Why Democratic Constitutions Must be Secular

UPDATE 10/12/12: Have just read this article by Medhi Hasan on his refusal to give up on the Arab Spring. An important reminder of the shifts that have occurred and continue to occur in the Arab World.

“Yes, the stakes are high in Egypt and yes, Morsi, like every other autocratic leader, Islamist or otherwise, is not to be trusted. Power, after all, corrupts. But do you know who I trust? The Egyptians. And the Bahrainis. And the Jordanians. And the Syrians. Whatever the season, spring or winter, they will have their freedom.”


Two years ago, in the semi-final of the European Debating Championships, I debated the motion “That the West should promise preferential economic and political cooperation to Arab democracies who adopt secular constitutions.”

This was August 2011. Although battle was raging in Libya, Bahraini protests were being suppressed and the carnage in President Mohamed MorsiSyria was underway, many of us still quite confidently believed in the transformative potential of the Arab Spring. Sixteen months later, reading about tanks deployed after fatal clashes in Cairo, that debate seems uncomfortably prescient. As the Egyptian judiciary knows, as Morsi’s advisers know, as protesters and commentators know, this hastily drafted, ill-considered, religiously saturated draft constitution represents the danger of an unequal, undemocratic and intensely Islamist Egypt.

Non-secular constitutions are fundamentally incompatible with democracy. This issue is particularly close to my heart at the moment, as activists in Ireland continue to fight the spectre of our Catholic Constitution of 1937. Although I wouldn’t dream of comparing the two situations in terms of severity, there are bizarre similarities between the two constitutions:

Egypt Ireland
“The state shall provide motherhood and childhood services for free. It shall also guarantee co-ordination between the duties of the woman and her public work.” The State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.
“Freedom of opinion and thought is guaranteed. Every person has the right to express his opinion orally or in writing, pictures or other means of publication and expression.” And yet yet “Insulting prophets and messengers is forbidden”  The State protects the right of citizens “the right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions” and yet “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”
 “Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic is its official language. The principles of Sharia are the main source of legislation.”  The State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens. (removed by referendum in 1972/3)

Seventy five years on Ireland is a nominally secular state and yet we are stuck in democratic limbo because of the lingering influence of Catholic morality. A dying woman can be refused life-saving treatment by her doctors on the grounds that “this is a Catholic country” and government after government after government can ignore the democratic will of the people and refuse to legislate to save women’s lives based on outdated and cowardly fear of a privileged Catholic subsection.

We could also discuss Catholic-run education, legal impunity for clerical abusers, imprisonment and forced labour for unmarried mothers, denial of rights to the LGBT community and plenty else. Even when explicit reference to the Church has been expunged, the influence of the “special position” persists.

Law built on Islamic foundations presents its own dangers and challenges to democratic systems. A particular danger of this constitution is the new powers it affords to the scholars of al-Azhar University, who will be consulted on all matters relating to Sharia.  While I don’t know the details that surely gives a great deal of power to the interpretations of a very small group of people. There are also wide-ranging and intensely worrying concerns about the rights and freedoms of Egyptian women, who are already victims of an epidemic of street harassment, brutality and sexual assault.

However, the underlying problem with any religiously based constitution is that there is no avenue for dissent against the “will of God” and as such, the privileges of citizenship are shut off to non-Muslims or non-Catholics. Believing in democratic systems means that we’re willing to risk being in the minority, but only on the assumption that we can criticise, debate and present alternatives.

Against a dominant religious entity that’s not possible. We can show the evidence of devastating harm, we can insist that what’s going on offends our innate sense of justice, that it defies all principles of equality, we can point out that people are unnecessarily dying because of government policy and the other side can simply respond with “well, yes, but God says…” or “yes, but Sharia says…” Religious morality is inaccessible to the non-believer and as such should not be applicable to the non-believer.  Equality cannot exist in a state that affords religious privilege, so a truly democratic state requires a secular constitution.

Of course, if we return to the debate back in 2011, Western economic and political incentives wouldn’t have offset the current discord in Egypt over President Morsi’s draft constitution. Very often Western interference does the opposite by playing into the anti-West narratives of Islamists and entrenching divisions. What’s more, as Western governments awkwardly try to shove decades of implicit support for Mubarak under the rug, I can’t imagine the secularists would welcome them with open arms either.

However, the principle stands and those of us who believe in the early democratic vision of the Arab Awakening should stand in complete solidarity with the opponents of  the draft constitution.


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