The Politics of Secular Federalism and the Federal Governance of Religious Diversity in Asia

AuthorMichael Breen,Baogang He,Laura Allison-Reumann
Published date01 December 2018
Date01 December 2018
Subject MatterArticle
Baogang He, Laura Allison-Reumann and Michael Breen*
A secular approach has dominated federal studies, perhaps because there seems a
natural fit between federalism and secularism. However, the federal systems or practices
of Asia bring that close association into question, and the federal accommodation of
religious demands has not been examined fully. This article focuses on how religion has
been approached, accommodated or resisted in federal and quasi-federal states in Asia.
We select India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Nepal as cases. We first
explore the relationship between federalism, secularism and religion, and find that
secular values at the point of federalisation played an important role in federalism’s
establishment, but that they were later modified in the practice of federal
accommodation of religion. We also identify and examine the federal governance of
religious diversity, which features three types of accommodation—centrally-based,
unit-based and group-based accommodation—with accommodative practices
sometimes being for the benefit of a majority religion, and sometimes for a minority one.
Not long ago prominent scholars, such as Charles Taylor, proclaimed ‘a secular age’.1
Secularisation theory, in its most extreme form, foresaw the demise of religion and an
anticipated decline in its importance to society.2 However, from the rise of the religious
right in the United States (US) to the political ambition of Islamic extremists, a trend
towards secularism has not been consolidated. Rather, many parts of the world are
undergoing a religious revival. In Asia, it is true to speak of a religious revival, yet
religion has never really given way to secularism as a social or political force. Religion

Baogang He is Alfred Deakin Professor and Personal Chair in International Relations, Deakin
University. Laura Allison-Reumann is Associate Fellow at the Center for Liberal Arts and
Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Michael Breen is McKenzie
Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of
Melbourne. The authors would like express their sincere thanks to Ron Levy, Mark Tushnet
and the anonymous reviewer for their constructive comments and suggestions.
See, eg, Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007).
See, eg, Marcel Gauchet, The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion (Oscar
Burge trans, Princeton University Press, 1997) [trans of: Le Désenchantement du Monde (first
published 1985)].

Federal Law Review
Volume 46
remains an important part of ethnic identity in many countries and is influential in the
political sphere.
In the West, religious difference was historically a major cleavage and source of
conflict. A tolerant and neutral state was regarded as a way to overcome religious
differences and reach political settlements, and so the state was secularised with
different forms and approaches. The Anglo-American version of the separation of state
and religion, for example, differs from the French concept of laïcité, which aims to protect
and accommodate all religions and establish a common value base founded on reason.3
The French version of secularism is vastly different from that of Germany, which, whilst
it is not a religious state, considers the church to be of public interest and distributes
taxes to churches to provide public services such as education.
Secularism was underpinned by a logic of liberalism as conceived by Locke and
others, based on fundamental natural law and rights, toleration of differences, and
relegation of religion to a quasi-private sphere.4 When political secularism is applied to
federal institutional design, federal institutions are required to be neutral and free from
religious interference. In a multi-religious state, secularism appears to be the only viable
option for accommodating diversity. A significantly shared, common or overarching
identity has been shown to be a necessary condition for successful federalism.5 If an
otherwise religiously diverse state is constituted with a specific religious identity, it
follows that a common national identity is difficult, if not unachievable. Similarly, a
preferential position for one religion makes it difficult for the state to maintain equality
or a ‘principled distance’ between religions, which is contrasted with a strict separation
between state and religion.6
The logic of federalism suggests that it fits naturally with secularism. Both federalism
and secularism involve a renegotiation of values associated with identity, religion,
culture and ethnicity, and this renegotiation is often a precursor to federalisation.
Secularism and the forging of common values and overlapping identities and loyalties
should contribute to a ‘holding-together’ (ie, the devolution of power in order to
maintain unity) federal dynamic7 and facilitate negotiation and peaceful interaction
among sub-state ethnic and religious groups.
Empirically, all of the federal states in Europe—Germany, Switzerland (at the federal
level), Austria, Belgium, and Bosnia Herzegovina—are secular. Likewise, the US,
Canada, and Australia all approximately adhere to the principle of secularity,8 as do the

Anne-Cécile Robert and Henri Peña-Ruiz, ‘State and Secularism, the French Laïcité System’
in Michael Heng Siam-Heng and Ten Chin Liew (eds), State and Secularism: Perspectives from
Asia (World Scientific, 2010) 123.
John Locke, A Letter of Toleration, James H Tully (ed) (Hackett Publishing, 1983).
Richard Simeon and Daniel-Patrick Conway, ‘Federalism and the Management of Conflict in
Multinational Societies’ in Alain-G Gagnon and James Tully (eds), Multinational Democracies
(Cambridge University Press, 2001) 338.
See Rajeev Bhargava, ‘The Distinctiveness of Indian Secularism’ in T N Srinivasan (ed), The
Future of Secularism (Oxford University Press, 2007) 20.
Alfred Stepan, ‘Federalism and Democracy: Beyond the US Model’ (1999) 10(4) Journal of
Democracy 19.
Government practice in Australia and Canada is generally secular, but there are very
significant exceptions. For example, there is federal funding of chaplains in schools across
Australia. Moreover, both Australia and Canada have close connections to the British

2018 The Politics of Secular Federalism and the Federal Governance of Religious Diversity in Asia 577
federal states in South America—Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela (Argentina is a possible
exception: it has no state religion but the Roman Catholic Apostolic church continues to
receive certain privileges, some of which are constitutionally guaranteed). In Africa too,
the federal states of Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa are all secular in law, while the
Islamic Federation of Sudan failed. It has been argued that
[t]he model that seems to be emerging in most federal states is one that tolerates some
establishment at the state level, but only on condition that all religions are either equally
favored or equally disfavored. What is not emerging is a model that allows the federal state
to be based formally upon a religious ideology.9
But the federal systems of Asia and the political practices that establish those federal
systems bring the link between federalism and secularism into question. Firstly, the
relationship between secularism and federalism is complicated in fact. Some federal
states are secular, some religious; and some religious states are unitary and some federal.
Secondly, whilst political secularism is often supported and even implemented at the
early stages of federal statehood, it is often revised soon after to meet demands
associated with religion and religious diversity. Consequently, Asian federal institutions
and practices have persistently exhibited many religious features; and it has been
necessary for the principle of secularism to undergo revision to observe secular
principles of freedom of religion and state neutrality, and simultaneously to respond to
religious demands. Thirdly, the trend towards increasing religiosity at the unit (eg, state
or provincial) level suggests that federalism and a state that accommodates religion can
co-exist in Asia (and thus also elsewhere). Indeed, there is an ongoing tension between
the desire for a secular state and the desire to protect or maintain one particular religion
that results in some hybrid form of religious federalism, which combines elements of
secularism and religious accommodation.
Asia deviates from the normal pattern of political secularism in that it has modified
and compromised secularism. Rather than dichotomies, there are shades of grey where
federalism and religion coexist, and there are revisions and modifications of secularism
in Asia. In particular, Islam, and to some extent Buddhism and Hinduism, have enjoyed
privileged status in federal constitutions. The domination of majority religions in federal
constitutions inevitably leads to the question of how to protect minority religions, and
in particular how to defend...

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