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Encounters between Islam and Secularism in Contemporary India

Following Talal Asad’s foundational work on the subject, scholars have usually adopted a posture of skepticism regarding the liberal discourse of secularism, motivated by the imperative to unmask the political and epistemological subjugations underlying it. Interrogating the Eurocentrism of the concept, several authors have argued that secularism is the source of discrimination against Muslims in particular, calling Islam the ‘other of secularism’ (Hurd 2008: 8). Are there other ways to understand the relationship between secularism and Islam, for instance among Muslims in a non-western democracy such as India? At a time when secularism seems much less secure in the face of the waning of liberalism across the world (Boyer 2016), how might we reassess the success and limitations of Asad’s critique?

In 2020 we witnessed ‘the biggest political movement by Muslims in Independent India’ (Menon 2020) in response to the Citizenship Amendment Act, a legislation passed by the parliament that threatens to strip Muslims of their nationality by enshrining religion as a criterion of citizenship. In the intervening years, a fierce crackdown on independent political spaces has ensued, especially in Uttar Pradesh – India’s most politically significant state (Vaishnav & Hintson 2019) and home to the largest Muslim population in the country. The vast majority of organizations and activists comprising Muslim civil society. Commentators wonder where this decimation of civic spaces in Muslim communities leaves Muslim politics, engendering copious speculation and anxiety about the direction Muslims may be taking. Some voices are advocating for a political hibernation of sorts, an inward turn towards religious reform and economic betterment, such as the recently launched Indian Muslims Progress and Reform (The Siasat Daily 2020); others are panicking over the spectre of a radical Islam that the current climate might drive Muslims towards (Madampat 2022); and still others are calling for Muslims to embrace the ruling dispensation in the hope of eliciting favourable policies (ANI 2022). Within this gamut of political possibilities, I focus on attempts by Muslims to reclaim a secularism under siege in the prevailing right-wing Hindutva regime. Through ethnographic fieldwork conducted with three civil society organizations – Indian Muslims for Civil Rights, Institute for Social Harmony and Upliftment, and Qaumi Ekta Forum – I explore how Muslims drawn upon and refashion the Islamic tradition in their articulation of secularism.

Debates over the place of secularism in Indian society have a rich history in both popular and academic discourse, with some arguing for its indigeneity to Indian civilization (Jaffrelot 2019; Bhargava 1999) and others denouncing it as a Western concept alien to South Asian societies (Nandy 1985; Madan 1997). This distinction between the ‘West’ and the ‘non-West’ – relying on a topography of inside/outside – has been central to the scholarship on secularism, revealing its ties to Protestant Christianity and Western imperialism (Asad 2003; Masuzawa 2005; Anidjar 2006; Brown 2007). Writing amidst the backlash against political Islam in Euro-America, Asad showed that secularism was not a neutral political doctrine that promoted religious equality but was itself the source of ongoing religious discrimination, particularly against Muslims. While indebted to his work, I confront an impasse whereby the conceptual architecture inherited from the critique, which posits secular norms as inapplicable to Islamic contexts, feels inadequate in the contemporary moment.

My paper takes as its starting point Asad’s insight that the religious and the secular are not opposed ideologies but interdependent concepts that are necessarily linked in their mutual transformation. Scholarship following Asad nonetheless remains steadfast in tethering secularism to state power, provoking Agrama’s (2013) frustration that studies of secularism have become repetitive. This paper is premised on a methodological shift of focus away from the secular as a mode of governance and towards the secular as a vernacular practice that attends to how the secular is shaped not only beyond the state (Farman 2020), but in some cases in spite of and against the state (Tambar 2009). An orientation to the secular as vernacular practice enables me to explore how Muslim subjects actively appropriating the concept of secularism for the purpose of social activism.

While Asad distinguished between the secular as a discursive formation that is conceptually prior to – and ‘larger’ than – secularism, which on the other hand is a political doctrine that attempts to govern the relationship between religion and the secular, my paper refuses an insulation between political doctrine and epistemological category. Though I remain alert to the valuable genealogical work enabled by this distinction, to present the Muslims I conduct fieldwork among as attached to secularism without the secular would imply ceding the secular as the ground for contestation, when what I aim to explore is precisely how this attachment to secularism complicates the conventional, broadly liberal and Euro-American understanding of the secular. In doing so I foreground the problematic of inside/outside that has become crucial to the work conducted in the wake of Asad’s conceptualization of Islam as a discursive tradition, affirming the inapplicability of secular principles and dispositions to Islamic contexts, for they are presumed to stand outside this tradition. By examining how Muslims in contemporary India are articulating Islam and the secular in conjunction, I pursue the implications this carries for the methodological framework of Islam as discursive tradition.

Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)

In the wake of Asad’s foundational work, scholarship across the humanistic social sciences has been skeptical of the liberal discourse of secularism. Interrogating the Eurocentrism of the concept, several authors have argued that secularism’s roots in Protestant Christianity render it hostile to Muslims in particular, calling Islam the other of secularism. Are there other ways to understand the relationship between secularism and Islam, for instance, in a non-western democracy such as India? As Muslims organize to reclaim the country’s secular foundations endangered by the ruling Hindu majoritarian government, this paper examines how Muslims harness and refashion the Islamic tradition in their articulation of secularism through ethnographic fieldwork with three Muslim civil society organizations in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The paper concludes by drawing out the implications this Muslim activism carries for the methodological framework formulated by Asad for the study of Islam.