The secular state Editorial
Stabroek News
November 17, 2001

A secular state is the political expression of the rationalist view that there should be a separation between church and state. Religion is seen as a matter of private, individual belief and all religions are tolerated, as is also a lack of any religious belief, agnosticism or atheism. The struggle for freedom of conscience and worship in the west continued over a long period. Religious minorities, of course, depend on the preservation of a secular state for their existence.

In Guyana freedom of conscience and worship are protected by our written constitution. It has worked very well and several religions are practiced openly and in peace with complete tolerance. There are also non-believers who practice no religion. This basic human right is a fundamental part of our democratic society in support of which there is a widespread consensus.

The challenge to the secular state in recent times comes from the modern Muslim fundamentalist movement. This began with the Iranian revolution in l979 that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. The fundamentalists, confident in the rightness and truth of their beliefs, see the propagation of these beliefs not as a private matter but as a public imperative. People are either believers or non-believers, infidel. This religious certainty is at odds with the idea of the nation state. As Lamin Senneh, a professor of history and religion at Yale University, has pointed out, when the Ayatollah met students from Saudi Arabia in l979 he explained that the demands of Islam went beyond, and often against, the demands of nationalism. He said that Islam appealed to all mankind, not only to Iranians and not only to Muslims. He argued that secular states drained Islam of its vitality. "In seeking to reunite Islam with politics, Muslim fundamentalists have embraced globalisation as zealously as their capitalist counterparts have, ignoring boundaries to create a multinational movement. The United States government is discovering this anew as it tracks Osama bin Laden's network".

The professor notes that many Muslims, especially those living in the west, have sought to distance themselves from fundamentalist ideology and say that they have misinterpreted the Koran. But, he suggests, the challenge for Muslim leaders goes beyond Koranic interpretation. "Muslim leaders need to embark on programmes of democratic renewal - with the support of the West, if necessary. The West needs to overcome its insistence that the nation - state must be secular to be legitimate. The West should recognise that specific cultural values and political policy may intersect without threatening civil liberties, and that religion can play an important role in public life".

Certainly recent events have put on the agenda the questions both of fundamentalist ideology and of the future Muslim states which range from conservative monarchy like Saudi Arabia (which nevertheless provides money for some fundamentalists) to a democracy like Turkey and a transitional democracy like Iran. The fundamentalist threat to some of these governments (Egypt, Algeria) is something they will have to deal with themselves indeed the whole question of the nature of government in the Arabic and non-Arabic world is likely to come under review. It may be an examination and an opening that is long overdue.