Understanding Secularism


Misconceptions. Misrepresentations. Misconstruction. The war of words and ideas in Gambian politics has resurrected in our polity again! Gone are the days when the PPP government of the late Sir Dawda Jawara, the first post-independence president, will misinterpret the idea of socialism to the masses in order to garner support, score political points, as well as, win sympathy and get more people to be affiliated with them. This worked for them, since most of the populace, at that time, unfortunately, were not politically enlightened enough. Again, the literacy rate was neither impressive!

The fixation on religion coupled with the idea of secularism, is a complex phenomenon for which I can no longer remain close-mouthed. In all my studies the word secularism is a political philosophy which aims at the separation of religion and state in a governmental rule. However, this does not put God out of society but arriving at conclusions free from religious influences. The inclusiveness of the word secularism has been a hot cake on various tables of discussions. This has raised eyebrows on its inclusion or omission in the drafting of our Constitution. A guiding principle in the 1997 Constitution of The Gambia, section 100 (2)(b), prohibits the National Assembly, amongst other things, from enacting any law establishing any religion as a state religion in The Gambia. One pivotal factor in any democracy is freedom of expression. Hence, ordinary citizens regardless of gender, race, religion, etc, have a say in the political   process and the overall governance of the State.

Unfortunately, some fundamentalists of our generation misconstrue the concept of secularism and as a result, take it to be a struggle between religions. However, that should not be the case in the first place. Rather, it should be between the government (state) and the governed (people). Indeed, it is evident, that, religion has been used to camouflage series of bad governance particularly in and around Africa. We have the ex-president Dr Yahya A.J.J Jammeh of The Gambia using state resources to sponsor Islamic religious activities at the expense of other faith systems. Affiliation and sentiments built around religion can hinder development. For this reason, philosophers, during the period of Enlightenment, wanted to change this narrative. If   John Locke and Martin Luther who showed affection for religion, advocated for the separation of church and state, then the concept of secularism is not against religious values, morals and ethics.

The agenda for which secularism seeks to fulfil is state neutrality, and this is precisely to avoid favouring or disfavouring not just the major religions but all faith systems including the African traditional religion. In a pluralistic and secular society, one cannot be sympathetic to one particular faith and be unsympathetic to another without puncturing the bonds of unity, peace and harmony. Therefore, governments must uphold the rule of law, social ethics and cultural values. We must concur on the principle of secularism, at least, objectively, without at the same time subjectively stretching it to the extreme whereby God is denied and relegated to the   background. That in itself, constitutes a denial of truth, and is detrimental to the existence and survival of the human person. Truth can impose itself on the human mind by force of its own veracity, and that is why religion also has its role to play in society.

History should always be our teacher so as to serve the benefit of hindsight. Our West Africanneighbours such as Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana are secular states and this finds very strong support in their constitutions, and indeed, it is yielding dividends. Let me conclude by reiterating that we live in a diverse and complex world. Inclusiveness, rather than exclusiveness is the way forward. Each and every one, regardless of religious beliefs is needed and must be brought on board to contribute their quota for national development.

Zindi Anthony Levi

Political Science Graduate

University of The Gambia

[email protected]