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Minority religions and secular states

By Syed Atiq ul Hassan - posted Wednesday, 1 February 2006

Recently, I attended a youth forum on interfaith harmony in Sydney. School children, very interestingly, participated in the debates on interfaith harmony. A 12-year-old high school student, in his speech, asked the audience:

We don’t understand why we are not given school holiday on Eid or Dewali while we get off on Christmas and Easter … We are told that Australia is a secular country where everyone has equal rights to practice and celebrate his or her religious activities. So, why don’t Muslims, Hindus and the people of other beliefs get days off to observe their religious days … is this what we call secularism or freedom of social and religious rights?

The children’s arguments left many questions in my mind about the system we live in. Eventually, I found no answer other than to realise the truism that it does not matter whether society claims itself as “secular”. The majority always dominate the minority: religiously, culturally and socially.


Historically, the idea of secularism emerged as a practical strategy to deal with the issues related to the Christians and people of other faiths in the Western culture. Apparently, the nations that adopted secularism had the conviction that people should not be accused or discriminated in the name of religion. Everyone should be given liberty to observe his or her own faith and the state should not be in control of religious obligations.

In the Webster’s dictionary the word “secularism” is defined as “a system of doctrines and practices that rejects any form of religious faith and worship” or “the belief that religion and ecclesiastical affairs should not enter into the function of the state especially into public education”.

The theory of separation of state and religion makes several underlying assumptions that are hard to come by in the real world. State and religion, both possess direct relationships with the people. People practice religion and people run the state. Therefore, it is quite illogical to believe that the secular philosophy has ever been implemented according to its theoretical definition.

However in the West, where Christianity is the major religion, the rulers tried to compromise between day-to-day affairs and the practices of the faith. They decided to include some of the values of their religion (Christianity) in the making of the rules of their version of a secular state.

The religious rights of the minorities in the western world and secular states are still confined within their places of worship and this extent of religious liberty can also be seen in the non-secular state or in the state where religion is the part of the government.

How can one separate the dealings of state and the rules dictated by religion in the widely observed religion of Islam where the Holy Koran, strongly, defines the codes of life - from social issues to the state’s affairs?


That is why, when rulers of the Muslim majority states tried to implement the secular philosophy of the West in their countries, they failed to develop a system which could avoid the conflict between Islamic laws and secular ideologies. The concept of compromising and creating half secular half Islamic systems produced divisions in the public and the nation become a mixture of divided thoughts.

Pakistan, Iran and Indonesia are examples in this regard. The people of these states are terribly divided between those who want to see Islam at macro level and the others who want to implement a hybrid system that carries Islam and the secular ideas at the same time. As a result, these states, have not yet produced a stable and peaceful social atmosphere.

Today, Islamic states are abused as being the countries producing religious extremists and are considered to be conservative. As a matter of fact, the extreme division among the people, who are in today’s terminology known as fundamentalists and moderates, are the consequences of the ideology of combining Islam and the secularism of the West.

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About the Author

Syed Atiq ul Hassan, is senior journalist, writer, media analyst and foreign correspondent for foreign media agencies in Australia. His email is

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