutral towards any kind of religion. However, the situation is different in societies where an overwhelming majority of people belong to one religion. The challenge is: what will happen to freedom of religion in this case? We can welcome the idea of a religiously inspired democracy, but what about religious minorities within these societies?

That is why it is important that these new democracies don’t remain religious democracies. Because in these countries “religious democracy” would mean a majoritarian democracy, which will threaten not only minorities, but also some sub-sections of the majority itself.

But let me return to my previous point. If in Arab societies these “other” secularisms will not be accepted, then the option of having a religious State – regardless of whether it is democratic or not – also isn’t a good option. I don’t know whether these countries may opt for it, but I don’t think it will have the support of everybody there. The secular, liberal, intelligentsia in many of the Arab spring countries will not accept a purely religious democracy, because that kind of religious majoritarianism, or that kind of hegemonic religion is something that the secular liberals in Egypt and other countries have been fighting against. I have talked with many of these people there, and they are in favor of a secular state.

But now many other people don’t even accept the word “secular”, they prefer to talk about “civic State”, civil society etc.

This is a very important problem at stake. The issue is: what kind of State must these new democracies have? And what must the relationship of the State be with religion? I think that ideally, I would say, the State must not promote Islam, although I know this is a tough statement. I would say that the State should not attach itself too strongly to Islam, so as to be seen as only promoting Islam. As a secular person, it would be hard for me to accept that a good democratic State can be set up in one of these countries, if the State is also very strongly in favor of one particular religion, namely Islam. I won’t insist on this, but ideally I wouldn’t want it.

As far as the separation of State institutions and religious institutions is concerned, I think that everybody in those countries would want these institutions to be separate. It is possible for religious clerics to be part of political institutions, it is also possible for political people to be part of the religious institutions, but I think that the institutions themselves must be kept separate; this is the old Church-State separation. My feeling is that this is something that everybody will accept.

But can the principle of Shari’a in the Egyptian constitution be accepted? One could say, “yes, I accept Shari’a in the constitution”, as Catholicism was accepted in the Italian constitution, or Anglicanism in the British constitution…but the real issue is: what about religious freedoms, the equal rights of religious minorities?

That is the whole issue. Ideally, what I would want is that the State had a policy based on what I call “principled distance”. The State should engage with religions, or disengage from religions, it may engage negatively with religions, or positively with them. By “positively” I mean to help them, support them, subsidize them, and by “negatively” I mean that if there is some oppression in any religious community, then the State should step in to prevent it from happening. So, for example, some basic rights of women are to be protected: even if those rights are ignored or dismissed under Shari’a, these rights have to be protected, and that can be done only if the State is supporting these rights rather than negating them.

The State should help those who are more vulnerable. In Egypt for example it should give help to the Copts, because the Copts are more vulnerable than others. There is a whole social religious majority which is potentially against them. Or at least the political arrangement should presume that it could be against them, it should give certain protection and certain safeguards to them, so that they can begin to feel confident and so that they begin to live life as equals rather than second class citizens. Now this is the ideal: when there is protection of Coptic minority rights, there is help and financial support given to them, as there is financial support available to other religions. But something like this can be done only by a State which is at least seen to be impartial, and therefore which does not formally align itself with anyone’s religion. Now, is that possible?

We are entering a gray area of compromises between pure principles of freedom and neutrality on the one hand and reality on the other…Does the Indian model hold some leassons in order to clarify this apparent contradiction?

Yes. I’ll go backwards. The first and very important principle of the “Indian model” of secularism, which ”no establishment supporting any religion”, including Hinduism, wouldn’t be accepted in the Arab countries today. I think these countries will go for something more similar to an Islamic State, an Islamic democracy. This is an aspect of the Indian Model which they will not accept. They will probably go for the British way or the dead Danish way, where there are still formal establishments of a certain kind.

Nevertheless, I think that they would accept the separation of certain institutions, which exists in India and in many other parts of the world. At a third level – which is the level of policy and law – I think they should not have the American or the French model, which is to control religion, being antireligious, or to keep away from religion and to let it entirely be independent of the State, where religion is meant to be completely self-sufficient, requiring only help from people within the civil society but not from the State.

I think that Arab countries should leave both these models: and that is why the Indian model can really help. The State should keep the power to interfere “negatively”, that is to say to restrain religion when religion does something to violate the basic rights of people within the dominant religion or inform the minority religions. I think the State should keep the right to interfere and be hostile to some aspects of religion which are detrimental to the basic human rights of people regardless of religion. That is where the Indian model departs from the American in some ways.

Unlike the French, but like the Indian model, the Arab spring countries should recognize religion, support it, they should subsidize schools which are set up by religious communities, they should give minority protection to the Copts. Subsidies from the State should be given to both Muslim and non-Muslim schools, impartially. These schools shouldn’t be entirely dependent on private money; public money should be spent on these schools. This is what happens in India, and it should happen in these countries as well, so that nobody gets the feeling that the State is partial.

What about prayers in school, or different habits and food?

There are two possibilities available about prayers. The first possibility is not to have them in school; which I think is not a possibility in Arab societies at the moment. The other possibility is to keep prayers, but to grant exemptions to minorities. So, for example, if there is an Islamic prayer in a public school funded by the State, I don’t think the Copts should be compelled take part in the prayer.

Could you explain what you mean by “principled distance”?

The whole point of principle distance is to distinguish it from the idea that the State must be completely separated from religion. What I am saying is: separation is not what we want, we want distance. That distance allows the State to be impartial, and to relate to religion or to decide not to have anything to do with religion when the context demands it. This is the whole reason why I use the word distance. The reason why I use the word “principled” is because I don’t want this distance to be used on an opportunistic basis. I want it to be adopted on the basis of certain values, and these values are freedom of religion, no discrimination and/or exclusion on religious grounds, citizenship rights should not be taken away on the ground of religion. These are the principles: equality of citizenship and freedom of religion. Both of them are very important.

Only when these principles conflict you can have some kind of a compromise or balancing, which is also very important to the idea of principle distance. But when there is no conflict, then the State should go ahead and try to realize both these principles. This is the only way not to feed discontent among minorities, because they would get their full citizenship rights, their own schools where they can teach their religion and have their religious instruction as they please. In an ideal situation, the Copts or other religious minorities should be protected from those laws and those State policies which have supposedly been shown to be against their religion. That is something that these States must do, otherwise there will be permanent discontent in these societies. There is a need to protect religious freedom. The State may say that every Muslim has to join the prayer five times a day, but when these prayers are held they cannot make the Coptic schools do the same thing. They should keep that in mind.

That is a principle of religious freedom. But at the same time equality of citizenship is very important. Outside the religious domain, voting rights, for example, should not be dependent on a person’s religious affiliation. Both Copts and Muslims and any other religious minorities should be allowed to vote, to deliberate in public affairs, to stand for public office: a Copt must feel that in this State he or she has an equal chance to stand for public office or to get the highest office. If that principle is not served, it is not a democracy.

Having said all that are you optimistic about the possibility to develop Arab democracies?

People never fully understand the implications of what they do and what they want. It is only when they are confronted with some pretty painful contradictions that they have to choose one or the other. They have seen that there is a huge difference between authoritarianism on the one hand and democracy on the other, and they have chosen the path of democracy. That is what people are fighting for and that is what the Arab spring is all about. Nonetheless they don’t understand all the implications of democracy. At the moment they think that getting rid of the dictator and having their own people there will get them enough freedom and will establish something which they could call their own.

But having a democracy will then set up a momentum which will take people in a certain direction, and this will will be resisted by others. There are going to be many people who resist the democratic process even though they have also resisted authoritarianism; they would want to control democracy, once they come to power. But then new conflicts will grow and this is the only way the whole thing can move forward. If you ask me in the short run if I think that my ideal secularism of the principle distance variety will be implemented in the Arab world or not, my answer would be no. If you ask me “Is there any hope for any secular model to be implemented in this part of the world?” I’d say yes, there is, and this is the only one which can be accepted. If you ask me when this will happen, I don’t know, but I can say that I am optimistic in the long run, that this is going to happen. I don’t know when, but in the long run this is the way it would be. Maybe it is actually a disservice to the “Indian model” to talk about it in nationalist terms, because “Indian” makes it something that is only peculiar to India and not available to others, or that others can only get it if they imitate India.

A closer model might be the current Turkish model?

Yes, maybe. If the Turkish model will be shown to work well. Rights of minorities must be protected. I don’t know what is happening to the Alevi community in Turkey today, and I don’t know what is happening to the other minorities. I think the secularists are pretty ok, although many of the Alevis who were formally secular don’t give a good picture of what is happening there.

So the “blood test” of democracy is whether and to what extent minority rights are respected?

Absolutely. And that is in two different ways. Very often people are content with giving religious freedom to minorities, but that is not a test of democracy. That is a test of any decent State, regardless of whether it is democracy or not. Many states in the past have given religious freedom to minorities. But today, under democratic conditions, people are not happy just with getting religious freedom, they want equal citizenship rights. That is what democracy is all about. And as long as minorities don’t get that, I don’t think they will feel secure. And that is the other thing that democracy is meant to do, offer security to everybody. Not in the militaristic sense of secure, but a genuine existential feeling of being politically and socially secure, in the public domain. When you go out in the streets and you fight an election, when you speak up you shouldn’t feel threatened because you are not of the majority religion.

Frankly I don’t know enough about these societies to say with any confidence what exactly is going to happen there. But my general feeling is that it is going to be a difficult process. That is a painful thing to say, but many of the people who are now currently with the democrats and for democracy are going to turn against democracy. It is a sad and painful thing to accept, but that is going to happen. Because there are opportunists, there are people who joined the democratic process only because they were against the older militaristic dictatorial regimes. Or probably they were even part of that regime and have got disaffected from it. They will join the democrats and in the moment they get power they will try to twist and turn and manipulate democracy for their own ends. Genuine democrats will feel upset and hurt and won’t even know what is happening. These things are going to happen in these places and everybody will have to be prepared for it. But people should also have a clear vision of what they want and what is feasible. I am pretty confident that they can have this clarity of vision, of course by learning from their own experience, but also by ignoring certain conceptions that are now obsolete, for which time has run out. If at all they have to look anywhere else, they should look at places like India or Turkey. After all, there are many Muslim majority countries which are democracies, just not in the Arab world. But there are also countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and to some extent now Pakistan, even though this last one is a tough issue to tackle…