Secularism to the rescue of religion

I feel desperately sorry for the many sincere and progressive Muslims I know who are as horrified as I am at the actions of Islamic fundamentalists. There is no doubt that the increasing pressure for the implementation of sharia law, and its sustenance of terrorism, is feeding Islamophobia in Britain and elsewhere. It was not always thus. I was in Bangladesh a couple of years ago and the leaders of the former governing party, the Awami League, reminded me of its avowedly secular basis and remarked sadly that in today's changed circumstances this was a huge electoral handicap.

The role of religion in the state is yet another issue on which those in the west are largely unaware of how it is seen by many Islamic countries. Because England has an established church, and because the USA continually emphasises its Christian basis, Muslims see British and American culture and politics as essentially 'Christian' in a similar way as their countries are 'Islamic'. Consequently they cannot understand why the West is so critical of the introduction of sharia. "If you put your Bible into law, why shouldn't we implement the Koran?" runs the argument.

Twenty years ago, long before it became such an acute and difficult issue, I foresaw the malign effects of the stirrings of fundamentalism and argued that the growing attempts to make the state religious could only be countered by a making a forthright argument for the secular state. It was not only the rise of political Islam, but also Jewish fundamentalism from Likud and its allies in Israel, the Hindu BJP in India, and the protestant religious Right in the USA, all of whom were excusing intolerable political action by reference to religious imperatives. In other words they believed in 'theocracy' - the implementation of God's will through legislation.

The implications of this are massive. It challenges the whole basis of democracy. Consent is essential to the survival of democracy and can only be sustained within a society based on rational debate and with democratic decisions based on objective arguments. These debates and decisions are, or should be, influenced by broad political philosophy, but this itself is open to challenge. Arguing that a policy is God's will does not allow much room for a second opinion.

The flaw in the fundamentalist case is actually very straightforward: religious faith is, by its nature, subjective and is beyond objective analysis. Only the individual can have faith. The inanimate state cannot 'believe'. No state can be religious, in the full sense of the word. To suggest that one is a Christian because on is born in Britain, rather suggests that being born in a stable would make one a horse. What is more, it is runs counter to any concept of religion to suggest that it can be possible in practice to enforce, by law, standards on non- believers that can only be followed by individual believers. Quite apart from being wrong in itself, Islamic sharia law simply does not work, despite its ruthless and brutal penalties. Murder and theft are as rife in places with sharia law as anywhere else.

The additional logical flaw in political fundamentalism is that it has to be implemented by fallible human beings who manifestly disagree amongst themselves on the interpretation of the Bible, the Koran and the Veda. These believers are perfectly entitled to persuade individuals to embrace a faith they believe will be beneficial to them, but they cannot expect the state to do that job for them, or even to force everyone to follow the consequences of beliefs that are not able to gain the willing consent of the public as a whole. In this context, it is interesting to note that Italy, arguably in theory the most Catholic country in Europe, has the lowest birthrate in the world.

Paradoxically, it is also in the interest of religion that the state itself should be secular. Beliefs enforced by law are unlikely to be rooted in hearts and minds. The result in England of having an established church, and church schools, largely paid for by the state, is rather like vaccination - it injects a small dose to prevent one catching the real thing. It is for this reason, for instance, that a number of evangelicals support the disestablishment of the Church of England.< /p>

It is exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to sustain an effective case against fundamentalism if that case is not based on the crucial principle of the secular state. There is a Muslim pressure group, 'No to Political Islam' but it is weakened by our espousal of a state religion. France regards the secular state as one of its key republican principles, articulated in its 1789 revolution. This has recently led its current conservative government, officially supported by the socialist opposition, to ban religious symbols being worn in school. Arguably this goes a step too far - it was previously argued that so long as it did not affect their education, Muslim girls could, for instance, wear the foulard or scarf - but it illustrates the very broad consensus behind the principle.

The nonsense of our system is that, in order to maintain state support for Christian church schools, we have to accept equal support for Islamic schools. We are feeding Islamophobia via our taxes. If one needs to learn that dividing children from the age of five into different schools, based on religion, is disastrous, just look at Northern Ireland.

25 September 2004