By Dr. Costello Garang Riiny,
April 18, 2017(Nyamilepedia) —— Secularism means the separation of State and Church or Mosque or Synagogue. The term is not synonymous with atheism or permissiveness, as is often feared by conservative religious societies or somehow misunderstood by those with permissive tendencies, as we now witness in Juba. Dr. John Garang used to argue, when the complex issue of the implementation of the Islamic Sharia and the institution of an “Islamic state” in Sudan was being discussed, that the state doesn’t go to the mosque to pray and hence shouldn’t be described as “Islamic”.
In most of my last discussions with Sheikh Hassan Turabi before he passed on, he kept repeating his well-known position on the issue of diverse “book religions”. He said that all book religions; Christianity and Judaism included, in “their pure not distorted or westernised forms”, are pure Islam. These book religions demand total “submission to God”, which leads to the term Islam. Such understanding means that the term “Islamic” is not necessarily needed to have an “Islamic state”, which according to Turabi’s final position, could be home to Christians and Jews alike, since he saw them all as Muslims, “who submitted to God”. It is the behaviour of “Muslims”, which would determine, according to the last philosophical discourse of Sheikh Turabi, whether the state is “Islamic” or not. Dr. Garang said that people, and not the state, are the ones who go to the Mosque to pray. Here Dr. Garang and Dr. Turabi come closer to one another in their world of thoughts; the behaviour of the people determines the kind of state, not the name it carries or the one the politicians would like to apply to it.
Dr. Garang was not anti-Islam or anti-Christian, or even ideologically Christian. He was not “cautiously” guided by religious believes in his search for solutions to problems in human societies. But neither was he an atheist in the wider sense of the word. During the peace talks in Naivasha, he told me jokingly, that it didn’t take Sheikh Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, long to get the right answers to difficult questions and to formulate his correct position to complex topics, because he would easily refer to the Holy Koran. Whereas he, John Garang, had to “overwork” his brain to achieve useful logical conclusions with “Sheikh Ali”.
Seen from the human behavorial scientific point of view – the complexity of human psyche and human subconscious state of mind; we can’t exclude that our decisions could be influenced by our religious believes, as well as our education. Secularism per se doesn’t lead to creation of new human beings, with a different psyche. At least not at the start of its application. It could only remodel the perception of the society and make it more pluralistic and somehow more tolerant. A total separation of State and Church/Mosque/Synagogue is seldom achieved anywhere in the world, even in the western countries. Humans don’t live and decide in a vacuum. “Objectivity”, when applied to humans, is a relative term. A Western atheist, too, wants to achieve peace, justice and prosperity for his society. These are the same expected objectives of a religious society.
Secularism and Laicism are always used as synonyms. But in fact, they are not really identical. In Laicism there is a separation of “Religion and State”, not simply Church/Mosque/Synagogue and state. Laicism is the harder form of Secularism and it is the state form mostly abhorred by conservative religious societies and groups. There are, or were, several countries in which Laicism was or is enshrined in the constitution. These include France, former Albania, China, India, Portugal, South Korea and Ataturk’s Turkey. In extreme cases of Laicism (as in USSR under Stalin), the state still protects religious freedom, but religion is considered an entirely “private issue”. Practicing of religious rites in public areas is prohibited. Religious symbols, like the cross, are not shown in public places. Religious education in public schools is not allowed. In France it is prohibited to exhibit religious symbols in public schools and the state shouldn’t ask any citizen about his/her religion. No statistics are raised about religious affiliations of the citizens. Since 1905 the state is not allowed to financially support religious groups. Synagogues and churches that were built before 1905, were nationalized but could still be used by religious groups. Yet, even France couldn’t enforce Laicism in all areas. Principally the state doesn’t pay the salaries of pastors and priests, but there remain few exceptions such as in Elsas and French Guyana.
German secularism is less rigorous than the Laicism in France. The German State collects the so-called “Kirchensteuer” or “church taxes” from the taxpayer and hands them over to churches. This means that religious affiliations of the citizens are registered so that their church taxes are channeled properly. The bishops and high-ranking priests are paid by the state. Only the state of Hamburg and Bremen rejected paying the salaries of bishops. This arrangement started in 1871, when the German Reich was formed by Chancellor Bismarck. Some of the small independent German Principalities, like Cologne, Mainz and Trier, which joined the Reich, were ruled by Princes, who were bishops at the same time. They had to receive some incentives to accept joining the Reich. These complexities among others more resulted in special considerations, which found their way into the current German system.
The French State wouldn’t imagine doing what the German State does for its churches. From what is written above, it could be said that the German state pays the priests and the pastors because it collects the church taxes or “Kirchensteuer” from the taxpayer. Surely it doesn’t sound the kind of secularism we imagine in Africa, especially in Sudan and South Sudan.
Dr. John Garang was influenced by the western political thoughts and socialist ideology. It is believed here that religion could easily be abused by politicians for mere political ends. This they truly do in many cases and ways. But after all, it is not only religion that could be perverted in the political field of conflict and competition, as we witness in South Sudan today, where tribalism has turned into a deadly weapon, yet initially tribes were a stabilizing social factor and a security instrument not meant for aggression and suppression of others. The political market in South Sudan is therefore open for all kinds of political jugglers or imposters that Dr. John Garang clearly foresaw.
In Europe secularism was meant to protect the state and its citizens from an “abusive church”, which was selling indulgences to forgive sins for money and wealth on earth. It is in this context that European secularism ought to be understood by us Africans. In the US the situation was completely different and secularism was meant to protect religion from the state’s influence, intervention and coercion. The reason is that most of the puritans who migrated from England to the US in the 16th and 17th centuries were fleeing religious persecution after detaching themselves from the official Church of England. The type of secularism they envisaged for their new colonies was therefore to protect their members in their new homeland from another potentially abusive state interfering with their religious believes.
To conclude, secularism therefore doesn’t necessarily mean atheism or the institution of a permissive society, as we currently witness in disturbing and disruptive forms in Juba, for example, where alcohol abuse has engulfed all social classes, especially the ruling class, and is now threatening to destroy the fabric of our society. The pre-war Dinka society, for instance, was conservative and alcohol consumption was detested. That was the case, when I left South Sudan in 1974. “Drunkard” or “Adeek Maau” (excessive alcohol drinker), as the Malual Dinka say, was never a role model to be looked up to for guidance or inspiration. It was common knowledge among the falsely called “uneducated” people that sound and inspiring decisions never come from intoxicated or daily boozed up brains. Some leaders like President Putin and President Trump prefer rather not to drink. It is of course a personal decision in a none-Islamic country, where drinking is not considered a crime by the secular state. This same state though punishes also unsocial behavior or criminal acts resulting from alcohol abuse. Limiting alcohol consumption has also something to do with self-respect and self-control. It means maintaining a certain degree of the right of self-determination. President Yeltzin was internationally known for his excessive alcohol consumption, but he had “strong” institutions and the current President Putin, to help him run state affairs according to their style of governance.
When I was Presidential Advisor in the government of President Kiir (2008 -2010) I discussed with a leading member of the SPLM and Cabinet Minister, the negative aspects of abuse of alcohol to our society, especially our youth. I was requesting him to help me find ways of how to control this social disease.
His reaction was shocking to me at those days, since I was a newcomer! He told me that he also saw the social dangers of abusive alcohol drinking, but that it was not “the right time” to approach the issue. I couldn’t understand what he really meant. He told me that I was new in the government and that I should first keep silent and watch closely what was happening in Juba. Then he asked me, whether I drink and when I answered that I don’t consume alcoholic drinks, he surprised me with an unexpected question: “Do you want to introduce Sharia here?” First, I was speechless but then recovered and told him, that there was enough room between Islamic Laws and alcohol abuse. Modest and sporadic drinking could be an option, for those who can’t completely stop, for example. I told my Dinka colleague that Dinka traditions and way of life were also against misuse of alcohol. He told me that if I followed my anti alcoholic line, I should expect to hear this question (introduction of Sharia) being thrown at me. “I am preparing you for that”, he said.
The former President of the High Executive Council, Moulana Abel Alier, once introduced an order prohibiting, I think, alcohol consumption during working hours. This is at least what the current government should re-introduce. President Kiir doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. He who drinks during working hours or comes to work drunk should be dismissed from his public office or undergo treatment against addiction in specialized hospitals, even if the government were to help paying for it. Addiction is a disease and destroys families and societies. Moulana Abel Alier was not introducing Islamic laws by then. Our people are not really accustomed to heavy drinking and drinks with high alcohol percentage were never part of our culture.
Secularism shouldn’t therefore be seen as a kind of “reckless and permissive system” without any human moral and social guidelines. Even atheistic state systems have rules and laws that might not differ much from those known in conservative religious societies, with the exception that they apply Laicism.
I am repeating this point because our people and leaders look at themselves as “religious”, if going to church or Mosque regularly is an indicative sign. Or is religion being misused here for political ends as John Garang feared? This was demonstrated on the 10th of March this year, when the President’s Office decreed a “Day of National Prayers for Peace and Forgiveness”. It is very interesting that a President of “a secular state” decrees such a day and allows himself to be blessed publicly by the bishops, as if being ordained.
With that move, we carried secularism to the grave. I know that the President was ill-advised by people who don’t even know what secularism is and that the SPLM stands for its implementation. Or could it be that we were also demanding something we don’t really understand or might have abandoned quietly without declaring this publicly? The misuse of religion for political ends was protested by one of the Cathoilic Bishops in Juba. Only over his dead body would he take part in such “political prayers”, meant to preach what we don’t practice, he said. This is what initially led to the birth of Secularism in Europe and America: Religion for earthly political consumption.
Are we religious enough not to be secular? By observing the life style of some of our leaders in Juba, I think it might be easier to be secular than religious. Misuse of religion for political purposes is not enough to make us religious.