Secularism

History of the word Secularism

The meaning of the word secularism is not shrouded in any mystery. It is not an ancient or archaic word having been used by Chaucer or Shakespeare.A beginning may be made with the dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED Vol.IX 1978) states that Secularism is the doctrine that morality should be based solely on regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life to the exclusion of all considerations drawn from belief in God or in a future state. OED further points out, rightly, that it was George Holyoake (1817-1906) who gave this name to the definitely professed system of belief.

Earlier OED gives the meaning of the word ‘secular’ as: “belonging to the world and its affairs as distinguished from the Church and religion“.

George J. Holyoake, to whom has been credited the coinage of the word secularism, was an Owenite and had founded in 1846 a weekly called “Reasoner” for the propagation of Owenism. In an issue of “Reasoner” in 1851, he issued a statement of secularist doctrine proclaiming:

  1. science as the true guide of man;
  2. morality as secular, not religious, in origin;
  3. reason the only authority;
  4. freedom of thought and speech;
  5. that owing to the ‘uncertainty of survival’ we should direct our efforts to this life only.

There was, in the latter part of 19th Century in England, a debate as to whether atheism, the denial of the existence of God, was an essential element of secularism. It may be mentioned here that Holyoake himself was not a theist. In 1841, in a public meeting, provoked by a heckler, Holyoake had asserted that England was too poor a country to have a God and that it would not be “a bad idea to put Him on half-pay” (i.e. retire him) and had been for this blasphemous utterance sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.

George Holyoake and Charles Bradlaugh were two leading secularists and atheists of England in the 19th Century. Holyoake was no less an atheist than Bradlaugh, though they did not agree on the question whether atheism was a necessary ingredient of secularism. Holyoake thought, ignoring God was enough; for Bradlaugh, denial of God was essential. In March 1870 there was a public debate between Holyoake and Bradlaugh on this subject and Austin Holyoake chaired the meeting. I do not for the present intend to go into that controversy.

The texts of the speeches of Holyoake and Bradlaugh in this debate have been published. I am taking the liberty of referring to the speech of Holyoake for gathering the correct connotation of the word secularism which word, after all, was coined by Holyoake. He says :

If you desire a brief summary, which may be given in a few words, of what the principles to which I have adverted, point to -so far as meets the object of this discussion- I would state them thus:
1. Secularism maintains the sufficiency of secular reason for guidance in human duties.
2. The adequacy of the utilitarian rule which makes the good of others, the law of duty.
3. The duty nearest at hand and most reliable in results, is the use of material means tempered by human sympathy, for the attainment of social improvement.
4. The sinlessness of well-informed sincerity.
5. The sign and condition of such sincerity are free thought expository speech…

Holyoake points out that to maintain sufficiency of reason is absolutely indispensable. He accepts that this is a heretical position and therefore the secularist, standing apart, does not include himself among Christians, does not need to profess Christianity [ See “A Second Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism [0]“, Ed. Garden Stein, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, N.Y. 1987 p.348 ]. It must follow from this that an adherent of Christianity, or of any other religion, cannot be a secularist.

Enunciating its principles, The National Secular Society (of England) declared that “the promotion of human improvement and happiness is the highest duty. That the theological teachings of the world have been, and are most powerfully obstructive of human improvement and happiness. …” [Ibid. p.363].


More definitions of Secularism

I am obliged to burden this talk with some more quotations because they are from books of knowledge to which contributions are made by eminent scholars in the field.

Encyclopaedia Britannica says that secularism is “a movement in society directed away from other worldliness to life on earth“. In the medieval period there was a strong tendency for religious persons to despise human affairs and to meditate upon God and the other life. The Encyclopaedia further points out that secularism arose as a reaction to this tendency during European Renaissance when man began to show more interest in human cultural achievements and the possibilities of fulfillment of his personality in this world. It may be added that from Renaissance three streams flowed – Secularism, Humanism [0] and Rationalism – the last one getting particularised only in the 18th Century.

Renaissance persuaded the scholars to study man as a citizen of this world. That led to humanism. It also necessarily gave birth to a desire or an urge to study this world. This gradually led to rationalism and science. The word secularism was not born in Renaissance but the idea was born – as a reaction to the futile, fruitless attitude prevalent all through the medieval ages of indifference to human affairs and of contemplation of the other world.

Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences (Vol.XX, p.264, 1960 Edition) [ESS] explains :

“If secularism is defined as the attempt to establish an autonomous sphere of knowledge purged of supernatural, fictitious presuppositions, its modern origins are to be traced to the later Middle Ages of Western Europe. The distinction drawn up by the scholastics between faith and knowledge while it left room for revealed theology, was also capable of evaluating in a type of philosophical or natural theology which placed its chief emphasis on the truths perceptible by human reason – a broad category which subserved not only all physical knowledge but even metaphysical knowledge of God“.

The ESS points out that the ideal of human and social happiness proclaimed by the French Revolution has continued to influence subsequent generations of political and social workers. It is further pointed out that this has to some extent moulded the temper of some religious groups who are now compelled to accept that mankind shall strive by the most enlightened methods to establish social justice and welfare.

Even the Encyclopaedia Britannica points out that in the latter half of the Twentieth Century some theologians have been advocating Secular Christianity by suggesting that Christianity should not be concerned only with the sacred and the otherworldly. The power of secularism is derived from its close connection with science, and in the union of social and scientific secularism, the movement begun in Renaissance has been gathering momentum and finds its logical climax.

The Social Science Encyclopaedia (Ed. Adam Keeper & Jessica Keeper – Roufledge & Kegan Paul 1985, p.737) points out that secularisation refers to the displacement of religious beliefs, rituals and sense of community from the moral life of society. The major institutions of society became legitimated by secular ideologies and formal legal doctrines rather than by religions. It was the philosophy of enlightenment that provided the pivotal impetus towards the thoroughgoing secularisation.

At the root of secularism is the principle that the society should be founded on principles devised by rational inquiry into the universal nature of human social life. The ESS has cited other authors who have pointed out the other facets of secularism. For example:

  • The rational principles of social organisation are antithetical to religious traditions based upon faith;
  • The moral authority of ideologies independent of religious ethics was established for evaluating economic, political stratifications and other social arrangements;
  • Despite their rootedness in European culture, secular ideologies have taken on moral authority in many civilisations around the globe, somewhat in the manner of world religions.

Let me enumerate some of the propositions that emerge from the discussion so far or that are necessary to understand what follows:

  1. Secularism is a system of social organisation and education which believes that religion has no part to play in the problems and events of every day life.
  2. A culture is seen as secular when its acceptance is based on rational and utilitarian considerations rather than on reverence and veneration.
  3. A secular society is one that engenders in or elicits from its members readiness to change customary orientation towards or definition of values regarded as essential in that society.
  4. Secularism on the part of the individual means a rational state of mind which refuses to recognise the arbitrary authority of any individual or any book.
  5. In the context of “State” or “Society”, secularism means an endeavour on the part of State or Society to modernise the societal values and thus a policy of not being influenced by beliefs or values of any one or other religious group.


Secularism in Practice within the US

The next step in the discussion is to study the American experiment which correctly interprets and practices Secularism. Let me hasten to add that the word secularism is not to be found in the Constitution of U.S.A. But the doctrine is embodied in it. The thirteen colonies of England in North America issued a Declaration of Independence on 4th July 1776. The U.S. Constitution drafted by the Philadelphia Convention was ratified in 1789. Article VI, Section 3, of the Constitution reads as follows:

“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several State legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” [ Emphasis provided ]

Two things in this Article stand out prominently. First, any person about to enter a public office need not necessarily swear in the name of God; it is sufficient if he makes a solemn affirmation. We in India may not be able to appreciate the significance of this provision; our Constitution has always contained this provision. But it was a path-breaking enactment in the eighteenth Century. In England, even in 19th Century, Charles Bradlaugh was not allowed to take seat in the House of Commons though his constituency repeatedly elected him – in fact five times. The reason – he was an atheist. Bradlaugh agreed to take the prescribed oath but the House said that he would not be allowed to take the oath because he was an atheist. This was in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Bradlaugh ultimately took the oath and his seat after getting elected again in July 1886 – this time no member of the House raised any question.

It should be noted here that Bradlaugh had at one stage made the following declaration:

“Any form I went through, any oath that I took, I shall regard as binding upon my conscience in the fullest degree, and I would go through no form and take no oath unless I meant it to be so binding.”

It was only under the Affirmation Act of 1888 that the atheists could take seats in the Parliament by solemnly affirming rather than swearing in the name of God – more than 100 years after the U.S. had so provided.

The second important thing about Article VI(3) is the fact that a person of any religious persuasion can hold any public office in U.S.A. because no religious test is required of such a person. A religious test is a test demanding the avowal or repudiation of certain religious beliefs.

In 1961 the U.S. Supreme Court held that a State constitutional requirement requiring a belief in God as a qualification for office was unconstitutional. [Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 US 488 (1961)]. In this judgment, the phrase ‘Secular Humanism’, which became very popular later, was first used by Justice Hugo Black. Roy Torcaso, who had been appointed as Notary Public by the Governor of Maryland, was refused commission on the ground that he refused to affirm that he believed in God. In an action brought by Torcaso, Justice Black held that the Plaintiff was entitled to the protection of the First Amendment. Justice Black mentioned that secular humanism is one of a number of religions like Buddhism “which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God“. (Ref. ‘Religious Liberty and the Secular Society’ by John M. Swomley, Prometheus Books, p.117).

No oath – only affirmation.
A person of any religious belief or of no religious belief can hold a public office.

However, during the two hundred years of the U.S. Constitutional history, there is no known case of any President making a solemn affirmation. In 1962, neither earlier nor later, a Christian not belonging to any Protestant denomination was elected the President of the United States. No non-Christian has been so elected so far. I should, however, add that many non-Protestant Christians and non-Christians have occupied other positions – some of them with great distinction. Justice Felix Frankfurter is a notable example.

Then came the First Amendment, by which the following provision was added to the Constitution in 1791 :

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition to government for a redressal of their grievances.” (Emphasis added)

The clause to which emphasis has been provided (by me) is the clause which is relevant for our discussion. The word secularism has not been used in the American Constitution. But the First Amendment is a repudiation of religion as an authority in the governance of the country. The case law that has been developed in the U.S.A. on this subject has been vast and makes very interesting study. This is not the place to enter into a detailed study of this subject. However, I must refer to some landmark judgments of the Supreme Court of U.S.A. which has throughout taken a consistent view in this matter.

Initially some theorists were of the view that the establishment clause only prevented preferential treatment to any religion or religions and did not prohibit the use of religion in public life. However, subsequently, by a series of judgments the Supreme Court of the U.S.A. has held till today that the U.S. Constitution debars the U.S. Government and the State Governments, the Congress and the State Legislatures from having any connection with any religion.

In 1801, Thomas Jefferson was elected President. In a letter which he wrote to a group of Baptists he asserted that it was the purpose of the First Amendment to build “a wall of separation between Church and State“. It is this total separation between the Church and the State that makes the American Constitution politically a secular Constitution, though the words ‘secular’ and ‘secularism’ are not found in it. In 1879, more than 70 years after the Jefferson letter, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted that statement by Jefferson as “almost an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment” [Reynolds v. U.S. 98 U.S. 145 (1879)]

Some landmark judgments of the U.S. Supreme Court should now be considered. In 1947, the Supreme Court by the thinnest margin held as constitutionally valid the provision of free transportation by the State of New Jersey to children of parochial schools. This has been justified on the ground of provision of such a facility to school children as a safety measure on highways (Everton v. Board of Education, 330 US-1947). However, in the same judgment the following words of warning were written :

The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this :

  1. Neither a State nor the Federal Government can set up a Church;
  2. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another;
  3. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or remain away from Church against his will;
  4. Neither can force a person to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion;
  5. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for Church attendance or non-attendance;
  6. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever forms they adopt to teach or practice religion;
  7. Neither a State nor the Federal Government can openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organisations or groups and vice versa.
    ( Emphasis added )

The following other propositions have been established by the other decisions handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court:

  1. It is not separation of Church and State to permit religious instruction in the State’s tax-supported school buildings even to willing children whose parents have requested for it.
  2. A “released time” programme under which religious instruction takes place off the school ground is permissible because the State is not hostile to religion.
  3. Recitation of even non-denominational prayers is not permissible in a State-aided school because it gives preferential treatment to those who believe in religion or God as against those who do not so believe.
  4. The so-called science of creationism is not a science at all; it is teaching of the Bible which is not permissible (Bible can be studied but not taught).

  5. The Court has taken a view that statutes involving excessive entanglements of State with Church in the matter of implementation would be invalid. Therefore – – a statute providing salary supplements to teachers in secular subjects in non-public schools operated for the benefit of parochial schools; and
    – a statute providing reimbursement to non-public schools for teachers’ salaries and instructional material used in the teaching of secular subjects

    were both held invalid as they involved excessive entanglements of State with religious matters.

In Engel v. Vitale (370 US 421; 1962) even optional prayers in aided schools were held to be unconstitutional. There was a furious reaction to this decision. There were countrywide demands that the judges should resign; if they did not, they should be impeached. The majority decision was delivered by Justice Hugo Black who was a devout Baptist and Sunday school preacher. He was denounced as a Communist and an atheist. This case illustrates the detachment from personal view that the judges display in their work.

Black was in his younger days a member of Ku Klux Klan and anti-Black. As a judge of the U.S. Supreme Court he was a strong desegregationist. Carl Sogan has pointed out that as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Black wore white robes and intimidated the blacks; as a member of the Supreme Court, he wore black robes and intimidated the whites. (on p.431 of ‘The Demonhaunted World’, Random House, New York).

Kennedy, who was then the President of U.S.A., called upon the Americans to accept the decision which was ‘welcome reminder to every American family that we can pray a good deal more at home and attend our Churches with a good deal more fidelity and we can make the true meaning of prayer more important in the lives of all of our children‘. (“The First Freedom” by Net Hentoff, Delacarte Press, New York, p.156.

There are some only of the several propositions handed down by the Supreme Court which clearly show that no part of the money belonging to the State can be applied directly or indirectly for a religious purpose – however small it may be. This is in my opinion true secularism though that word had not yet come in vogue at that time.

I must hasten to mention here that secularism enshrined in the American Constitution is not the result of a movement for secularism. Provision for secularism was made to prevent any religion or any sect gaining a more advantageous position than another. America is inhabited by a large number of Christian denominations which were not always tolerant of each other. Different sects were in dominant positions in different States. In order to avoid conflicts among the different denominations and in order to avoid the dominance by any one denomination, the State was prohibited from having anything to do with religion in any manner. A French visitor to the U.S.A. found that in that country there were a dozen sects but only one sauce. Americans are not secular, but U.S.A. has a secular Constitution.

Secularism in France

After noticing that in America secularism was established practically without any fight or controversy, one must turn to France where secularism came to be established firmly after a gradual conquest of the ground. Europe had been ravaged for a long time by religious persecutions and wars. That was in fact the main reason why many Europeans migrated to the New World. France had been the arena for the oppression of different Protestant sects. Only two years before the Revolution i.e. in November 1787, the existence of non-Catholics was recognised by an edict. But Louis XVI specified that the Roman Catholic Church alone would continue to enjoy public worship in France. Non-Catholics continued to have civil and political disabilities.

Then the Revolution took place on 14th July 1789. The Roman Catholic Church was too strong to be swept away easily. Secularisation in France took place in stages. The Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen stated in Article 10 :

“No one is to be disquieted because of his opinions, even religions, provided their manifestation does not disturb public order established by law.”

First, in 1789 December, all non-Catholics (save the Jews) were freed from civil and political disabilities. The Constitution of September 3, 1891 abolished the disabilities of Jews. The first stage was to basically remove the disadvantages associated with religion.

Certain revolutionary groups became active proclaiming the supremacy of reason:

“The cult of eternal Reason is the only one worthy of a free and enlightened nation.”
“We shall revere only Reason; Equality and Liberty are our gods.”
“Let us erase superstition’s yoke to the last trace. Let Reason take its place, Reason which is heaven sent.”

Among these and other slogans, Goddess Reason was worshipped. National holidays, not based upon religions, were declared. The Church was not abolished but the Roman Catholics accepted the position that Church was in the State and not the State in the Church.
Different stages of secularism in France

I will indicate briefly the different stages of secularisation:

The State took over from the Church the registration of births, deaths and marriages.

Education system was overhauled and the teaching institutions were removed from the control of the Church and put under the authority of the State. Between 1801 and 1804, the Civil Code, a comprehensive one, was introduced – this marked a complete break from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church over French legislation. The Preamble to the Code proclaimed that there exists a universal and immutable law and “it is nothing else than natural reason in so far as it governs all men”.

The overall political and social situation that was thus created has been described by the French word laicite [0] for which, scholars say, there is no English equivalent. One dictionary “Dictionaire de la Langue Francase” by Petit Le Robert describes ‘laicite’ as the principle of separation of civil society and religious society, the State exercising no religious power and the Church exercising no political power. This does not adequately convey the idea of secularism but for the purpose of this talk I will use the word ‘secular’ for ‘laicite’ and secularisation for ‘laicization’, the process of making secular.

The general framework contained three characteristics:

1) the State no longer ensures the salvation of the people,
2) the State involves itself only with the citizens’ common earthly interest,
3) the State considers itself not to be in a position to impose specific religious doctrines.

To be sure, religion was not ignored. In fact the purported religious needs of the citizens were recognised and the State paid stipends to ministers of recognised religions.
The second stage of secularisation in France is marked by the passing of a law of separation of State and Church on 11th December 1905. Before that happened, certain other events took place in the process of secularisation. The law prohibiting work on Sundays was repealed. The provision for divorce was introduced. Distinction between the burial grounds of different religions was abolished. The reform of the educational system has already been mentioned.

The Act of 1905 provided that the Republic neither recognises nor pays nor subsidises any religion. This meant in practice the denial of the usefulness of religions recognised earlier. Between 1905 and today several developments took place which at one time weakened the fabric of secularism (laicite) and sometimes strengthened it. These ups and downs reflected the social and political fluctuations in France. The debate goes on mostly in the field of education. Religions are studied today but are not taught. In the French Republican School, it is said, one does not learn to believe, but to reason.

From what has been said about the birth and growth of secularism, in France it is seen that it is a product of social and political development. ‘Laicite’ in France is being subjected to new challenges during the last decade and a half. This is primarily due to the immigrant population of Muslims from the erstwhile French Colonies in North Africa. The Islamist groups are seeking a special status in the Secular Republic.

The episode involving the headscarves which arose in 1989 provides a typical example of this challenge. The principal of a school (in Creil), himself an immigrant from the Caribbean, forbade three Muslim girls from attending the classes with the headscarves worn purportedly to conceal their hair – an action which he justified on the ground of laicite. The then Minister of Education, who later became Prime Minister, tried to work out a compromise by suggesting that the children and their parents should be persuaded not to wear the scarves while attending the classes and if they are not persuaded, they should be allowed in the school. “Munich of the Republican School” shouted the secular intelligentsia of the country.

Then there are several issues springing up from this and similar incidents. The educational institution is totally a secular institution – is it not entitled to insist that patently religious symbolism should not be displayed in its premises? To the progressives and non-religious, the headscarf symbolised the subservience of woman. Moreover, it created separateness in a group of students. They insist that when a person comes to France as an immigrant, he enters not only a country but also a history and a culture.

In a still later incident, sometime in 1994, the then Minister advocated that prohibition of ‘ostentatious insignia’ be included in the school regulations. The problem rests there and has not been resolved to the satisfaction of either party. The French have, in a poll conducted, expressed their view that fanaticism, submission and rejection of Western values were characteristic of Islam. What is the religious composition of French population? No one knows, because the census does not record the religion of the French citizen. It appears that secularism, like democracy, needs constant vigilance. (For an excellent account of the French experiment, see Two Thresholds of Laicization by Jean Beubarot in “Secularism and Its Critics“, Ed. Rajeev Bhargav, OUP 1998).

Secularism in America, which entered the Constitution through the first Amendment, got firmly entrenched by judicial decisions – thanks to the initial interpretation given to it by Thomas Jefferson. The idea of separation of Church and State in France was the product of the Revolution and has been fortified by social, cultural and political developments.
Secularism in Turkey

I must now turn to another country where secularism has been thrust upon the people by one who was for all purposes a dictator but where it has been subsequently supported and sustained by the population. That is Turkey. The Chief Executive of Pakistan, General Musharaff, within few days of his capturing power, declared that his role model would be the Turkish Secularist reformer, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk. There is in some minds a lurking feeling that Kamal Pasha was basically a good Musalman who brought about reforms in Turkey. Khaled Ahmed, the editor of Friday Times of Lahore, has, in an article contributed to “On the Abyss” (2000, Harper Collins), stated as follows:

Ataturk had been admired by the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. The first book he gave his daughter Dina in the 1930s was a biography of the Grey Wolf. Poet Muhammad Iqbal, considered the philosopher of the State in Pakistan, had supported the secular experiment of Ataturk in Turkey in his famous 1929 English Lectures”.(page 85)

The lectures referred are “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” delivered in 1929. They were first published in London in 1931 but the book has been out of print for a long time (Those who are interested in the subject will be glad to know that it is now available having been republished recently by Kitab Bhavan, New Delhi).

I was a little surprised by the reference to Muhammad Iqbal, a known anti-liberal and anti-secularist, as an admirer of Kamal Pasha. I was naturally driven to check the original.

Iqbal, in his lecture on “The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam” (One of the lectures delivered in 1929 and included in “Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam“) has, at some length, discussed what is known as Ijtihad in Islam i.e. literature. Referring to the line of thought of the Nationalist Party in Turkey, he points out, correctly, that the point of supreme interest of that party was the State and not religion and that party emphasises the separation of Church and State. The assimilation of the theory of separation by the Turkish Nationalists is, according to Iqbal, misleading in as much as it suggests a dualism which does not exist in Islam. He endorses the view of Said Halim Pasha, of the Religious Reform Party, which said that Islam – the world of Islam – is one and it has no fatherland. Said Halim Pasha had further said that modern culture based on national egoism is another form of barbarism – a view Iqbal commends.

There is no admiration anywhere in these lectures of Kamal Ataturk. The only thing which Iqbal accepts is the vesting of Caliphate in an assembly – a body of persons – which was done by the Turks initially. Even this had become irrelevant by the time Iqbal delivered his lectures. Having abolished Sultanate on 1st November 1922, Kamal proceeded to abolish Caliphate itself on 3rd March 1924 and on the same day Ministry of Religious Affairs and Religious Schools was abolished. Continuing the narration of events, Kamal proceeded to ban fez cap, suppress religious brotherhoods and close down sacred tombs as places of worship. In 1926 February, new Civil Law Code was adopted which, among other things, made it impossible for a Muslim to summarily divorce his wife. Kamal had, however, given Talaq to his wife in August 1925.

Therefore, when General Musharaff declared that his role model would be Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, the religious parties were stunned into silence. Qazi Hussein Ahmed of Jamaat-e-Islam said: “How can Ataturk, who destroyed the Islamic ideology, be the ideal of a Pakistan ruler? Those who are making such senseless statements to make God angry and America happy should learn a lesson from the fate of Nawaz Sharif”.

Let me briefly refer to the experiment of Turkey under Mustafa Kamal Pasha. After the break up of Ottoman Empire following the First World War, the institution of Calipha became incongruous. I will avoid the tortuous and bloody events that preceded the rise to power of Kamal Pasha who, in 1924, abolished the Caliphate. Earlier Indian Muslims in cooperation with Gandhi had agitated for the protection of the Caliphate and against the threat of its abolition.

It is also necessary to note that Kamal had become distrustful of Indian Muslims because the then Aga Khan and the former Judge Amir Ali sent a joint letter to Kamal Pasha protesting against the treatment given to the Caliph and asking him to treat the Caliph with dignity and respect. In this letter they claimed that they were speaking on behalf of millions of Indian Muslims. Kamal Pasha was firmly against Turkey being entangled with Arabic countries or with India. For this reason and also for the reason that he wanted no religion in public affairs, he refused to become Calipha himself when beseeched to do so by, among others, Indian Muslims.

What did Kamal Pasha then do? He proceeded to secularise the Turkish society and State. By this time he had become a dictator having throttled the opposition in the National assembly. He attacked the fez cap which was associated with Turkish Islam. Wearing a fez cap was made a criminal offence. Nehru rightly points out that the fez cap was inoffensive and when it was banned, riots broke out and they were ruthlessly suppressed. “It sounds rather silly to attach so much importance to a headdress. What is much more important is what is inside the head, not what is on top of it” (Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru, p.708).

I will only enumerate some other steps taken by Kamal Pasha for secularising Turkey:

  • He encouraged the wearing of European dress – he himself wore European suits and a hat.
  • All monasteries and religious houses were abolished and their wealth confiscated for the State.
  • Muslim religious schools were abolished and State non-religious schools were started.
  • Sharia Law was replaced by Swiss Civil Code, the Italian Penal Code and German Commercial Code.
  • Polygamy was abolished.
  • A Society for the defence of women’s right was established; purdah was abolished and women were persuaded to enter into the professions.
  • Latin script replaced Arabic script.
  • Turkish language was purged of Arabic and Persian words, partly because those words could not be written in Latin script.

All this undoubtedly made Turkey a strong State compared to other Muslim nations. Some of the changes made have endured to this day. Turkey is even today a secular State. A woman wearing skirts, Ms. Chiller, had for some time been the Prime Minister of Turkey.

But the secularism of Kamal Pasha was based upon dictatorship and was not brought about by discussion and persuasion – a course Nehru would have adopted. In the ordinary course, a system which has been imposed upon people with force would be overthrown by the people at some stage. But the secular state has survived for 60 years after Kamal Pasha’s death. Of late, Islamic Fundamentalism is raising its head in Turkey but the Turks who have tasted the fruits of secular life are not accepting a course which may lead them to an Islamic State. It may, therefore, be regarded that the majority of Turks have accepted secularism. Despite a couple of coups, Turkey has now retained the democratic framework.

Digressing slightly I wish to refer to another Muslim ruler. Some historians think that Akbar’s was also a secular State. Akbar’s confused religiosity has been equated with secularism by some historians. He received members of Jesuit Mission to find answers to his theological doubts. On the promptings of a flattering theologian, Akbar promulgated what has been described as “Infallibility Decree” under which the Emperor alone could with finality decide any question concerning the Muslim religion. Akbar also partly indulged in the rituals of as divergent religions as Zoraastrianism and Jainism. At one stage he propounded a new religion called Din-e-Ilahi (Faith of God) which by necessary implication rejected the claim of Mohamed being the seal of prophethood. By no stretch of imagination this could be called secularism. (See Oxford History of India by Vincent Smith, 4th Edition, edited by Percival Spear, p.346 et seq.)

S. Gopal rightly points out that his marriage with a Hindu Princess, partaking of “Gangajal” etc., showed, apart from his love of Hinduism, his anxiety to hold his empire together and to prevent his Hindu subjects from becoming restive. His “Sarvadharam Samabhav” made him worship Virgin Mary and other deities on different days according to rites of different religions – thus infuriating the followers of Islam which prohibited idol worship. (A Historical Perspective of Secularism in India by S. Gopal, pp.7 and 8, People’s Reporter Publisher, Bangalore).

Position in UK

A brief reference to the position in England should be in order. In England there is a close alliance between the Church and the State. The Church of England became independent of the Pope in the Sixteenth Century and is the official Church of England. The Monarch of England is the head of the Church. Though there is religious freedom in England, the Church of England has a special status inasmuch as the monarch of England must join in communion with the Church of England. A Catholic or any one who marries a Catholic cannot be the monarch of England. It is probable that a Catholic may not even be Lord Chancellor.

The Church of England by certain internal measures can constitute a General Synod consisting of clergy as well as laity and this assembly can put forth proposals regarding religious matters -such as communion, baptism etc. These proposals do not have the force of law unless the Parliament has approved them by a simple resolution and have received the Royal Assent thereafter. This is a simplified account of the relationship between the Church and the State in England. (For a detailed discussion, see ‘Constitutional Law‘ by E.C.S. Wade and Godfrey Phillips). The Established Church in Scotland is the Presbyterian Church and the General Assembly [0] of that Church is the supreme legislative and judicial body.

The provisions touching the form of worship are of the authorship of the Church but become binding only under the authority of the Parliament, which may consist of Christians of any denomination, non-Christians and atheists. To this limited extent it can be said that there is no theocratic polity in England.
Constitution of India

It is time we turn to the Constitution of India.

Is the State envisaged under the Constitution a secular State ? Is there a wall of separation between the State and religions? Our twin-sister State – Pakistan – is an Islamic Republic. Pakistan’s Constitution proclaims that sovereignty over the entire world belongs to Allah. No law which is repugnant to Holy Quran and other sacred books can be enacted by the State.

It is contended by many that India is a secular State because:

  • no particular religion is prescribed as the State religion;
  • no preferential treatment is envisaged for any religion or for people professing any religion;
  • the right to worship is given to followers of all religions.

It is further stated that active or direct promotion or propagation of any religion by the State is not provided for in the Indian Constitution. But is it prohibited?

Equality before law (Article 14), prohibition of discrimination on the ground of religion (Article 15) and equality of opportunity in public employment or for holding any public office (Article 16) are all healthy provisions indicating democratic and secular credentials of Indian polity.

Let us now turn to other relevant provisions.

Article 27 provides that “no person shall be compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any religion or religious denomination”. (Emphasis provided)

This Article is only a ban against the State from collecting taxes, part or whole of which could be utilised for the promotion of any religion. Two consequences follow from this. First, if there is no direct connection between a tax and the promotion of religion, the ban does not come into force. Amounts from the general exchequer can be appropriated for religious purposes. Secondly a tax may be levied for the religious and spiritual upliftment of the citizens and the proceeds can be utilised for the promotion of all religions – a la Akbar.

This is good news for ‘Sangha Pariwar’. Ram Temple can be constructed at Ayodhya, with, partly at least, the heap of funds from the State exchequer. Haj pilgrims’ tours may be subsidised; contributions can be made to Waqf Boards; payment of stipends to Imams may be considered, as the Supreme Court itself has suggested. A secularist may only bemoan that there is no total prohibition against the use of State funds for religious purposes.

Article 28(1) lays down that no religious instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of State funds.

It is well known that almost all educational institutions receive grants from the Government or a Governmental body like University Grants Commission. It is generally accepted that few schools, even religious schools, can survive without grants-in-aid. (See In Re Kerala Education Bill, AIR 1958 S.C.956 -980). These grants cover 100 per cent of the salaries of the teaching staff and 90% of the salaries of the non-teaching staff. A small proportion of the expenses is met by other sources including tuition fees. Such institutions are not institutions wholly maintained, though largely maintained, out of State funds. The ban of Article 28(1) will not apply to such educational institutions. Elphinstone College is covered; St. Xavier’s College is not.

We have seen how under the secular Constitution of U.S.A. a State-aided school cannot impart religious education. Article 28(3) permits a State-recognised or a State-aided school to give religious instruction or to hold religious worship (Satyanarayan Puja) provided no student is compelled to attend the instruction or the worship.

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