Rachid Id Yassine
On 1 May
this year the principal of a catholic high school in Dakar sent out an email
informing parents that students would only, as of next year, be allowed to wear
uniform, with no headwear either for girls or boys. This sparked lively
controversy over headscarves in Senegalese catholic schools. Some people openly
voiced support and others condemnation for the stance taken by the sisters of
Saint-Joseph de Cluny.
controversy raised fundamental questions about the Senegalese model of
single model to secularism. At its core, however, is that religious and
governmental institutions are separated. These institutions can be kept
distinct in various ways, depending on the history of their relationship.
One of the
reasons secularism is a sensitive issue is that some of its proponents, wishing
to exclude religion from the public sphere, uphold it as a value, polarising
public opinion. Yet secularism is not an ideological value. Rather it’s a
secularists want to enforce secularism with bans in the same way that Islamists
practice Sharia law. Common to both of these prohibitionist attitudes is that
they infringe our most basic human rights: the right to education for female
students wearing hijabs in France or for female students – period – in
because secularism has been made sacred. It has been elevated to the status of
a value used to both allow and prohibit. But secularism is not sacred. It is a
and Right to Education
several different ways to understand secularism at school. This depends on the
history of relations between school institutions (both public and private) and
the State, which protects the fundamental, universal right to education. A
right which, as we can see, has elicited little passionate debate.
school’s mission is to educate without discrimination. It has the duty to
accept students, no matter how they choose to dress, as long as they show
respect for human dignity.
secularism requires public and private schools funded by the State (and
therefore by the people) to provide quality education to all students. This
should also be in an equitable fashion, regardless of the religion they do, or
do not, practice. This is not only a question of secularism, but also of
secularism impedes freedom
This is why
laïcité, the French concept of secularism, which has influenced many African
countries, Senegal included, could not legally target hijabs.
schools exclude students wearing ‘conspicuous religious symbols’ in accordance
with a 2004 law. Bikramjit Singh, a young high school student, was excluded
from his school for refusing to remove his turban. But the UN Human Rights
Committee found that the French government’s legitimate attachment to the
principle of secularism was not limitless. It could not, therefore, justify
excluding students on the basis of their faith – in other words, for wearing
Rights Committee also called on the French government to revise its legislation
against the full-face veil.
academic authorities and scientific reports by a team of researchers have shown
that this ban has had real, lasting, stigmatising and detrimental effects on
the independence, emancipation and integration of young Muslim women.
a secular State with a predominantly Muslim population, and a democratic regime
with a remarkably strong civil society. This sets it apart from historically
Christian countries, where the fight for secularism was linked with more
democracy. It also differs from other Muslim countries where secularism was
favoured by authoritarian regimes.
religious institutions and the State maintain an ambivalent relationship. This
means secularism can be used as a political instrument for the social control
of religion. It could be said that this is the exact opposite of secularism in
Europe, where religion imposed its views and rules for centuries. It was
gradually excluded from the arts, science, politics, law and, today, culture.
It is from
this perspective that we can talk about the political power of religion and its
institutionalisation. In Islamic countries, religion has been embodied only by
various religious bodies in the service of political power. The exception is
Shia clergy and Islamic brotherhoods.
religious orders grew independently from the State and never saw themselves as
political institutions. Religious and political authorities have, therefore,
benefited from each other, never seeking to replace one another.
this socio-historical background, and aside from its relationship with France,
Senegal is a religious country with a secular State. In contrast, the US has a
different brand of secularism. It does not reject the social, cultural and even
political influence of religion.
secularism stands midway between the French and American models. Political
secularism in Senegal includes religion in the governing of the country:
religious and anti-religious lobbies try to influence the government, without
ever threatening the nation’s ability to live together as a community.
country’s family law was developed in consultation with religious guides. This
in no way undermines its secularism in which political and religious
institutions remain separate.
As long as
religious figures contribute to developing the laws of the country as part of a
democratic framework, reasonable secularism is not under threat. It would not
be secular, however, to systematically entrust political decision-making to a
particular religious order. But the country’s family law was established by the
Senegalese legislature, which can also change it as it sees fit. And, every
citizen, religious or not, is free to try and persuade it to do so.
is not the loss of religious influence in society, but the loss of religious
certainty. In other words, it was by no means certain that the Senegalese
family law would align with values held by Muslims, Christians and Tiedos
(historically, warriors from the ancient West-African kingdoms, with
traditional beliefs), and with secularism.
reverse were true, secularism would become a religious value, like atheism and
a-religiosity. Then both religious and secular fundamentalist values would
inevitably clash and “religious wars” would be fought in the name of various
gods – including Secularism.
from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast ForWord
Source: The Conversation