The dilemma of a secular state
Saudi Arabian publications have a major share of the Islamic section in the book shop in Kuala Lumpur’s international airport. Several other books are local publications. But there is, in addition, a small number of written by eminent Indian Muslim scholars on a variety of subjects — ranging from Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence to science and society. It is quite likely that the global influence of Indian Islam is not very different from its representation in KLIA’s bookshelves. Should the Indian government promote India’s interpretation of the religion in the Islamic world?
In a secular state like India, there is little role for the state in matters of faith and religion. That said, the rise of a radical, intolerant version of Islam is not in India’s interests either. Even if the strength of India’s Islamic values and largely amicable inter-religious relations remain successful in keeping radical Islam to the margin, it is by no means certain that this will be the case among the Islamic countries in the region. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran have no self-imposed restrictions on promoting their own Islamic values and indeed see this as an instrument of their foreign policy. It is unlikely that India can address these exertions of soft-power by promoting the virtues of secularism to the Islamic world. It could, however, follow along the lines of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and promote its own Islamic tradition in various parts of the world.
Such a move would sit uncomfortably with India’s own secular credentials, especially it were to be carried out by a government body or an organ of state. It is less contentious, however, for the Indian government to assist its Islamic universities, charitable trusts and NGOs to raise their profile in the Muslim world, for example through scholarships, exchange programmes, tourism and yes, books.
So far, India has tried to engage the Islamic world politically, with mixed results — primarily because many Islamic countries do not always share India’s enthusiasm for secularism, but also because their leaders do not share its enthusiasm for democracy. It may be time to shift gears and begin to engage the Islamic world on a broader and a lower level. For India, increasing its representation on the bookshelves of the Kuala Lumpurs of the world is more important than seeking representation at the high-tables of the OIC. Indian foreign policy must change to reflect this reality.