Separation Of Religion From State Still A Necessity


The role of religion in politics is as contentious today as it was about hundreds of years ago. The question still haunts the civilization today as it used to once upon a time. The west, for its part, has been successful in separating religion from politics or the church from politics, to which they still adhere amid the wave of rightist politics. In line with the west, especially Europe, many countries from the other parts of the world opted for it but hardly achieved any success.

The first paragraph of the piece may smack of some despair, but in the wake of the rise of extremist Islami, Hindutva and Buddhist politics in the South Asia and bullying of far rights in the west, it may not sound illogical to readers. The fact remains that west, even on the back of strong universal education, has been struggling to keep religion at bay having undergone the historical experience of renaissance, enlightenment and all the struggles for democracy.

Indeed, human beings do always have a penchant for spirituality; we are not merely a bunch of solid matters. Since antiquity, religion played the central role in meeting that need of people. With the advent of modern science and technology, the great advancement of humanities, human beings started coming out of the influence of religion, however, it cannot be said that they were totally dispelled of religion. It cannot happen. But at least, the role of religion was limited to the private sphere of human beings, which can be cited as development. Modernism gave people the scope to think freely without the influence of religion. Reason, not faith, became the driving force of human thinking, which led to epoch-making discoveries, inventions and a whole host of achievements in humanitarian studies. In a nutshell, the world, at least, to a certain extent, became anthropocentric from a faith-based and fatalist one. But it was never fully a secular world as the role of religion was always there, at least in the personal sphere.

The question of separation of religion from politics is important in the sense that it is quintessential to democracy, that is, a polity of the people, by the people and for the people. Religious politics always lays stress on the supremacy of one religion over others, and thus, adherents of other religions are marginalized, which is the polar opposite to the norms of democracy. In such a state of human civilization, this is not acceptable at all.

It is this same sense of religious supremacy that drives the adherents of the Islamic state to annihilate all others who don’t conform to their faith, even the Shias, the other sect of Islam. And with the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, religion and nationalism got mixed with each other in a much more complicated way; Indian nationalism under the spiritual leadership of Gandhi is a prime example of that. Hence, people tended to get into a box of identity, which erects a wall of separation among them, in terms of religion, nationality and so on.

The fact remains that lack of democratic and religious reforms and proper education resulted in people’s renewed interest in religion coupled with rising inequality. If state carries out its duties, people are less likely to feel helpless; which can result in fatalism and religiosity. In case people more are equipped with proper education, they wouldn’t feel like resorting to religion for their spiritual (mental) need. The remark of noted Bengali essayist Motaher Hossain Chowdhury is worth quoting in this regard: “To an educated person, culture constitutes the religion, and to an uneducated person, religion is tantamount to culture. Proper education can fill in the gap of spirituality. Once, the uneducated and semi-educated people used to practice religion. The students of madrassas manned the extremist organizations. But now, even people with the highest education and decent family background are joining these organizations. Again, this is lack of proper education. For sure, a new wave of religion-based politics stretched to different parts of the world. It will go on this way for some time. But we should keep focused on our struggle for a just and free world.

Perhaps, what religious fanaticism can do is amply demonstrated by the partition of India, the legacy of which is still felt. Till date, the Indian subcontinent is the least connected region of the world. Even after partition, we could not bridge the gap. Lack of communication is still thwarting us to know each other closely. A very small number of people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh travel each other’s country; however, personal tourism between India and Bangladesh recently increased. It is a matter of great regrets that, even after more than 700 of coexistence, the two major communities of the subcontinent, the Hindus, and the Muslims, still feel separated. On the other hand, the plight of the displaced Rohyngas can be attributed to the rampant anti-Muslim sentiment of the ethnic Burmese, at least in part.  The place of Buddhism in the polity and politics in Myanmar is a strongly debated issue in the country.

In countries like Myanmar, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, politicians should address the underlying grievances that lead people to support exclusionary nationalist narratives, which are partly economic. A much more visible focus on the economy would give people confidence that the government is prioritising better opportunities and jobs and a more prosperous future for ordinary people. The west did fulfill many of these, and that is the reason why, they can still maintain the basic democratic balance. If we follow their footstep, religious leaders like notorious Baba Ram Rahim Singh may not become the last resort for the commoners in our part.

Philosophically, humankind should be freed from the clutch of religion to augment the cause of universal brotherhood and solidarity, And Politically; we have to be able to separate religion from politics.

Protik Bardhan is a journalist from Bangladesh

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