In Defense of Secularism

By Mihret Samson*

Religion has long been a potent force influencing human societies. Ethiopia is no exception. Religion remains an influential force in Ethiopian life. Its place in social life and politics seems as controversial and complicated as it has long been. Though its influence seems to decline with the coming of modernity, recent events clearly show its comeback. Its comeback, however, has not always been beautiful. Any observer of the interplay between religion and politics on one another will see how dangerous recent turns of events are, with the erosion of the principle of secularism and the threat it posed to national unity.

The idea of the secular state in its modern form stems from the Enlightenment. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, secularism is a principle of the separation of the state from religious institutions. It is a principle, which provides people with the right to follow any religion and not to follow any. It permits the state with the responsibility to maintain neutrality in matters of religion and forbids the government from interfering in the business of religion unless peace and security are jeopardized. Of course, secularism does not mean the religious institutions are completely disregarded to operate as they wish. This may lead one to believe that their rights are in question but as artificial persons, they are entitled to the right to security, right to property, and health. Secularism means the separation of religion from political, economic, social, and cultural aspects of life. It provides freedom, tolerance, and opportunities for all religions and believers. Based on this principle, religion is a purely personal matter.

However, there are certain instances that state and religion may unite as one: the first is political unity, i.e. when the law-making process has been conducted by a religious institution or when they become a source of law. The second instance, institutional unity, is when the institutions for religion are at the same time established as an institution of the state. The third relation is philosophical unity or end- base unity, i.e. when the ultimate purpose of the state or religion serves as the other we say they are united. On the contrary, their separation could be expressed in terms of the following two ways: one is a mutual relationship (non-interference) by respecting the sphere of each other but does not mean that they could not collaborate to promote, support each other in good governance without violating valid boundaries. The other is a strict exclusionary relationship meaning the state is always suspicious of the activities of religion. In this regard, the extreme form is that the state could become the enemy of religion. When the state believes that religious institutions are a threat to individuals’ freedom, liberty, etc., it suppresses or dismantles the religion. That is what happened, for instance, in France following the 1789 French revolution and the resultant anti-clericalism.

Secularism in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is one of the most diversified countries with many religions and beliefs. The introduction of the concept of secularism in Ethiopia is a relatively recent phenomenon. During the imperial regime, although stating religious equality, Orthodox Tewahdo Christianity was privileged over all other religions with the status of state religion. Religion in the past has been used as a weapon to control and hold captive the people under a certain power. Many in power have tried to claim immunity by declaring a superior being has chosen them. Religion and government were inseparable. Tables turned after the end of the imperial regime and the rise of the socialist government known as the Derg in 1974. The Derg instituted de jure religious freedom, equality, and a secular state. Practically speaking, the socialist policies, which had atheistic views and principles, prevented the freedom and equality of religion. This resulted in the persecution of any religious expressions by displaying a state-led animosity towards religion. Since the revolutionary goal was to build a religion-free socialist Ethiopia, there was no room for religions. After the fall of Derg, the freedom to choose one’s religion and religious equality was guaranteed under the 1995 FDRE Constitution. Secularism has also been adopted, as part of the Constitution under article 11, clearly stating that there is no state religion. In this provision, state and religion are separated and refrain from interference; this indicates somehow that the two should not come together.

Threats to unity

It is no secret that recently religion has become an important political cleavage in Ethiopia. It has been dividing citizens within a society that in turn can lead to deviation and even conflict. Since most of the population are believers, they give priority to their religion rather than the political order that affects the political attitude. It’s unfortunate that despite the principle of secularism being introduced formally by the mid-1970s, Ethiopian governments continued to exert undue pressure on religious institutions and leaders, in some cases going as far as removing individuals from their religious duties and positions.  Currently, most of the religion-related problems that are occurring in Ethiopia are indications of either the non-practice of secularism or its misuse. If secularism is not properly executed, the major aim of the theory, i.e. guaranteeing religious equality, will be affected. Any form of unequal treatment will become a threat to unity.

Up next, I will try to mention some of the problems that contradict the principles of secularism, which made me say that it has been misunderstood or avoided.  Among those, it is suspected that there are religious groups that have appeared as political parties, for instance, Enat Party and Freedom and Equality Party. Some also indicate that the ideology of the Prosperity Party came from ‘Prosperity Gospel, a version of Protestant Christianity prescribing followers to strongly feel and visualize what they want so that they can get it. However, none of the parties admit their religious connections and influences probably because it is illegal under Ethiopian law for religious organizations to be registered as political parties.

Other religious groups alleged the existence of inequalities and discrimination between them and the Orthodox and Islam religions. One of the issues is regarding the allocation of land for religious sites. Perhaps the most (in)famous case of land use dispute is manifested by the controversy over the construction of mosques in Axum.  In other towns too, mainly Protestant denominations continued to seek the return of property confiscated by the previous regime. The relevant governmental body featured their claim as poor governance and issued directives; consequently, have granted their request. The Orthodox Church felt victim by the decision since some properties have been taken away to compensate the claimants.

The other issue regarding land is contestation over the encroachment and appropriation of religious sites in the name of state-led development. One famous instance is the controversy over Welkait Sugar Project’s alleged intrusion of the Waldba Monastery. Though the government’s effort in developing and establishing manufacturing facilities is commendable, others believe that the project location threatens the survival of this secluded monastery, as the project is accompanied by the construction of roads, residential and commercial establishments, and other facilities that will dramatically alter the character of the surrounding.

In addition, churches and mosques have been burned to the ground in different places. This is one manifestation of the government’s failure to uphold the safety and security of religious institutions, which the principle of secularism dictates. These kinds of attacks and tensions have negative implications on public security and stability of the country not to mention that they also have political implications. With growing polarization, it seems religion can be a triggering factor and can be utilized as a weapon in violent conflicts.

These and other related problems are occurring in our day-to-day life. The above instances show that, against the notion of secularism, there are mutual interferences between state and religion under different circumstances. Some tend to believe that the problems occur because of secularism theory. However, I strongly disagree with this assumption. I believe that the major reason for the rise of such problems is non-compliance with the principle of secularism. Since it has not been rightly understood and not it has been put into practice as the theory suggests, criticizing what has not been applied on the ground itself is nonsense.

A beam of light

Secularism may have fragile beginnings in our country, and its acceptance and implementation may be less than optimal. Nevertheless, its importance to a nation like ours cannot be overemphasized. Of course, secularism has its disadvantages such as distorting people’s minds into focusing on the material world and neglecting the spiritual one creates immorality, etc., but I believe that it is one of the most important achievements of any democratic country. Most importantly, it gives the freedom to choose and practice one’s belief and no state laws could be made against religious system. However, it does not mean that there should be no interference of the state in such matters when their activities put the peace and security of citizens in danger.

The government must not only protect the citizens but also must take the necessary measures towards groups that disrupt public activities and harmony; it needs to maintain equality between all religions and remove any hindrances that may cause uncertainty. It should also distance itself from any religious influence by providing equal opportunities, refraining from touching the dogmatic elements of any religion, and making sure that the citizens are well-informed and educated about tolerance and religious plurality. On the other hand, religious institutions also should not interfere in state matters. I believe this responsibility does not only fall on the government but also on us as citizens. Citizens should be abiding by the laws and instead of focusing on our differences focus on what makes us one.

If secularism is not properly applied, individuals’ freedom of religion, freedom of thought, opinion and expression will be violated. When these freedoms are oppressed, the potential for the progress of human beings’ spiritual development and the progress of the mind itself will be limited and this is against the fundamental notion of human dignity. Thus, we need to put the principle of secularism front and center.

* Mihret Samson is studying law at Gondar 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