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Mainstream, VOL LV No 49 New Delhi November 25, 2017

Fundamentalism and Secularism

Sunday 26 November 2017, by P N Haksar

On November 27 this year falls the nineteenth death anniversary of distinguished administrator P.N. Haksar, one of the country’s foremost thinkers. [He passed away on November 27, 1998, precisely five months after N.C., who was close to him in his thinking, breathed his last.] On this occasion we remember him by reproducing an article he wrote in Man and Development (Vol. XIII, No. 4, December 1991), the journal he edited.

In the charmed world of Alice in Wonderland, words can be made to mean anything. Regrettably, outside the Wonderland, words have to be used with utmost care. The context in which a word arises must be understood if we are to avoid unnecessary sorrow and suffering. Ever since human beings began expressing themselves through words and then language, a measure of sacredness has been attached to a ‘word’. According to our own tradition, in the beginning there was ‘Word’ and that word was Om. Great care was taken in articulating the vibrant resonance of Om. Similar sanctity attaches to a muezzin’s call: “Allah-O-Akbar”. In the Christian system of faith and belief, the second person in the Trinity is ‘Word’. When a person makes a promise or statement to do something “upon my word”, sanctity attaches to that statement.

We have said enough to make the simple point that ‘words’ have to be used with utmost care. In order to do so, we must understand the context in which each word arose and the shades of meaning which it acquires through the passage of time. All this might sound somewhat pedantic, but the Information Revolution, which is shaking the world, makes it necessary to point out the dangers involved in our failure to be meticulous, even fussy, about the use of words. In these notes, we are particularly concerned about two words, namely, ‘Fundamentalism’ and ‘Secularism’.

Many dignitaries visiting our shores in recent months, more specially from the United States and the United Kingdom, have warned us about the rise of ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’. It is perhaps, their hope that India’s social and political climate might be receptive to their warnings. That hope is not without some basis. That is why it is necessary to examine critically the genesis of the word ‘fundamentalism’. How did this word arise in the English language? The Oxford Reference Dictionary explains it thus:

Strict maintenance of traditional orthodox religious beliefs; a religious movement which developed among various Protestant bodies in the USA after the First World War, based on strict adherence to certain tenets (e.g., the literal inerrancy of Scripture) held to be fundamental to the Christian faith.

The Encyclopedia of Social Sciences elaborates the origin of fundamentalism as follows:

Fundamentalism is the name of an aggressive conservative movement in the Protestant churches of the United States which flourished during the decade after the World War. It manifested itself chiefly in the Baptist, Disciple and Presbyterian churches but received considerable support from other ecclesiastical groups. It was characterised not only by its aggressive efforts to impose its creed upon the churches and upon the public and denominational schools of the country. Its conservative supernaturalism was expressed in the “five points of fundamentalism”, which included the doctrines of the inerrancy of the Bible, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the super-natural atonement, the physical resurrection of Jesus and the authenticity of the Gospel miracles. The first of these points was interpreted by fundamentalism to apply particularly to the Biblical account of the creation of man in opposition to the theory of evolution, which became the central question of the fundamentalist controversy.

The movement was directed against liberal elements within the churches and against purely scientific or secular interests in American civilisation.

It may be noted that fundamentalism as it arose in the USA allied itself to political conservatism against liberal elements within the churches and against purely scientific or secular interests. Enormous pressure was exerted on teachers and schools of a large number of States to purge the textbooks of all references to Evolution and substitute it with Creation. It may be of interest to note that

in the social sources from which it drew its strength fundamentalism was closely related to the conflict between rural and urban cultures in America... the fundamentalist attitude reflected the distrust of reason and the emphasis upon emotion, the doubt of human ability to solve ultimate problems and the reliance on divine agency which are characteristic not only of much traditional Christianity but also of those groups which have received the least profit from a rationalised culture and of pioneer and isolated rural societies which remain most conscious of dependence for their livelihood on those processes of nature which are least subject to human control. The rationalism and self-reliance of the opposing groups, on the other hand, had been fostered not only by science and education, but also by industrialised culture with its rational and artificial methods of production and its immediate urban environment, all largely subject to human control. (Encyclopedia of Social

Sciences, p. 527)

One can, perhaps, formulate a generalisation about causes generating fundamentalism expressed in religious terms. Whenever human beings in large or smaller aggregates in any society perceive that their physical and spiritual well-being and their future cannot be achieved through reason in politics, and thus become assailed by a sense of fear and uncertainty, they would tend to fall back upon fundamentalism as the only emotionally stabilising factor. Insofar as there is a growing potentiality of the rise of fundamentalism in countries where people profess Islam, it is directly relatable to massive frustration of hopes and aspirations of the peoples concerned for both bread and liberty. Historically speaking, these frustrations are the direct result of policies pursued by the West, including the United States, in the entire arena which embraces Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and the entire Arab world. Naturally, these frustrations might also grip those areas of the former Soviet Union in which people have Islamic faith.

One cannot meet the challenge posed by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism by the application of military force. It can only be met if the faith of these people in the possibility of improving their sense of human dignity, their identity and promise of a better life is seen to be understood and translated into diplomacy practised by the Western powers. The other scenario is too horrendous to contemplate. Surely those who warn India against the rise fundamentalism are not contemplating the revival of the crusades or of religious wars. One should learn from history that neither the crusades nor the religious wars fought in Europe between the 15th and 17th centuries yielded decisive results in the victory of one religion over the other or the victory of Protestantism over Catholicism. It is indeed ironic that fundamentalism should have resurrected itself in the United States amongst the Protestant sects.

In our own country, religious fundamentalism gains adherence only in the measure that reason retreats in politics, money and muscle power suffocates democracy, cultural and ideological pluralism is sought to be snuffed out by fundamentalism expressed in religious terms, whether in the name of Hinduism or Islam.

Our country has, for several centuries, interacted both with the Arab world and Persia. We have interacted with Islam. And if India had remained undivided we would have, in the Republic of United India, more than 300 million citizens of the Republic professing Islamic faith. We respectfully ask how Hindutva would have coped with Akhand Bharat containing 30 crores of Muslims? That is why we began by expressing serious anxiety about improper use of words.

It would be erroneous to assume that the mindset which is labelled by the word ‘funda-mentalism’ is invariably connected with religion. Any rigid dogma can degenerate into a funda-mentalist mindset crushing liberty and demo-cracy. Fundamentalism can equally express itself in racist terms. The apartheid system in South Africa, in this view of the matter, must be regarded as an expression of the fundamentalist mindset of White racists there. Hitler’s Nazism was also fundamentalist, as it combined racist dogmas with retreat from reason and rationality. In pre-war Japan, Japanese fundamentalism was based on enforcing the Bushido Code; dissidents were persecuted for the crime of advocating ‘dangerous thoughts’. The Stalinist persecution equally belongs to the fundamentalist species.

Our own social, political, economic, cultural and moral order is gripped with crisis. The centuries-old tradition, reinforced by a variety of oral traditions, helps our people in maintaining some sort of faith in their future. But this must not be overestimated. Fear and uncertainly is seeping through millions upon millions of people. Our political leadership faces a great challenge to replace fear with hope and this can only be done by combining together the moral, spiritual and scientific universe with which the names of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru are associated.

At this stage one must consider the meaning of the word ‘Secularism’. Both fundamentalism and secularism are interacting attitudes of mind in human societies bounded by specificities of their own respective cultures and civilisations. They are not independent variables. In the English language, the word ‘secular’ means “concerned with the affairs of this world, not spiritual or sacred” and ‘secularism’ means “the belief that morality or education should not be based on religion”.

Both the words secular and secularism arose as a result of the operation of a universal process which has been in operation in all societies from the dawn of human consciousness. In this connection we would like to draw the attention of our readers to the same column in the September 1991 issue of Man and Development entitled, “Men, Events and Processes”. By this process, the human mind is able to discern what constitutes the affairs of this world, as distinct from spiritual or sacred. Naturally, the outward expression of the operation of this process of secularisation of the human mind takes a variety of shapes and forms depending upon the cultural specificities of each society. The humankind began this process of secularisation from the very moment they began asking questions like How and Why instead of Who.

In the history of our own civilisation, we began drawing a distinction between matters relating to Ih-lok as distinct from Parlok. There is a similar distinction between matters relating to Deen and Dunia. The process of secularisation is fed by the search for knowledge which grows into science-based knowledge. By this process, human beings endeavour, on the basis of knowledge, to grapple with the problems of political, economic, social and cultural structu-ring of societies. In Europe, the secularisation process produced in time Renaissance, Enlighten-ment and Juristic humanitarian universalism. We can easily discern similar process at work in the story of our own civilisation.

It is important to remember that the process of secularisation was powerfully helped by the elaboration of natural laws instead of laws derived from sanctity of religion. When, in the midst of this process, there emerged the Modern Nation-State, the question arose, and certainly arises in our country with a particular sense of legitimacy, about the nature and character of our State: Is State an instrument for enforcing divine laws? Alternatively, is State an instrument for the enlargement and protection of totality of national interest transcending religious or denominational divisions? It is from these considerations that there arose the need for the State confining itself to the affairs of this world, and thus being secular rather than being an instrument of any particular faith or dogma.

It may be noted that the process of secularisation is accelerated in the measure that a State, citizens and society are governed by laws enacted through the democratic processes. There then emerges a “law-governing State” and “law-abiding citizens”. In our country, we have laws and procedures relating to crime; we have laws relating to evidence; we have laws governing transfer of property and about taxation. All these are secular laws concerning the affairs of our world in India. In this view of the matter, it is normal and natural to have uniform laws governing all citizens of the Republic of India.

If the words secular, secularism and secula-risation are to be understood as part and parcel of a universal process of secularisation of the human mind, then we have inflicted enormous damage on the nation-building process in India, by a totally unacceptable and false translation of the word secular and secularism by equating them to the doctrine of religious tolerance expressed in the words like Dharmanirpekshta and Sarwa Dharma Sambhava. These translations have produced great schizophrenia in our politics which, in time, has produced the situation with which we are now actually confronted in Punjab and Kashmir. And not merely in Punjab and Kashmir, but elsewhere too, when our politicians of all political parties make their electoral calculations in terms of ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Sikh’, ‘Christian’, etc.

There is one more question which needs to be answered: What is the relationship between religion, howsoever defined, and processes of secularisation? Is the relationship inherently antagonistic? The answer is no. The process of secularisation merely leads to finding the domain of each, both at the level of individual and society and State. That is why the word ‘Secular’ as we have stated means “concerned with the affairs of this world, not spiritual or sacred”. It is to be hoped that if the Republic of India is not to degenerate into a state of anarchy, the time has come for coming to grips with the real meaning of such words as ‘secularism’ and ‘fundamentalism’.

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