Secular Or Not Secular

By Professor Alhagi Manta Drammeh (FHA, FRSA, UK)

People talk about The Gambia as a secular state. It was inserted in the 1997 Gambian Constitution that The Gambia is a secular state. Secularism is a big term that needs to be deconstrued to be understood. We talk of secularism as if it is a monolithic or homogeneous conception. It is neither monolithic nor homogeneous. Different scholars have defined it differently over the 300 years ago. It is also important to underpin its historical context. Does it mean that religion has no say in politics or politics have no say in religion? The semantics are not important, but more important is to understand the substance of the conception, how it has evolved and understood. Secularism is like the idea of multiculturalism in terms of their complexity and multitude interpretations. We have the French model of multiculturalism, the British model, the UAE, the Canadian model, the Nigerian, South-African, the Australian and so on. No one model is the same as the other. They might have similarities, commonalities but differences are bound to exist. It defeats the purpose to be ideological about these issues or try to supplant a ready-made model. Each model must emerge from the aspirations, traditions, customs and norms of the people if we want them to succeed. I am of the view that civic state seems more appropriate as civil society organisations create cultural change following major socio-political crises. This recognises the evolutionary theory of collective behaviour and that multiple organisations and cross-fertilisation of ideas can compete to influence culture (Bail, Christopher, 2015). Secularism was born out of the internal contradictions within the Western society and the attempts by the Judeo-Christian tradition to reform itself as in the case of the Protestant movement showing the difficulty to separate religion from human life completely. The legitimate question will be how to govern the relationships between politics and religion? Where they converge and diverge? This schism resulted in the development of “liberal individualism” and “communism” or “collectivism” based on human nature and nature of things respectively. This kind of relations is played out in the ‘papal diplomacy’ where the Holy See’s (HS) global outreach is ‘institutionalised’ and rests on formal diplomatic representations around the world (Troy, Jodok, BJPIR, 2018:522). Furthermore, there are secular governments around the world that draw on religion for their ideological, philosophical and moral argumentations. The current major ruling party in Germany is democratic Christian party and the party ruling Turkey draws its philosophical grounding from Islamic tradition. We have to draw a line between theocracy and philosophical underpinnings. Nobody speaks in a vacuum. One is influenced inadvertently or otherwise by one’s culture and tradition. But that does not mean exclusion. Broadly speaking the Conservative and Republican parties in the UK and USA respectively pride themselves in their Judo-Christian heritage. In the UK interestingly, the Queen is both the Head of the State and the Head of the Anglican Church. Secularism is not monolithic. The French model (laicite) is a complete relegation of religion due to obvious historical reasons and contexts. The history goes back to the medieval Europe when the clergy was dominant and in fact overshadowed science. With the advent of the Renaissance, antagonism towards religion in Europe emerged. This led to Revolutions in France and England. In France, the monarchy was completely removed (republic) and in the UK the monarch was not removed but power sharing arrangement was forged to separate powers and restore constitutional monarchy.
Political process is complex and needs human rationalisation in order to organise the affairs of the people in the best manner. We need to construct a new synthesis of the relationship between politics and religion. Although the constitution can be civic, that does not mean that the foundations of the law or polity are not influenced by a religious teaching. It will not be entirely wrong to say that there are political parties even in the Western hemisphere that have religious leanings.


One Comment

  1. Dida Halake

    Good piece Professor,
    I will be less diplomatic than you and say that the arguments on “secularism” pushed by the likes of Madi Jobarteh seem to me infantile.
    Not just most Western countries, but the values of much of the world and even the United Nations itself are derived from religious principles simple because God (or Man!) created religion as a vehicle for those same values necessary for man’s existence on this earth.
    Coming back to the Gambia, I agree that the Constitution can be “civic” but the Constitution’s basic values must be based on the country’s essential religious traditional values (By the way, the Gambian President swears on the Koran to defend the Constitution – just as the USA President swears on the Bible to defend the Constitution).
    But you and I also know that the vast majority of Gambians practice religion in their daily lives. Amongst most Gambians you may throw a copy of the Constitution in the bin, but no one will pay you any attention. On the other hand, I will advise anyone against being seen trashing the Koran or the Bible!
    Good piece. Thanks

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