Gambia and Secularism

BB Sanneh

I want to begin with a brief philosophical study and analysis of secularism and subsequently discuss it in the context of the Gambia.

Secular means without religion.

Secularism is the belief that religion should be a private, personal and voluntary affair that does not impose upon other people.  It is the theory that as society advances in modernity, religion retreats and becomes increasingly hollow.  The National Council of Churches describes it as “a way of understanding and living that is indifferent to religion – in fact, not even concerned enough to pay it any attention, much less oppose it.”

“Secularism theory is that process by which religious institutions, actions, and consciousness, loss their social significance.” Bryan Wilson (1982).

The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes secularism as the “indifference to religion and religious considerations”.  As a philosophy, secularism seeks to interpret life on principles taken solely from the material world without recourse to religion.

Philosophically, the term is meant to capture that body of thought, writing, and activism which seeks to critique religion, debunk its claims, challenge its clerical authorities, and ultimately disabuse religious people of their religious faith and participation.  From the ancient Skepticism of Lucretius and Wang Chung to the best-selling books of the New Atheists, the ideology entails the direct deconstruction of religious truth, claims, criticism of religious practices and leaders, and the promulgating of anti-theist polemics and anti-religious social protest.

Socio cultural secularism on the other hand entails the weakening or diminishing of religion in society, day to day life.  Simply put mundane engagements transacting during Friday prayers or Sunday church service, folks spending more time on useless pursuit on the internet than studying the Quran or Bible, disbandment of religious education in our schools, laws prohibiting polygamy, praying at work, women wearing scarves, religious holidays, legalization of adultery, fornication, same sex marriage and the list goes on.  It involves greater number of people in a given society living their lives in a decidedly secular manner, utterly oblivious or indifferent to supernatural being(s)/things like God, sin, salvation, heaven or hell and being distinctly disinterested in religious rituals and activities, and being less inclined to include or consider religion as a significant or marginal component of their identity.

Contemporary western secular democracies

In France, Laicite is the principle of secularism in public affairs, aimed at fostering a post religious society.  In this spirit, a law was passed in 2004 banning religious symbols and clothing, like the Christian cross, the Jewish kippah, and headscarves in public schools.  In addition, the law also includes some of the rules below;

o   Rules of politeness – religion can never be used to justify breaking the rules of equality between men and women.  For example, if a member of staff refuses to shake hands with a woman for religious reasons, or does not want to be managed by one, he will be sanctioned

o   Sex education – sex education becoming obligatory in schools, from primary to secondary

o   Celebrating Christmas and other religious festivals – “secularized festivals like Christmas can only be celebrated” if they are not used for worship of any kind including the presentation.  Just to mention a few

This so-called religious freedom emboldened Charlie Hebdo in 2006 to publish 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the pages of its weekly magazine.  Isn’t this a clear manifestation of liberals using the government’s coercive powers to force believers to change their views or act against their most deeply held spiritual convictions and thus committing an act of illiberalism?

Interestingly, as secularism is itself an enforced practice as Dominique Moisi a French political scientist beautifully puts it “Laicite has become the first religion of the Republic.

Molly Worthen, an American writer wrote in her piece “Once Nation Under God?”  The Christian consensus that long governed our public square is disintegrating.  American secularism is at a crossroads.  The Supreme Court ruled against prayer in public schools, and legalized abortion while politicians declared “war on Christmas” and kowtowed to the “homosexual lobby.”  This is a country that prides itself as the bastion of secular democracy yet there is no single holiday that the so-called religious minorities can identify with.

Some secular ramifications on The Gambia and our status quo

·         Cessation of public exercise of religious freedoms in the form of worship including the taking away of the Friday half day working hours in accommodation of the Muslim holy day observance.  Attending Friday prayers will squarely rest on the understanding and permission of one’s supervisor and not anymore, a privilege granted by the state.  Public institutions will no longer be allowed to build mosque or prayer rooms for Muslims to offer their daily prayers while at work

·         The state can longer offer any financial assistance, subventions, tax breaks etc. to any religiously affiliated establishment and thus rendering the portfolio of religious affairs ministry or adviser role redundant.  Offering any form of support whether cash or in kind to visiting or ordination of religious figures: Mufti Menk and Bishop elect Fr. Gabriel Mendy comes to mind, both of whom were given state endorsements recently

·         The Qadi courts, constitutionally sanctioned and provided for would no longer be justifiable to operate as parallel courts in the interest of granting so called religious equality

·         State ceremonies and gatherings can no longer be opened with religious prayers nor can we invite or recognize individuals based on their creed or religion

·         Abolition of religious education from public andprivate schools and promotion of the teaching of immorality (sexual education), gay rights and many more at a tender age.  Religious symbols that are clearly identifiable may not be a right to exercise one’s religious freedom but rather considered a violation of secularism and thus not allowed

·         All public holidays with religious symbolism would either be disbanded or granted with caveats for celebration.   Congratulating Muslims or Christians on their religious festivals would not be befitting for the state any more.  It also means no more state sponsoring of pilgrims in whatever shape or form

·         All religious programs currently airing on the state broadcaster will terminate

These are but just a few examples of how secularism proper would affect our status quo.  However, it is important to note the ripple effects or back lash that would result from these, not the least of which is resistance, political radicalism et al.  We are a people of values, rich cultures, morals and religions and nothing will take these away from us.  While the fundamental goal of secularism is the demise of religion, we are not going to rest on our laurels and watch our beautiful and morality grounded country to degenerate.  The flaunting of these dangerous ideas and system, saw the overthrowing of the secular, modernized government of Iran in 1979 by an Islamic Religious leader and his followers.  For those of you who are beguiled in believing that you are winning this battle of relegating religion to individual private lives, well bad news for you, that it is here to stay.  Philip Jenkins in his book The Next Christendom said – Most of us think of Christianity as a European import, but the rapidly growing Christian movement, which now has 2.5 billion adherents, is mainly in Southern hemisphere.  Christianity is positively thriving in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia.  In fact, outside Western Europe and North America, the world seems to be getting more religious, not less.

In anticipation of the counter arguments of the proponents of this dangerous system, by referencing mild secular democracies like the United Kingdom where the Christian domination is still somewhat prevalent as symbolized by the two established churches, the Church of England and Church of Scotland where the former has the legal right, which it exercises, to have bishops and archbishops as members of the House of Lords, one of the two chambers of the United Kingdom.  The UK parliament itself starts each day with Christian prayers.  Religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter remain protected by law.  Similarly, long-established laws enable various Christians to celebrate religious marriages which are fully recognized by the State. Popular public broadcasting on both TV and the radio continues to carry regular, frequent religious programs. The monarch, who is head of the Church of England, cannot be a Catholic. On this and a whole series of other levels the nature of daily life in the United Kingdom seems to be a rebuke to the idea of a secular society.  Well this is the reason pundits like me continue to argue that such a system does not seem to be a propitious setting for secularism to flourish.  Here is a strong case for us also to keep our status quo where no one is disadvantaged while we jealously guard our identity as a nation of religious people (Muslims and Christians).

T.J Dice – Opinion columnist for Star Tribune wrote: Four big belief groups account for nearly 9 in 10 of the world’s people – Christians, Muslims, the unaffiliated and Hindus.  Between now and 2050, Pew Scholars project, each of these groups will grow along with global population – but only one will grow as a portion of the total.  That would be Muslims, who will expand from about 23 percent of world population 2010 to about 30 percent by 2050 (the growth represents almost 1.2 billion additional Muslims).  Meanwhile, only one of the big four groups will noticeably shrink as a portion of the world’s people in the decades ahead. That would be the unaffiliated — atheists, agnostics and those with no religious preference. Let’s call them the “unreligious.” Their proportion of world population will fall from about 16 percent today to about 13 percent in 2050, says Pew.

In his classic Reflections on the French Revolution, Edmund Burke argued that religion was the underlying basis of civil social order. Voltaire, the celebrated Enlightenment philosopher, argued that without theism society could not function; it is necessary for people to have “profoundly engraved on their minds the idea of a Supreme being and creator” in order to maintain a moral social order. Alexis de Tocqueville similarly argued that religious faith is “indispensable” for a well-functioning society, that irreligion is a “dangerous” and “pernicious” threat to societal well-being, and that non-believers are to be regarded as “natural enemies” of social harmony.

More recently, Newt Gingrich has argued that any country that attempts to “drive God out of public life” will surely face all kinds of social problems, and a secular country would be “frankly, a nightmare.” Indeed, in the aftermath of the wanton massacre of schoolchildren in Newton, Connecticut, Newt Gingrich publicly proclaimed that such violence was the obvious and inevitable result of secularism in our society. Mike Huckabee agreed.

Religion – or so the age-old hypothesis goes – is therefore a necessary glue for keeping society together. And conversely, secularism is a danger to societal well-being. For if people turn away from God and stop being religious, then crime will go up, corruption will increase, perversion will percolate, decency will diminish, and all manifestations of misery and malfeasance will predominate.  Phil Zuckerman Ph.D.  The Secular Life.

The time has now come for people of religion whether Muslims or Christians to come together and form civil society organizations, associations, and even political parties that would promote our status quo the least and protect our country and people from this dangerous ideology.  It is already enough of a sin and injustice that we as a people have decided that manmade laws are better and just than divine laws.  It is unfortunate, that majority of those found as the biggest proponents of this sickening idea including our elite and political class are ignorant of what it really means.  The civilizations that have sacrificed their orthodox and conservative religious values have no doubt profoundly advanced economically but at a significant cost to morality, consequently giving rise to a proliferation of so many social vices that billions of dollars are set aside annually in dealing or combating these vices.

I close with a verse of the Quran (as a glad tiding for the believers) in Chapter 61 – As – Saff, Verse 8: They want to extinguish the light of Allah with their mouths, but Allah will perfect His light, although the disbelievers dislike it.  I pray that our beautiful country is protected from the evil of secularism and all its champions and that we remain a people of dignity, morals and religion.

BB Sanneh


  1. Excellent piece Mr. Sanneh. I will add to it that the rise of the conservative movement and the far right politics is partly a resistance movement against such unrestrained liberalism. A closer look will identify them as the churchgoers, family oriented and anti-abortion (not that I agree with that entirely) but they are grounded in long held values. Like everything human, people stretch limits and in that move to conserve one’s values “others” are excluded or discriminated against. “Others” being those who uphold opposing ideologies, that discriminatory ‘us and them’ approach is the ammunition that the secularist/liberalists use to further their agenda.

    Great piece and I hope the relevant authorities take note and ensure people’s religious and traditional values are preserved.

  2. It was Obama who asked Americans to “stop clinging on to your guns or religion”

    Gambians, if we do not stop clinging on to our tribes or religion, we are bound to be doomed.

    Remember, both Christianity and Islam are foreign to Africans. One may conveniently cling on recent history and label us as a nation Christians or Muslims. WE ARE NOT. Africa exist before any of these alien ideologies gripped us. Enlightenment cannot be attain unless we free ourselves from mental slavery.

    Africa has evolved to what it is today and it appears some people want that evolution to cease. The question is WHY are we so fixated to the cessation of humans evolving?

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