Secularism as a Universal Right
The concept of ‘post-secularism’ aids in theorising efforts to diminish secularism’s importance just when it’s needed most. A theory that insists that secularism lacks relevance, particularly for ‘non-Westerners,’ is part of the project to dismantle it and knowingly or unwittingly enhances the regressive role of the religious-Right under the guise of defending culturally relative ‘rights;’ it is also based on a number of false premises.
Contrary to its assertions, the so-called religious revival is about politics rather than religion or increased religiosity. Also, secularism (the separation of religion from the state) is a precondition for safeguarding religious and cultural rights; is not western but universal; and is a fundamental right and necessity for all, and particularly those living outside of the west.
In fact, the articulation and defence of secularism is more urgent than ever given the encroachment on civil rights and freedoms across the world by the religious-Right (particularly Islamism) and the urgent need for solidarity with the palpable fight-back in many countries.
Whilst secularism is often portrayed as anti-religion, in fact it guarantees the absolute right to religion and belief. This is not the case when religion has a role in the state. The death penalty for apostasy or blasphemy, including against believers, is one example of many. In Iran 130 offences are punishable by death, including heresy and enmity against god.
Secularism also defends the right to expression of belief even whilst limiting the role of expression in the public space. For example, the Christian-Right calls for laws forbidding reproductive rights for all citizens yet laws granting such rights do not force Catholics to practice either contraception or abortion.
On the flip side, there are sharia law courts in Britain, which are a parallel legal system where a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s; women have limited rights to divorce whereas men have unilateral right to divorce and child custody is given to the father at a pre-set age irrespective of the welfare of the child. Where the law is secular, women would have equal rights and access not available to them under religious laws. Restricting these sharia courts would still allow women to give up their rights to alimony or child custody in a civil court if they felt they deserved nothing whilst protecting the many who don’t want to or are coerced into giving up their rights under sharia.
What is often touted as ‘religious rights’ is in fact an imposition by the religious-Right and Islamists and aims to implicate the state in the implementation of inequalities in the name of rights. There is, however, no right to oppress and discriminate against.
As author and human rights lawyer, Karima Bennoune says:
“…in applying freedom of religion, both those who believe and those who choose not to believe, as well as those who seek to manifest belief and those who do not wish to be coerced to do so, must be taken into consideration. This is only possible in a framework of secularism…
“…The term secularism here means emphasis on the temporal over the religious in law and an accompanying minimization of the role of religion in the functioning of the state and legal system. The significance of the temporal for human rights is not that it is always morally superior to the religious, [though I would argue it is] but rather that it is contestable. The temporal allows space for dissent which the ‘you cannot argue with God’ paradigm forecloses.”
One fallacy of the theory of post-secularism is that secularism has come to an end given the return or revival of religion. In fact, the ‘religious revival’ is not because of increased religiosity but due to the rise of the religious-Right, spearheaded by Islamism.
Whilst Islamism may use Islam as a tool for the far-Right restructuring of power structures (just as the Christian-Right uses Christianity) the movement is not fundamentally about religion as an ideology and belief but about enhancing the power and influence of the religious-Right in society.
In the past several decades (though there is a palpable change in era), the rapid rise of Islamism in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Indonesia, Nigeria, Somalia, Pakistan, Sudan, and its increasing influence in Europe, including Britain; the constraints on free expression; increased veiling and so on are not due to people becoming more devout Muslims but because of the rise of Islamism.
In fact, Islamism was brought to centre stage as a result of US foreign policy during the Cold War in an attempt to create a ‘green belt’ around the then Soviet Union. In contemporary history, the rise of Islamism can be linked to the establishment of an Islamic regime in Iran on the back of a suppressed left-leaning revolution and its exportation internationally. Saudi Wahabbism has also played a role.
Despite this, and partly because of post-modernism and cultural relativism, Islamism is seen to be one and the same with ‘Muslims,’ thereby legitimising oppression under the guise of respect for culture and tolerance.
Multiculturalism (not as a positive lived experience but as a segregationist social policy) and cultural relativism ignore and negate the plurality in any given society or ‘community’ by giving precedence to the dominant culture and religion and implying that that human beings – depending on how they are pigeon-holed – are fundamentally different, and should be treated as such.
Because it is those in power that determine the dominant culture, Islamist values and sensibilities are seen to be those of ‘authentic Muslims.’ The conflation between ‘Muslim’ and Islamist means that for example, even though historically there have been portrayals of Mohammad, Islam’s prophet, including by Muslims, it is now considered an ‘offence against Muslims’ to do so. Opposing veiling or Sharia law is seen in the same way, though both are highly contested in many contexts.
The theory of post-secularism sees Muslims as a homogeneous community that is conservative, Islamic and anti-secular. But there is no homogeneous culture anywhere. Conflating Islamist with Muslim ignores the immense dissent and denies the social and political struggles and class politics. It is a narrative peddled by Islamists and their apologists – many of them on the Left (and I say this being on the Left myself) – in an attempt to feign representation, restrict dissent, and prescribe the limits of ‘acceptable’ expression.
Ironically, like the nativist far-Right which opposes multiculturalism and cultural relativism yet benefits from its idea of difference to scapegoat the ‘other’ and promote its own form of white identity politics, the post-modernists use multiculturalism to side with the oppressor by demanding respect and tolerance for oppression characterised as ‘difference’ no matter how intolerable.
And whilst feigning to be inclusive, the theory of post-secularism is really western-centric. It doesn’t see the many secularists within the ‘Muslim community’ in the west and in societies in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
According to the Iranian Marxist Mansoor Hekmat: ‘The religious, cultural, ethnic and national categorisation of people is always the first step in denying their universal rights as human beings. If the genocide in Rwanda is the continuation of an African tradition, if stoning is the Iranian people’s Islamic tradition, if veiling is part of the culture of women in ‘Islamic societies’, if marrying off a nine year old girl is a tradition of the people of those countries themselves, then they can really be forgotten, humiliated, bombed and left to the mercy of their own rules beyond the fortresses of western civilisation and democracy. But if it becomes clear that these people like all others live and produce in a capitalist society and global market, if it becomes apparent that these Islamic traditions and laws have been imposed on them by sheer force of imprisonment, torture chambers, street patrols, knives, executions, and stoning, if it becomes apparent that these people like all others are yearning for freedom, equality and an end to discrimination… then all this hypocritical ideological monument will collapse and the damage will be beyond words.’
As a result of cultural relativism, concepts such as rights, equality, respect and tolerance, which were initially raised vis-à-vis the individual, are instead applicable to culture and religion and often take precedence over individuals.
Though Muslims or those labelled as such are Islamism’s first victims and on the frontlines of resistance, the conflation of Islam and Islamism with Muslim has meant that much needed criticism is often condemned as racism. The distinction between humans and their beliefs and far-right political movements is of crucial significance here. It is the human being who is meant to be equal not his or her beliefs. It is the human being who is worthy of the highest respect and rights not his or her beliefs or those imputed on them.
Moreover, it’s the idea of difference that has always been the fundamental principle of a racist agenda not the other way around.
Contrary to that which is argued by the theory of post-secularism, in plural societies, with diverse beliefs, religion must be kept separate from the state in order to treat all equally, despite and irrespective of individual beliefs. The state must be secular if it is to be inclusive, accessible, non-discriminatory and if it is to be underpinned by principles of equality, non-discrimination and individual rights.
Of course when speaking of Islam or any religion, I am not referring to religion as a personal belief. Everyone has an absolute right to religion and atheism but religion in the state is no longer a question of personal belief but a matter of political power and control.
As Women Living Under Muslim Laws says: “Fundamentalist terror is by no means a tool of the poor against the rich, of the Third World against the West, of people against capitalism. It is not a legitimate response that can be supported by the progressive forces of the world. Its main target is the internal democratic opposition to their theocratic project and to their project of controlling all aspects of society in the name of religion, including education, the legal system, youth services, etc. When fundamentalists come to power, they silence the people, they physically eliminate dissidents, writers, journalists, poets, musicians, painters – like fascists do. Like fascists, they physically eliminate the ‘untermensch’ – the subhumans -, among them ‘inferior races’, gays, mentally or physically disabled people. And they lock women ‘in their place’, which as we know from experience ends up being a straight jacket…”
Those who consider a demand for secularism as ‘culturally inappropriate,’ ‘western,’ or ‘colonialist’ are only considering Islamism’s sensibilities and values, not that of the many who resist. Islamism is a form of colonialism though it is seen as ‘authentic.’ Islamists in Niger or Mali are de-Africanising the lived Islam there, for example, and the niqab and burqa were unheard of in many countries just a few decades ago.
Plus even in many western countries the fight for secularism is not over. Britain for example, has an established church. The queen is the head of the Church of England. There are unelected bishops in the House of Lords and daily prayers in Parliament. Even in France, which is renowned for its secularism, judges take sharia law into account in, for example, the annulment of marriage and have even introduced sharia’s civil code for some of its citizens of North African descent via bilateral agreements.
Also, the post-secularism theory ignores the reality that believers can be secularists too. Recent surveys in France show that about 25% of the population in France is atheist, with the same percentage being Christian and also Muslim. 75% of the population, however, are secularists. Research carried out by Southall Black Sisters in the UK shows that many women, including those who are ‘deeply observant want to be able to traverse different religious spaces for their social and emotional lives and secular spaces for their activism and advice.’
The theory of post-secularism implies that this is about a clash of civilisations or an antagonism between a ‘secular West’ and a ‘religious East,’ but it is not. It is about a global struggle between secularists, including many Muslims and believers on the one hand, and theocrats and the religious-Right on the other.
There are strong secular movements in so-called Muslim-majority countries like Iran, Pakistan, Algeria and Mali, despite the great risks involved. Karima Bennoune has brought to light many such groups and individuals in her recently published book, the title of which is based on a Pakistani play where the devotional singer who is beaten and intimidated for singing deemed ‘un-Islamic’ retorts: ‘Your fatwas do not apply here.’ The uprisings and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, such as the mass protests against Islamists for the assassination of Socialist leader Chokri Belaid in Tunisia; the vast secular protests in Turkey against Islamisation; the Harlem Shake in front of Muslim Brotherhood headquarter in Egypt and the largest demonstration in contemporary history against the Muslim Brotherhood – 33 million people – are all evidence of that.
Post-secularism (leaving people at the mercy of ‘their own culture’) and the systematic and theorised failure to defend secularism and people’s, particularly women’s, civil rights in many countries and communities, only aids and abets the religious-Right to the detriment of us all – believers and non.
As British philosopher AC Grayling has said: secularism is a fundamental right. Today, given the influence of the religious-Right, it is also a precondition for women’s rights and equality and for rights and freedoms in the society at large. It must be actively defended, promoted, and articulated.