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Islam and the West ( 3 Feb 2021, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Multicultural Western Nations and Islamic Secularism

By Syed Mohammad Ali

January 01, 2021

Oblivious perhaps to the treatment of minorities within their own midst, many Muslim countries around the world are noting with concern the growing spectre of discrimination confronting their brethren in a modern and secular country like France. Putting aside the myopia which afflicts Muslims countries themselves, what is happening to Muslims in France, which is considered a paragon of the values of Enlightenment, is in fact an issue of concern.


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The French Revolution’s motto of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité has inspired governance reforms across much of the so-called Western world. These ideals of creating a sense of national solidarity based on notions of freedom and equality have had a major impact on building narratives of multicultural societies across Europe, Australia and the US. Amidst new stresses ushered in by globalisation, which have escalated migration and increased wealth inequalities, the need for embracing such equalising principles assumes more relevance within countries aiming to offer inclusive citizenship to their diverse citizenry.

Accompanying the aspirations of creating multicultural nations, many Western states have also embraced the notion of being secular. The notion of Laïcité, best translated as secularism, has also been championed by France, which passed a law back in 1905, to establish a separation of church and state. The idea of secularism aspires to guarantee the freedom to practise religion while ensuring the neutrality of the state. The idea of secular governments allowing for freedom of religion is considered a crowning achievement of Western countries, which is readily cited as a major difference between them and other secular ideologies such as communism, which sought to repress religious expression.


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Yet, the term secularism is also not without contention and should not be taken at face value. Especially since 9/11, we have seen an explosion of intolerance which seems incompatible with the idea of religious freedom in many modern societies. Yet, this contradiction is understandable if one goes beyond the rhetoric of what constitutes secularism.

Anthropologist Talal Asad has compellingly dismantled commonly held assumptions about secularism. He has demonstrated how much attention has been paid to the study of the strangeness of the non-Western world and its apparent non-rational dimensions of social life such as myth, taboo, and religion. Yet, the modern and secular have not been adequately examined.


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Asad argues that secularism cannot be viewed as a successor to religion or automatically assumed to be based on principles of rationality. The adoption of secular principles may aim to create a division between public and private realms which allows religious diversity to flourish, but is often not practised. Secularism itself can become a vehicle for ensuring harsh forms of exclusion.

Besides the Swiss ban on building minarets or attempts to discourage veiling by Muslim women in France or Quebec, many forms of Islamophobia have emerged across Western countries. Most glaring perhaps are attempts to publish caricatures, which Muslims deem as being blasphemous, and defend such moves in the name of freedom of expression.

Nobel laureate for literature Gunder Grass had rightly dismissed the framing of such offensive acts as the right to free speech or as symbols of resisting capitulation to Islamic extremists. Instead, Grass likened such attempts — after caricatures of the Prophet (peace be upon him) appeared in 2005 in a Danish newspaper — to Nazi caricatures of Jews.


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Many of today’s so-called modern and secular societies have come into being on the back of colonial and imperial legacies, and have major racial and class-based divisions within their midst. Such countries need to work harder to re-imagine notions of citizenship which transcend over-valued notions such as secularism. Otherwise, Muslims in the West may continue to be treated as a distinctive minority either to be tolerated by those of a liberal orientation, or restricted by those possessing populist dispositions.

Original Headline: Secularism versus Muslims

Source: The Express Tribune


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