The Indian Model: a Challenge for the Muslim World
Ramin Jahanbegloo 5 March 2008

Secularism, for many of us, is not a terra incognita, and yet it is certainly an improperly defined and an unexplained concept. For more than 150 years the terms intellectuals, politicians and theologians have used “secular” and “secularism” rather in an ambiguous way. There is, therefore, a need for the clarification of the use of these terms. Time has come for us to rethink our whole approach to the question of secularism. English dictionaries define “secularism” as the quality of “having no concern with religion or spiritual matters”. But they also describe it as “ a system which seeks to interpret and order life or principles taken solely from this world.”

Therefore, secularism in the political sphere refers to the freedom of the state to deal with the affairs of the world without interference from any religious authorities. In other words, secularism is mainly interpreted in present day studies as “the neutrality of the state in regard to religion.” What is implied by this definition is that man’s political life has no relevance to his religious life. Therefore, religion is considered as being incapable of guiding human beings in their social relationships. The key idea in this context is that humans can live in the world or “pertain to the world” (secularis) by having total control over it. As such, secularism is a code of conduct and an attitude of mind which relates to this world in its material form. That is why one should differentiate and distinguish between the two notions of “secularism” and “secularization”.

“Secularism” and “secularization” are not merely marginal or incidental features of modern life. In many ways, they are central or constitutive categories defining the character of modern society as such. As many authors have noted, “secularism” and “secularity” derive from the Latin terms saeculum and saecularis designating a century or world –age. Seen from this angle, attention to the “secular” implies a concern with the temporal dimension of social life. Therefore, secularism, as a notion related to our material life, aims at a thinking based on truth and reason. So by secularism, one can imply a process of “turning toward this world” as an antidote to any form of other-worldliness. Secularization, includes not only a code of conduct, but also exclude religious sensibilities in cultures. It is a movement away from traditionally accepted norms that presuppose religious sanctions.

The process of secularization, thus, presupposes a more radical change in society and culture, imposing a break with the past. It is a kind of protest of the rational minds resisting the zeal of religious institutions and protesting against the excesses and extravagances of religion and politics. At a political level, however, the idea of “secularization” has been a prisoner of many semantic and ontological distortions, up to a point that the very meaning and content of secularism itself has been lost. In this sense, secularism has become part of an ideological process of desacralization of the world and a de-emphasis of spirituality in public life, culminating in a modernist dream of a universal techno-scientific civilization. There are many examples of this modernist dream which in the past century have taken the shape of an autocratic secularization from above. The two main examples in the 20th century Middle East, which come to mind, are the Kemalist secularization in Turkey and Reza Shah’s reforms in Iran. Secularism is usually regarded as a positive achievement of Western civilization.

The separation of church and state, the rule of law, enhanced state authority, an independent civil society, the relegation of religious belief to the private sphere, and toleration of religious sects in the West. But whereas secularism in the West led to the spread of democratic values, in the Muslim world it has been associated with dictatorship, the abrogation of civil liberties and the weakening of the civil society. Western-inspired secularism, as implemented by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey or by Reza Shah in Iran is always cited as the source of political instability in the Middle East. The social and political measures taken by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Reza Shah were very much influenced by the French model of secularism, the republican laïcité, which more than being pluralist and inclusive was monolithic and exclusivist. Turkish elites asserted that religion was an “obstacle to progress.” and, therefore, they incorporated the French laïcité, rather than the less confrontational Anglo-Saxon secularism, which allowed no role whatsoever for faith in public life.

This meant that religion in modern Turkey,as in post-revolution France, had to become part of private life. It also meant that the religious establishment was going to be controlled and administered by the state in order to prevent any political threats of an Islamic nature. In his vision of modernity, Reza Shah was influenced by Mustafa Kemal and therefore through him by the model of confrontational secularism. Both Reza Shah and Mustafa Kemal promoted an unprecedented degree of secularism in public life, and both tried to support their reforms by the promulgation new symbols of national identity. Reza Shah’s secularization was shallow relative to that of Turkey and his anti-clerical policies became to be in retrospect damaging in the sense that it contributed to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and their influence in Iranian politics.

The Indian concept of secularism

That is to say, unlike the Indian concept of secularism which advocates a non-sectarian attitude towards religion and encourages the process of dialogue and interdependence among faiths, the French model of laïcité envisages a radical separation between politics and religion in the name of progress and the rights of a universal man whom no one has seen. Of course, the French model of laïcité finds itself in a situation of crisis today. The renewal of the French model of secularism into a primarily defensive attitude in the face of Islam and the Muslim population in France has not been able to work out the tensions between the ethical and political imperatives of European democracy and a French model of secular republicanism. Clearly, on this account, the commitment of French secularism to a policy of pure and simple assimilation has been responsible for a rise of fundamentalism among the young Muslim population. If not all, at least part of the responsibility for the rise of fundamentalism in Europe and Middle east must be laid at the door of a universalist model of secularism which has not been as sensitive to the issues and challenges of religious communities as it has been to the techno-scientific management of society. For sure, the French model of secularism cannot contribute to the diversity of European community as long as it does not engage in an equal dialogue with different religions and cultures, and especially with the Islamic tradition.

In contrast to the French laïcité, the Indian concept of secularism finds its cornerstone in the idea of unity in diversity. The Indian secularism was a hybrid product of secular humanism and neo-Hindu revivalism. On the secularist side were democratic socialists like Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar and radical humanists like M.N. Roy who believed that a rational reform of the Hindu world was a prerequisite for social progress. As for the revivalists, they were inspired by neo-Hindu ideas of Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo, who believed that a regeneration of the supposedly tolerant and benevolent “Golden Age” was a prerequisite for social change. For many of these reformists and also somebody like Mahatma Gandhi, the notion of differences among religions was in the detail, not in the core. Secularism was , therefore, regarded as a characteristically Indian solution based on India metaphysics to the question of inter-faith dialogue.

Jawaharlal Nehru explained his view on secularism in 1961, just few years before his death in the following terms: “ We talk about a secular state in India. It is perhaps not very easy even to find a good word in Hindi for “secular”. Some people think it means something opposed to religion. That obviously is not correct…. It is a state which honors all faiths equally and gives them equal opportunities.” (1) What is noteworthy is Nehru’s refusal to define secularism in terms of a coercive policy-making and an autocratic state building. In this regard, he invites comparison with Mustafa Kemal and Reza Shah. It must be noted that though the communal division that Nehru and other framers of the Indian Constitution faced was immensely more complex in India than in Turkey or Iran, yet the fact remains that Nehru and his fellow citizens refused to conceive and to practice secularism as an anti-religious ideology. From their point of view secularism was defined as a politics of diversity which took into consideration the role of the state as the protector of all religious communities.

As a matter of fact, the Indian concept of secularism as developed by individuals like Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar and Azad cannot be identified with a process of secularization, because it is more concerned with a critic of the external manifestations of religion than with an ideological attack on the essence of religion. As such, for the founding fathers of contemporary India, secularism did not mean practicing irreligious atheism. On the contrary, it meant an exercise in peaceful coexistence among faiths. For men like Gandhi, Nehru and Azad, the real tension was not between religion and politics, but between organized religion and organized politics. Without being a secularist, Gandhi believed in keeping the state out of the private lives of people, particularly out of the domain of religion. Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan, an Indian philosopher- statesman described secularism in India as “an attitude of true humility” which respected “the conscience of all individuals.” He considered Indian secularism “not irreligious an not narrowly religious, but deeply spiritual.” (2)

By opting for secularism, the framers of the Indian Constitution opted not only for democracy but also for a harmony among different faiths and for a dialogue among different cultural traditions. For them the scenario was clear: it takes several religious groups to come together and to decide to be secular. As such, it was enough to interpret Hinduism as inherently secular. So in the same manner, to press religion into the service of politics, Gandhi declared that his Hinduism was “all-inclusive” and it stood for tolerance. To be truly secular the Indian state had to promote all religions and cultural identities and to build them with the secular interests of the nation. In other words, religious pluralism and religious tolerance became the bedrock of the Indian concept of secularism. The Indian model of secularism was presented as a “symmetry” model, where the acceptance of the legitimacy of pluralism and diversity became central.

However, for this pluralism to function and to be successful in defining the Indian common good, all religious communities had to on a minimal consensus regarding shared values and shared rules for conflict management between different religious groups. . This minimal consensus on shared values acted as a unifying force amidst diversity. As such, mutual respect and tolerance became the most important values to keep religious pluralism in place in India. As a result, Indian secularism became a bridge between religions in a multi-religious society. It became a way for extending the principle of pluralism to religiosity. As Lala Rajpat rai wrote in January 19245, “ The Indian notion, such as we intend to build, neither is, nor will be, exclusively Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian. It will be each and all.” (3) In that sense, Indian secularism advocates a form of neutrality and non-preferentialism in regard to different religions. In this context, religious minorities can best be protected by a democratic state that ensures religious tolerance.

If we bear in mind the features of the modern politics of secularization such as march of rationality, coercion and state authority, it would be easier to differentiate and to appreciate the Indian concept of secularism. Indeed, the “wall of separation” doctrine cannot be strictly applied in the reading and application of the Indian concept of secularism in the Middle East. Given the inapplicability of the French model of secularism to the Muslim world, it becomes necessary to find a criterion by which state involvement, when it occurs in the domain of religion, can appear to the members of a religious group as both legitimate and fair. It seems that the Indian concept of secularism based on toleration and ensuring protection to all religious communities on an equal basis without being supportive of any particular religion can supply us with this criterion.

That being said, to pursue a secular politics of rejecting sectarianism and demanding toleration one should need to rearrange one’s strategic priorities without making historical shortcuts. In this case, a secular politics of toleration would be a two-fold struggle, a resistance to uniformization and an invitation to democratization. If such a strategy is to find any role in the regulation of the lives and activities of Islamic societies today, one needs to workout an alternative concept of secularism rather than simply an alternative to it. That is to say, the real challenge is not that secularism remains an inescapable option; it is that we should not escape the fact of rethinking it. The challenge is not to abandon secularism, but to formulate it as a philosophy with spiritual values, rather than solely a policy of the state. This the only way of rethinking our whole approach to the future in Muslim societies to the extent that we can allow the pluralist model of a “shared home” to present itself as “a third way” solution to the crisis of political societies in the Middle East and in opposition to the secular authoritarianism of the state and the rise of religious fundamentalism in the civil society.


1) Gopal. S (ed.) Jawaharlal Nehru: An Anthology, OUP, Delhi 1980, p.330
2) Quoted in Puri, B.N., Secularism in Indian Ethos, Atma Ram& Sons, Delhi 1990, pp.355-356.
3) Quoted in Sankhdher, M.M., Secularism in India: Dilemmas and Challenges, Deep&Deep Publications, Delhi 1992, p.312

Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo is head of the Department for Contemporary Studies at the Cultural Research Bureau in Iran. His publications include Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity, Iran and Modernity, and Penser la non violence.

This text was presented at the Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations round-table “What is Secularism?”, organised for the UNESCO World Philosophy Day held in Istanbul on 22 November 2007.



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