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NSW: State’s Affairs and Religious Rights


State’s Affairs and Religious Rights

By Syed Atiq ul Hassan, Sydney

Recently, I attended a youth forum on interfaith harmony in Sydney. School children, very interestingly, participated in the debates, on interfaith harmony. A twelve-year-old high school student, in his speech, asked the audience, ‘we don’t understand why we are not given school holiday on Eid or Dewali while we get off on Christmas and Easter… We are told that Australia is a secular country where everyone has equal rights to practice and celebrate his or her religious activities. So, why don’t Muslims, Hindus and the people of other beliefs get days off to observe their religious days… is this what we call secularism or freedom of social and religious rights? ’.

The children’s arguments left many questions in my mind about the system we live in. Eventually, I found no answer other than to realise the verity that does not matter how society claims itself as ‘Secular’, majority always dominates over the minority, religiously, culturally and socially.

Historically, the idea of secularism emerged as a practical strategy to deal with the issues related to the Christians and people of other faiths in the Western culture. Apparently, the nations adopted secularism had the conviction that people should not be accused or discriminated on the name of religion. Everyone should be given liberty to observe his or her own faith and the State should not be in a control of religious obligations.

In Webster dictionary the word ‘Secularism’ is defined as ‘A system of doctrines and practices that rejects any form of religious faith and worship’ or ‘the belief that religion and ecclesiastical affairs should not enter into the function of the State especially into public education.’

The theory of separation of State and religion makes several underlying assumptions that are hard to come by in the real world. State and religion, both possess direct relationship with the people – people practice religion and people run the State. Therefore, it is quite illogical to believe that the Secular philosophy has ever been implemented according to its theoretical definition.

However in the Western World, where Christianity is the major religion, the rulers tried to compromise between the day-to-day affairs and the practices of the faith. They decided to include some of the values of their religion -Christianity- in the making of the rules of their version of secular State.

One may still articulate on the religious freedom granted to the minorities to practice their faith in the secular society of the West and in other parts of the world. Yet, these liberties are found to be confined within the boundaries of religious premises of the minorities. Yet, at some degree, this liberty can also be seen in the non-secular States and in the countries where religion is the part of the State’s constitution.

How can one separate the dealings of State and the rules dictate by religion where the global religion such as Islam where the Holy Qur’an, strongly, defines the codes of life - from social issues to the State’s affairs. That is why when rulers of the Muslim majority States tried to implement the Secular philosophy of the West in their countries, they failed to reach any point in implementing any system which could be away from the conflict between Islamic Laws and Secular Ideologies. The concept of compromising and creating half secular half Islamic system produced divisions in the public and nation become a mixture of divided thoughts. Pakistan, Iran and Indonesia are the examples in this regard. These States are terribly divided between the ones who want to see Islam at macro level and the others who want to implement a customised system and want to carry both Islam and the Secular ideas at the same time. In result, these States, yet, could not produce a stable and peaceful social atmosphere.

Today, Islamic States are abused as being the countries producing religious extremists and are considered as conservative. As a matter of fact, this extreme division among the people which are in today’s terminology called as fundamentalists and moderates are the consequences of the same ideology of implementing half Islam and half secular of the west.

Nevertheless, counting the facts, the issues related to the religious freedom are also found in Secular States. The recent critical issue of ‘banning women’s headscarf’ in France is the perfect example to refer that how much the word ‘Secularism’ has been manipulated. Secularism is supposed to provide freedom to every individual to practice his or her belief in an independent environment rather than regulating people with a single rule defined by the State.

It would be wrong to pay credit to the secular system of the West for their economic independency and technological advancements. These attributes are directly linked with the level of education and the literacy growth of the people rather than due to the secular status of the country. However, when one looks at the human values and social relationships in the western world such as family values (status of mother, father, sister and brother) respect of elders, teachers, and so on which are taught by the religion one finds that the level of these characteristics are continuously diminishing in the Secular States compare to the Religious States.

The influence of the religion of the majority in the public institutions like media, education centres and other meeting places can be understood as an uncontrollable phenomenon. However, the influence of the religion of the majority on the minority can be seen by social and procedural practices adopted in the government institutions of the Secular States.

Many States’ affairs related to the social, cultural and educational activities are defined under the light of the belief of the majority of the people within the State. For instance, in the Western Secular States where Christianity dominates, the system of the State observes the practices of the Christian faith, e.g. national holidays on the Christmas and Easter; beginning official events and even parliamentarian sessions with the holy verse from the Bible and routine official visits of the heads of States to their respective churches. The Secularism in the East is not much different than the West. In India which is one of the largest democratic and a secular State of the world, Hindu religious practices can be seen as a part of official activities of the State. Indonesia is another perfect example of the dominancy of the religion in the secular system. Though Islam has not been defined as a religion of the State in Indonesian constitution but the dominancy of Islam can be seen in the government and public affairs of the State.

The State and religious affairs could only be possible to separate if these two were totally non-dependent entities. As, both, the state and religion affairs are run and practiced by the same people, these cannot be separated. Accepting this reality, the Secularism of today can be defined as, a philosophy where practices related to the faith are the activities of the faith of the majority in the State and remaining affairs of the State are man-made rules defined to provide the social freedom to the people.

And the States which claim themselves as secular states are actually the Christian, Hindu or Islamic States depending on who are in majority and ruling the State.

( Syed Atiq ul Hassan is a Sydney-based journalist and a Media Analyst).

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