Saturday, November 24, 2007

Secularism - not from theory but bloody history

Nov 24, 2007

By Janadas Devan

MY COLLEAGUE Chua Mui Hoong wrote an invaluable piece last week, 'Rules of engagement for God and politics' (ST, Nov 16).

She argued that the only basis upon which the religious of different faiths, as much as the non-religious, can intervene in discussions of public policy is to appeal to a 'public reason' common to all.

Religion may influence one's view on an issue, Ms Chua, a person of faith herself, acknowledged. 'But when arguing your case in the political arena, you need to present arguments understandable and acceptable to those of different faiths.'

Like Assistant Professor Tan Seow Hon, who wrote a piece last month making a similar point, Ms Chua quoted the American philosopher John Rawls, who first used the term 'public reason', as authority. As authorities go, the late Professor Rawls, who died in 2002, is impeccable. That people of different faiths - Ms Chua, Prof Tan and I - can find common cause in the centrality of 'public reason', testifies to the theoretical scope and force of his arguments.

But it is important to note, too, that secularism is not just theory. Theory is important - and some political theorists, like Prof Rawls, are especially important - but secularism did not issue from theory. Nor did it issue from the debate on Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code. Nor did it issue from Mr Lee Kuan Yew asking the late Mr S. Rajaratnam one day to pen the Pledge - 'We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion.'

There is a history, a politics - bloody experience - behind the secular state. If we forget that history, the most finely wrought theories would be worse than useless. Like the 'strongest oaths', they would be like 'straw to the fire i' the blood', as Shakespeare put it.

In Singapore's case, the founding generation's uncompromising commitment to the secular state arose from their experience of the terrifying race riots of 1964, which were not totally unconnected to religion, and the searing two years Singapore spent in Malaysia.

They also remembered the Maria Hertogh riots of 1950, sparked by a court decision to return custody of Maria, then aged 13, to her biological Catholic Dutch mother after she had been raised as a Muslim by her adoptive Malay family. Eighteen people were killed in those riots.

And that was a minor tempest compared to what happened in India in 1947-48, just three years earlier. Singapore's founding generation came to political consciousness in the 1940s. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, when the British Raj began to be dismantled and people long suppressed found utterance. Singapore's founding generation witnessed Jawaharlal Nehru - a much admired figure in the anti-colonial movement and a forceful advocate of secularism - being stunned by the absolute ferocity of the Hindu-Muslim riots that accompanied the partition of British India. An estimated one million people died.

And behind all this searing direct experience, there is the history of the longue duree. How did secularism arise in the West? Not from theory.

It emerged out of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the treaties which ended the Thirty Years' War (1618-48) and the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648), pitting Catholics against Protestants. The Westphalian system established the principle of cuius regio, eius religio - 'whose the region, his the religion' - which stopped the carnage; and that principle slowly gave rise to freedom of religion being enshrined as a human right.

And what carnage it took to get to that point! Historians estimate that in 1618, at the beginning of the Thirty Years' War, the population in the territory that now constitutes Germany was roughly 21million. By 1648, it had shrunk to about 13million.

That is a casualty rate close to 40per cent, way beyond genocidal levels. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were prodigious monsters, but even they never quite came close, in proportionate terms, to inflicting on their societies the kind of destruction that warring Catholics and Protestants visited on theirs in 17th-century Europe.

The Enlightenment absorbed this history. The writers of the United States Constitution were the heirs of the Enlightenment. It was history that produced that first sentence in the US Bill of Rights: 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.' That was a tremendous thing that America's founding fathers did, for nobody anywhere had ever said anything like that before. Their vision came from experience. Theory was there, but it was informed by history.

To return to Singapore: People who argue - as some have in this paper, pressing for a greater role for religion in public policy - that Singapore is not as secular as the US do not understand either Singapore's history or politics.

In some respects, Singapore is more secular than the US. Singapore's Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, for instance, explicitly bars religion from politics. Its Societies Act has been used to disband certain religious sects. The US State Department routinely utters a mild tut-tut for these 'restrictions on religious freedom' in Singapore. It does not understand religion can still be a 17th-century affair in many parts of the world.

It is not possible in Singapore for any politician to go before the electorate and say: 'I'm a Buddhist, a Muslim, whatever - vote for me.' It is not possible for temples, mosques and churches to be mobilised for political purposes.

Nothing in the US Constitution prevents either. All it says is that Congress cannot establish a state religion. But US politicians can, and do, make religious appeals; and churches have been mobilised for electoral purposes - African-American churches for Democrats and evangelical churches for Republicans.

But in some respects, Singapore is less strictly secular. The state helps to fund mosque-building and mission schools, for instance. Such compromises arose from either pragmatic political considerations - to reassure Malay/ Muslims, especially after Separation; or from pragmatic public policy considerations - mission schools, among the best in Singapore, had to be incorporated into the public school system.

But even here, there are limits. For instance, Muslim girls have been barred from wearing the headscarf or tudung in schools, so as to maintain their 'common secular space'.

And in 1992, the Ministry of Education reminded mission schools of Article 16 (3) of the Singapore Constitution, which states: 'No person shall be required to receive instruction in or take part in any ceremony or act of worship of a religion other than his own.' Students cannot be compelled to attend religious service, mission school principals were told.

Why is it necessary to send such strong, unambiguous signals? Because religion is 'a very profound and fundamental tectonic divide', as MM Lee put it once. He did not learn that from Prof Rawls.

And because more Singaporeans are leaning towards 'strongly held exclusive beliefs' and 'this trend is part of a worldwide religious revival', as the 1989 White Paper on Religious Harmony put it. That did not come from Prof Rawls either.

To deny religion a formal role in either politics or public policy does not mean - can never mean - denying the religious of whatever faith a role as citizens. The secular state is neither atheist nor agnostic; it is simply neutral on questions of faith. And this neutrality must involve respecting the immeasurable value of each soul, religious or otherwise, or neutrality would have no meaning.

But the secular state must also insist that every soul has to relate to other souls, within the common space shared by all, in terms, not of this or that faith, but of a public reason accessible to all.

It is absolutely crucial, though, to realise that this demand does not issue from theory. It is enforced by history, experience - and not mine or yours, but humanity's. There is an extraordinary wealth of bitter experience pointing to the ethical superiority of secular societies.

Those who forget this bitter experience will be condemned to retaste it.

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