Saba Naqvi on A Supposed Crisis of Indian Secularism

Saba Naqvi has offered an interesting critique of Indian secularism; in it, she writes of the need to:
[C]onfront the great crisis of Indian secularism, that is now so hollowed out that it makes it easy for communal forces to grow….Indian secularism is not about some utterance of the soul as a Jawaharlal Nehru may have once imagined it. It appears to be mostly about electoral management by secular parties that involves first seeing Muslims as a herd and then trying to keep that herd together.

And goes on:

Beyond that, there is nothing much that the Indian secular state has given the Muslim community except perhaps to ensure that they live for eternity in the museum that displays our secularism. That museum is full of stereotypes, most notably that of the clerics as representative of the community, those men with long beards, and women in burqa. Despite being so all-pervasive, the stereotypes are so flat they at times look like caricatures.

Since Inde­pendence, sec­ular parties in India have approached the Muslim community through clerics and in the process given them legitimacy. The maulanas, in turn, have used the cover of “secularism” to keep retrograde personal laws in place and thereby their own relevance intact till presumably they land in paradise. They rarely talk of jobs, employment, modernity. The result now is that having been given “secularism” to eat and a vote to brandish, the Muslims of India have been left in their ghettos with many “sole spokesmen” of the community. It is these clerics who promise the deliverance of that herd during election time. Their projection of their own clout is often a fraudulent exercise.
 
Naqvi’s observations are acute but I do not know if I agree with her diagnosis. To wit, it is not clear to me if the situation at hand indicates a crisis of secularism–the Indian one in particular, which seeks to cater to all religions equally as opposed to finding a rigid separation between church and state–as much as it it is an indicator that bad things happen when the pandering almost invariably associated with electoral democracies meets organized religion, or a community in which the pronouncements of clergy are taken seriously as a guide to social action. Political parties approaching communities (read: voting blocs) through clerics alone do not give the clergy legitimacy; that standing is dependent on the social structures within which the priestly order finds a space within which to exert power. I wonder if Naqvi is putting the cart before the horse here.
 
On an intemperate side note: Many are the times when I wonder if organized religion–with its almost inevitable machinery of interpretive authorities, doctrinal mavens, and holy men–is, everywhere, all the time, a pernicious burden on society. Perhaps Diderot had it right: Man will not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest. Gary Wills has written what seems like an excellent book about how the Catholic religion could and should get rid of its priests; it’s a model worth emulating elsewhere. (I am well aware that Islam is not similar to Catholicism in this matter.) 

Beware the Easily Defined Philosophical Term

Over the course of my philosophy career, I’ve come to realize I sometimes use technical philosophical terms without an exceedingly determinate conception of their precise meaning. But I do, however, know how to use them in a particular philosophical context that will make sense to an interlocutor–reader, discussant, student–who has a background similar to mine. (Perhaps this is all that is required with just about any word? What more could be required after all? But I digress.) Thus, I muddle through, talking about philosophy, writing on it, teaching it, debating it. Heck, I’ve made a career out of it.

A classic example of an ambiguous, yet useful and widely used term is ‘humanism.’ I made heavy use of it in the first paper I wrote in graduate school, in a paper on Marx and Feuerbach‘s views on religion. I described Marx and Feuerbach (and possibly Hegel) as humanists, referred to the Young Marx as an arch-humanist in distinguishing him from the Later ‘Das Kapital‘ Marx, and so on. Over the years though, I’ve come to sense that I don’t have a real handle on the term other than to say it refers to ‘human-centered philosophies.’ When asked to explicate that term, I launch into various examples: early Marxism, existentialism, secularism–stress its affinities–philosophical naturalism, for instance–and point to other schools of thought that employ the term, like, say, renaissance humanism. Within the context of these examples, I am then able to try to clarify what is meant by ‘human-centered.’ This past fall, when introducing students to existentialism via Sartre–besides the obvious import of the slogan that ‘(human) existence precedes (human) essence’–I stressed his claim that Sartrean existentialism is humanism because it emphasizes, centrally, the human freedom and ability to make choices. And as I’ve mentioned affinities above, it is worth mentioning humanism’s affinities with pragmatism. In particular, William James, who took ‘humanism’ to describe his pragmatism, offers us some wonderful characterizations of it:

[I]t is impossible to strip the human element out from even our most abstract theorizing

[T]o an unascertainable extent our truths are man-made products.

The ambiguity of philosophical terms should not be too shocking: many philosophical terms have been employed in a wide variety of disciplinary contexts; they have extensive histories of usage and thus resist precise definition (as Nietzsche usefully pointed out a long time ago); they are used to clarify, extend, and resolve philosophical debates in more than one arena of disputation; sometimes, they are drawn from different languages and then encountered in translation; they often enjoy extensive deployment in non-philosophical contexts, and thus create ambiguities between antecedent and  current usage. Furthermore, philosophical traditions that stress conceptual analysis can sometimes exacerbate the confusion: by emphasizing necessary and sufficient conditions for usage, they risk smoothing out, by force and fiat, the rough, serrated edges of meaning that make the term as useful and ubiquitous as it has been.

A philosophical term that is all too easily defined should make us just a little suspicious about its  usefulness.