Secularism Makes a Stand

Ten years ago, the shock of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, DC, led me to reflect on the impact of secularism on modern developments in East Asia, especially in Japan, whose postwar economic transformation had become the model for the region. I wondered whether the Enlightenment project that inspired the secularism had been misunderstood and led to government policies that damaged the faiths and religions that most people still believed in. Secularism created in East Asia a deep gulf between science and superstition that undermined older ideas of social cohesion. There were signs that fundamentalist secularists were eroding the moral authority of governments and their leaders.

During the decade after 9/11, it was enlightening to see how the United States dealt with that outrage to its superpower status. At one level, the White House sought to separate the enemy Al-Qaeda from the fact that its members are Muslim jihadists. Taking religion out of the equation turned out to be difficult. For many in the Middle East, America was Satan incarnate. Therefore, at another level, the perception of a necessary crusade gained support in the United States. Swift and successful action against the Taliban supporters of Al-Qaeda confirmed that the enemies of the United States and the West were religious fanatics. This was followed by the invasion of Iraq, one of the most secular states in the Arab world, to rid the country of a tyrant who was supposedly out to build the bomb. And that released deadly bursts of Muslim sectarianism that continue today, and not only in Iraq. It is no wonder that the rest of Asia became skeptical of what was really at stake.

This skepticism has been compounded by increasingly radical religious voices in the politics of the United States, the country that was to many the symbol of the Enlightenment project and a model of Western secular governance. Although few believe that the United States would raise the banner of any one religion, there is doubt whether the progressive image of secularism there can be sustained.

My perspective is that of an eastern Asia previously free of the rivalries of the Mediterranean region—in particular, those between Christian and Muslim protagonists that divided the sea from the seventh century. Thus, when the West came with its trading skills and modernizing mission, Asians were mostly bowled over by the superiority of its secular and scientific values. Many were convinced that the West had overcome the superstitions associated with irrational practices, rituals, and faiths. What they admired was a city upon the hill different from what the Puritans had originally sought.1 It is thus understandable that there has been puzzlement and consternation about the way the wars against terrorism have been conducted.

Looking back at the reactions and revised policies of the past decade, I am struck by how, in our region, two kinds of secular response can be discerned. Neither of them is against the practice of organized religion, but in different ways, they are acting against the false prophets that use religious faiths for political ends. The main thrust has been to bolster the established religions against the marginal groups within each of them, especially those that are prepared to resort to the use of violence to get public attention.

Both kinds of secular response seek to recover the support of all religious bodies that declare that the core of their faith is the care for life and all living things and that the path to godliness is through peaceful means. Underlying them both is the demand that the leaders of these bodies publicly define their affirmation of those core beliefs and demonstrate that their activities conform to those beliefs.

Let me try to distinguish the two in the policies they have encouraged by identifying the first as social secularism and the second as state secularism. By social secularism, I refer to the rising awareness among religious leaders themselves of the need for a secular society in which their different faiths could be practiced. In an open and transparent environment, despite known similarities and differences, there is public affirmation by all religious bodies of their commitment to the goal of social harmony.

The governments in Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, and Bangkok, as well as the local governments of Hong Kong and Macau, are confident that their various religious groups are conscious of their social responsibilities and willing to place, wherever possible, their society’s interests above their own. In turn, the governments confirm that the state accepts the legitimacy of all faiths and encourage religious groups to provide platforms for interfaith dialogue as a part of their normal activities. Such policies may seem obviously sensible and, like motherhood, easy to proclaim in order to look good. In reality, such a position has been difficult to sustain openly, even for governments that understand and accept its logic. This is so in countries like the Philippines and Indonesia. It seems clear that many political leaders recognize the wisdom of getting this ideal accepted by their peoples but hesitate to act determinedly because they are not sure to what extent their peoples are ready to support it on the ground. Thus the authorities are still at the stage of persuasion and negotiation in search of consensus while raw battles are being fought in the name of treasured beliefs.

With state secularism, there is a more structured approach. The state does not stand aside but directly promotes dialogue and interaction. It also takes a keen interest in all religious gatherings and carries the threat of drastic action against those who insist on using extralegal methods to pursue their goals. In short, it is ready to take strong measures against the politicizing of religious beliefs in any form. This kind of state intervention can arouse a dangerous backlash and provoke underground activities, but countries that are experiencing security threats argue that it is necessary. They would, for example, point to threats from large ethnic minorities close to international borders, to instability arising from complex cultural divisions among their immigrant populations, and not least, to the participation of foreign interests ready to exploit such divisions.

Countries like China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore feel the need for active policies that preempt challenges to state power. Their leaders may not wish to use their power to counter terror with terror but believe that there are situations where there is no alternative but to respond to such threats with force. With that option open to them, the challenge is to recognize the limits of the powerful coercive tools that modern states have. Here the record over the past decade is uneven. A great deal has depended on whether an individual country’s communities have key civic values in common. There are also many lessons being learned about what powers are effective as the peoples of these countries become better educated and more prosperous and develop higher expectations for justice and moderation in their governments.

What is clear is that there has not been any retreat from secularism in the region. Most leaders have become more sensitive to the power of faith while reaffirming the need for governance to rise above the religions that nourish faith. Although no countries have been directly targeted in the way the United States was with the 9/11 attacks, that tragedy for thousands has moved them to rethink the kind of secularism their states need. They can count themselves fortunate that they did not have to react the way the United States did. But they are also discovering that there are many shades and kinds of secularism and that it is far from being a static and ready-made institution. The more each modern society reaffirms the value of secular frameworks, the more each needs to adjust its secular goals to the existing social conditions. The uniqueness of the United States’ experience after 9/11 is a powerful reminder that no one model can be followed and nothing can be taken for granted. Whether social or state secularism, the governments concerned are responding to increasingly fast-moving forces as they try to balance the desire for material progress with the instinct for self-respect and moral worth.

Wang Gungwu is University Professor and Chairman of the East Asian Institute and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He also chairs the board of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. He recently edited (with Zheng Yongnian) China and the New International Order (2008).

  1. See John Winthrop, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” sermon, 1630, Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Hanover Historical Texts Project,