Religious and political turbulence


OVER the recent decades, western democracies have experienced a powerful process of sociocultural transformation that we can briefly describe as radical pluralization. This pluralization seems to be an important challenge, especially for the European societies where secularism and the idea of a more or less homogenous nation state provided the cement of the modern vision of political community. This pluralization is a complex phenomenon that seemingly demands a rethinking of the framework of politics and society, and a redefinition of the basic concepts which make up the ‘identity vocabulary’ of these countries.

When, in a comment that points far beyond this issue, Charles Taylor puts forward a demand for a redefinition of secularism, he declares that ‘contemporary democracies, as they progressively diversify, will have to undergo redefinitions of their historical identities which may be far-reaching and painful.’1 This process of diversification creates a new situation that the conceptions about the sovereign nation state, about secular liberalism and other similar ideas that a self-definition of modern European societies has traditionally embraced, can hardly accommodate.


However, it is important to mention that this diversification is not only an outcome of the ‘deprivatization of religion’2 involving the space of public discourse within these societies – though this is a crucial element and colours debates on issues that are partly distinct and separate from it. One can think of recent developments in France: the infamous headscarf debate intensified discussion about the meaning and role of laïcité as a central element of the political constitution of republican political identity, and led to rather controversial conclusions in the form of a restatement of the thesis about the inevitability of a naked public space. At the same time, the recent debates and the intense political conflicts over the legalization of same-sex marriage in the country generated strong and conflicting versions of the republican argument. Similar debates are going on in other European countries – for instance, in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Germany – and these debates in various ways touch upon similar fundamental issues at stake in the definition of a democracy.

Indian political history in the post-Independence (and post-Partition) era was, and to this day is, determined by the struggle to create a political system that can guarantee the functioning of democracy in conditions which, in European terms, are unimaginably diverse. At the heart of the original ideal lay a specific idea of secularism that, it was supposed, could guarantee coexistence within a very diverse society and ground an essential ideal of democratic societies: namely, equality of all citizens. This idea of secularism implied not a purification of the public and political spheres from religious determinants which are deeply embedded in Indian society, but rather an official ethos of equal respect towards all religions and other forms of identity. Certain ideologically driven secularist presuppositions were, however, not totally alien to leading figures of the political class. The Nehruvian ideal aimed at creating such a political milieu by means of an initiation of a top-down process of secularization in the public domain. Political developments, and – in consequence of these developments – scholarly debate, show that the Indian model, akin to the European ones, is at the very least hardly unproblematic.


However, we can certainly affirm that the Indian secularism debates constitute one of the most exciting fields within contemporary scholarship on secularism, religion and politics; and we must underline that in the radically shifting European context the relevance of these debates is very important for those working on religion and politics in Europe. Evidently, developments within Indian society are to a great extent determined by religious, cultural and ethnic factors, and the most recent scholarship has revealed that other important constituents of the social sphere in India are better understood in relation to all these factors. For instance, as Mahajan and Jodhka’s recently published collection of essays shows, questions regarding social development need to be examined with religious and cultural factors in mind.3 

Therefore, problems concerning the public presence of religion and the debates over secularism are a very important field of study, and can constitute the focal point of an undertaking that aims to examine the conditions of pluralism, and possible strategies of accommodating this pluralism, in both the European and Indian contexts. In fact, exchange and mutual influence between Europe and India have a long history that dates back to the colonial period. As Peter van der Veer has explored, during the nineteenth and early-twentieth century the British and Indian colonial discourse on religion, secularization and modernization developed through mutual and reciprocal influence. The conceptual and attitudinal frames of the discourse were established by various factors that developed in accordance with the colonizer’s self-understanding, on the one hand, but powerfully affected the self-understanding of the British and Europeans, on the other.4 


So, I propose that the contemporary postcolonial logic of globalizations5 necessitates that, learning from van der Veer, we try to consider the sociopolitical consequences of dynamic pluralization through the lens of a developing inter-contextual programme of research on India and Europe. An important precondition of this study is that we focus less on so-called secularization theory. According to certain authors, secularization theory is an ambiguous way to interpret developments even in Europe, and is absolutely inapplicable in the Indian context. Rather, we need to try to understand the new conditions that force us to rethink the applicability and physiognomy of secularism as a political tool for arranging the life of democratic societies. As a category central to liberalism’s self-understanding, secularism today meets a paradigmatic challenge. If we want to understand the risks and opportunities presented by the contemporary situation, we need to take this challenge seriously.


According to the secular or liberal consensus,6 without the implementation of a definite form of secularism, no liberal democracy can survive; and this is a lesson we should learn from the time of the wars of religion. However, William T. Cavanaugh has already convincingly disqualified this founding myth of the liberal consensus about the wars of religion. His analyses evince that it is historically mistaken to define religion(s) as a specifically dangerous source of violence and social instability. He demonstrated that the early modern conflicts were not specifically religious, but a complex story of the use of religious tensions by various political agents; similarly, the modern state was not at all a peace-bringer in a world of fanatics, but an active agent with specific interests of its own.7 That is to say: the post-Enlightenment ‘fixation on religion’, to apply Charles Taylor’s description,8 turns out to be problematic not merely normatively or theoretically, but also historically.

At the same time, as Miroslav Volf warns us, the horrors of the bloodiest century of human history, the twentieth, were committed in the name of anti-religious ideologies.9 So if we want to define a question with regard to which Europe (and the different sub-contexts within it) and India share common dilemmas, despite their very different sociocultural and religious backgrounds, it is certainly necessary to examine the challenges of the intensive and intensifying pluralistic conditions within these societies, and the role that religions play in this process.


Without any intention of simplifying this question, I would like to argue that one of the most important steps on the way to a proper understanding of radical pluralization in Europe is to be made exactly through overcoming the fixation on religion. To put it otherwise, we need to reject the dominance of the secular/religious dichotomy. The main issue is not so much the complicatedness of this distinction in its application as an empirical category – in fact, as Goenewan Mohamad aptly writes, the situation in this regard is rather open-ended and tumultuous10 – but rather the application of this binary model of a secular/religious distinction as an exclusionary normative principle in the political vocabulary of democracies. Unlike Veit Bader, however, I would not propose to eliminate altogether the concept of secularism from our critical vocabulary.11 

Although his model includes elements that I find crucially important as we work to accommodate the radically pluralistic conditions in which we live, it seems rather unrealistic to drop the concept of secularism: it remains an important fact that the (possibly vague) idea of secularism is deeply embedded in the social imaginary of these societies. That is why, although I agree with Taylor’s proposal concerning the need to redefine the historical self-understanding of these societies, I propose, exactly because of the complexity of this process, that we keep ‘secularism’ as a functional notion in the conceptual apparatus of public and scholarly discourse. My proposal is not an apology for the preservation of the ideological tones of this concept, but is rather a kind of pragmatic proposal regarding the initiation of the transformations that will possibly result in embracing new attitudes, which ultimately may serve to make the very concept of secularism outdated.


As a starting point for rethinking the situation, I suggest radicalizing the Habermasian notion of postsecular consciousness (a concept he introduces as a category of the history of mentality12 ), by means of interpreting these developments within the larger problem-horizon of pluralization. Nevertheless, I would like to stress again that it is not the secularization theory that I want to deal with, but the status of secularism as a political category and an ideology. The radicalization of the Habermasian conception would, I imagine, entail consideration of the consequences of the new situation for philosophy, cultural theory and social and political theory. It is evident that this programme would be a very complex undertaking involving numerous researchers working in tandem. Its complete exposition does not merely point beyond the limits of this paper, but also beyond my competence as a scholar.


On the one hand, I argue that the radicalized version of the postsecular consciousness can be framed as a question related to the wider problem-horizon of pluralism. On the other hand, in agreement with an argument of Maclure and Taylor, I think that institutional frameworks should be adapted to the situation, and not vice versa.13 If we relativize the significance of the secular/religious dichotomy as a pilot category (though we do not erase the concept of secularism from our conceptual apparatus), focusing rather on the various world views and especially religious traditions (considering also their internal diversity), we can think about problems concerning postsecularism as questions fundamentally related to pluralism.

By altering the perspective of our examination of these questions concerning postsecular consciousness, we need to introduce an important distinction with regard to the notion of pluralism itself. In this respect, I would like to rely on the conceptual distinction made between active and passive pluralism worked out by some contemporary thinkers, albeit in various directions.14 Here I will rely mainly upon Guido Vanheeswijck’s elaboration of it.

In a society modelled on an idea of passive pluralism, all those cultural and religious elements of the members’ identity that are considered as possible sources of disagreement or conflict are relegated to the private sphere – and we should emphasize again that because of the aforementioned fixation on the secular, religious forms of identity are particularly suspect in this context. This model is designed under the influence of a definite idea of neutrality according to which public debates and the public sphere should be purified of the direct influence and expression of these various identities.


The main example for the passive pluralist model in Vanheeswijck’s account is the French system of laïcite. According to him, the tactics of passive pluralism renders communication between the various world views unproductive, since as a result of this purification their essential content is instrumentalized, and their specific content merged, in the homogenizing sphere of an avowedly neutral public space. What is more, since this pressure of instrumentalization is persistent, on the historical level it can have a negative feedback on these cultural formations, as it can exhaust the internal content of particular religious traditions.15 Lacking the opportunity of an intense exchange with their environment, these traditions lose their vitality and internal productivity. This process has negative effects both on the particular tradition and on its broader social environment.

Using the words of Ashis Nandy, we can say that the implementation of such a regime results in the blocking of ‘a dialogue between the public and the private within a person – and between politics and culture – [as] the two spheres are rigidly separated and the latter is frozen in time.’16 In addition to this, passive pluralism reduces the operation of public discourse to a purely procedural undertaking without considering the internal content of any idea of the public good. This too generates problems.17 To put it otherwise, the model of passive pluralism implies the tendencies of homogenization and instrumentalization which are, in fact, real risks for society itself.


Unlike passive pluralism, active pluralism leaves the public space open as a terrain of engagement of these various world views.18 It takes the various cultural and religious formations primarily as possible sources of human flourishing and motivation. At the same time, it abandons an idealized notion of neutrality and renounces homogenizing tendencies. Active pluralism initiates public discourse among the various cultural paradigms existing within a particular society, rather than imposing on them a rigid framework within which these cultural formations have to meet in an allegedly neutral public space.19 Applying the famous metaphor of Neuhaus,20 we can say that for active pluralism the public square is not at all naked, but is in a colourful way influenced by various world views and religions.


In conclusion, let me clarify the relevance of this rethinking of the problem of postsecular consciousness in terms of active pluralism with regard to the specific case of inter-contextual research on India and Europe. In my understanding a perception of the pluralistic conditions that motivates this proposal regarding the model of active pluralism is very much akin to the factual circumstances in India. Despite the immense variability of the diagnoses regarding the nature and prospects of secularism in India, the problematic character of a model like the one described here as passive pluralism is evident from these debates.

Without going into a detailed examination of works by authors contributing to these Indian debates, we can say that the development of recent scholarship in India is to a great extent describable as the production of optional versions of the active pluralist model, a scholarly and public effort that equally includes theoretical, conceptual and historical investigations. These undertakings are in the same way concerned with the unrealistic and counterproductive nature of the essentializing secularist model and the similarly essentializing communalist options that, at the same time, in essential aspects, play exactly on the logic of the former option.

In the conditions of our pluralizing European situation, it is essential to consider the possible ways of developing alternatives to the current pluralist model. I would like to underline that the problems concerning the religious components of this pluralizing situation by no means apply only to the questions about integration of the immigrant population. The representatives of various Christian or Jewish communities also express their demand for a public recognition of their particular standpoints. Indeed, they also emphasize their concern about the pressure they often experience within the broader social context dominated by the passive pluralist (secularist) attitude. On the other hand, one has the impression that certain figures of the allegedly exclusivist Christian denominations have more sensitivity about the accommodation of the radicalizing pluralistic conditions, and have a much greater openness towards the active pluralist agenda, than the allegedly inclusivist liberal-secularist elite.21 


I therefore argue that in both Europe and India the religious and political situation needs to be examined from a perspective of active pluralism. This model could serve as the attitudinal and theoretical background to inter-contextual reflection. This is not to suggest that there are no differences between the postsecular European context and the Indian one. On the contrary, as I emphasized earlier, we need to be sensitive even about the specificities of the sub-contexts (evidently, the French context is different, both historically and otherwise, from the British; as well as the Italian from the Finnish). Equally, we cannot neglect the difficulties of the situation either in India or in Europe. However, my positive argument is that the model – or, rather, models – of active pluralism would be much more promising tool(s) for developing variants of the framework that are sensitive to particular cases. The ideals of liberal democracy need to be preserved, but we need to realize that the implementation of these ideals is not a timeless reality, but needs to be adapted to new conditions. This is a complicated task in the present situation.



1. Charles Taylor, ‘Why We Need a Radical Redefinition of Secularism?’, in Butler et al., The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere. Columbia University Press, New York, 2011, pp. 34-59, 46.

2. José Casanova, Public Religions in the World. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1994, p. 5.

3. Gurpreet Mahajan and Surinder S. Jodhka, Religion, Community and Development: Changing Contours of Politics and Policy in India. Routledge, Delhi, 2010.

4. Peter van der Veer, Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain. Princeton University Press, Princeton (N.J.), 2001.

5. Prakash Shah, ‘Globalisation and the Challenge of Asian Legal Transplants in Europe.’ Alan Watson Foundation/University of Belgrade, 2007, p. 2.

6. Bryan McGraw, Faith in Politics: Religion and Liberal Political Thought. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010, pp. 2-3.

7. William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009.

8. Taylor, ‘Why We Need…’, ibid., p. 40.

9. Miroslav Volf, ‘A Voice of One’s Own: Public Faith in a Pluralistic World’, in Thomas Banchoff (ed.), Democracy and the New Religious Pluralism. Oxford University Press, 2007, Oxford, 2007, pp. 271-281, 278.

10. Goenewan Mohamad, ‘Secularism, "Revivalism", and Mimicry’, in T.N. Srinivasan (ed.), The Future of Secularism. Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 161-180, 161.

11. Veit Bader, Secularism and Democracy: Associational Governance and Religious Diversity. Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2007.

12. ‘A Postsecular World Society? On The Philosophical Significance of Postsecular Consciousness and the Multicultural World Society.’ An interview with Jürgen Habermas by Eduardo Mendieta, translated by Matthias Fritsch. Source: wp-content/uploads/2010/02/A-Postsecular-World-Society-TIF.pdf, Last accessed on 29.04.2013.

13. Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience. Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.), 2011.

14. Guido Vanheeswijck, Tolerantie en actief pluralisme: de afgewezen erfenis van Erasmus, More en Gillis. Pelckmans, Kapellen, 2008; Patrick Loobuyck, ‘Scheiding tussen kerk en staat. Op zoek naar een actief pluralistiche invulling’, in Streven 74 (2007), 10: 883-894; Richard D. Hecht, ‘Active Versus Passive Pluralism: A Changing Style of Civil Religion?’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 612 (2007), Religious Pluralism and Civil Society, pp. 133-151.

15. Vanheeswijck, ibid., p. 76.

16. Ashis Nandy, ‘An Anti-Secularist Manifesto’, in Nandy, The Romance of State and the Fate of Dissent in the Tropics. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2003, p. 37.

17. Vanheeswijck, ibid., p. 77.

18. Ibid., p. 79.

19. Ibid., p. 76.

20. Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids (Mich.), 1994. For the American case regarding active pluralism, see Hecht, ibid.

21. One can think of the debates generated by Rowan Williams’ notes on the limited British inclusion of elements of the Sharia law.