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Secularism: Roots, Evolution & the East-West Divide


Secularism is an ideology that goes over two centuries but is still relevant all around the world. It has often been considered a taboo in parts of the world where the religious laws and orders dictated the lives of people, especially in Muslim majority countries.  Almost half the world (96 countries) recognize themselves as a secular nation, from the USA to India to our very own Bangladesh. Originally a counter-movement, it is now the cornerstone of western ideas and values. Interestingly, there developed two strains of secularism that we are also going to read about below.

Meaning of Secularism

Before we jump aboard the ship, we must first learn the exact meaning of secularism. Otherwise, my esteemed readers might get the wrong impression. I want to clarify that being secular doesn’t mean one is “atheist” or doesn’t believe in any religion. It has a far broader spectrum in the likes of separating the temporal aspects of our lives from the realm of divinity. In terms of the academic discipline of International Relations or other sub-disciplines of the faculty of Social Sciences, secularism means keeping religious and political affairs segregated or separated.

When reporting about the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979, famous CNN journalist Walter Cronkite blatantly remarked that “We (the West) think of politics as a public “matter” while religion is a “private” matter. And civilized nations always like to keep their private matters to themselves”. When the secular-leaning Pahlavi dynasty of Iran was overthrown by the Shi’a revolutionaries under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, the once strong fortress of Western secularism in the Middle East quickly was turned into a strict theocratic (“theocracy”, state ruled by religion) society overnight. Secularism was demonized as heresy and outright atheism by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Being an expert cleric and seasoned political veteran, Ayatollah Khomeini saw fit to establish political control in the name of religion.

Rise of France and Christianity in Europe

If we look back even further, France became a Christian nation in 496 (20 years after the fall of the Roman Empire) when the King of the “Franks”, Clovis (456-511) converted to Christianity and established the Merovingian dynasty.  In the subsequent centuries, the Merovingian dynasty gained even more prominence and mustered enough power to unite all of modern-day France and Germany by the eighth century. Seeing the potentiality of strong leadership that could unite all of Christendom in Europe and bring them out of the Dark Ages, Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 AD.

Unfortunately, Charlemagne’s efforts for a united Christendom was never fully realized as the subsequent Popes and the later Kings of France compromised with each other to secure more power and protect their reign. The Pope granted the king “Divine Right”, by which a king is “divinely” ordained by God and can’t be subjected to scrutiny by anyone other than the Pope, God’s representative on Earth. The kings of France and other kings in Europe saw this as a great opportunity to justify their reign in the name of Christianity. However, the Church continued to play a leading role in political, military, intellectual, ideological and even cultural aspects of French life.

Bourbon rule and the French Revolution

In 1643, Louis XIV of the House of Bourbon (1638-1715) ascended the throne of France just at the age of five and till he turned 18 in 1656, France was ruled by his mother Queen Anne of Austria as regent and the subsequent Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin. They were zealots who banned all other religions and made the lives of Protestant Christians incredibly difficult by imposing religious taxes. By trying to emulate the practices of his late mother and his “best advisers” Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin, King Louis XIV saw fit to annul the “Edict of Nantes” in 1685, 87 years after the former was signed between Louis XIV’s grandfather King Henry IV and the Calvinist Protestants in the year 1598. As such, Catholicism became the only officially allowed religion in France. 

Back then, the French society was divided into three classes called “Estate,” with First Estate being the highest and the Third being the lowest. All the members of the Catholic Church, from Archbishop to nuns, were all First Estate citizens. The senior members among the First Estate often bore noble titles, and the Church was exempted from state taxes. Ironically, these same people were owners of substantial personal wealth, and it was accumulated within them while even the lower-level clergy lived in poverty. All these corruptions of the Church were visible, and even the devout Christians believed the system needed to change. 

Moreover, the absolutist grasp the Catholic Church held over every aspect of personal life also was suffocation for the mass public. As seen in the lifetime of Italian scientist, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was a scientist who was summoned to court and excommunicated since his scientific theories clashed with the theological belief held by the Christians.

Age of Enlightenment and the beginning of Modern Era

The rigid atmosphere first saw a crack in 1715 with the Age of Enlightenment. It saw a massive intellectual shift in the erstwhile Western world. Some raised the question about the “Divine Right” of kings, while others rejected the idea of having to follow a religion. This age saw a rise in the power of reasoning and curiosity about nature and the human mind. The century-long repression by a fundamentalist religious hegemony ended up pitting the then Third Estate (commoners like me and you) against the Church, and separation of Church from the state also gained traction. The power of the priesthood came to decline, and the age of philosophers was on the rise. France was stirred by political turmoil, and 1789 saw the French Revolution. However, by then, people already had lost their faith, and a lot many of them were endorsing unbelief and a “liberal” lifestyle free from shackles of Catholic rigidity.

Unsurprisingly, the French Revolution started its attacks on Church and its corruption. However, it later led to a messy affair with the exile of over 30,000 priests, nationalization of church property and even change in the Christian calendar. The Catholic monarchy also was deposed.

In 1801, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte toned down the anti-Christian sentiments and signed a Concordat with Pope Pius VII, and affairs remained calm for the next century.

In 1905, the Concordat was rendered void, and a law was passed on December 9 separating the Church and the state. While the French Enlightenment period gave birth to the intellectual origins of lacaïte, this law laid the legal foundation.

As mentioned before, the concept of secularism has evolved into two distinct strains.

The first one is the original secularism, i.e., Western secularism that completely separates religion from the national level. In such a system, even religious practices cannot be publicly done. Wearing a veil, bourka or any other religious dress in public places is directly prohibited in such states. Turkey saw such radical secularism after the fall of the Ottoman Empire by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk though Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reversed many of the laws.

As one may call it, the eastern brand of secularism is seen in countries like Bangladesh and India. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman inserted secularism as one of the four principles in the Constitution of 1972. Bangabandhu, a revolutionary with a vision, had a different approach to secularism. His brand of secularism ensured equal inclusion of all religions. Bangladesh Betar and BTV would start with recitation from the Holy Qur’an, followed by recitation from Gita. He established an Islamic foundation, but he also removed religious symbols from the logo of Dhaka University, believing all people have equal access to education regardless of their religion. India also follows the same pattern though bigotry has been on the rise since BJP took power. However, BJP’s Hindutva is more of an ethnoreligious movement rather than a purely religious one.

There did exist a third but now obsolete strain of secularism. The secularism of the USSR, which endorsed state atheism and violently opposed all religions, closed down churches, Muslims were shot in Mosques for praying in the congregation; such was the environment both before and after WWII with an exception. During Hitler’s failed invasion into the USSR (a bloody campaign that saw nearly three-fourths of the Red Army decimated), the communist regime opened the doors to places of worship so the believers may raise their hands to God and pray for the safety and security of USSR.

If the history of humankind has taught us anything, inclusion and regulation have always been more fruitful than exclusion and fanatism.



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