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Secularism anyone?

January 30, 2018


‘SECULARISM’ is a dirty word in Pakistan. Our ‘pious’ lot equates it with atheism, moral decay and US plots. Ironically, these views are not due to confusions about its real nature but are attempts to malign and undercut its appeal by distorting reality. Atheism has only been enforced in communist states.

Once one challenges these views, their perpetrators accept that secularism means not atheism but separation of state and faith where people freely practise their faiths in the private sphere. But they then say that secularism produces an absence of a divine moral compass and a moral collapse. This view is wrong too. Moral ideals have existed for long in societies with no known divine links.

To understand why, we must trace how secularism arose in the West. Across Europe before it, the clergy shaped state policies. Religious conflict and crime were high. Petty clerics were not helping peace and morality, but undermining them, as in many developing states today.

Against this background arose capitalism. Political thinkers had a major role in bolstering secularism. But their efforts may have failed had secularism not suited emerging capitalism’s needs. New philosophies rarely succeed if they oppose the logic of ascendant economic systems. The extant political economy run by the monarchy and clergy restricted capitalism’s logic of accumulation. Soon, both actors were swept aside by capitalism. Thus, secularism rose in Europe on capitalism’s back as its modern ideals suited capitalism.

Petty clerics were not helping peace and morality.

This close link between a godless economic system and secularism may spur the suspicions of our pious lot that secularism causes moral decay. But the reality is different. Religious morality includes two parts. The first is social justice which is about protecting people from wrong by others. The second relates to sexual, dietary and other personal habits banned by many faiths. Western secularism has helped raise Western national social justice standards far above those prevalent commonly in history. This is partly due to capitalism’s needs. It reinforces existing lawlessness in developing countries. But in developed states that host its most advanced operations, it requires the rule of law and social justice to expand.

The progress of Western secularism on social justice ideals supported by all faiths should endear it to ‘pious’ people serious about religious social justice ideals. But they are put off by Western deviations from religious sexual, dietary and other personal injunctions. Secular minds may try to placate the concerns of ‘pious’ minds on this issue by arguing that such deviations don’t hurt others and are largely a matter between people and their gods. They may also argue that a secular state doesn’t force people to break such religious bans. People are free to seek guidance from the scriptures and stick to them even without any aid from the state.

But the pious lot may feel safer when the state forcefully imposes these bans as violations of them at least in public are much less common in religious states like Iran and Saudi Arabia than in the West. They may actually prefer such states, even though their standards of social justice are low, over Western ones where social justice and protection of all faiths may be higher. The secular lot prefers the opposite.

Yet secularism is not an immediate panacea for ills in places like Pakistan. One cannot achieve the same standards of social justice and protection for all faiths just by the state adopting secularism. The high standards of Western social justice have not emerged mainly from moral sermonising or even civil society struggles but due to the needs of capitalism for the rule of law. However, since capitalism reinforces lawlessness in developing states, secularism alone cannot produce social justice in such places.

Similarly, higher religious protection in the West exists due to not just secular states but also tolerant societies. These emerged in the West mainly due to capitalism’s needs too. Unlike pre-capitalist economic systems, capitalism exploits on the basis of not faith or ethnicity but class, embracing new consumers irrespective of ethnicity and faith. Where states are secular but societies are intolerant as in developing countries like Myanmar and India, religious minorities often face high abuse, as in religious states like Sudan and Pakistan.

Until societies become tolerant, weak secular states struggle to protect religious societies against the biases of society’s elites. In fact, intolerance and religious bias is increasing again even in the West as capitalism starts to stagnate. But this bias will not create any economic return for the dominant classes. Thus, as with other liberal ideas that can benefit humanity, secularism too falls prey to the greater powers of conservatism to mobilise people.

The writer heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit, and is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley.

Published in Dawn, January 30th, 2018