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Monday, October 18, 2021

We can be a secular state and remain religious people

By Njundu Drammeh

Once upon a time in Europe, the Church was the State and the State was the Church. The overarching reach of the Church, the spiritual, in State matters, the temporal, was overwhelming and stifling. There was no distinction between State and Church; cushioned by a relationship which was both cozy and intruding in the lives of the people. Then came the Age of Enlightenment and the chorus for the separation of Church and State, albeit accentuated by the actions of Kings who saw themselves as viceroys of God on earth or had papal backing. There began the struggle for secularization of the State, backed by the saying “give unto Caesar what is due to Caesar; and give unto God what is due to God”. France and the United Kingdom of the time were cases in point. It is important then to understand that secularism was first a fight against the Church, and in truth against Catholicism… The other Christian denominations then waded in, on the side of the men and women of the Enlightenment.

Then in the present, we have the rise of Islamic extremism, in the likes of Al-Qaida and ISS, and Christian extremism, represented by the born-again. And the migration of Muslims to the West or Europe, with their religion and values. Clash of civilization or values became apparent. Secularism in Europe, France and the United Kingdom in particular, are again good examples. We saw in these countries a twisted extension of secularism, diametrically opposite to its real purport and intention. Christian extremist politicians politicised secularism and the secular nature of their countries as revenge against Islamic extremism, erroneously regarded as the main representation of Islam. But even in these countries we saw men and women rise up against these extremists and the courts upholding Muslims’ right to practice their religion as well as exhibit things associated with it such as the wearing of the veils, etc…. Let it be clear that these extremists, whether Muslims or Christians, do not represent Islam or Christianity and their teachings.

So, let it be clear that secularism:
– is not promotion of irreligiosity
– isn’t anti-religion
– doesn’t take away one’s right to practice one’s religion or whatever faith; that’s a guaranteed fundamental human right
– doesn’t mean one cannot conduct his or her religious activities in public spaces: we pray in public spaces, religious edifices are in public spaces, gamos and processions are conducted in public.

– is not a denial of religion or its existence or centrality in the lives of the people.
– has nothing to do with same sex marriage or its promotion.
– has nothing to do with inheritance or how it is divided
– is not seeking a reformation of Islam or the negation of Islamic tenets.
The call for insertion of the word “secular” in the Constitution is not a ploy against Islam or Christianity or religion but rather to ensure that the State stays with matters temporal and leaves the Mosque and Church with matters spiritual. It is for the State not to favour one religion over others or treats all religions equally in the distribution of state resources, powers, privileges, etc. It is to ensure that there is no “religious patronage” by the political class who are wont to exploiting religion for their political ends.

May be we need to remind ourselves of a little history which saw the overeaching and overbearing hands of the State in matters spiritual: declaration of The Gambia as an Islamic State;
squandering of state resources on religious activities at State House which we now know were a fa├žade for evil by Jammeh; edict that all women put on a headtie; forcing the veil or Islamic education on Christian run schools; forcing all Muslims to observe Eid-ul Fitr on the same day; using religious leaders and scholars to intimediate others who disagreed with them; closing down a mosque situated on the beaches of Gunjur; and other litanies which have aggrieved followers of other faiths. Once upon a time, a year or so ago, the President promised to build 60 mosques from funds whose sources we do not know. And few months ago, he gave some Millions of Dalasis to the Supreme Islamic Council and Banjul Muslim Elders to conduct a nationwide peace tour, as if we were in conflict or that peace was scarce. We have a history which points to State use of State resources as religious patronage, of unequal treatment between religions. That history is frightening and there is no guarantee that it won’t repeat. Safeguards therefore must be there to ensure the separation of Church and Mosque from State.

Separation of church/mosque and State is not necessarily about weakening the position of religion in the society. A country can be secular in terms of separation of the temporal and spiritual in matters of the State while recognising the role of religion in the lives of the people. Come to think of it, while about 90 per cent of our population is Muslim, the Gambia does not have an officially recognised religion. So we as a people can decide what type of secular state we want: one which is about the total separation of religion (Mosque and Church) and State, or one which asserts the separation of religion and State but recognising the role of religion in the lives of the people. Who said we cannot have our own model of secular state?
We can define or articulate what the State must not do, for example not funding any religious activity or giving State funds to one religion (or fund all religion re payment of salaries to all Imams and priests); prohibiting in law the imposition of a religious thing on someone who is not an adherent of that religion such as forcing on children a religious education or dressing they are not adherent of. We can define what must and mustn’t. We can.

We are not giving ourselves a new Constitution just because we want to. The 1997 Constitution could have sufficed. But no, we want to give ourselves a new Constitution because we have witnessed impunity, gross human rights violations, overbearing State, weakened accountability mechanisms, corruption and State extravagance, abuse and misuse of state power and resources, insecurity of minorities, etc. We are giving ourselves a new Constitution because we do not want to be that condemned nation which repeated its past….

And no, it is neither here nor there to argue that we cannot insert “secular” in the S.1(1) of the draft Constitution because the word was never part of the 1997 Constitution. How many completely new sections and chapters do we have in the draft Constitution which are not in the 1997 Constitution? If that argument is to be a rock to lean on, then why can’t we just retain the 1997 Constitution? Second, “secular” is not just a word, it is about the life of our polity, a character and form which defines an attitude of the State. And we know that words don’t just matter, often time in court it is a word on which freedom or punishment hangs.

And the CRC can interpret the word “secular” in the draft Constitution, and define what and what not the State can do in matters of spirituality or religion.
And lastly, as far as I know, Islam and Christianity have many common and shared values, especially in aspects of morality…. Secularism isn’t a fight against these values. So Christians and Muslims who are supporting the insertion of “secular” in that section of the draft Constitution have no hidden agenda than the promotion of social cohesion.
We can have a meeting ground on the insertion of “secular” in the draft Constitution. It can be a win-win. The values we share in common are more than the differences which separate us, as Muslims or Christians.
And as there are many Islamic extremists so are there many Christian extremists as well. We ought to be wary of both.

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