Daily news reports demonstrate that western conceptions of political secularism have fared poorly in many other societies. More surprising is that such conceptions and the secular States they underpin are under strain even in Europe, where until very recently they were believed to be securely entrenched.
Two problems are rising. First, migration from developing countries and an intensified globalisation have thrown together in western public spaces pre-Christian faiths, Christianity and Islam. The cumulative result is unprecedented religious diversity and rising mutual suspicion and conflict.
Second, despite substantial secularisation, the formal establishment of a dominant religion hinders better intercommunity relations and efforts to reduce religious discrimination. In coming years, as Islamophobia grips the imagination of some western societies, it is very likely that their Muslim citizens will continue to face disadvantages solely on account of membership in their religious community.
The US adopted an attitude of passive respect towards all religions and was expected to neither help nor hinder any church or religion. This secularism was not anti-religious, but grew to prevent a different dimension of intra-religious domination, the official subordination of one sect over others.
If European States are to end their institutional bias towards one preferred religion, they must, like the French, disestablish religion and become truly secular. But they needn’t understand separation and impartiality to mean non-intervention. This means that rather than stopping subsidies to their preferred religion, they should extend it to all. This wouldn’t make European States any less but only differently secular.
They must adopt what, in the Indian context, I call a policy of principled distance: a flexible strategy that engages with religion or disengages from it depending on which of these helps reduce inter-religion or intra-religion domination. And they should be open to learning from non-western practices. The Indian conception of principled distance may be a good starting point.
Raveej Bhargava is director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal
This is part of the Religion and Public Space series in collaboration with the UN Alliance of Civilisations and its Global Experts project.