26 March 2019
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Why secularism must increasingly matter

peace jour 20A Lebanese man runs in front of a burned car at the scene where two explosions struck near the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, Nov. 19, 2013

In fact, secularism must increasingly matter in the purported world of democracy if societies are to be spared murderous inter-religious violence and bloody disintegration. In South Asia, India has done well to obligate the state to maintain an equi-distance among the country’s religious communities.

Increasing sectarian and religion-based violence sweeping the developing world in particular should emphasize afresh the need to keep politics and religion separate in the affairs of states. Although debates are rife on democracy and its strengths, not enough effort has gone in worldwide, apparently, to the essential task of highlighting the crucial importance of secularism to the effective functioning of a democratic polity. Secularism, essentially, refers to the separation of politics and religion.

We have just had a stunning reminder of the monstrous harm sectarianism could do, from Lebanon, where a bomb blast in close proximity to the Iranian embassy in Beirut has killed over 20 people and wounded scores of others. This bloody happening is seen as a spill-over from the Shia-Sunni religious friction currently reportedly savaging neighbouring Syria. As could be gathered, the Bashar Al-Assad administration in Syria is seen as Shia-oriented, while the current armed opposition to the government is described as being largely Sunni in identity.

Since the Shia and Sunni sects are spread almost all over the Islamic world, it should not come as a surprise if any friction between these sects in one country shows a tendency of spreading to neighbouring states, as is seen in the cases of Syria and Lebanon. However, it is not only the Middle East which is dogged by religion-based friction. It is, of course, also bedeviling South Asia, including Sri Lanka.

In some parts of the Middle Eastern theatre, violence unleashed against Christians testifies further to the grave damage religion-inspired violence does to the values of religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence among communities. It is not news any longer that religious friction is also seriously affecting social peace in Myanmar, which is taking some steady steps along the path of democratic development. An acid test of Myanmar’s emerging democratic credentials would be its ability to separate politics from religion. In other words, secularism should be seen as integral to democracy.

In fact, secularism must increasingly matter in the purported world of democracy if societies are to be spared murderous inter-religious violence and bloody disintegration. In South Asia, India has done well to obligate the state to maintain an equi-distance among the country’s religious communities. In other words, the Indian state cannot identify itself with this or that religion, including, of course, the majority religion. Pakistan is fast gaining ground as an important democracy in this region and it is hoped that she too would increasingly traverse the path of religious inclusivity.

The seeds of religious disaffection are also sown when the state associates itself very closely with this or that religion. In a thriving democracy, the state does not see itself as being obliged to take upon itself the task of upholding the interests of any specific religion. In flourishing democracies, religions too are given the opportunity of taking root and growing but the responsibility of dispensing the affairs of these religions devolves on institutions and bodies pertaining to these religions, which are usually left alone by the state.

Admittedly, making secularism flourish is no easy task. Great Britain is considered one of the world’s foremost democracies, but until quite recently, she had to grapple seemingly unsuccessfully with the Northern Ireland problem which saw two Christian denominations in the province violently pitting themselves against each other for, primarily, governance powers. It took decades of conflict resolution efforts in Northern Ireland before finally a power-sharing arrangement of sorts between the main religious communities was shored-up in the province with the help of the British central administration. Right now, this power-sharing deal is holding.

Generally, it is deprivation of numerous kinds within states which give rise to the emergence of identity politics. Religion-based politics is one species of identity politics and it should be clear that it is the perception among members of a religious or cultural group that they are deprived in some way or another that compels them to take to politics, including violent politics. This occurred, for example, among Northern Ireland’s Roman Catholic community.

Numerous deprivations suffered by communities make it easy for opportunistic politicians to mobilize these communities behind them with the promise that these problems will be redressed if they are voted to power. Such situations also set the stage for keen and bitter competition among communities to ascend the seats of power. A dire consequence of these tendencies is inter-communal friction and social disintegration. These processes are speeded-up when community leaders take to militant politics on realizing that their non-violent campaigns are not bringing the required dividends. Needless to say, these tendencies have taken hold in numerous parts of the developing world today, including the Middle East and South Asia. Violent separatist campaigns are a logical outcome of these disintegrative tendencies.

Apparently, ‘democratic discourse’ worldwide has not focused on some of these cardinal issues at the heart of the democratic system, over the decades. Today, on account of the vast majority of states claiming to be democratic, the analyst could be excused taking on himself the task of prescribing to these states what needs to be done to speed-up democratic development. While the UN has done well to institute conventions enshrining people’s rights to Peace and Development, an effort also needs to be made by the world community to link democracy with secularism.

Ideally, what we need to understand by development is growth plus equity. It is the failure to achieve this that leads to deprivations of numerous kinds, which in turn breed identity politics. So, one of the surest means of blunting the appeal of identity politics is the ushering of growth with equity.

However, it is also vitally important that the above paradigm is linked with secularism or the ideal of keeping politics and religion separate. It is the inability to do the latter which has enabled the power-hungry to send societies down the path of disintegration and break-up by championing divisive sectarian and religion-based political campaigns.

These ideals cannot be realized by the world community in a hurry nor would they be found to be palatable by many. But the world needs to begin somewhere in terms of awareness-raising and international organizations, such as the UN, cannot afford to drag their feet on these questions.

Courtesy - http://www.island.lk

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