During a recent discussion with a friend of mine, I was telling her how a secular government might be a decent idea for a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country like Iraq, to which she vehemently protested. “I don’t want to be ruled by atheists, they have no morality!”
Asides from her assumption that atheists have no morals, I was disturbed by the perception that secularist are atheists, and that is a common perception in Iraq too, not only among the masses but even with the new ruling elite. I remember watching an interview before the elections with Mahmoud Al-Mashhadani, former Speaker of Parliament, and he was describing his party as a nationalist non-religious party, at that point the interviewer asked “A secular party?”, Al-Mashhadani quickly retored: “No, we believe in God!”.
Secularism is the separation of religious authorities from government, not the rejection of religion by politicians. It has no link to atheism as many clerics have advocated that approach and many politicians who are believers have led secular states.
What many people may not know, is that secularism as an idea originated from Islam by the Jurist and Islamic Philosopher Ibn Rushd, or Avveroes as he is known in the West, his ideas were rejected by a corrupt Catholic Church as they were perceived to be a threat. The adoption of secularism in Europe is what ultimately freed them from the shackles of the Church towards a more progressive system, while the people were still religious individually nonetheless.
Since a state is not a person and it cannot pray, fast or worship, it seems non-sensical to give it a religious description. And since Religion is based on solid principles and politics is the art of compromise, it would be demeaning to a religion to drag it down to the level of politics and embroil it in its constant unprincipled interactions. And we have seen examples of that in Iraq where recent events have put people off religion.
Having a secular state and system does not mean it is devoid of any religious principles or religious people, some of the most secular states have religious parties. For example Germany is led by the Christian Democrats and Turkey has an Islamic party in government at the moment. People can still pick religious people in such a state but the framework of government is separated from the authority of religion.
That protects people from the possible oppression of religion and safeguards the religion from the damage it could suffer from politics.