Religion and Secularism: Seeking the Convergence | Pergas Blog

newest article


Religion and Secularism: Seeking the Convergence

15 November 2018 8:52 am // Written by Mohammad Ridhwan Bin Mohd Basor;

In 2010, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, then the Pontiff of the Holy See made a state visit to the United Kingdom. He reminded the British society not to lose their faith and urged them to resist “more aggressive forms of secularism [1]”.  He criticized the “atheist extremism” and expressed dismayed over the exclusion of God, faith and virtue from the public sphere. He called for the return of religion to the public sphere and pleaded the British people to consider the legitimate role of religion in offering positive developments for the modern multicultural UK society.  

The issue raised by Pope Emeritus Benedict highlights the diminishing role of religions in some Western societies. The clash between faith and secularism, between religion and atheism are pervasive in today’s post-modern world. However, is secularism essentially an ideology dominated by atheism and henceforth refers to a philosophische grondslag that is hostile to religion? Can secularism and religion co-exist? Can religionists function effectively in a secular state? The answers to these questions are quite obvious.

Since the advent of secularism as the political ideology of the French Republic, religion continues to flourish. The era of globalization heralded an era where religion still matters, with more than billions of adherents of various faiths. While countries like the United States maintains itself as a secular state, where there is a separation between Church and State, in reality, it is hard to completely separate religion from politics. In a 2006 Gallup Poll, at least forty-six per cent of Americans say that the Bible should be “a source of legislation” and forty-two per cent of Americans want religious leaders to have a direct role in writing a constitution.  Across the European societies, the role of religion in state affairs has not been completely being eliminated. Leaders of French and German have occasionally made reference to their Christian heritage. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Markel insisted on making a reference to God and European Christian roots in drafting the European Union Charter [2]. Former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy criticized France’s official secularism as being “too rigid” [3] .

For the Muslim world, religion has always been part of the state affairs in most Muslim-majority nation-states. Islam continues to play an influential ideological fault-line that shapes the political landscape of several Muslim nations. Theocratic states like the Republic of Iran and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia claimed that they are governed by the precepts of the Islamic law, the Syariah. Other Muslim states such as Malaysia regularly asserts itself as an Islamic state although the constitution is generally based on the principle of secularism with the recognition of Islam as the official religion. Even in ideologically secular nations like Turkey and Tunisia, Islam continues to be an influential political currency. The Islamist-rooted Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, (Justice and Development Party – AKP) in Turkey and Ennahdha (Renaissance Party) in Tunisia are among the successful political parties dominating its political landscape.

These trends highlight the complexities in purely defining secularism as an ideology that rejects religion in practical term, beyond its philosophical discourse. Secularism and faith may not be entirely mutually exclusive. Religion and secularism may not necessarily be a zero-sum-game. There has always been debates between Islam and secularism, between Muslims and secular state. In reality, Islam continues to triumph in today’s post-modern world, where secularism and arguably Westernization forms the hegemonic world order. The hegemony of the Western power across the world in post-Cold War era is a global phenomenon. From politics, economics, to cultures, Western influences are affecting almost every nation in the world. From the idea of liberal democracy to laissez-faire capitalist economy, the Western system is setting the tone to be emulated elsewhere. Albeit the setback of the democratization projects, with many nations either continuing to be authoritarians or turning into illiberal democracies, Samuel Huntington in The Clash Of Civilizations And The Remaking of World Order argued that the emergence of new democracies or semi-democracies, in reality, illustrates the continual waves of democratization process [4]. The capitalist form of economic system and the reliance on the Western-style financial system by global community further demonstrate the hegemonic role of the Western system. This is what Francis Fukuyama mentioned in The End of History and the Last Man where this marked “the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” [5].

For one-third of the Muslim population who lived as minority communities in generally secular nations, the questions of allegiance and identities form a key aspect of their integration within the larger societies. For instance, can a Muslim be a loyal citizen to a secular state? Can Muslims live confidently in a secular nation? In Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, Olivier Roy studied how Western Muslims are generally faced with the challenges of reconciling their Islamic weltanschauung with their Western identity. This eventually led to the crisis of identity amongst Muslims, between staying faithfully to the religion of Islam and responding to the challenges of Westernization as a result of globalization. Nonetheless, the rising tide of Islamic awareness has taken roots at the heart of the European and American societies, with growing religiosity among the Muslim community. In his riposte, Roy identified that this is due the surge in Westernization [6]. The revival of Islam in the West is the consequence of Westernization and globalization, as the Muslims seek to redefine their identities in the context of non-Muslim societies.  The experience of American and European Muslims shows that the Islamic faith can co-exist within a secular paradigm. The nature of a secular state does not necessitate the loss of faith in the Muslim society. In contrary, Muslims felt incandescent passions towards their faith, as can be witnessed in their manifestations of Islam.  

For the Singaporean society, the State recognized the importance of religion in the public and private life of its citizens and embarks on a multi-religious and multiracial framework in managing the life of the citizens. The secularism as practiced in Singapore can be safely understood as the State taking a neutral position in religion without favouring any religious groups or adopting any official religion as the State’s religion. The State regards religion as a positive force in the nation-building efforts. It acknowledges the contributions of religions to the State and allows religious groups to co-exist.

Religious beliefs of various religious groups are cherished as part of Singapore’s religious diversity landscape. The constitutionally secular Singapore is not an anti-religion or atheistic in nature. The State adopts a “utilitarian approach towards religions and aims to promote religious harmony in citizenship education” or known as “religious pragmatism” [7].

For the religious communities, it is imperative to understand the ideological disposition of the State. The State operates from a ‘high modernism’ perspective, where it uses scientific rationalities for its policies or understood as technocratic rationality. The State’s secular orientation “reflects a certain worldview in which economic rationality and material success supersede spiritual success and religious duties”[8].  In arguing the case for religion, the often-perceived conflation between the religious worldviews of the religious communities and the secular worldview of the secular state need to be critically re-examined. Religious communities need to creatively seek a collective endeavour with the larger Singaporean society, in finding an equilibrium where religion can be seen as a positive force in the nation-building initiatives. As Singapore seek to recast our national identity, the need for recognizing success beyond the material and tangible terms are gaining serious attention. This is probably one of the areas where religious communities may wish to contribute to the conversation to propel Singapore forward.

For the Muslim community in Singapore, there have been some complexities in its attempt for some of their religious aspirations to be fully recognized. Nonetheless, there are various prospects where we see how Islam had continues to thrive within this secular and multi-religious framework. As an example, the legal pluralism as practiced in Singapore allows Muslims to adhere to their religious tradition by acknowledging some aspect of the Islamic law to be recognized as part of State’s law. Through the Administration of the Muslim Law Act (AMLA), the State recognizes the need for Muslims to adhere to their legal rulings on issues pertaining to family law and wealth distribution. Ipso facto, it shows that that some aspects of the Islamic religious law and jurisprudence has been incorporated into the official State’s law that governs the members of the Islamic faith in the republic. This successful harmonization of Islamic law with the civil law sends a clear message of respect for Syariah, which is in the Singapore’s context, is “inclusive and affirming” consequently “allows minority values and aspirations to be recognized”[9].  

That said, several other aspirations of the Muslim community might take more time and requires careful recalibration to achieve its fruition. From a practical perspective, there is a need to find ways how the religious interests of Muslim community can be harmonised with the interests of the secular, multi-religious State. There is a need to frame the religious aspirations of the community as legible interests within the framework on how the State functions and operates.

Indeed, finding the convergence between the religious aspirations and State’s interest is a daunting task, illustrating the intricacies of interaction between religion and state building in secular societies. While ideologically, religion and secularism may be at odds with each other, at practical term, we have continued to witness the interaction between religion and secularism. The rise of the latter does not lead to the elimination of the former, and vice-versa. Establishing a modus vivendi between the religious community and the State may potentially be a pragmatic way forward for religion and secularism to co-exist harmoniously.

Note: The publication copyright of this article belongs to Pergas. No part of this article may be reproduced or stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or otherwise without the permission of Pergas. Permission is only given for sharing this article via its original URL.

Opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not represent Pergas’ official stand unless if Pergas explicitly says so.


[1] Pope Benedict XVI goes to war with ‘atheist extremism. (2010, September 16). The Guardian. Retrieved from (March 30, 2016).

[2] Merkel Wants EU Charter to Make Reference to Christianity. (2007, January 21) Deutsche Welle..Retrieved from,2144,2320266,00.html (March 30, 2016).

[3] Ibid

[4] See Huntington, S. P. (1997). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York: Touchstone.

[5] See Fukuyama, F. (2002). The end of history and the last man. New York: Perennial.

[6] See Roy, O. (2004). Globalized Islam: The search for a new Ummah. New York: Columbia University Press.

[7] Tan, C. (2007), “Islam and Citizenship Education in Singapore: Challenges and Implication.” Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 2007: 23-39, p.24

[8] Tan, K. “Knowledge Has Many Colours: The Public Policy Management of Madrasah Education.” In Secularism and Spirituality: Seeking Integrated Knowledge and Success in Madrasah Education in Singapore, by Noor Aisha Abdul Rahman and Lai Ah Eng (2006), 150-165. Singapore: Marshal Cavendish International, p.161

[9] Black, A(2012). Lessons From Singapore: An Evaluation of The Singapore Model of Legal Pluralism (Working Paper Series No.026). Retrieved from (March 30, 2016)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

related articles