Commenting on my article on Friedman's letters from Turkey, "Friedman’s Disingenuous Letters Hide Israel’s Crimes", one reader wrote: Thank you Dr. Habib Siddiqui for your very insightful piece of history. It clears up a lot of knots the way things are unfolding in recent days. One question: secularism is not all about freedom of religion or is it all about a Godless society?"
My briefly reply follows:
Secularism today is a very misunderstood theme. At one extreme, it is understood that there is no place of religion in anything to do with life, which led to the ideologies like communism/socialism in places like China and the USSR. That extremism led to the experimentation with a Godless society there.
In the USA, on the other hand, what we have is a benign model where the presidents take oath with Bible in the hand, and swear to trust in God. Religion is a personal matter, although religion influences laws and regulations of this country.
In the Qur'an the very idea of compulsion of religion was rejected with the verse lakum deenikum waliyadeen (meaning: to you is your deen or way of life or religion and to me is mine.)
In the first few centuries of Islam, philosophy emerged as a new branch, thanks to Greek ideas, which got translated by then. At one point, during Imam Ghazzali's time, there was a serious debate on the subject when he wrote his famous book critiquing philosophy showing its drawbacks in explaining immaterial subjects, and the matter of faith and belief. See his book: Incoherence of the Philosophers.
The earliest serious philosopher of separation of philosophy and religion can be found in the works of Ibn Rushd, who while a good Muslim said that there is one truth, but there are (at least) two ways to reach it: through philosophy and through religion. Thus, it is said that what the Sufi masters learned through meditation and devotional practices were learned by Ibn Sina and his kind of philosophers through experimentation. Most of those Islamic philosophers were pious Muslims, much in contrast to what happened in the last few centuries.
During the European renaissance we see a serious distinction between the two subjects to emerge when the philosophers rejected Christianity as having the truth. With the Freemasons in power in France, we see how religion would be totally ignored, thus moving to the extreme version we see today. One of its modern interpreters, Holyoake, an agnostic, argued that "Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life."
Today, the states like Turkey, India, France, South Korea and Mexico adopt secularism constitutionally as a state pillar (the 1972 Bangladesh constitution had the same feature). But outside Turkey and France, none of these countries adopt fundamentalist interpretation of Godless secularism. What is meant in general is state policies will not discriminate on the basis of religion for any position and that rules of the state will not be based on religion.