Postgraduate students

Thomas White, MA (Edinburgh), MA (Durham), PhD

Contronymic Secularism: The Constitutional Politics of Religion in Fiji

In 2012, Fiji’s military regime declared secularism as an official policy for Fiji’s new constitution, and the key to securing inter-religious tolerance and an inclusive public space for Indigenous (iTaukei) Fijian Christians and Indo-Fijian Hindus and Muslims. However, instead of reconciling Fiji’s politics of religion, debates on secularism polarised public discourse, provoked Christian state secessionist movements, and entrenched the power of the state. Drawing on detailed analysis of the 7,000 public submissions to Fiji’s 2012 Constitution Commission, previous drafting consultations, past constitutions, judicial decisions, parliamentary debates and interview data with thirty-one senior political and religious leaders, this doctoral thesis argues that a significant factor for this failure lies with the term ‘secularism’ itself. The broad semantic range of this anglophone term in Fiji’s constitutional discourse—stretching from inter-religious fairness under God to a godless, worldly materialism—along with its polemical use by political actors, obstructed Fiji’s potential for political compromise.

This thesis contends that in Fiji secularism persists as a contronym, as it denotes two distinct and contrary referents. Fijians debating secularism do not advance competing arguments about the same topic, but raise different topics using the same word. Instead of disagreement and dialogue, therefore, Fiji’s contronymic secularism has produced misunderstandings: a double monologue, whereby disputing parties speak past each other, deepening animosity and misplacing consensus. For example, the bitter conflict between Indigenous Christian Fijians rejecting a secular state (as godless, worldly materialism) and liberals, the military and Indo-Fijians demanding one (as inter-religious fairness), disguised the fact that both sides largely supported the religion/state arrangements already written into the 1997 Constitution.

The thesis shows that this contronymic missing of meaning continues, principally, because it is expedient for partisan actors on either side of Fiji’s divided politics not to make common meaning. Five case-studies of religion/state controversies that occurred after 2012 are analysed to demonstrate the ways in which Fijians—in government, in opposition, in religious offices, in court and in open rebellion to the state—either deliberately or intuitively, employ a contronymic secularism to subvert the voice of their political opponents. Ultimately, this rhetorical practice returns power to the incumbent ruling authority (the state), which, with dialogue undermined, can resort to alternative, coercive means to govern. In summary, the top-down introduction of the term ‘secularism’ into Fiji’s public discourse reproduced, reified and entrenched the very problems that the notion of secularism ostensibly seeks to redress.

Supervisors: Associate Professor Ben Schonthal and Dr John Shaver.

University of Otago Religious Studies Programme