The difference between secularism and secularisation
The question: What is secularism?
What is the relationship between secularism, the state policy; andsecularisation, the social process? Most conversations tend to confuse the two, moving from one to the other. However, we don't really have a clear map of how the two are related to each other. Does the adoption of secularism as a policy lead to the process of secularisation in society? Or is it the other way round? Is it possible that groups such as the Islamists who oppose secularism may be, inadvertently perhaps, facilitating secularisation?
The general understanding about the relationship between secularism and secularisation is based on a reified reading of European history. The potted version would run something like this: "Once the Catholic church was challenged there was a lot of fighting and eventually people decided that tolerance is the best way forward. They also realised that the most convenient way to operationalise tolerance would be to separate church and state, public and private spheres." There are many problems with this narrative, including questions of historical accuracy, as well as immense variations and reversals in the European experience. However, it is important here to note that in this version secularism and secularisation seem to have developed together.
Paradoxically, for the world beyond Europe the policy prescriptive has been the opposite. Since the late colonial period – and particularly for predominantly Muslim societies today – the policy dogma has been that the adoption of secularism as a state project will lead to the process of secularisation. But secularism as a separation of church (religion) and state does not make ready sense in societies where there was no hierarchical, structured church that had inherited an empire's state apparatus as the Roman Catholic church had in Europe. In the various versions of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism etc there has been no one clerical figure vested with the kind of power and authority that the pope excersised over domains now assumed within the modern state.
So we cannot assume that the lack of secularisation within these societies is due to some "lateness" on their part. They did not secularise in the way that Europe did because they did not need to. Branding them as backward was part of a colonial project but not one that we have to subscribe to today without evidence to support it. At the same time as acknowledging this, we also need to recognise that over the last century something new has happened that has led to much critical thinking about the relationship between religion and the state in these societies. This catalyst for political and intellectual tumult is the modern state. The modern state with its interest in managing individuals rather than communities tends to politicise various kinds of identities, many of which had been assumed to be private/apolitical in pre-modern contexts, for instance, gender relations, sexual preferences, ethnic and of course, religious identities.
The Islamists, or those within the larger category of Muslim fundamentalists who focus on taking over the state, are one of the range of responses generated within societies grappling with the modern state bound up with the legacy of colonialism.
Islamists are not primarily militant nor pre-modern. They are modernist in the structure of their thought, in their organisation – indeed Jamaat-e-Islami, an influential Islamist party in south Asia, was organised on the Leninist model of a cadre-based vanguard party – and in the categories and political structures that they engage with.
Islamism arose in early 20th century at a time when the state was the dominant paradigm for organising political energies. Political movements of the time from communist to fascist to liberal nationalist, and including the Islamists, were focused on taking over the state to transform society.
The Islamists are vehement in their public insistence on dislodging the idea of secularism as universal, claiming it to be a parochial, European experience – with some justification. Yet, the process of raising these and other questions about the definitions of public and private in the political arena, the fierce competition amongst Islamists to provide a definitive answer and the very structure of Islamist thought that emphasises an individual relationship with religious texts has led to a deep, conscious and critical questioning of the role of religion – a secularisation – in predominantly Muslim polities.
Secularisation is not just the increase or decrease in visible markers of religiosity or in church attendance, but also a fundamental shift in religious belief towards rationalisation and objectification. The Protestant reformers were not arguing for less religion, they were asking for more – for a continuously religious life against the Catholic cycles of sin and repentance. Yet, as Max Weber's influential work suggests, they ended up rationalising and secularising. To say all this is not to suggest that Pakistani Islamists will have exactly the same impact as the German Protestants. There can be little doubt that they will produce a very different subject and citizen because of the disparity in context.
But we can at least acknowledge that we need to understand the relationship between secularism and secularisation more clearly before we can build a universal definition of secularism. I am not arguing here for abandoning a universal definition, just for a more truly universally grounded and methodical one.