The inclusion or exclusion of “secularism” from the new constitution has generated a great deal of controversy and triggered a frenzied debate among Gambians of different religious and ideological persuasions, as the Constitutional Review Commission finalizes the draft Constitution for the Third Republic.
While some Gambians have strongly expressed their objection to the idea of inserting “secularism” in the new Constitution, others are advocating for its inclusion with each camp staunchly defending their position by advancing reasons and justifications to back up their line of argument, as the fray rages on unabated.
The pro-secularism camp argues that the inclusion of “secular State” will safeguard the rights of minority religious groups, such as Christians, and avert the declaration of the Gambia as an Islamic State, just like Jammeh unceremoniously did in December 2015. They also contend that all religions should be equal and that the State should have no business in religious affairs. Veteran PPP politician OJ went as far as suggesting that the State should refrain from building mosques in public places, hence reechoing a proposition by PPP’s Banjul North MP Touma Njie who equally called for the demolition of mosques in public premises.
On the other hand, the opposing camp is of the view that the word “secularism” should not be inserted in the constitution. Their argument is premised on the fact that Gambia is a predominantly Muslim country; hence the Islamic identity of the nation must not be compromised. They have equally countered the argument that the inclusion of “secularism” would reassure non-Muslim minority groups, saying that Muslims and non-Muslims have peacefully co-existed without any problems for centuries, despite the fact that neither the 1971 Constitution nor the original version contained the controversial word.
The bone of contention is that Gambians, regardless of their religious or ideological formation have coexisted in peace and harmony in the absence of secularism in the Constitution. As such, the anti-secularism camp is skeptical about the real motive behind the insistence of a segment of the society on the inclusion of secularism in the draft Constitution. This particular camp also notes that secularism was born originally to counter and curb the influence of the Church, thus wonders why the Gambia Christian Council would be calling for secularism in the country when the essence of secularism revolves around the separation of the State from Church!. They further argue that Yahya Jammeh only introduced an amendment to the Constitution to declare Gambia an Islamic State to serve his own selfish interests, such as winning the hearts and minds of major and rich Muslim nations amid the international isolation he had faced. To buttress this point, they contend that there had not been any tangible change on the affairs of the State or society since Jammeh declared Gambia as an Islamic State, hence allaying the fears of pro-secularism camp.
Webster defines secularism as ”indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations”. In the same vein, Oxford defines it as ”?the belief that religion should not be involved in the organization of society, education.
Gambia being a predominantly Muslim country with some statistics putting the percentage of Muslims at 95, the some Gambian Muslims are genuinely concerned that the transformation of the Gambia into a secular State might obliterate the Muslim identity of the country, particularly that secularism means different things for different people. In certain societies, for instance, religious symbols, including the veil, are banned. Mosques are built in public places but recently an MP has called for their demolition.
The controversial comments have reinforced fears that a secular Gambia will be able to justify the demolition of mosque in public places and prevent the construction of new ones.
While I truly believe the Gambia belongs to all Gambians, regardless of their religious, ethnic or ideological affiliation where each and everyone can and shall enjoy the freedom of faith, it’s imprudent to insert secularism in the Constitution in order to maintain peace and harmony in an already fragile environment.
Basidia M Drammeh