From Turkey to Trump's America, the principles of secularism are under threat. We all have a duty to defend themby Andrew Copson / September 8, 2017 / Leave a comment
A slew of books and articles in recent months has dwelt at length on the near fatal challenges currently facing the key liberal political concepts of democracy, human rights and the rule of law—to mention just a few. But from Erdogan’s Turkey to Trump’s America, and from Modi’s India to Putin’s Russia, one political concept under threat is seldom discussed.
Although it is receiving less attention as it is eroded and undermined, the principle of secularism is under attack like never before.
Secularism is commonly represented as being the separation of religion and politics, but it is a richer and more nuanced idea than that. Definitions abound but most would agree with that given by contemporary French scholar of secularism, Jean Baubérot, who saw it as being made up of three parts: the separation of religious institutions from the institutions of the state, yes, but also the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion for all within the limits of public order and the rights of others, and the absence state discrimination against anyone on grounds of their religion or non-religious worldview. This secularism is not fully implemented in any place and never has been—but it is the ideal towards which secularists wish to move politics.
Such secularists include those responsible for some of the biggest political revolutions in history. People like Thomas Jefferson in the United States in the eighteenth century or Gandhi and Nehru in India in the twentieth saw secularism as the only way to maintain civil peace, justice, and freedom for citizens who had diverse beliefs and identities but who nonetheless had to be incorporated into a single political community. By not taking on a religious identity of its own, the nation state could be a community to which people would feel allegiance and belonging whatever their creed.
In America, this was secured by the First Amendment to the US constitution in 1791, which declared that the legislature could “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It was to be a permanent legal guarantee of personal freedom and an impartial state. In 1949, the Indian constitution declared “LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship, [and] EQUALITY of status and of opportunity” as among the aims of the state, adding that “subject to public order, morality and health… all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.”