The secular license for the religious enactments: Folly of the times


By Sana Shah

In the wake of the republishing of the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in early September 2020 by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the recent series of incidents that followed after, as one can sense the atmosphere of heightened tensions and rebuttals, two acts of speaking up stand out. One- the remarks by Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada (arguably one of the first nations to officially enunciate multiculturalism as its state policy) who while defending freedom of expression also admitted of its limits and acknowledged the hurt that the Muslims had experienced. Second, are the words of the Archbishop of Toulouse, who viewed those caricatures as insulting not only for the Muslims but also for the Christians alike. At the same time, Non-Muslims joined Muslims in protesting against the caricatures as words like “honour”, “insult”, “pride” roared as hashtags.

Moments of these kinds brings to mind how after the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015, while many media houses were republishing those cartoons in protest to defend the free press, all the newspapers in the UK while condemning the attack on the press, however chose a different path by not republishing those cartoons. Also during the Satanic Verses controversy, while no media house or political party was able to understand why the Muslims were hurt, many Christian religious figures in the US and the UK did not defend the book, while the Chief Rabbi  of the United Hebrew Congregations went a step ahead  and opposed the book’s publication.


Now, two things surface from the chain of incidents, reactions and responses, in the past and in the present moment. First, that the debate around Secularism continues to be a point of contention across the globe for decades now and it seems far from settled. The very concept of secularism and its relationship with religion is not simplistic and not dichotomous at all. More often than not, secularism is being understood as chucking the religion out of the public sphere, thus calling for greater privatization of religion. Again, this is only one way of understanding secularism and certainly not the most feasible one, given that every nation has its own history where in cultural-majoritarian biases are imminent and the state has to take a call time to time, and state-neutrality becomes a sham to say the least. At the same time, how one has come to understand religion, is again a point that can be contested. However, while the dominant framework takes beliefs and practices to talk about religion, the nature of religion is often nuanced and beyond that. Hence, religion which can be a guiding force or a constitutive force of one’s existence, it nevertheless is also a question of one’s identity, individually and for groups.  Hence, the crisis of secularism is not a reaction against the excess of certain religious identities but the refusal to accommodate or acknowledge a set of other religious identities within the political discourse on part of the state and the social hostility towards it.

Second, there is more at stake than what meets the eye. Framing this debate in terms of freedom of expression on one hand and the question of blasphemy on the other hand is not enough to provide us with the complete picture.


Hence some unsettling and uncomfortable questions will have to be posed. While we saw the world in anger of another scale post the beheading incident and then other acts of violence in Nice and Muslims were being forced to take an apologetic stance, one has to ask what is it about incidents of these kinds that call for shock and anger of this intensity and while the violence cannot be justified, how is this any different from the violence committed by the nation-states with impunity in the name of freedom and democracy and nationalism for which somehow a miraculous justification is always found and approved of, by the same people in whose name the violence is unleashed? In the words of Asad, “Why is it that aggression in the name of God shocks secular liberal sensibilities, whereas the act of killing in the name of secular nation, or of democracy, does not?” (Asad, 2003).

This brings another dimension which so far, we might have missed out in the regular debates. In the modern world, the nation-states have come to attain the spot of the final arbiter of justice and we are letting even our inter-community relationships to be configured in a way that privileges the nation-states to decide the terms of relationship for us. This is analogous to what once was the role of the religious authority in pre-modern times. And it is here, that the existing terms of debate are actually not of much help and therefore, we need to move beyond it. For while the debates around secularism and freedom of expression find themselves strongly rooted within the tradition of Liberal toleration, one must at the same time remember that it is this tradition which also sets the limits on the working of secularism.

The Muslims charge that the cartoons embody a form of racism, cultural racism to be precise and Islamophobia is understood not just a form of intolerance; it has gone beyond that years ago, rather it is a form of racism. Another uncomfortable question therefore at this juncture would be to ask that while the intention behind producing such a cartoon was to clearly demean the people of a particular religious identity and a religion, would not the displaying of the same add to the perpetuation of the same atmosphere of hate and hostility leading onto the racialisation of a section of people? Even if for the sake of an argument, let us assume that the cartoon was made and displayed in the spirit of critical enquiry, the question arises, can the freedom of critical enquiry not be exercised in ways that are not hostile towards a community? The question then also becomes that can the enquiry not be conducted in ways that steer clear of the potential to hurt a certain community?

Further the cartoons in the Charlie Hebdo magazine are analogous to the ethnic cartoons of Jews in Nazi Germany or the bespeckled, buck-toothed drawings of Japanese in American World War II posters. These kinds of images demean a whole race or culture (Juergensmeyer, 2017). This also brings to mind the cartoons published in 1920s and 1930s from Der Stürmer from the 1920s and 1930s in Germany. The cartoonist would be making a statement not about Moses but about Jews; and on that basis it would be offensive and racist (Modood, 2019). The question then arises- should we be comfortable with a culture that sees no issues with degrading, humiliating and racializing a particular identity or not mind the same because that is the acceptable sense of humour in that culture? For instance, questioning holocaust or the holocaust denial is hurtful and extremely insensitive and is thus punishable in sixteen European nations as well, including France. However, the charge that the cartoons in this case were racist is being dismissed as an expression of fundamentalist Islam and the matter is being cast into one that is of choice between Islamic terrorism and spirit of open debate. In other words, it becomes a conflict between secular necessity and religious threat which is a misleading way of looking at the entire debate  (Mehmood, 2013).


The final point then becomes about the need to develop an understanding between communities about issues important to them- and it is here that another strong aspect that is missed out in understanding what is it that hurt the Muslims. That is the element of relationality. The Prophet in this understanding therefore is not “simply a proper noun referring to a historical figure but the mark of a relation of similitude” (Mehmood, 2013) and a modality of relation is being played out, which binds the subject to the object of veneration. The sense of moral injury therefore that emanates from this modality is quite distinct from the one that the notion of blasphemy encodes. And it is this relationship and the moral injury which is difficult to process for the language of law, politics and street protests. The unfortunate consequence therefore of assessing the cartoon controversy in terms of blasphemy and freedom of speech, as observed by Saba Mehmood and which is yet again being repeated now, is the immediate resort to juridical language by both sides. As difficult as it may sound, such a resort to the juridical language will not provide an enduring solution because of the structural constraints intrinsic to the Secular liberal law and how it defines religion and the inevitable design of politics that panders to the majoritarian cultural sensibilities.

These are the overview of the nuances that generally get missed out or are often overlooked in such moments of heightened tensions, as one fears posing uncomfortable questions, given the general atmosphere of hostility and hatred. Yet these are the questions that are going to stay with us in the long run and any attempt to resolve these tensions will have to come only through an honest engagement with questions of these kinds.


Sana Shah is a research scholar at JNU


Asad, T. (2003). Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity .

Juergensmeyer, M. (2017). The Imagined War between Secularism and Religion. In P. Zuckerman, & J. R. Shook (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Secularism.

Mehmood, S. (2013). Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An incommensurable Divide? . In T. Asad, W. Brown, J. Butler, & S. Mehmood, Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech. Fordham University Press.

Modood, T. (2019). Essays on Secularism and Multiculturalism. ECPR press.



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