Some three weeks ago, Emmanuel Macron gave an important speech on freeing Islam in France of foreign influences that militate against the Republic’s values of secularism, equality, liberty and fraternity. He proposed a law that would enable the government to monitor the functioning of educational institutions that cater exclusively to religious minorities, restrict foreign clerics’ ability to train Imams in France, shut off foreign funding of mosques in France and appoint prefects who would guard against practices such as gender segregation in public places.
He also proposed to promote the study of Arabic in France and to set up an Institute of Islamology, to help Islam emerge from the crisis, he said, in which it finds itself around the world.
Turkey has criticised the French president’s move as Islamophobia and declared the state cannot tell the religion how to conduct itself. This is disingenuous. In Saudi Arabia, no Imam can preach anything that the Saudi state does not approve. The Keeper of the two mosques explicitly approves every Friday sermon in the kingdom. True, Macron needs to fortify himself from attacks on the nationalist right, in the wake of Islamist attacks in France such as those related to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the prophet, including the beheading, last week, of a school teacher who used that cartoon to illustrate his lesson on freedom of expression. However, it would be a mistake to see Macron’s policy on religious extremism merely as an exercise in expedience.
Extremism and fundamentalism, understood in this context as attitudes and ideology that conflict with the practice of democracy, must be resisted, not just in Islam but in every religion. In India, last week, a committed opponent of Khalistani separatism, a former Communist, was shot dead in Punjab. Atrocities on those placed on the lowest rungs of the caste hierarchy are reported with daunting frequency from around the country, particularly from Uttar Pradesh. Since caste is a perverse feature of Hinduism as practised in many parts of the country, its continuance must be understood as tolerance of religious extremism incompatible with democracy. (Anti-Muslim politics of Hindutva is more explicitly politics than anything stemming from the religion, per se, or religious radicalism).
The point is to mobilise public opinion in favour of democracy and against traditions and theological interpretations that militate against democracy, regardless of the religion involved. It certainly would invite opposition and condemnation from self-styled guardians of the faith. Such opposition runs the risk of making politicians who take a tough stand against religious extremism and fundamentalism lose some votes, perhaps even run the risk of physical assault. But those who champion democracy, regardless of the offence this causes to clergy, of whatever religious affiliation, will find support from the broader public, who value democracy above antiquated custom whose form and content challenge democracy.
India’s democratic Constitution holds out the right of minorities to practise and propagate their faith. But this right is embedded in democracy: the stronger democracy, the stronger that right’s articulation and enforcement in practice. That definitely does mean giving up undemocratic practices and traditions that enjoy the gloss of religious sanction, in order to secure the right to practice the core values of the religion.
If some Hindus want to practise caste discrimination, on the ground that such discrimination has religious sanctity, they will have to be restrained by force. Similarly, if Khalistanis believe that those who oppose their project are legitimate targets of terminal violence, they will have to be restrained by force. Muslims who hold that every outdated custom and practice must be preserved and pursued for them to live as true Muslims, extending to killing blasphemers and apostates, they will have to forcibly be restrained. Democracy is the foremost value, religion and its practices and principles are subordinate.
The remarkable thing is that no major religion is inherently incompatible with democracy in its core values and principles. Hinduism has traditionally practised vicious caste discrimination but a casteless version would be fully compatible with the Vedantic philosophy of non-dualism, of seeing everything and everyone as a manifestation of Atman. Christianity evolved, after the Enlightenment and Lutheran reformation, in the main, to accept democracy. Islam, as the religion practised by Muslims, was, in the past, reasonably tolerant of diversity of culture and beliefs, not the arid caricature that today presents itself as Islam in its pure form and opposes music, dance, art, sculpture and any other source of sensual enjoyment, and throws acid on women who do not wear the veil. When the Jews faced pogroms at the hand of Christians in medieval Europe, they were relatively secure under Muslim rule. Even today, the second largest middle-eastern population of Jews lives in Iran.
Recently, the Muslim Education Society of Kerala made news by banning the Hijab in its institutions, which range from schools to professional colleges for medicine and engineering, calling it an Arab import rather than an authentic part of Islam. Kerala Muslims don’t need anyone else them to tell them what Islam is: they have been observing the faith since the seventh century.
The sad reality is that radical Islam, of the kind upheld by the Islamic State and similar outfits, is a creation of the Cold War. The Taliban were created by the American and Pakistani intelligence agencies to produce unquestioning, motivated fighters against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. The Islamic revolution of Iran was the backlash against the Anglo-American-inspired coup that replaced democratic prime minister Mohammed Mosaddegh, after he nationalised the Anglo Iranian Oil Company, with the Shah. It was expedient for geopolitics to prop up a radical version of Islam as the authentic faith, ignoring the lived reality of Islam in past centuries.
In India, Muslims have been forsaken by the mainstream political parties. Hindutva politics has successfully tainted Muslim support as a sign of base pandering. This leaves ordinary Muslims either to be radicalised by organised ideologues working overtime with Saudi patronage or to evolve a politics that builds and strengthens democracy. They must reject not only parties that use them as the enemy to mobilise and consolidate Hindus but also parties that merely seek their votes without emphasising the need to modulate their way of life to be compatible with democracy.
To zap a cancerous tumour with radiation is not to attack the body in which the tumour has grown, but to save it. Attempts to apply painful therapy without making this distinction clear or in bad faith, when the real goal is to finish off the patient, would be disastrous.
French laicite rules out all outward symbols of religion in public life. Without going to that extreme, it would still be possible for India to wield the radiation beam to target the cancer, without harming the body politic.