Secularism: Correct Interpretation is Necessary

Avijit Roy

Published on May 15, 2005

We have to be strong in our mission stating clearly that "secularism", by its own definition,  is neither "tolerance" nor "respect" towards all religions (the way it has been practiced in subcontinent), but it is the total denial of involvement in religious activities from the state, a complete, not partial ....


The interesting discussion was initiated when one of our members of Mukto-Mona sent an email to the forum on Apr 22, 2005, claiming that there was a problem with the word 'Secular' in Mukto-Mona:


Problem with the word 'Secular' in Mukto-Mona

Mystic Saint
22nd April, 2005

When I was casually browsing Mukto-Mona website, one thing caught my attention. At the heading (title) of Mukto-Mona I found it says: Mukto-mona:

* A Secular site for Bengali humanists & freethinkers*.

Now I think there is a problem with the word, 'Secular'. Let us see what is the definition of Secular, The Cambridge Dictionary defines the word Secular as,
Secular (adj.): not having any connection with religion.

.... ( Read more...)


In response, I  sent  a short message to the forum; here elaborating in details: 

I don't think the word "secularism" or "secular" has been wrongly used on the MM site. SECULARISM, in my opinion, in dealing with the social problems of the day, relies upon human reason, not upon "divine" faith; upon fact, not upon fiction; upon experience, not upon a supposed supernatural revelation. It can discover no value in what are termed spiritual proposals as a remedy for existing evils. Hence, Secularists can recognize only that as being socially useful which tends to the physical, mental, moral, and political improvement of mankind as members of the general commonwealth. Thus, The dictionary definition "not religious: not religious or spiritual in nature" does not seem to contradict with the mission that MM has taken.

You may feel that some articles in our site perhaps do not fall under a "strict" definition of "secularism", but to me they are not "anti- secular" either. Many progressive sites are using the word "secular", though they mainly support as leading organizations for non- religious people i.e. freethinkers. For e.g,

The Internet Infidels, a widely popular organization who are using the Internet exclusively to promote agnosticism, atheism, freethought, and metaphysical naturalism. The name of their web-site is "Secular Web". Check : 

Also check : Paul Kurtz's web site - Council for Secular Humanism that promotes rational, human-based viewpoints on important social and ethical issues. 

The above two sites deal with a lot of religious articles and eventually promote naturalistic or more specifically, "anti-religious" view-points. But that does not restrict them for being secular, hence the name of their sites, i.e, secular web or should be quite self-explanatory to all.

However, in Bangladesh, (to be precise in sub-continent) we use the word quite differently (read wrongly) if its original (root) meaning is to be considered. The "secular" leaders of our country contradict the essential motto of "secularism" in each and every action. I will cite some examples for the erudite readers in this article. But before going there, let's discuss some necessary aspects of politics.  

Politics, according to my opinion, should be wholly secular i.e non-religious by nature. Politics means solving people's problems through a government. The institution of government is maintained by the taxes which people pay and by the co-operation which people give. If a government functions properly, people can have their problems of food, comfort or security solved easily. Indeed that is the purpose which a government should fulfill. A government would discharge its duties well if it were allowed to be secular. But the interference of religious belief and spiritual considerations with the functions of a government, foils the purpose. When people's attention is divided between god and government, they are more habituated to raise their hands in prayer to god for food and peace than to hold the ways of their government responsible for unemployment and insecurity. Our politicians need the thrust of "religious sentiment" to fool people, as they know faith in politics provides easy explanations for all phenomena and can be used as a weapon to silence the restless inquisitiveness of "ignorant people"; clever politicians are therefore, interested to transfer the demand of common mass towards heaven, rather than putting in an effort to solve those in this mundane world. We frequently hear sermons like "Allar Mal Allay Niye gechey" (Allah has taken back his own creation) from the mouths of our reputed ministers either on the incident of killing of a kid by stray bullet or after a massive accident that carries hundreds of human lives. Our politicians are greedy; they are motivated towards money, power and use the vote of the ignorant masses, and hence they try to establish a wrong interpretation of secularism. Even the so-called "secular" party, Awami Leage put "Allah Sharbo-shoktimaan" (Allah is all-powerful) in the top of any of their leaflets, web-sites etc. []. Shiekh Mujibur Rahman, first President of Bangladesh who was popularly recognized as Bangabandhu (Friend of Bengal) and father of the nation revived the Islamic Academy (which was banned in 1972 due to their collaboration with Pakistani army during liberation war) and upgraded it to a Foundation (in March 1975) and increasingly attended many of the Islamic gatherings. It can be mentioned that in its early days especially at the party's third council meeting held in Dhaka on 21-23 October 1955, the same Awami League showed the courage to drop out the word 'Muslim' from the name of the party to make it sound secular. However, the sprit of secularism and courage was not maintained by later Awami leaders. Towards the end of his rule, Mujib made frequent references to Islam in his speeches and public utterances by using terms and idioms which were peculiar mainly to the Islam-oriented Bangladeshi - like Allah (the Almighty God), Insha Allah (God willing), Bismillah (in the name of God), Tawaba (Penitence) and Imam (religious leader). As the days passed, Sheikh Mujib even dropped his symbolic valedictory expression Joy Bangla and ended his speeches with Khuda Hafez, the traditional Indo-Islamic phrase for bidding farewell. The process of using Islam to uproot secularism gathered huge momentum during the military regimes of General Ziaur Rahman (1975-1981) and General H.M. Ershad (1982-1990). During the regime of Zia, his party, BNP scraped secularism from the four state principles and inserted "Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim" (in the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful) in our constitution. The principle of secularism was replaced by the words, "Absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all action." Between 1982 and 1990, General Ershad made systematic efforts to continue the policy of Zia, rehabilitating anti-liberation elements and the parallel Islamisation culminating in the disputable Eighth amendment to the Constitution declaring "Islam" as a state religion. Our current prime minister Khaleda Zia and former Prime minister Sheikh Hasina both used religion as a tool to consolidate their power base following their forefathers.

In India we see the same thing. The 42nd amendment to the Constitution introduced by Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, reiterated the secular character declaring India as a "socialist, secular, democratic state". The Fundamental Duties incorporated into the Constitution through the same Amendment make it the responsibility of every citizen to strive for the promotion of "the spirit of enquiry", scientific outlook, humanism and reform. The constitution of India, also abolished untouchability and its practice in any form was prohibited. Special preferences in the name of religion do not exist as per their constitution. However, in practice, such a spirit has never been followed. The controversies of Ram Janma-Bhoomi and Babri Masjid, religious clashes in different parts of the country including Gujarat, Casteism, communalism, discrimination against dalits revealed the hypocritical view of "equal respect" type secularism that is being practiced in India with "utmost sincerity". The fundamentalist forces fan the passion and emotion of the masses and distract attention from the real issues of economic and social development. Evil character Narendra Modi increased his popularity through religious riots - it’s an open secret for quite sometime now. Recently Kanchan Gupta, wrote an article in Rediff - May 09, 2005, "Secular? That's a laugh" :

"Every time secular India has demanded that the system of personal laws based on religious injunctions should be done away with, that Article 44 of the Constitution of India which enjoins upon the government to adopt a Uniform Civil Code should be taken for what it was meant to be, a cornerstone of State policy in a modern nation state, a countervailing cry has gone up, alleging that it is an assault on the identity of minority communities. That, of course, is a misnomer; what those opposed to a Uniform Civil Code mean is that the State should not interfere with retrograde personal laws that discriminate on grounds of gender, laws which are not in tune with the social realities of the 21st century. The best example of such laws is the Muslim personal law that remains unaltered in sum and substance despite vacuous words of assurance by leading lights of the ulema....

The(ir) logic is simple: Secular courts do not have the authority to either interpret or apply sharia, which is based on the Quran and the Hadith. That right belongs to 'sharia courts' alone. As much was stated at the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board's conference in Bhopal when the members encouraged Muslims to take their differences to 'sharia courts' -- as distinct from going to the local ulema or alim as was the practice till now.  ....

So, we have a fast-unfolding situation where the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board is setting up sharia courts as a parallel system of justice. By the time authority in secular India wakes up to this reality, the government will be presented with a fait accompli-- accept it, or be damned as anti-Muslim. And let there be no doubt: Government will accept the sharia courts lest it upsets India's progressive, secular activists. "

Kanchan Gupta is right. Its a farce to call a country secular if it allows a Sharia Court as a parallel system of justice. Hence we understand that true spirit of secularism has never been realized nor followed in India. However, we think proper interpretation of "secularism" is not only a desired goal but it is the very breath of a nation. But what is that "true spirit of secularism" that we are talking about?

A secular state is not supposed to have its own religion. It could not discriminate between its citizens on the basis of religion. State authorities would keep themselves off from attending religious functions. It would not favor any one religion. This concept goes on and on adding many ‘nots’. These values of 'nots' are the main spirit of Secularism that paraded by Western scholars as a magnificent gift to our civilization. However, the meaning had been changed by the Morarji Desai government, while he implemented "secularism" in India - changing its original content to ambiguous - ‘equal respect to all religions’. This view has been popularized among people in sub-continent lately. Our renowned scholar Ms Farida Majid feels proud in preserving such an ‘equal respect to all religions and cultures’ kind of secularism in her breath.

Farida Majid should not be considered as an isolated case here. Many of "non-communal" and "liberal" thinkers like her nowadays erroneously think that just being equally respectful towards all the religion (SARVADHARMA-SAMABHAV) makes a person "secular". Look at the politics in Bangladesh and India. Our prime Minster, oppsition leaders and MPs are all proud of portraying themselves as "secular" to make use of the involvement of the state into politics quite frequently, by performing religious rituals such as taking Jumma Prayer or Mazar Jiyarat (of course with TV cameras in the back), taking part ininauguration ceremonies of mosques or temples, conducting recitations from the Quran on the eve of several cultural and even state activities, donating funds for Durga puja, Eid and other religious activities, taking blessing from Atroshi, Saidabadi, Shai Baba on the eve of election - all eventually violates the ethos of a secular nation. Such "secularism" has played havoc in the polity. The word is misused for Vote Bank Politics. Further the misuse of the word has been propagated by our famous politicians - "Dhormo-niropekkhota maney dhormo-heenota noy" (Being secular does not mean anti-Religious). True, secularism does not encourage you to be an "atheist", however, it does not encourage you to be "religious" either; rather what secularism demands is complete indifference in religious activities. The bottom line is, religion should be essentially distinct from Government, and exempt from its cognizance; that "a connection between them is injurious to both" [quotation taken from Robert S. Alley, ed., James Madision on Religious Liberty, pp. 37-94.]. This is what our political leaders will never utter, nor follow. Only few writers, I have found from the subcontinent are able to come out with clear view on "Secularism" so far. Prabir Ghosh, Bhabani Prashad Sahu, Prof. Jayanti Patel are some of them. Let me quote few paragraphs from Prabir Ghosh's monumental work, "Shongshkriti - Shonghorsho O Nirman" (Page 228), - one of my favorites:


[Translation (by Abul Kasem):

Thanks to the massive media propaganda, the common people are now fully familiar with the word ‘secularism’. They are currently aware that secularism means ‘equal rights to all religions’. Our government spends enormous sums of money to propagate this import of secularism. In connection with this policy of the government, our ministers, bureaucrats and politicians are roaming around Hindu temples offering worship, prostrating at Gurduwaras (Sikh temples) and demonstrating full devotion at mosques and churches. Statesmen are on the air and television to offer good-will on the occasions of Diwali, Eid, Christmas….etc. Money is made available to the religious organizations in the form of exemption from income tax.

The laity likes this. They are satisfied that, in accordance with the principle of 'equal rights for all religions' the ministers, the bureaucrats and the politicians kneel down to the power of religion. As well, they are happy to have the feelings of liberality and tolerance. Their attitude is: “Look, how secular our country is. Here all religions enjoy equal right and respect with our ministers and bureaucrats” Taking advantage of this mindset of the common people, our ministers are exhorting to keep aloft the torch of secularism.

Words fail to describe how amazingly the lay people are brain washed by this terrible misinterpretation of the concept of secularism. The true meaning of neutrality is: having no bias for any side. Thus, the connotation of secularism is not to be on the side of any religion at all; that is, abandonment of any relation with religion. The dictionary definition of secularism is: it is a concept which postulates that policies, such as state, education etc should be free from religious injunctions.

But lo! What a surprise when we behold the affairs that are going on in the name of secularism. Even during secular state ceremonies religious rites are observed. Come the inauguration of a venture, or the laying of foundation of a project, we note the incantation of verses, lighting of lamps, oblation of flower wreaths or the rendering of coconuts. This is how the businessmen of politics are upholding their trade, by extolling the slogan of harmony and integrity with all religions, peddling this as secularism.]


Prof. Jayanti Patel, touching on "Indian version" of Secularism in his piece, "India: Gujarat riots - communalization of state and civic society" wrote the following:

"Our interpretation of secular as SARVADHARMA-SAMABHAV, protecting every religion and their diverse mode of belief structure, their separate social and civil code, varied customs, mores and faiths, and even education system is not conducive in building an integrated national society or human identity. Our identity is basically communal and has proved to be an obstruction in building a nation- state. It is clear that in interpreting the meaning of the word secular we have disregarded the spirit of the enlightenment and renaissance which was instrumental in building a modern state and the civic society in the west. It seems that we have to interpret the correct meaning of the word secular in our law enforcement. The connotation of the word secular should mean negation of all religions (SARVADHARMA-ABHAV)." 

"The connotation of the word secular should mean negation of all religions" - I personally feel that his opinion of secularism fits with the view that MM tries to uphold. We have to be strong in our mission stating clearly that "secularism", by its own definition, is neither "tolerance" nor "respect" towards all religions (the way it has been practiced in subcontinent), but it is the total denial of involvement in religious activities from the state, a complete, not partial: it is the emergence of homogeneous human outlook which is based upon verifiable facts of life, not fiction. Such a correct outlook is an urgent need in our society.




  Subject Author Date
24400 Re: Secularism: Correct or Incorrect
... Secularism: Correct or Incorrect ...
Avijit Roy

May 18, 2005
8:58 pm
24398 Secularism: Correct Interpretation is Necessary
... Secularism: Correct Interpretation is Necessary ...
subimal chakrabarty

May 18, 2005
8:54 pm
24388 Re: Secularism: Correct or Incorrect
... [mukto-mona] Re: Secularism: Correct or Incorrect ...
Farida Majid
May 17, 2005
7:26 pm
24387 Re: Secularism: Correct or Incorrect
... Secularism: Correct or Incorrect ...
May 17, 2005
7:24 pm
24386 Re: Secularism: Correct or Incorrect
... Secularism: Correct or Incorrect ...
B Kirkhart
May 17, 2005
7:21 pm
24381 Re: Secularism: Correct or Incorrect
... Secularism: Correct or Incorrect ...
Avijit Roy
May 16, 2005
8:32 pm
24380 Re: Secularism: Correct or Incorrect
... Secularism: Correct or Incorrect ...
Biplab Pal
May 16, 2005
8:23 pm
24376 Secularism: Correct or Incorrect
... Secularism: Correct or Incorrect ...
Farida Majid
May 16, 2005
7:41 pm
24359 Re: Secularism: Correct Interpretation is Necessary
... Secularism: Correct Interpretation is Necessary ...
Devashis Chatterjee
May 15, 2005
7:41 pm


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