Secularism and Democracy: Joint at the Hip?

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The struggles for liberation, now known as the "Arab Spring", have been welcomed by people everywhere. However, there is some dismay about the success of Islamic parties after national elections has left some in dismay. Is secularism really crucial for democracy?

When the electoral victories of Ennahda in Tunisiaand the Muslim Brotherhood in Eygpt were announced, commentators were quick to question whether the hard fought democracies would be lost.  This fear was catalysed not because they did not wish to pursue the establishment of democratic institutions, it was because both these parties have religious, namely Islamic, ideologies. Meanwhile some countries, such as France and Turkey , aggressively work to implement policies that keep the public sphere free from religious symbolism.  These "secular" policies are defended in the belief that they are essential to upholding national democracy.  It is in this context that the necessity of secularism for democracy comes to question.  This article explores this issue by defining and discussing the relationship between these two terms, and whether secularism is critical to democracy.  Theoretically, when secularism is properly understood it is critical to democracy. Though in practice what is observed, and by extension what is needed for democracy, is what Alfred Stepan calls the "twin tolerations".

"One of the major failures of most…intellectuals today is that they have accepted without debate or rigorous scrutiny terms like secularism and democracy, as if everyone knew what these words mean."

Stepan is skeptical of the often celebrated separation of church and state that are said to be the core of Western societies.  He is also skeptical of the sympathy of military interventions in countries to protect "Western-style" democracy when Islamic parties are victorious emerge victorious at elections.  He asks, "Are these correct readings, or dangerous misreadings, of the lessons of the relationship of church and state in Western democracy?"

To answer this question, Stepan studies the extent to which actual church and state separation exists in the (then) 15 European Union members countries.  He finds that:

"…as of 1990, five of the EU's 15 member states-Denmark, Finland, Greece, Sweden, and the United Kingdom (in England and Scotland)-had established churches. Norway, although not in the EU, is another European democracy with an established church. In fact, until 1995, every longstanding West European democracy with a strong Lutheran majority (Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Finland and Norway) had an established church."

He then notes, as a mere sampling, how Christian Democratic parties have frequently ruled in Germany, Austria, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands.  Further, as referred to by Hashemi, an examination of the British Monarchy website demonstrates the constitutional prejudice towards Catholicism and national support for the Protestant Church.  Similarly, Norway's constitution established the national Lutheran Church and tied it to the nations' royalty, the Greek constitution promotes the Eastern Orthodox Church, while the Spanish promotes the Catholic Church.

Yet, in spite of this deep rooted and historical connection between state and religion, democracy continues to prevail.  To explain this Stepan returns to the essence of democracy and how in spite of the constitutional barriers, in practice no one group is a priori excluded from participation in politics.  He writes, "all groups are granted the right to advance their interests…This is the minimal institutional statement of what democratic politics…entail."  Thus he finds that "'secularism'…[is] not an intrinsic part of the core definition [of democracy], but what we have said about the 'twin tolerations' are".  This he defines as, "minimal boundaries of freedom of action that must somehow be crafted for political institutions vis-à-vis religious authorities, and for religious individuals and groups vis-à-vis political institutions."  This is a notion similar to the working definition of secularism adopted by Bhargava as a "principled distance [between church and state]".

In support of Stepan's ideology is an interesting empirical study conducted by Jonathan Fox and Shmuel Sandler.  They explore the relationship between state and religion in 152 countries using the State and Religion Database and find that despite what was predicted about the demise of religion in the public sphere, separation of religion and state is the exception and government intervention in religion is the norm around the world. [1]  He also demonstrates "that no matter which operationalization of [secularism] one uses, it is not necessary for a functioning democracy or liberal democracy." [2]  Instead, what is important is the upper limit of government intervention in religion, which coincides with Stepan's twin tolerations. [3]

Consideration of the link between secularism and democracy are is critical at a time when popular uprisings are making way for the success of democratic Islamic parties. In theory, there is an inherent tension between democracy and religion, which necessitates their separation.  However. the academic work of Stepan, Fox and Sandler has revealed such a separation is not required in practice, as evidenced by the bastions of democracy in Europe.  Instead, what is needed are the twin-tolerations and a principled distance between state and religion.




[1]Jonathan Fox and Shmuel Sandler, "Separation of Religion and State in the Twenty-First Century: Comparing the Middle East and Western Democracies", Comparative Politics, Vol. 37, No. 3 (April 2005), pp. 317-335.

[2]Jonathan Fox, "Do Democracies Have Separation of Religion and State?" Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 40, (March 2007), p.19, quoted in Nader Hashemi, Nader. Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies, Oxford University Press, New York, 2009, p.127.

[3]Hashemi, p.127.