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

Farish A. Noor

Posted Jun 25, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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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.

Whether it is India which is witnessing the slow resurgence of Hindutva politics, Thailand with the rise of Buddhist politicians demanding the creation of the world’s first Buddhist state, or in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh where Islamist parties are calling for the creation of a theocratic state that does away with the secular constitution and a radical re-working of the social contract altogether, Asian nations today seem to be witnessing the diminishing of its secular civil space and public domain.

The rise of religious politics across the world is certainly not a simple phenomenon that can be summarily essentialised in one unitary paradigm. Movements for faith renewal like the Tablighi Jama’at, for instance, do not necessarily call for the creation of an Islamic state in the way that Islamist parties do. But in the case of those religious parties that explicitly call for a return to a theologically-determined mode of governance, serious questions need to be posed to them:

For a start, Religion’s emphasis on a singular, unitary interpretation of the truth based on an absolute understanding of the cosmos does not sit comfortably with the reality of many complex plural societies today. How, for instance, do religious parties hope to reconcile the need to maintain balance and equality between faith communities when almost every religion in the world preaches to its followers that it, and it alone, is the only source of truth in the world? Here lies the comical and ironic aspect of so many of the global inter-religious dialogues we see today, where representatives of the various faith communities can only come together for the sake of agreeing on their differences, and are unable (still) to accept that other faith communities may actually view the world from a different angle from them?

From this there emerges the related question of how to maintain equality and fair representation in such a theological state where one religion has assumed the mantle of governance and all other faith communities are relegated to the status of the ‘protected faiths’ that are ruled over? Pious wishes and wishful thinking aside, the sad fact of human history is that in all such cases religious rule often leads to the pitfall of majoritarian politics, where the members of the dominant faith community lord it over the rest.

In the midst of this, we need to ask: What of the social contract? Religious conservatives the world over tend to bemoan the social contract precisely because it was and is a social contract agreed upon in the context of society, or precisely, human society. Arguing from the basis that only God has the power to determine the fate of nations and states, they conclude that any contract agreed upon by human beings have to be necessarily flawed as they do not partake of the divine and absolute. In short, the social contract is of no worth because God did not have a hand in it.

Yet this overlooks the fact that it is precisely because social contracts are human-made, and therefore contingent, arbitrary and historically and culturally-determined that they have proven to be the adaptable tools that can be revised and instrumentalised to serve the needs of political development and social evolution and emancipation. In short, it is precisely because we know that the social contract is vulnerable that we can still work on it, improve it, expand it and develop it. The recourse to the vocabulary of absolutes, which is the favourite destination of religious conservatives – be they Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Buddhist – is fundamentally an attempt to expunge from politics the dimension of the political, the contestational, the negotiable. For religious conservatives, God spells the end of politics.

This desire to end the moment of the political however, needs to be exposed for what it is. Despite the use of pious language to disguise their intentions, we ought to realise that the appeal to the language of religious absolutes and absolutism is just one step to the erasure of civil politics and opens the way for the rise of religious authoritarianism. So let us keep God out of the picture for now. For all its faults and weaknesses, the social contract has still served its purpose of holding together our communities on the level of a shared public domain and the negotiation of individual rational agencies. And after all, wasn’t that why God gave human beings the ability to think in the first place?


Dr. Farish A. Noor is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies; Nanyang Technological University, Singapore; and is one of the founders of the research site.