An issue of profound significance for religion and state relationship may be summed up by two questions:
First: can a person whether Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Sikh, or of any other religious denomination, live as a perfect and complete believer of his faith in a society or state where his faith is not the prevalent faith and where in fact, he and his coreligionists are a minority?
Second: is there anything in any Scripture or religion, because of which a person can fully practice his faith only in a society or state where his is the majority religion or state religion?
If the answer to the first question is yes and the second no, then the way is cleared for a secular democratic state where many religions can live in one polity.
On the other hand, if the answer to the first question is no and second question yes, then we are beset with a profound set of problems.
Conceptually, it not only becomes impossible to have multi-religious societies, but it also creates problems for people of different sects of the same religion—Shias versus Sunnis, Catholics versus Protestants–living together, as indeed is happening in many societies.
Historical accretions have made almost all societies multi-religious and multi-sectarian to different degrees. How are we to deal with this reality?
For a rational mind, a person can be a perfect believer and a practitioner of one’s faith in any secular, fair society. One does not become a better believer by living in a society where one’s coreligionists are a majority, or one’s religion is the state religion.
We can all become better believers of our faith if we try, irrespective of where we live. Faith is fundamentally a matter of personal belief and conduct. Piety is from deeds not place of residence.
If this is not so, then what happens to a vast majority of people, who because of accident of birth find themselves in societies of people who profess a different faith. Are they permanently disadvantaged in practicing their faith fully for no fault of their own?
Of course, secularism is the way to peace and tranquility in multi-religious societies. The question that needs an answer is, whether secularism is a matter of pragmatic convenience, or is it fully in consonance with religion?
To my mind, at the more profound level, secularism is not only compatible with religion but as an idea that embodies tolerance, kindness, and consideration towards those who profess a different faith, it is in itself a deeply religious concept.
When pondering over religion and secularism we need to bear a few facts in mind:
No society has ever had complete religious or any other kind of homogeneity.
No religion has ever been without sects and sub-sects.
No individual is uniformly the same throughout his life.
No society has been without dissenters. Every society, every age has had its Martin Luther. Heretics of one era have often been accepted as the reformers in the next.
If we believe that ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ then we should also accept that secularism, which removes conflict amongst people, is profoundly religious in its outlook and not merely pragmatic expediency.
Carefully considered, secularism, democracy and tolerance are inseparable. Of the three tolerance is the most fundamental, indeed the foundation of the other two. There is no secularism without democracy and vice versa; and no democracy and secularism without tolerance.
True secularism is not just about tolerance of all religions and nondiscrimination on the basis of religion, but also tolerance of all ideologies, whether religious or political. In this sense any state which does not permit free competition of the full spectrum of ideologies and ideas for people’s hearts and minds, cannot be called truly secular, however detached it may be from religion. Fascism in Italy, National Socialism in Germany, Communism in the Soviet Union, or Baathism in Iraq cannot be called secular because they were intolerant of alternative ideologies, ideas or approaches. Even if these regimes did not discriminate on the basis of religion, they discriminated on the basis of ideology, between those who were members of the party and those who were not and in some cases on the basis of race and other considerations as well. To call them secular is to bring a bad name to secularism and miss its essence.
Secularism and intolerance are incompatible just as tolerance and secularism are inseparable.
Ishrat Aziz is a former seasoned diplomat who now lives in the U.S.