Postgraduate students

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

Religion, Governance and Constitutions in Fiji: Secularism as a Contronym

Constitution-drafters, politicians and scholars often look to secularism when tasked with reconciling religious conflict. Such an approach, however, fails to recognise that in certain contexts the term ‘secularism’ itself is problematic. This is not simply because the term is ambiguous (many words are), but because it is contronymic.

One can see this with particular clarity in public debates concerning the relationship between religion and the state in Fiji. Public agreement on this issue is often undermined by the fact that references to ‘secularism’ repeat in a contronymic fashion, being deployed with two separate and contradictory meanings. For instance, another example of a contronym is the word ‘left’:

‘After the hyenas left, only the antelope carcasses were left’.

Here ‘left’ means both ‘to leave’ and ‘to remain’. In Fiji’s political discourse ‘secularism’ has this same contronymic quality. ‘Secularism’ has two distinct, contradictory meanings, and different communities in Fiji tend to attach to one meaning and not the other.

(1) For some Fijians, particularly religious minorities, the government and urban liberals, ‘secularism’ is understood as the fair treatment of religions by the state. This means the state must not prefer one religion over another and ensures everyone can practice their religion freely. For these Fijians, ‘secularism’ is strongly associated with the arch-democratic ideals of freedom, equality and fairness. A ‘secular’ state, therefore, is one that promises to protect Human Rights, such as political equality and individual liberty.

(2) Yet for other Fijians, particularly indigenous Christian Fijians, ‘secularism’ does not mean a practice of governance based on freedom and fairness. It is instead a base cosmology, whereby the world is hollowed out of its moral and spiritual value. It means a world cut-off from God. It translates as vakavuravura, meaning ‘worldliness’, and is strongly associated with materialism, consumerism, resource exploitation (such as mining), and a broader sense of cultural and moral decline. A ‘secular’ state, therefore, is one consumed by power, economic greed and is detached from moral principles and God.

Whereas secularism (1) is assumed to embody the paramount virtues of liberal society – freedom and justice, secularism (2) is assumed to be empty of any ennobling value whatsoever.

Moreover, the tendency of different social groups to refer to secularism (1) or secularism (2) has typically been viewed as a consequence of different interests, values and beliefs reframing the same concept, akin to two people disagreeing over what a coin looks like when approached from opposite sides. Context does indeed influence why groups emphasise one meaning and not the other, but the duality of the term is prior to, not subsequent to, its subjective interpretation. Contronymic secularism is not, therefore, about disagreement. It is about the failure to meet the conditions for a disagreement to be possible.

In Fiji’s political discourse there is rarely much reflection on how these two usages miss each other in conversation or how they commonly misrepresent speakers’ intentions. For example, the government drafters of the 2013 Constitution have frequently said they mean secularism (1), yet in the translation of the Constitution into Fijian, they use meaning (2).

The impact of this can be harmful. It deepens what is for many Fijians an already divisive issue, and makes consensus and compromise regarding the proper role of public religion harder to achieve. Furthermore, it is often politically advantageous for leaders on either side of this debate for this misunderstanding to continue. Government politicians can represent anyone who protests against what they see as secularism (2) as in fact resisting secularism (1). This allows them to demonise political opposition, and present objections to a government acting in an authoritarian or corrupt manner as anti-democratic or racist.

Whereas leaders in the indigenous Fijian community, particularly those with an ethno-nationalist agenda, can argue that those supporting secularism (1), are in fact guilty of imposing secularism (2). This strengthens their in-group authority and draws on anxieties of cultural loss and moral decline to cultivate political capital.

The PhD adopts a tailored mixed methods approach that combines macro and micro analyses that can elucidate national discursive trends regarding ‘secularism’, whilst remaining sensitive to the complex variations in tone, texture and context. The thesis uses critical history, ethnography and quantitative analysis, drawing on an archive consisting of the 7,000+ submissions received by the Fiji Constitution Commission in 2012, Fiji’s past constitutions and documents relating to previous draftings, and over 30 interviews with prominent religious, political and civil society leaders in Fiji.

Supervisors: Associate Professor Ben Schonthal and Dr John Shaver.

University of Otago Religious Studies Programme