The ban on the use of hijab by the Lagos state government under the guise that Nigeria is a secular state, hence, that government must do everything to protect the secular nature of the state is untenable. Secularism, the way it is conceived by the government seems to be used as a justification to deprive people the right to uphold their lawful religious tenet, which in actual fact it is not. This brings us to querying what secularism is? What do the protagonists of secularism really intend to achieve? And how has it been applied by states across time? The term ‘secularism’ is invented by George Jacob Holyoake to describe his views of promoting a social order separate from religion, without actively dismissing or criticizing religious belief. Secularism does not imply that there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently.
In the same vein, the National Secular Society of the United Kingdom defines Secularism as a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law. Secularism according to them seeks to ensure and protect freedom of religious belief and practice for all citizens. Secularism is not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike. They further argue that secularism seeks to defend the absolute freedom of religious and other belief, and protect the right to manifest religious belief insofar as it does not impinge disproportionately on the rights and freedoms of others. Secularism ensures that the right of individuals to freedom of religion is always balanced by the right to be free from religion.
In this manner, secularism is differentiated from atheism which implies the non-existent or lack of belief in gods. According to cotemporary philosophers like Brendan Sweetman, Bhargava and others in their like, secularism simply provides a framework for a democratic society, where equality of all is guaranteed and equality in all aspects of the society–in politics, education, law and elsewhere-for believers and non-believers to operate.
There are many good examples of how governing bodies create secular laws that protect their citizens from oppression. In some cases, even former religious states like Italy, U.K and others have eradicated faith-based rule in favour of secular government, yet their citizens enjoy freedom to practice their belief. The leading secular countries include: United States of America, Canada, France, Italy, Australia, China, South Africa, Russia, Japan, Brazil, India, among others. In most of these countries mentioned, the secular laws they operate do not deprive or subjugate people from practicing their religious principles and duties. Even the type of secular society instituted during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia which repressed all forms of religious beliefs has since been abrogated. It is instructive to note that the present wave of secular society after the defunct Soviet Union have a broader liberal world view, and the essence of separation of a state from the Church or any religion is to foster non dominance of a particular religion.
Rajeev Bhargava informed that the new wave of contemporary secularism follows two models. First, the French type, which in his conception, the state (as a matter of necessity) must be separated from religion, but the state, retains the power to interfere in religion. However, religion is divested of any power to intervene in matters of state. In short, separation means one-sided exclusion. The state may interfere in religion to hinder or suppress it, or even to help religion, but in all cases only to ensure its control over religion. Second, the American model of secularism, which interprets separation to mean mutual exclusion. Neither the state nor religion is meant to interfere in the domain of the other. This mutual exclusion is believed to be necessary to resolve conflicts between different Christian denominations, to grant some measure of equality between them, but most crucially to provide individuals with the freedom to set up and maintain their own religious associations. Mutual exclusion is believed to be necessary for religious liberty and for the more general liberties of individuals.
Rajeev offers the third type of model of a secular state which leans substantially to the Indian secular orientation which is an admixture of government involvement in the affairs of religion, where the latter also enjoys some level of autonomy. The government in this context maintains what the author refers to as a “principled distance”. In this context, the state does not totally distant itself from religious activities in the sense of one-sided exclusion or mutual exclusion. The state in this context, while maintaining neutrality from religious interference, also renders regular support and make policy pronouncement to assure everybody that their religious freedom within a secularised society is guaranteed. It is this last variant of secularism that captures the model followed by the Nigerian state.
This demand for non-interference is made on the ground either that the law requires them to do things not permitted by their religion or prevents them from doing acts mandated by it. For example, Sikhs demand exemptions from mandatory helmet laws and from police dress codes, in order to accommodate religiously-required turbans. Elsewhere, Jews seek exemptions from Air Force regulations to accommodate their yarmulkes. Muslim women and girls demand that the state not interfere in their religiously-required chador. Jews and Muslims seek exemption from Sunday closing laws on the ground that this is not required by their religion. Principled distance allows that a practice that is banned or regulated in one culture may be permitted in the minority culture because of the distinctive status and meaning it has for its members.
Religious groups may also demand that the state refrain from interference in their practices, but they may equally demand that the state interfere in such a way as to give them special assistance so that these groups are also able to secure what other groups are able to routinely procure by virtue of their social dominance in the political community. It may grant authority to religious officials to perform legally binding marriages, to have their own rules or methods of obtaining a divorce, its rules about relations between ex-husbands and ex-wives, its way of defining a will, or its laws about post-mortem allocation of property, arbitration of civil disputes, and even its method of establishing property rights. Principled distance allows the possibility of such policies on the grounds that it might be unfair to hold people accountable to an unfair law.
Coming from this theoretical grounding, this brings us to the nature of Nigerian state which in essence and character is built around a plural society. Nigerian state is comprised of diverse ethnic and religious groups. The realisation of the plural nature of Nigeria informed the adoption of federalism as a governmental arrangement to accommodate the different groups within the country. This system Professor Oshuntokun advances will accommodate unity in diversity. In the same vein, Nigeria’s former Prime Minister Tafawa opined that our unity in diversity does not take away our differences, but affords us to appreciate our differences in language, religion and culture and cooperate on what brings us together.
It is against this backdrop that one queries the sincerity of the Nigerian government vis-à-vis Lagos state government in their resolve to disempowering a sector of the society. The question here is: does secularism mean that the idea of a particular religion should be dominant on the others irrespective of their differential creeds? Does it imply that the right to dress modestly that individual religion prescribes should be violated? Does uniformity in schools preclude the right of people to express their differences? And how does the use of Hijab which is the Allah-given right of Muslim women and girls impinge or intimidate or make inferior others who so desire to dress nude?
It is interesting to note that when the Christian missionaries came to Nigeria to establish school, they introduced dressing code that is suitable for the church. They also conducted assemblies in the Christian way, and made Muslims and non-Muslim alike to sing songs of praise. They introduced some attire as part of school uniform. This includes the beret and choir-like gown for graduands on convocation day, and they still subsist till date.
Nigeria as a multi religious country recognises Christianity and Islam as a recognised religion in the state. This informed the reason why public holidays are granted to celebrate religious festivals. The belief in the existential theory of God is also reflected in the national anthem of the country, and several other activities of the state including the sponsoring of pilgrimage for both religions.
Thus the ban on the use of Hijab in Lagos by Justice Onyeabor, who is a non-Muslim, cannot stand the test of time, and is seen as discriminatory against the Muslims. Apart from the fact that the claim so made of Nigeria secular system is a perversion of what secularism means in it essence and purpose, the use of Hijab by a Muslim girl and woman is sacrosanct and cannot be disputed. The government of Lagos will do well if it reverses it position and allow Muslims their right of worship, because, this deprivation of right is becoming too many by the state, and it is unacceptable. Edmund Burke a political philosopher has warned that he, who makes peaceful change impossible, makes violent change inevitable. I hope the Lagos State government will listen to the voice of reasoning!
Moshood Babatunde Abdul-Wasi is the State Publicity Secretary of NACOMYO Lagos State Chapter.