Assimilationist-Secularism: Negotiating the Muslim Identity during the Age of Globalization
Recent comments by the presidential candidate Ben Carson on Muslims in the United States, and the controversial beef ban in India that has led to the murders of Muslims, causes one critically analyze the word “secularism” with regards to the Muslim identity living in a globalized world.
In a world that is quickly and increasingly becoming pluralistic and diverse, the rhetoric advocating religious and racial assimilation is becoming more blatant, ferocious and aggressive. In particular this seems to be the case for the Muslim person living in the global context, where control is being levied on their religious practice, their dress, and most recently their diet.
The dominant narrative in the United States regarding Muslims is that they are unable to separate their Mosque from the state. Asra Q. Nomani talking about Carson writes, “He doesn’t want a Muslim as president who doesn’t believe in the strict secular separation of mosque and state.” It is interesting to note, that Nomani and Carson operate from the assumption that a Christian candidate is able to maintain a secular identity that effectively distinguishes their religion from their politics.
One could argue that the sentiments behind such comments may be Islamphobic and they would be correct to make that point, but I want to take a different route and contend that the rhetoric behind secularism is driven from a deep desire to assimilate the Muslim body into the larger fabric of America.
The issue of secularism through assimilation comes to the fore when talking about Muslim women. Carson notes, “If you look throughout the world at Muslim government, I see discrimination against women, discrimination against gays, subjugation of other religious beliefs.” Muslim women seen through western eyes are often depicted as victims that must be rescued by the liberal west. Lila Abu-Lughod writes, “Take the veil, for example. We were surprised when many women in Afghanistan didn’t take them off after being “liberated,” seeing as they had become such symbols of oppression in the West. But we were confusing veiling with a lack of agency.” I would argue that the “lack of agency” feeds into an unconscious anti-Muslim sentiment where the act of discarding the veil not only represents liberation, but also becomes a symbol of secularism. Nomani writes, “We really don’t want a first lady—or a president—in a burka, or face veil.” Although, Nomani never makes the point explicitly, she suggests that a woman wearing a burka/face veil is incapable of being secular. Thus, an assimilationist-secularism is at play in both Carson and Nomani’s argument, where the only way for a Muslim to be secular is to assimilate into the dominant narrative.
The struggle to impose the ban of beef in India arises from a similar sentiment actively promoting assimilation. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party have been criticized for not confronting the religious intolerance that is being displayed in India. Leaders of the ruling party are openly making bigoted comments against people who eat beef, and it is no surprise that the community under attack is the Muslim community. Comments like, “Muslims can live here, but in this country, they will have to stop eating beef,” made by Manohar Lal Khattar, the chief minister of Haryana, depict the deep anti-Muslim sentiment that still remains deeply embedded within the Indian mind. Another leader and the Member of Parliament, Sakshi Maharaj is pushing for the death penalty for anyone who is caught slaughtering a cow in India. One could say that Khattar’s statements are too extreme and the government does not have the right to dictate what is put on my dinner plate, but it still demands critical inquiry.
What is Khattar actually advocating? And for that matter what is Carson advocating?
From where I stand, both Carson and Khattar are saying very similar things. The only way for a Muslim to be secular in the age of globalization is to assimilate. Gopika Solanki, professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, describes Indian secularism as “a tool to construct a Hindu nation in which Muslims and other minorities would assimilate.” Could this form of “assimilationist-secularism” be functioning in the United States too?
If this is true, then we need to redefine, rethink, and critically analyze our definition for secularism. And we need to realize that to be truly secular is not to assimilate but critically engage with our multiple identities at the same time, without ever giving up on either of our identities but thinking with them and through them.
What I mean by this is: if I can be an African American Christian and a Hindu-Indian at the same time, why cannot I be an American-Muslim or an Indian-Muslim at the same time?