Upholding secularism: whose prior duty?

By Ourji Biso*

Putting secularism at the front is indeed the paramount and choiceless principle to guarantee the respect of the freedom of religion and other human rights. In a state where religion and the government have no separation, especially in a multi-religious country like Ethiopia, it would be unattainable to aim for equality while having a designated or singled out religion as the national or state religion. It has been done before and failed us as a nation.  The whole idea of Mihret’s article, entitled “In defense of secularism” has nothing to leave behind; all the argument and reasoning has made the point of why and how of secularism. It has generally well explained the need for secularism. In doing so, the writer seems to focus on the religious institutions’ abstinence from involvement in the affairs of the state. This attitude may be a result of fear due to the historically long-standing official involvement of religion in the affairs of state and the recent emergency of political parties seemingly having religious agendas.

Secularism: an alternative route

However, while still confirming the reasoning and explanations given in defense of secularism, I strongly believe that for the principle to be appropriately upheld, both institutions need to refrain from meddling in the affairs of one another. The same or greater focus should be given on limiting state influence on religious institutions and beliefs as that of the emphasis shown to limit the involvement of religion in affairs of the state. Be it in a state having “state religion” or the state altogether banning religious beliefs and their practice; secularism is still at great risk. Freedom of religion, one of the fundamental human rights would be violated when the state believes it has the power to dictate what citizens should believe in or not. When state and religion make a union that is a clear impediment on the right to equality, freedom of religion, and thought for both those following the state religion and those following other religious beliefs or having none.

Since the notion of secularism that is practiced today itself came into being to evade the influence of the Catholic Church it is expected that the focus of secularism principle is more emphasized on limiting religion’s involvement in the affairs of state. It is highly appreciated that this principle has brought to the world and our country the secular states that are more appreciative of the diversity in religion and belief. The principle of secularism if practiced properly has an enormous impact on guaranteeing the respect of many human rights including upholding the principle of equality which is a basic principle for respect of all other human rights. Where state and religion are established as two different entities the freedom of religion and equal protection before the law is guaranteed.

Ethiopia and state involvement in the affairs of religion

As mentioned above, the principle of secularism works well when the restriction in involvement is both ways, i.e. state in the affairs of religion and religious institutions in the affairs of the state. Indeed, it is no more, and that religion has parted its way with the state officially (as there is no more state religion) with the end of the imperial regime even though the lingering effect still goes on. This was also the reason to some extent for the article I am answering for. Yet, after the downfall of the imperial regime, the governments that followed seemed somehow liberal and equalizing of all religions in their own way but all had their shortcomings. The socialist state abrogated the concept of state religion and tried its best to make the whole nation atheist, principally the state attitude towards religion was hostile, and practically all religion was equal and no state favored religion. After its downfall, the EPRDF constitution has acknowledged secularism, no state religion, no hostility towards religious belief and its practice and a more open space for the religious institutions and their followers seems to have surfaced. Even though the indirect hands of religious institutions are claimed to be working in the state affairs by different groups, there has been a clear boundary set, while the religious institutions also speak of the government’s unseen yet strongly felt hands to weaken the religious institutions.

Even if the boundary set has been tampered with from both sides it is relatively a better era for the equality of religions. The greater responsibility rests on the state to properly apply secularism and first take its hand out of the affairs of religion. Let us raise some instances where the state involvement in the business of religion has been seen as the government’s failure to respect the equality of religion and the violation of the constitutionally guaranteed principle. I wanted to raise these instances because I believe they were reasons for the rise of much opposition against government and the idea of religion in the political arena. The religious institutions that felt the danger from government involvement, the other religious institutions that fear the rise and demand are not against the government but rather in adverse against them in one way or another have tried to influence the state decisions in favor of their institution and follower as they all believed fit.

One of the cases is the governments’ involvement in the choice of religious institutions’ leadership positions, especially that of Orthodox and Islamic religious leaders. It is a firmly taken position by many followers in both religious institutions; the appointment of religious leaders is political. A lot of internal struggles came as a result of government’s unseen yet long hands that have been long established and continue to have effect up to date. The involvement of government in Islamic affairs goes further as the people in the struggle against government intervention explain. Around the beginning of the Ethiopian millennium, the state has taken things into hand, gone further and brought a new teaching alien to the teaching of Islam and tried to ‘baptize’ the Imams and religious leaders with the’ Ahbash’ ideology. The government is also blamed for using indirect hands and involving itself in the affairs of the Orthodox Church using churchmen who seem to be upholding the state interest rather than the Church and its followers.

Another instance is the state enacted regulation on worship ways in educational institutions which has been contested at different times by different religious groups especially that of Muslims as most of the restrictions were believed by the followers of the religion to be against the religious teachings of Islam. There are also restrictions that have been raised to be against Orthodox Christian students’ rights, i.e., prohibition of serving of meal during fasting seasons according to the fast schedule. These and many other similar instances can be drawn from our recent history and practice, putting the state’s adherence to the principle of secularism in question.  As our recent history tells us when ethnic groups felt the threat of danger and inequality they took it personal and grouped themselves into their ethnic background in order to fight the injustice which today has brought the political organization we are in. I believe that recent responses and attitude that seems to be bringing religion to the political playground are instigated highly with the fear of states’ inappropriately elongated hands and as a means to protect the freedom of religion which should have been the state’s responsibility to make citizens feel secured against any violation on freedom of religion and any other human rights.

In conclusion, this response is not actually arguing against the article by Mihret, rather it is to see it from the other side. There is no doubt about the necessity of strengthening the practice of secularism properly. In order to see a proper application of secularism, the working of the principle both ways (state-vs-religion; religion-vs-state) should be achieved. Moreover, it’s the states’ responsibility to uphold secularism by restricting itself in involving in the affairs of religion. At best, religious institutions may reciprocate and agree to restraint in involving in the affairs of the state.  At worst, even if there are attempts to interfere by religious groups, the state will have the higher ground to say no to such religious involvement.

It’s thus my belief that the state’s prior duty to uphold secularism should be stressed. For the state to do so, and achieve the true application of secularism the writer believes there is no need for change regarding the law rather actual implementation of the constitutionally recognized principle will be adequate. New coming or old structural settings opening space for the involvement of religions in the affairs of state should be officially closed. And the state should refrain from involving in the affairs of religion and their practice as long as no other genuine fear of risk and violation is there.

* Ourji Biso is an assistant lecturer at Haramaya University College of Law and LLM candidate in human rights law at Addis Ababa University. 

Publisher’s Note: This contribution is part of a series of stories CARD publishes to encourage intellectual discourse among the youth in Ethiopia. If you want to make contributions or respond to this particular piece, please email your draft to us via