Secularism? Yes, but softly

 By Dev Virahsawmy

The Maritime Republic of Mauritius is a secular state. There is no state religion. Religion can neither qualify nor disqualify for citizenship. The Constitution protects all citizens from any form of religious persecution or discrimination. Believers, agnostics, atheists, practising and non-practising believers are equal before the law.

The Constitution guarantees religious freedom as part of the freedom of association and two religious/ethnic groups, namely Hindus and Muslims, are mentioned in connection with the best loser system. But it cannot be said that Hinduism and Islam are state religions as suggested by certain clerics.

Can the fact that the state gives a subsidy to religions (about Rs 75 million) be interpreted to mean that the state is religious? If we adopt the hard line of secularism (any link between the state and religious institutions, however small, makes it a religious state) we may erroneously jump to that conclusion. In Mauritius the soft line has always been the case. I see no reason why we should change now and opt for the hard line.

The fundamental question is whether the different religions are obstacles to development and progress. Here a clear definition of ‘development and progress’ is needed. The term is not to be understood as accumulation of material wealth but rather as increase in general happiness. Can the different religions promote understanding and mutual tolerance and drive  forces of change and reforms? Some examples. The Arya Samaj movement, by reforming Hinduism, has greatly contributed to the improvement of general welfare; within Christianity there is now a rising belief in Liberation Theology which aims at fighting poverty and injustice; within Islam feminist studies are challenging patriarchy and a very progressive picture is emerging; the Catholic Church has greatly contributed to the secondary education of girls from different cultural backgrounds, many of whom have occupied important posts in the state and elsewhere. Hinduism and Islam have also contributed to political emancipation (universal suffrage) and independence.

However the state is not to meddle with religious affairs and religious bodies are not to interfere with state affairs. Yet I do not think that I’m contradicting myself if I say that the state is duty bound to see to it that pilgrims of all religious denominations, as citizens, enjoy security guaranteed by the state. That religious bodies should use lobbying techniques to promote their views is a normal democratic practice provided that threats and blackmail are not used and laws are governed by secular principles. Lobbying is a double-edged sword (kouto mousana). It has positive and negative aspects. Handle it with care.

Our country and the world are facing serious issues like global warming and climate change, collapse of western capitalism, violence against women, food insecurity and we should not divert attention from crucial urgent issues and focus on non-issues.

* Published in print edition on 13 July 2012

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