The ongoing debate on “secular state” is both profound and troubling. It is profound because it touches on our socio-religious identities, and troubling because it shakes our unity as a nation.
Here is how I see the problem: both those in favour of inserting the term “secular” in the constitution (inclusionists), and those against insertion (exclusionists) have one thing in common: fear of fundamentalists.
For the “inclusionists”, inserting the term is a way to guarantee (or comfort those who need such guarantees) that Islamic fundamentalists will not one day turn the Gambia into an Islamic state. This is a remote possibility; the fear is genuine nonetheless. I strongly believe that inclusionists have all the right and are justified to seek appropriate safeguards. However, the question that arises is whether one word -secular – alone can serve that objective?
In my view, the objective of ring-fencing the Gambian state against being transformed into an Islamic state is well catered for through the entrenchment of article 151 (2b) that provides that the National Assembly “Shall not pass a bill to establish any religion as a state religion”. Inserting the term “secular” will not do more than this – yet it will divide the nation.
If “inclusionists” are fearful of Islamic fundamentalists, the “exclusionists” too are fearful of a different strain of fundamentalism – constitutional fundamentalism.
The common mistakes we all commit is limiting fundamentalism to religion alone. Fundamentalism exists in most spheres of human activity. Not only do we find extremists in the extreme left and far right on the political spectrum, we also find them among environmentalists and animal rights defenders.
In the case at hand, it is the fear of constitutional fundamentalists that has gripped the “exclusionists”. Many in this camp may not necessarily be in favour of union of church and state; they are only fearful that the inclusion of the term “secular” in the constitution will arm constitutional fundamentalists to challenge well-established practices such as prayers at state functions and religious education in public schools. Readers may consider these fears as being far-fetched and baseless, but the average Gambian voter will not discount them. And going by reports from rural Gambia, these fears will prove decisive in any referendum on the draft constitution.
I am all for a secular state and separation of church and state. But I don’t believe that this objective hinges on a word that divides our nation and whose essence is already captured in articles 47 (2) and 151 (2b) of the draft constitution.
Diplomats would tell you that the best negotiators are those who know when to transition from a value-claiming position to a value-creating posture. Value creation in the present case consists in meeting our common objective of a secular state through means other than the inclusion of a term that divides the nations and risks denying us a constitution.