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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 50, New Delhi, November 28, 2020

Is French version of ‘secularism’ unrealistic and discriminatory against religion | Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Saturday 28 November 2020

by Vidya Bhushan Rawat

France is facing an unprecedented crisis at the moment after three citizens were killed in Nice inside a church. The killings have been brutal to say the least. This time, the killer happened to be a Tunisian migrant who had arrived a few months back. Prior to this, the horrific murder of a French teacher Samuel Paty for ‘insulting’ Prophet Mohammad has again ignited the debate of ‘free speech’ in France as well as other parts of the western world. Reports suggest that the 18 years old assassin Abdelhakim Sefriuoi was a Chechen refugee whose initial application for asylum in France was rejected due to dubious antecedent but later accepted when by a constitutional panel meant to oversee the cases meant for asylum.

After the beheading of Samual Paty, the French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the murder and termed it an assault on French value system of democratic republicanism. He also said that it was radical Islam which is creating the terror in France. He claimed these values are ‘foreign’ to France and hence he would do his best to make Islam in France free from the ‘international’ ‘influence’. After the statement made by Macron, there has been a competition in the Islamic world to term him as ‘evil’ by political leadership which look purely for political purposes. Also, protests have started in various parts of the world against French products. Pakistan’s parliament passed a resolution against France while Turkish ‘loudmouth’ suggested that Macron should go to mental asylum. Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohammad, who ruled with iron hand for a fairly long period actually called Muslims to ‘punishment’ and attack on France. French products are being boycotted and Macron’s portrait are being burnt and humiliated in public. Suddenly, all those who have no other work then surviving because of the religious issues have woken up against France and look that country a ‘challenge to Islam’. Of course, one cannot rule out the geopolitical games in these protests as a division among the leadership is clearly visible. While the Western World including Russia stand solidly behind France the Middle Eastern countries have also given reaction very differently. Saudi Arabia and Iran have responded in much more matured way than Turkey but it is well-known fact that Turkey has its own issues with France in relation to Lebanon and Syria.

France is unique in many ways and it feels proud of its ‘secular’ values of the Republic which was the hallmark of the French revolution when people revolted against the oppressive monarchy. French Republic’s secular values are different than other western world which encourages ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’. French feel secularism is not multi-culturalism particularly for the state apparatus which, it emphatically does not recognize any particular religion. French revolution is the hallmark of the national identity of that country where King is long dead and it is the people who are sovereign. Unlike, many other Western counterparts, Christianity and Church are not the part and parcel of French National identity. Perhaps, that is the reason why those who grew up in religious societies or ‘Indian’ brand of ‘secularism’ find it difficult to adjust with the French values of democratic republicanism. The problem with our concept of the secularism is that over the years it has been highly distorted and reduced to religious symbolism. Our ‘religious’ feelings are easily ‘hurt’ when anyone questions the ‘finality’ of the texts or speak up a parallel narrative of the same. During the last six years, the right to offend to others has been taken up by the Hindutva trolls who are using all forms of narratives, fake news and fixing up international issues in Indian scenario. The feeling of the Brahmanical narrative of India has become blasphemous and therefore can put you to jail for any offense if ‘their’ feeling is hurt with your action on Gods or goddesses or good habits. Therefore, Societies and countries which have never tested democracy and liberalism in real sense will never be able to understand the values of secularism as defined by French enlightenment.

In the din of protest against French President and France, we have ‘campaign’ on social media in India by the Hindutva trolls who are happy that the French have the power to say what they are saying. They are presenting President Macron as if he is a Hindu Right winger who has to hate Muslims. For many ‘commentators’ on the TV channel, Macron is the new ‘icon’ of the world who will decisively take on against Islamic terrorism. They feel that India and France are ‘natural’ allies in this regard. The incidents of France would not have been noticed here much but because it is big tool to spread rumours against the Muslims and push them to further marginalization. But this is exactly how Muslim countries and leaders are responding to Macron, vilifying him and condemning France as the only one-point agenda of French government at the moment is to deny Muslims their rights and declare a war on them. In fact, many of the western commentators went overboard to misinterpret the entire statement of French President who had to later give an interview to Al-Jazeera as well as write a letter to prestigious Financial Times from London, clarifying his position.

He wrote : “ I will not allow anybody to claim that France, or its government, is fostering racism against Muslims. France — we are attacked for this — is as secular for Muslims as for Christians, Jews, Buddhists and all believers. The neutrality of the state, which never intervenes in religious affairs, is a guarantee of freedom of worship. Our law enforcement forces protect mosques, churches and synagogues alike. France is a country that knows what it owes to the Islamic civilisation: its mathematics, its science, its architecture all borrow from it, and I announced the creation of an institute in Paris to showcase this great wealth. France is a country where Muslim leaders speak out when the worst happens, and call on followers to fight radical Islamism and defend freedom of expression. One can pretend not to see these realities, but one cannot ignore them indefinitely. For as Averroes, the 12th-century polymath, once wrote: “Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hatred, and hatred leads to violence.” Therefore, let us not nurture ignorance, by distorting the words of a head of state. We know only too well where that can lead. Instead, let us prefer clear-headed rigour and rigorous work; enlightened wisdom.”

It is surprising and shocking how countries like Pakistan which has one of the most brutal blasphemy laws mostly used against minorities wanted to champion the cause of ‘Muslims’ or Endogen, the Turkish President, well known for his rhetoric. It would be ideal for all of us to introspect about it and just look at the similar issues in our own backyards. How do we treat our minorities and marginalized and what have we done in the name of ‘religious’ freedom?

Look at these contrasts in our world who want to be ‘appreciating’ French President for his remark on Islam. How come those who supported mob lynching and call for stringent laws for our food habits in the name of offending sentiments of Hindus similar to what the blasphemy laws are in Pakistan are speaking of ‘secularism’. In India, all the ‘oppressed’ want ‘secularism’ which they define ‘freedom’ to ‘practice’ their faith and personal laws. The same oppressed when become ‘oppressor’ speak about Islamic theocratic states. So, problem is that both the supporter and opponents of the French system and French president are more hypocrite than the French themselves.

India including its media and politician have to learn a lot from the French liberalism where the government never tries to interfere the right to freedom of expression. It is this power of media that has allowed American media to mock at President Trump. It is this media that joked at him in London when he visited there. It is this power of media that Charlie Hebdo magazine antagonized various Christian groups who were upset with their ‘offense’ against Christianity. In terms of freedom of expression and right to individual rights, choices and faith, western world remains far superior to those whether Islamic countries or ‘democratic’ countries of the South.

France was one of the biggest colonial powers of the world after Great Britain and prospered at the cost of the native citizens of its colonies in Western African regions such as Tunisia, Algeria, Senegal, Ghana, Burkina Faso and other countries. There are various critiques of French Republic’s aggressive secularism as many regard them as a clever ploy to deny its former colonies and all those who were exploited because of their race. French constitution says it treats all its citizen on the basis of equality and does not promote any particular identity group. It also wishes that all the citizen value the republican and liberal value of the French republic. It is for this reason that French government services and school prohibit religious symbolism. The argument for banning on Hijab comes from the same idea though many of the Muslims consider it an affront to their ‘cultural’ values and an intrusion in their cultural freedom. The French don’t consider it that way and they think that trying to look different than the secular liberal values of the state is a challenge. Unlike UK and USA where religious freedom and multiculturalism is a part of a legal framework, French government and authorities don’t subscribe to those values, for them, the foundation of French Republic is secularism and there will be no compromise on that. While this is a bold and courageous statement there are various important points to ponder over for the French leadership and activists as the issue of discrimination and social exclusion cannot be resolved through humiliating those who don’t subscribe to the dominant narrative.

There is no doubt that a large number of Muslims in France came from their former colonies in Western Africa. It is also true that a majority of them have suffered discrimination or maybe their integration in the mainstream French society has not happened. While one may agree cannot ignore the growing feeling of disenchantment with Muslims in the west but attempt to isolate and stigmatise them will be counter-productive. But feeling that all the Muslims are being targeted in France just because they practice Islam is definitely not true. Definitely, the conditions of Ahmedis and Hazaras is much worst in Pakistan and other Islamic countries. One thing is clear that the western world is categorical and unambiguous in its solidarity with France. Now, we know they were colonisers and exploited various colonies mostly in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, Italy and Belgium were the main colonial powers which have exploited resources of these countries. There is no doubt that all these countries worked for the white supremacy and western hegemony but there is no denial of facts that most of the societies and nation-state where they intervened and exploited had the same kind of nature. India has a caste system and Dalits and Adivasis were never considered equal. That way, for India’s Bahujan’s the British rule was a boon as they got a say in decision making and leaders like Dr Ambedkar got an opportunity, who on any simple day would have never gotten the opportunity to work with the government of the day or draft our constitution. While we must expose the colonial powers and their games, the fact is that the current crisis is not really related to ‘colonialism’ or secularism.

It is equally important to understand that post-colonization, a lot have changed and the western world in their homes embraced not merely secular values but also multiculturalism and rule of law. It is not without fact that a huge number of people, families migrate from various countries including wealthy Middle Eastern countries to Europe and America and enjoy the liberal and democratic environment there. It is also a fact that individuals can enjoy much better freedom in these societies than in our countries where lynch mobs are ready to kill you if you do not follow their diktats. Is it not a fact that extra state powers are dominating in all our countries. There are biases in all societies and we need to address them. Much before slavery was used by the European whites, the system was already in place in Africa. Western democracies found it easier to work with the monarchs, dictators and despots as they got legitimacy from them which has resulted in loss of democratic values and multiculturalism in many of the societies under the Monarchs though for the purely commercial purposes, they too are encouraging it and changing.

There are a few things which is essential for the whole discussion. Issue of racial discrimination is a fact of life in various part of the world. Comparatively, Asian societies suffer from caste, colour and religious prejudices much more than the western world. There is an Arab nationalism which dominates in the middle east and rarely considered native indigenous communities as equal even if they practice Islam. In various African countries, the white Arab Muslims dominate and slavery is functioning even today. Our own record about equality in the subcontinent is well known to be spoken here. Caste system is a worst than a pandemic and now spreading the world over as Indians ‘embark’ to foreign lands. The difference between the colonial power or western world and the ‘others’ is that the west has successfully built robust institutions to protect democracy while in all the ‘colonised’ countries individual leaders ‘emerging’ from ‘social movements’ later turn autocratic. Political and individual freedom in our societies rarely exists because extra state actors of the majoritarian communalism dominate. Thus, Islamic fanatics in Pakistan and Bangladesh, Hindutva groups in India, Buddhist right-wing in Sri Lanka and Myanmar exits and everywhere minorities are considered as ‘obstacle’ and individual is guided more by religious laws than constitutional principles.

Secularism and minorities

It is essential to understand that secularism is not ‘individual’ ethics but the role of the state vis a vis its citizens. A secular state treats all its citizen on the common idea of citizenship irrespective of their ethnicities, religious and other identities but it is also a fact that a state also need to look into the issues of social justice and representation and for that it will have to develop its own yardsticks. Secularism will never succeed if it is imposed on people particularly minorities. France’s secular model is difficult for those democracies to follow because the power and influence of the religious rights whether ‘majority’ or ‘minority’ as religion becomes the biggest tool to achieve political ‘empowerment’. It is also a fact that multicultural societies it will be easier for those in position of power to mock and use freedom of ‘expression’ for the religious beliefs of the minorities as ‘majoritarian’ view become ‘nationalist’ as happening in India. An interesting part of this is happening in our part of the world which embraced ‘secularism’ as state principal immediately after independence but unlike France, we said the state will give equal respect to all the religion and will not be biased towards any particular religion. This too has its own problem as it became more symbolism than helping India developed into a ‘secular’ state. The symbolism ultimately resulted in the Hindutva supporters build a different narrative of playing the ‘exploited’ card despite being ‘majority’ while blaming ‘appeasement’ of Muslims despite the known facts that Muslims are under-represented in all sector including that in Parliament and state assemblies. Their representation in government services is much below than their percentage.

French President Macron is reiterating his country’s secular belief system and it must be applauded, unlike our leaders who feel ‘secularism’ is a dirty word. I must say, Macaron might have spoken many things due to electoral compulsion and every politician right from Endrogen to Modi to Imran Khan speak according to their constituencies back home, but I don’t think his reiteration of French Republic’s secular values has any misgiving. French Republic for all practical purposes remains Godless yet it accepts religious diversity. I agree that the religious freedom that minorities enjoy in UK, US, Canada, New Zealand or Scandinavian countries may be different as these countries are not ‘secular’ like France and encourage plural liberal value system but at the same point of time none of them will disagree with French President’s assertion. It is also time for other nations to follow liberal secular democracies as that is the only way out for world to grow. I agree that we need to come out of the fundamentalist approach on secularism. It is also important to respect broader feelings of people but it is also a fact that in all the Islamic countries Blasphemy law has been heavily misused against minorities. In Pakistan, the Ahmedis as well as Dalits particularly the Churas have been the biggest victim of the blasphemy law. Not only is the blasphemy law being misused but also laws of apostasy which does not give any right to a Muslim citizen to convert to other faith. It also needs to be noted that Blasphemy law does not mean that we should respect ‘all gods and all faiths’. Let all the countries change their blasphemy law into that they will ‘respect all the religions’ but it is not possible in theocracies. We can not ignore how General Zia’s Islamisation campaign in Pakistan was responsible for its downfall and the country has not yet recovered as the extra state actors, the loudspeakers of Islam started campaigning against minorities and became powerful enough that the state could never act against them. India is facing the same with the Hindutva paratroopers whose one-point agenda is to deliberately defame the Muslims and continue to put them on defensive so that they cant ask any question related to their rights. Blasphemy can not be for one God and one religion. If it has to happen then it has to happen for all. And if was allowed to happen then we would not have read the masterpieces of Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar, The Riddles of Hinduism or of Periyar. How would Bertrand Russel write ‘Why I am not a Christian’ or our own Prof Kancha Illaiah’s ‘Why I am not a Hindu’. I however fully agree that it is time we use our words more carefully and be careful not to hurt the sentiments of people who have been oppressed. It is also time; we focus on bigger issues and allow the voices from within the community. Secularisation process is not possible unless we look at the historical wrongs too. French colonial process in African countries mostly the Muslims can not be ignored. Secondly, France has the largest Muslim population in West Europe which is about 8% of its total population and it needs to address the broader issues of racially discriminated Muslims from their former colonies. It needs to look into their jobs and other economic-cultural issues. Seculars don’t have the right to ‘define’ how religion should be in a very similar way religious people can’t guide us how to write and what to speak. The only meeting point is rule of law as per the defined constitution. I am sure, the track record of the Western democracies are far superior to any other countries in the world particularly those run by monarchs and despots who suppress freethought and put people behind the bar for their political thoughts. It would have been possible in India of Nehru but that idea has systemically suffered erosion under various regimes in subsequent years.

India is not France and Indian state at the moment particularly its leadership has not spoken anything in support of secularism, a term it loves to hate. So, supporting Macron or France at the moment is nothing can be termed as hypocrisy but definitely a pragmatic move. Indian state had always felt proud of its own ‘indigenous’ ‘secularism’ which was able to accommodate its diversity in the form of Equal Respect to all. It had its own shortcomings but it was still workable and working better but unfortunately rather than tackling the issues ideologically, Indian political class used the term ‘secularism’ symbolically and the result was that it became a meeting ground for organizing people to mobilise against any reforms in the communities. In liberal societies, it is suggested that minorities have the right to practice their personal laws but no country in the world would allow personal laws to supersede the civil laws of the country. Personal laws might function in a theocratic state but then particular theocracies will not allow minorities to live with their faith intact, rather, they would encourage them to convert to main faith. It is therefore essential for minorities and marginalized that their best guarantee is a secular state which does not discriminate on the basis of their faith and identity. Now, a secular state can have a model like France or the other liberal democracies where an institution may be secular or liberal and individual rights to faith exist.

Secular states too have to understand that the majority community in any society is privileged and minorities become an easier target of the dominant ‘ideology’. Everywhere, minorities are lampooned, suspected because of their distinct identity. It is easier for the powerful to look liberal and mock at the powerless because the poor may not be ‘powerful’ in articulation and when pushed to the wall, they react. Their reaction gets disproportionate attention by the international media. The killing in war or in the name of war in the middle east and Africa is far bigger than the incidents in the west but the reactions to them have been disproportionate. There was nothing wrong in the French President’s argument that he won’t intervene in the media to tell them what to write and what not to as that has been the French tradition. They mocked at Christianity more than Islam and it is an accepted norm. The best practice is to ignore them. In other countries there are laws like India where you can take a person to the court for ‘hurting the religious sentiments’ or ‘blasphemy laws’ but these laws have been misused heavily as I have mentioned earlier, mostly against the minorities and the marginalized. France faces the allegation of racial discrimination against the immigrants from their former colonies such as Algeria and Tunisia. It is important that in the name of secularism no attempt should be made to homogenise the state and religious and ethnic diversities will only succeed when the state is absolutely neutral or secular and enough representation is provided to diverse communities there. The issue of representation has not really been addressed in Europe and America where the Black Lives matter issue came up. It is also a fact that argument of discrimination falls flat because most of the immigrants in the Western world actually come not merely because there is better economic conditions but also back home war, murders, looters and misgovernance exists. We need to realise these facts that Western hegemony is there not because they colonized us but they definitely have better structures, knowledge system, as well as they, provide us breathing in the free air which does not exist in our societies and nation-state. I can give numerous examples of people I have met in the western world who felt that they enjoyed freedom and liberty in the western world which does not exist in their own countries. If we feel that our religious freedom is not being allowed, why should we move to such societies where our identity is under the threat. Remember, no country would accept migrants on their terms and conditions. Nation-state gained from them but they will allow them to flourish up to a level but the day any society or nation feel that the immigrants are now a threat to their very existence or system there will be trouble.

President Macron is being mocked and lampooned. What he said was in defense of Free Speech is a French Tradition. One may or may not agree with these portrayals as Charlie Habdo did and he should have categorically said this that it was not his government’s position. He could have avoided blaming Muslims for the problems in France. These are dangerous accusations and will further alienate the people. However, to suggest that France is the worst country and has been campaigning against Muslims and Islam is too much to agree upon. Macron is not George Bush or Donald Trump. He has been very careful in his utterings but I do agree that somehow I found his utterings immediately after the Sam Patty murder, as quite disturbing. It is good that he has now cleared the air by saying that it is not the official position of France and that he defends the right to media to speak. For us, living in India and in plural societies, it is important that we be very careful in speaking about historical figures and those people respect, love and worship. Right to offend someone is not acceptable in our societies and even people like me will not be comfortable with it. There is a big difference between constructive criticism and mocking at someone and newspapers and magazines have to be careful about such publications. The responsibility is ours but justifying violence and brutality in the name of such things is not acceptable and will only prove those correct who suffer from anti-muslim racism. Every country has a right to decide about its policies and how they work. There is a risk too with anti-France campaign world over at the moment particularly in the Islamic world and that is the growth and strength of far-right political groups in France and Europe. If that happens, the biggest losers will not only be democracy, liberal traditions and free speech but immigrants and minorities who find solace in these societies after much struggle of threat and intimidations in their own countries. Let the tempers cool down and we all need to think it seriously that vilifying a secular state is as dangerous as blaming Islam and Muslims for all the current crisis of the world. France is capable of resolving its issues and it is not a monarchy or a despotic society which can annihilate a community more than 8% of its population. There are issues of social integration and it can be resolved but one thing is certain that a secular state is the only guarantee for the protection of rights of minorities whether religious, sexual, ethnic or any other marginalized groups.

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