Published On: Thu, Jan 3rd, 2019

Much ado about secularism (II)

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THURSDAY Column with Mohammed Adamu

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Going by the dictionary definition of secularism as ‘concern with temporal, worldly matters’ to the exclusion of ‘religion’, a nation therefore cannot be said to be secular merely because either by law or by choice it has succeeded in subordinating all forms of organized religion to the whims and caprices of the state. Nor is a nation non-secular only because its constitution expressly provides for the right of the individual to freedom of religion, belief and conscience. This guarantee already exists extra-constitutionally as a fundamental right of all humans –to, among a hoard of very many other rights, decide for themselves the sacred from the profane. Thus the secular or non-secular credentials of a nation are not to be gleaned only from the express provisions of her Constitution disavowing or endorsing religion as state policy, but it can also manifest in that nation being able to maintain sectarian neutrality -or what experts described as ‘a principled distance’- from all forms of organized religion, notwithstanding her Constitution expressly disavows or endorses religion as a fundamental policy of state. Thus a practical separation of state from religion is the veritable hallmark of secularism, and about which we have seen in my previous submission that there is hardly any good example in Europe or in the Americas.
Nigeria’s Constitution neither expressly admits that the Nigerian State is secular nor has it expressly admitted that it is not. And so as it will not be sufficient to argue that Nigeria is non-secular merely because Section 38 of her Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, or that Section 42 prohibits discrimination against citizens on the basis of their beliefs or the circumstances of their birth, by the same token it will not be sufficient to adjudge Nigeria secular only because Section 10 of the Constitution expressly prohibits the adoption of any organized religion as a state religion, or because the Constitution has not expressly disavowed secularism as a policy of state. But even as the Constitution in many areas appear to radiate secular sentiments, in yet many others, it can be said also that it exudes practically non-secular tendencies. For one the Constitution is essentially faith-blind in its conferment of right to citizens to aspire to or be appointed to public office. It does not demand that those who seek public office must fulfill any faith-based requirements before they can do so. This is in addition to the fact that the Constitution has provided for the restriction or even derogation of the religious rights of citizens whenever to do so is in the interest of defense, public safety, public order, public morality or for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom of others.
Nonetheless, the problem of Nigeria’s secular status or her non-secular credentials is not so much in what the Constitution has expressly provided for as it is in what it has opted to be cautiously or inadvertently vague or silent about. Section 10 which prohibits the adoption of any organized faith as state religion, merely infer the secular intention of the Constitution. It does not categorically say that secularism will be the guiding principle of state. Again sections 38 and 42 which, respectively guarantee freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination on that ground, may infer non-secular intention but they have not categorically proclaim Nigeria a non-secular state.
Many experts say that it is this constitutional vagueness occasioned by the centrality of religion in the lives of most Nigerians, and the mutual competition between the two dominant religions in the country, namely Islam and Christianity, that are responsible for the ambivalent secular-cum-sectarian approach especially to matters of state. We claim to be secular but we are not about to let go the sectarian privileges that we enjoy ironically from a State that is supposed to have no affiliation whatsoever with organized religion. And as the Constitution remains vague on the precise relationship of State and organized religion, so has the judicial arm too, for tactical reason, remained not forthcoming with a precise definition of the secular or non-secular status of the Nigerian State. As many times as Christian rights activists had challenged especially the penal jurisdiction of the Shariah courts –as provided under sections 268 and 277 of the Constitution- as much times too had the judicial arm tactfully avoided the issue by throwing out such cases on the grounds of absence of locus. The courts it appears know too well the implication of ruling carelessly on such sensitive matters because it may open the floodgate of judicial recrimination and counter-recrimination between adherents of the two major religions who, each enjoy one form of sectarian right or privilege over the other.
As Christians say that Islam has been adopted as a de facto state religion in most Muslim-majority states of the north and that the annual tradition of using state resources to fund pilgrimages to Mecca, plus the presence of ajami Arabic on Nigeria’s currency and on some military insignias compromise the nation’s secular status, Muslims too complain that the entire legal and political system of administration in the country are essentially Judeo-Christian in nature and thus obviates the need to split hairs over whether Nigeria is secular or not. In fact they insist that Nigeria is not only NOT secular, but that it is more Judeo-Christian in body and in spirit than even the North can be said to be Islamic. They cite the two weekly work-free days (Saturday and Sunday) declared for public officers in deference to Judeo-Christian tradition and argue that Christians enjoy more sectarian rights and privileges under the Nigerian Constitution than the Muslims do who have to go to work even on Fridays. And they say that with four annual ‘holy’ days, namely Good Friday, Easter Monday Christmas Day and Boxing Day, the Christians also enjoy more annual holidays recognized by law than the Muslims do with only three, namely Eid-el-Fitr, Eid-el-Kabir and Eid-el-Maulud.
And just this week MURIC, a Muslims rights organization has complained that January 1 too is no less Judeo-Christian than the rest of the Christian ‘holy’ days are and that it should cease to be recognized as a work-free day unless the first day of the Islamic calendar too is accorded similar status. In truth although the first of January originated from a Christian day of feast –according to the Encarta Encyclopedia- it has since transcended that narrow sectarian significance to become a universal ‘occasion for spirited celebration and the making of personal resolution’. And so not many Muslims it appears are in synch with the MURIC demand for the reason, as one FaceBooker, Ahmed Musa Hussaini said, that “Muslims don’t just claim a right because Christians and other non-Muslim groups are enjoying that right…. Muslims do not begrudge other faiths on account of their own rights. All religions have their own peculiarities, have their own social and cultural aspirations… ”
Thus in this case MURIC appears now to be as intolerant as some hard line, secular-minded Christians have always been whenever they contest the right of Muslims to be expressive about their faith both in body and in spirit and in private and in public, because the fundamental doctrinal obligation of their faith is that Islam must be practiced as a way of life at home, in the work place, in the market arena, in the school, etc. It is in this context, most Muslims insist, that especially the questions of wearing of the hijab in public schools and the involvement of governments of Muslim-majority states in the building of mosques and the sponsorship of Hajj, must be appreciated. They argue that if the majority of the people who vote in a government and are therefore entitled to a ‘way’, are okay with it, it cannot be any less democratic –provided also that the minority who subscribe to other faiths are not denied other sectarian rights or privileges peculiar to their own unique forms of worship.
To be continued

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