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Secularism is a celebrated ideal

Secularism does not mean that the state enforces the secularisation of society by removing religion from the public sphere entirely, such as by banning religious dress


by Anwar A Khan

Secularism grants freedom of religion to all citizens, and therefore, citizens following different religions have equal right to profess and propagate their respective faiths. The state is duty bound to protect the religious rights of all the citizens alike. It does not mean that it rejects the reality of an unseen spirit or the relevance of religion to life, or that it teaches faithlessness. It also does not mean that secularism itself becomes a religion. It only means that no religion gets any preferential treatment of any kind at the hands of the State. The essence is that all religions, with respect to the State, stand on equal footing.


Manuel Valls wrote, “Secularism must be applied everywhere, because that is how everyone will be able to live in peace with each other.” Secularism is a stance regarding religion that is restricted to the polity, and appeals to values that promote certain moral and political goods over corresponding harms. First, this means that secularism is a political doctrine and not a personal attitude. Not only should a secular state promote neutrality toward and equidistance from all religions in a religiously plural society, it should be able to defend the shared values of a polity, such as freedom of speech, that are formed independently of religion when those values conflict with particular religious laws, such as blasphemy.

Secularism does not mean that the state enforces the secularisation of society by removing religion from the public sphere entirely, such as by banning religious dress. Instead, it seeks to build a secular polity by appealing to modes of reasoning that are internal to each community in that society.

These societies were wracked by religious warfare and political strife, culminating in the devastation of the wars after wars. Moreover, the infamous and lasting form of political sovereignty predicated on the discovery and extermination of an enemy within–minorities of religion, language, ethnicity, and so forth. Secularism as a political doctrine was formulated as a necessary counterbalance to the violent wreckage that internecine religious conflict, majoritarian politics, and nationalist sentiment had left on the world.

A commitment to secularism – namely, that the state would not be aligned with any one religion – is an important first step. But it is not enough. In a society where religion is, and remains, an important anchor of personal identity, deeply valued by individuals and closely tied to notions of self-worth and dignity, the state has to make space for plurality of religious observances and cultural practices.

For members of different communities to have a sense of equality, the state needed to create a public culture that is hospitable to religious differences – one that allows individuals to enter and participate in public life despite their religious beliefs.

To create a comfortable and non-alienating public culture, the country’s constitution should give each individual the right to observe their religious practices, and give minorities the right to set up their own religious and educational institutions.

Minority educational institutions could receive funds from the state, if they so desired. Although no firm obligation was placed on the state, this allowed subsequent governments to support minority schools.The government put together a list of public holidays that gives due consideration to different religious communities. At least one holiday is given for a major festival or event of religious importance, for each community.

The lesson is the importance of creating a diverse public sphere that is inclusive and welcoming to all. And, most of all, one where cultural choices – in dress codes, food habits, and modes of address in social interaction are not shaped entirely by the culture of the majority. This is the opposite to what we see in modern-day France, for instance.

Bangladesh’s founding framework went far beyond the idea of liberal secularism; it made a deliberate effort to give minorities the space to continue with their distinct religious and cultural practices and to pass them on. Culture and religion-related anxieties can be exploited to nurture resentment, and this has to be avoided. But after Bangabandhu’s brutal murder in 1975, amoral military dictators – rulers have ravaged our secular constitution, the spirit which we achieved through our glorious Liberation War in 1971.

This is an important starting point but it has to be supplemented by government policies that ensure equal opportunity and security for people of all religions. Governments at the political centre and in different states failed to perform these tasks. Repeated incidents of inter-community violence occurred in the past in the country and the failure to punish the perpetrators of such violence have pushed vulnerable minorities into the arms of their community for solace.

These could have been avoided. The state could have given a stern message that such forms of violence and community targeting would not be tolerated. But in case after case, governments let their citizens down. Political parties were divided, choosing to stand with different communities at different times but always with an eye on electoral gains.

In an effort to curb such communitarian politics, the Election Commission should aims to force parties to think of all citizens, and not merely one community, it does not address all concerns.

The point is that, in a democracy, it is not religion per se but efforts to stigmatise and intimidate people or groups that is a matter of concern. This is what Bangladesh has yet to tackle effectively. When political parties can reach out to religious communities, take up their concerns and show that they give representation to candidates from different religions, they give a voice to minorities. These stem the sense of alienation and neglect that radicalisation so often taps into.

The most serious challenge today is to make space for individual dissent and autonomy and protect a person from those who wish to enforce the diktats of the community or the nation. Bangladesh has focused so heavily on equality between groups that it has neglected to protect individual liberty – something that is pursued more effectively in Europe.

Anxieties about religion and the lack of respect for it can be tapped to create a rigid and more closed identity along with a politics of resentment. The focus must, therefore, be on creating a stake in democratic politics, involving different communities at different levels of institution functioning and extending avenues for equal opportunity. So, we need to open up to solutions that not to go beyond secularism, from places like Bangladesh and from elsewhere. We need to embrace differences with policies for integrating minorities into education, the labour market and overall public life.

The view of secular organisations that people should have freedom from religion is a noble one based on compassion and a deep sense of justice. In the present time of violence, killing of innocent people by terrorist attacks in the name religion, we need solidarity and a unified sense of purpose to pursue secularism to end the endless terrorist acts and all sorts of violence.

Secularism means complete and absolute freedom to practice any religious. After Independence, our Constitution declared Bangladesh to be a Secular State, guaranteeing full respect to all the religions prevailing in the country. That was reversed with religion as I have said earlier which has to be retrieved in full in its place in the greater interest of people of all religions to live together in peace and in harmony.

During the Muslim rule, there had been certain rulers, like Akbar and Sher Shah Suri, who maintained an absolute form of secularism in the Indian sub-continent. Akbar’s religious policy of toleration was a noble specimen of secularism. ChaitanyaMahaprabhu, by preaching his cult of Bhakti and Love, preached equality of all the religions of the world. Nanak, Kabir, Chishti and many other sages of India advocated the cause of religious toleration. Guru Nanak and Baba Farid, the two apostles of love and piety, worked for the unification of the finest and sublimest essences of all religions and creeds.

The religion, which is preached in our scriptures, is quite compatible with the idea of Secularism. ‘To every man belonging to any religious faith, let thy prayer float.’ It has always been the main stress in our theological commands to extend toleration to the followers of all other religions. Bangladesh, throughout her glorious past had maintained the sacred name of her secular character. In India, Akbar’s ‘Golden Age’ is also an evidence of this fact. Sher shah’s meteoric rule is yet another illustration of India’s faith in secularism. Although Shivaji was constantly at war with the Mughals, yet under his sway Hindus and Muslims lived like brothers.

There are many advantages of secularism in the present age of globalisation. Ours is an age of internationalism and cosmopolitanism. We are marching fairly rapidly to the goal of universal brotherhood. Time is not very far when the entire world will be one single unit – an international state – in which we all are to live as members of the same one family. In this age of universal fraternity the narrow concept of theocracy has absolutely no place.

So, Secularism is a celebrated ideal and we should quest after it to maintain a peaceful society in Bangladesh and elsewhere in the world. To conclude, I wish to quote from Mahatma Gandhiji, ““If I were a dictator, religion and state would be separate. I swear by my religion. I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The state has nothing to do with it. The state would look after your secular welfare, health, communications, foreign relations, currency and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody's personal concern!”

-The End –

The writer is a senior citizen of Bangladesh, writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs.

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