Thursday, May 30, 2013

English and Nordic Models of Secularism

By Yasser Latif Hamdani

My earliest understanding of secularism was rooted in the first amendment to the US Constitution while studying in the US. It is the most impressive dictum - a wall of separation between religion and state. The US never had a state church. Its tradition of separation of church and state went back to the founding of Rhode Island which was based on this principle. The Turkish model - especially after Kemal Ataturk's famous 6 day speech - which abolished state religion in 1928 (though initially the Turkish Republic defined Islam as the state religion at Ataturk's behest) also seemed to follow the American and more closely the French models of secularism. The difference between American and French (and Turkish) models was that the latter was an ideology of the state whereby religion was pushed out and not left alone.

By legal training I was taught a simple rule - a secular constitution was which did not recognize a religion as the state or national religion. So for example the 1956 and 1962 constitutions of Pakistan were secular constitutions, despite lip service to Islamic principles in the Objectives Resolution because these did not have a state religion. 1973 Constitution was in contrast an Islamic constitution because it defined Islam as the state religion of Pakistan.

Clearly the predominant English and Nordic tradition of secularism is at variance to the American definition or the stricto senso legal definition I was taught. There is no finer secular society than Sweden. Here I define secular in the sense that religion is absent from the public and social sphere. Similarly England that mother of all democracies is another society which is essentially a secular society with falling attendance in churches etc is an Anglican monarchy in constitution.  Sweden, Denmark and Norway all have official churches - the Lutheran Church, though Sweden more recently relegated it from state church to national church.  The strange thing is that these officially Christian - Lutheran/Anglican/Protestant - nation states in practice seem to be more secular than the officially secular US and even Turkey in recent times. Does that mean that having a state religion actually discredits religion altogether? After all this is what seems to have happened in the Nordic countries.  Where then do we see Islam if we keep on our present trajectory as an ideological Islamic state with a state religion?

To see which states have a state religion and which do not please visit the wikipedia page on State Religions.

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