I’ve just read two articles on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free website. One is by AC Grayling, who likes secularism, and the other is a response by Soumaya Ghannoushi, who doesn’t, or more accurately, doesn’t like what she terms “militant secularists”:
This brand of puritanical secularism is little more than inverted religion. It substitutes reason for god, science for theology, relentless progress for original sin and human fall. Its followers see secularism not as mere separation of religion and politics, or as state neutrality vis a vis matters of faith and belief. To them, it is a set of dogmas to be embraced willingly or imposed coercively by the force of the state.
I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of the “militant secularism” I know, but I shall ignore that. I think the major problem stems from a disagreement about what the new headscarf reforms in Turkey mean: Grayling says that “Turkish Islamists are encouraging more women to hide that automatic trigger of unbridled male lust, the tresses on the female head”, whereas Ghannoushi says “those genuinely committed to civil liberties and individual freedoms would applaud the relaxing of an oppressive law that denies women their basic right to decide their dress”. Personally, I’m not going to comment on who is right — pretty clearly the ideal is that women should be allowed to wear whatever they like, but there’s every chance that without the headscarf ban 95% of wearers would be wearing them against their will, and in that situation I think a ban can be justified easily.
Grayling’s thesis was really much more wide-reaching than that:
If the Brian-sandalistas cannot succeed by direct assault, they will do it by constant nibbling and encroachments: prayers in American publicly-funded schools, headscarves in Turkish publicly-funded universities, a little bit of anti-evolutionary biology there, a little alcohol ban there ’“ and if that doesn’t work, they try more robust means. So it goes: creep creep, whisper, soothe, murmur a prayer with the kids in assembly, ecumenicalise, interfaith-schmooze, infiltrate, subvert, complain, campaign, scream, threaten, explode.
And that’s the point. It’s all well and good Ghannoushi saying
This crude interventionism practised in the name of secularism in Turkey and France, and religion in Iran and Saudi Arabia can only be described as despotic. Individuals’ minds and bodies are not part of the state’s jurisdiction. The state is only the manager of citizens’ public affairs, not a judge of their consciences, appearances, habits, and preferences.
but in a society like Turkey, with a 99% Islamic population, if you have completely open democracy then there’s a very real possibility that people are going to vote for an alcohol ban, the death penalty for apostasy, a ban on dogs as pets, legalisation of forced marriage, and yes, a mandate to women about what they can wear on their heads, because what unites the people is their irrational conviction that a load of nonsense in a rather silly book, as well as a lot of other nonsense that even Mohammed never thought of, handed down by word of mouth, is How You Absolutely Should Live. And before you know what’s happening, you’re living under Sharia law in an Islamic state in all but name. And then they’ll vote to change the name. Because that’s what Islam is:
“Islam is not like Christianity. It doesn’t just aim to be practised in the realm of belief but also to regulate and rule the state,” ’” Omer Faruk Eminagaoglu, “chairman of the association of judges and prosecutors (Yarsav) and deputy to Turkey’s chief prosecutor”
The aim of a secular democracy then, cannot be to do what the people want, but to do what the general underlying values of the people dictate — just as in this country I don’t want the Chancellor of the Exchequer to do what the people think he should do; I want him to do what the people would think he should do if we were smarter and in possession of all the information and a good working knowledge of economics. Otherwise there’s no point in having anyone remotely qualified doing the job. You end up with lowest-common-denominator politics and the country’s de facto run by the editor of the Sun. (Frankly “tabloidism” can be treated as a religion for all practical purposes.)
The problem is, though, that if you have a large majority of one religion, it stands to reason that any candidate for government office would do well to make a big deal of subscribing to that faith. If they say things like “my religion guides my values and my values guide my politics” then he’ll do well in an election because he’s playing to something that’s seen as very important by the majority of the electorate — lowest-common-denominator again — but he’s just promised to act totally unsecularly. (That’s a word. Don’t say it isn’t.) And you end up living in a theocracy, no matter how secular the values enshrined in your law may be. You only have to look to America to see how strong this effect is. That Ghannoushi refers to this as “the neutral soft secularism of the United States” baffles me.
But what can you do? You can’t simply not tell the electorate what religion the candidates are; that would never even nearly work, and in any case it wouldn’t stop a candidate championing the teachings of their religion explicitly. You can’t demand that only atheists stand for office (or only atheists vote); again it’s unenforceable (unless perhaps you make the ballot out of ham) and it’s not exactly liberal. You can’t expect religious people, either government or voters, to set their faiths aside when making decisions, because it’s too big a part of who they are.
The problem isn’t secularism; the problem is that the religion exists in the first place. You can’t justly govern lunatics without recourse to the sane, and in a population 99% Islamic, you really have no baseline level of sanity to refer back to. Don’t get me wrong, in a pluralistic, multi-cultural society like Britain religion is mostly harmless and I think any attempt to stamp it out would fail and end up doing far more harm than good. The issue, though, is that if one of the many religions present in a society is somehow ‘fitter’ than the others, it will prosper. It’s easy to imagine a large majority of Muslims or Evangelical Christians establishing itself in such a society, feeding off the good-will towards faith that the other religions have fostered.
I believe that the only solution to this problem is to make sure that children are not indoctrinated with dogma. By all means they can be taught the various customs and traditions of their parents’ religion. But threats of eternal damnation or literal Earthly punishment, for breaking stupid and arbitrary rules are not okay. Of course we can’t legislate how parents raise children. (I have no particular ethical problem with that — it just wouldn’t work.) But we can grant them all the fundamental human right to an objective, neutral and secular education. With that in place, there’s not much parents can do to stop their children becoming tolerant and balanced members of society.
Religious parents will object to this, of course. Some non-religious ones will as well. They will say that they have a fundamental human right to raise their child any way they like. I say no. I say they don’t have the right to fuck up a child’s mind any more than they have the right to fuck up the child’s body. You can very easily totally ruin someone’s life before it’s even begun if you teach them to live in an imaginary version of the real world. They grow up and experience agonising dilemmas caused by a conflict between what they want and care about and some made-up rule implanted by their parents when they were small. I’ve seen it happen. But I think that children’s rights must always trump parents’ rights because they are in every way more vulnerable (although since parents can vote and children can’t this isn’t perhaps a view shared by everyone in government). So give them a decent secular education and I think they will, in the vast majority of cases, grow up to be balanced, liberal, tolerant people — even if they do still pay mostly-harmless lip-service to their faith. They’ll be a people who can be justly governed by democracy without religion taking over. Is that “crude interventionism”? Maybe. But I think it’s a good goal and a practical and fair means by which to achieve it.
See, Odone? I’ll see your choice of “faith schools or terrorism”, and I’ll raise you a choice of “secular education or Sharia law”. They’re both false dilemmas, of course, but I’d rather live in a secular democracy that gets bombed periodically than the peace that comes with the brutality of Sharia.