Secular or non-secular; much ado about nothing

The premise of the argument is that The Gambia has taken on a Muslim identity in its culture and state affairs. To allay the fears of the Christian minority, the Gambia Christian Council is advocating for the insertion of the word ‘secular’ in the new constitution currently in draft thereby declaring The Gambia a secular state.

For such a provision to be codified, it will need to be voted on in a referendum, will it pass? According to the Pew Research, The Gambia has a 95.3% Muslim population as of 2010 and projected to be the same by 2030. The Gambia Supreme Islamic Council (GSIC) has already written a letter declaring its opposition to such a move of declaring The Gambia a secular state.

The Gambia currently has a constitution that designates the country a ‘sovereign republic’ with no religion identified as state religion and explicitly stating that the National Assembly CANNOT pass any laws to designate a state religion and guaranteeing freedom of religion and conscience for all citizens. This has been the case since April 1970 when The Gambia became a sovereign republic rejecting the crown of England as head of state as has been the case since colonialism was imposed on the natives. The country has been a model for religious harmony and peaceful coexistence ever since, despite the overwhelming Muslim majority population.

In July 1994, The Gambia’s long standing democratic tradition was overthrown by force of arms. This marked the beginning of tyranny and the despotism of the world notorious Yahya Jammeh who ruled based on his whims and would, in 2015 declare The Gambia an Islamic Republic in direct and open contravention of the dictates of the constitution and the numerous laws thereof.

Prior to that declaration, in 2001 Jammeh unilaterally declared The Gambia a secular state thereby contravening the provisions of the constitution which designates The Gambia a ‘sovereign republic’ and made such designation an entrenched clause, which means any amendment thereof will have to be voted on in a referendum. Again, in typical Jammeh style, that did not happen and Hon. Kemeseng Jammeh former National Assembly Member for Jarra West sued to have that move invalidated as it contravenes the constitution. The Supreme Court of The Gambia upheld that such a move was unconstitutional and hence nullified, but Jammeh had no regard for the laws or the courts that interpreted them.

These series of event is what is mostly cited as reasons by the Christian Council as the source of their apprehension, that a similar scenario can emerge in the future where a despot like Jammeh could move to declare the country an Islamic Republic if a provision rendering the country secular is not inserted into the constitution. But would that be enough of a deterrent to any future tyrant? Historical facts will show that laws do not hinder despots; they rule based on their whims. Secular or not, if people are not willing to defend their constitution like Hon. Kemeseng Jammeh did in 2001, any leader will walk all over it to no consequence.

As all Gambians would agree, Christians and other non-Muslim denominations have a right to live, practice and observe their religious duties without hindrance. So how do we ensure that? Declaring the country a secular state is not the solution in my view.

One of the definitions of secularism, as defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is the “indifference to, or rejection or exclusion of, religion and religious considerations.” Regardless of what religion it is, secular by definition, is opposed to it. So how exactly it’s inclusion in the constitution gives any assurance to Christians (a religious group) is ironical.

Constitutions are not just sets of laws and provisions; they safeguard and promote values within any given society. Values are shaped by common beliefs and views. It is therefore not realistic to say that in a country where 99-100 percent of the population subscribes to an organized religion, religion should have no part in public affairs. What part it plays, could be a subject of debate.

After the introduction of western education (formal), a lot of natives were reluctant to send their children to school, especially girls due to their beliefs that they will be raised on values contrary to what the religious and cultural ideals of the parents proffer (Islam in this case). Recognizing the impact such a decision could have on the future of the country was one of the reasons why religious education was introduced in schools and having religiously trained teachers (locally called Ustaz) hired in public schools to allay the fears of conservative parents and encourage them to send their children to school, it worked. Such teachers are hired and curriculum developed at the expense of the state. In a proper secular environment, such a practice will be a violation of the constitution.

Some commentators have argued that a specific definition of the term ‘secular’ should be made, one that is reflective of our values and realities to avoid any ambiguity. If the term is going to mean anything other than what it is understood to mean, why include it at all, would that not compound the problems?

Besides the Independence day and republican day, all public holidays are centered around religious activities (there are more Christian holidays than Muslim holidays within a calendar year in a 95% Muslim country). In America Christmas is now termed the ‘holiday’ to remove its religious application, would we see a similar scenario in a secular Gambia few years down the line?

The Gambia Supreme Islamic Council cited France as an example as to what could go wrong if we go secular, where Muslim women are banned from wearing the veil in public places, a deprivation of religious rights.

The debate is not helped either when a sitting National Assembly Member for Banjul and a leader of her party, the PPP called for the demolition of mosques within public premises. These are the issues making Muslims jittery about the whole notion of designating a 95% Muslim country as a secular one. In attempts to empower and acquiesce to the demands of Christians, Muslims are increasingly seeing themselves as being marginalized to achieve that goal and that should not be the case, it is a recipe for disaster and a threat to our ever present cordial and harmonious relations. There has to be a compromise away from such a contentious word as ‘secular’.

The draft constitution made such a provision as follows;

Freedom of conscience

  1. (1) Every person has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.
    (2) Every person has the right, either individually or in community with others, in public or in private, to manifest and practice any religion or belief.
    (3) A person may not be denied access to any institution, employment or facility, or the enjoyment of any right, because of the person’s belief or religion.
    (4) A person shall not be compelled to act, or engage in any act, that is contrary to the person’s belief or religion.

This provision adequately addresses the issue of suppression of any religious views or the imposition of values contrary to one’s religious views. Question then becomes, how willing are we to claim and defend our rights as accorded by our humanity and empowered by the laws of the country? It’s an irony that the advocates of a secular designation are a religious group. The Gambia, as it is currently composed is not fully equipped for such a designation without imposing a tyranny of the minority on a very conservative majority.


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