Religion and the Social Contract: Can Religion be reconciled with Civil Society?

By Farish A. Noor
Modern nation-states are, for all intents and purposes, artificial entities that are the product of consensus and rational agency.

Practically every modern nation-state in the world today traces its history to some founding moment and a founding document that lays down the terms of the social contract that brought together a disparate community of individuals to form a pact, which in turn sustains the nation as a whole and lends it sense of identity and cohesiveness over time.

Now of course the foundational moment of many a nation-state today is lost in the mist of history and some might ask the question of how and why should an agreement made by a handful of men (and it is nearly always men, not women, mind you) who lived centuries ago be relevant to the citizens of today? America’s founding moment, for instance, lay in the midst of battle and the struggle of the American colonies to break free from the yoke of British imperialism then. However even a cursory glance at the documents of the past will show that America’s founding fathers were a small band of landed white American capitalists, land-owners and slave-traders who cared little for the fate of the thousands of African-Americans who were the descendants of slaves brought there from Africa. Equally scant attention was paid to the plight of the native Americans who in time would be marginalised and corralled into their reserves and left out of the mainstream of society, relegated to the status of ‘savage natives’ unfit for modernisation. Likewise women who made up half of the colonies’ population are hardly mentioned in the founding documents of what later became the United States of America.

Be that as it may, there remained enough scope for expansion and development in the American Constitution to allow the country to adapt to the changing realities of the time, and crucial articles of the Constitution – which guarantee equality and freedom of speech, for instance – paved the way for the American Civil Rights movement and the American Feminist movement that came into being by the mid-20th century.

As in the case of the United States, so was it the case in many other secular democracies in the developed part of the world where social upheavals and transformation were facilitated by the looseness of their respective Constitutions, that in turn allowed for the continuous revision and re-reading of its meaning and intent. What is crucial to note in all these cases is the fact that the advances in terms of civil and political rights in these countries occurred via recourse to the Constitution and the rule of law. At no point was the Constitution rejected outright simply because the founding fathers of the nation all came from the same elite strata of white, middle-classed men.

The social contract that binds us together as citizens of a country therefore undergoes a constant process of challenge, re-interpretation, revision and recontextualisation. But this is the nature of a successful social contract in the first place, and like all good contracts it maintains the balance between its binding force and its ability to compromise and adapt.

The rise of religiously-inspired politics worldwide, however, poses a different sort of challenge altogether as the discourse of religion is often predicated on the vocabulary of absolutes. In countries like Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and even Thailand and Sri Lanka today where religiously-inspired politics is on the rise, we note with some degree of concern that the demands of the religious activists and religious communitarian parties are radically different from that of their secular counterparts for the simple reason that religious politics is often dictated by absolute demands and claims.

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