[email protected]

September 30, 2012, Sunday

A radical redefinition of secularism needed

According to the findings of a new study by the Pew Research Center in the United States, covering 197 countries until mid-2010, “more countries around the world are clamping down on religious freedom, and harassment and intimidation of religious groups has surged” in every region of the world.

While governments are banning certain faiths and prohibiting conversions, mob violence and hostility against religious minorities has spread. (See: LA Times, Sept. 20, 2012.)

Those countries where there is pressure on religious minorities, either by governments or majority populations, include China, North Korea, Indonesia, Russia, Afghanistan, Burma, Iran, Vietnam, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nigeria. Hostility against minority groups appears more common in countries where the state favors one religion over others. However, restrictions on religious rights and hostility toward minorities are not confined to countries where democracy is not consolidated, but take place also in countries regarded as having consolidated democratic regimes. The banning of minarets by referendum in Switzerland, France prohibiting headscarves for students and Germany for teachers in public schools and, finally, a German court attempting to criminalize circumcision, a religious obligation for both Muslims and Jews, are recent examples of restrictive measures.

Islamophobia is spreading in Europe. Ultra-right, racist parties are exploiting hostility to immigrants and Muslims to increase their votes. Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg described the situation as follows: “European countries appear to face another crisis beyond budget deficits -- the disintegration of human value. One symptom is the increasing expression of intolerance towards Muslims. Opinion polls in several European countries reflect fear, suspicion and negative opinions of Muslims and Islamic culture.”

It was highly remarkable that the editor-in-chief of a journal that recently printed cartoons insulting the Prophet Mohammed, held sacred by Muslims, defended the act in the name of secularism. The leader of the French ultra-right and racist party gave full support to the publication of cartoons in the name of not only freedom of expression, but also secularism. She did not stop there, but went on to call for the prohibition of the Muslim headscarf and Jewish kippah in the street. This was highly significant in terms of indicating a growing alliance in Europe between secular fundamentalists and racists. The secular fundamentalists' approach to not only minority religions but religious belief in general is sending signals of a dangerous polarization between the religious on the one hand and secular fundamentalists on the other. There is no doubt, however, that one of the fundamental rights and freedoms of a liberal and pluralist democracy is the freedom of religion and conscience.

I believe the growing trend toward a conception of secularism as anti-religious is what led the distinguished Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor to conclude that “we need a radical redefinition of secularism.” (See: E. Mandieta/J. Vanantwerpen (eds). The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, New York: Columbia University Press, 2011, pp. 34-59.)

Taylor, who argues that secularism “has to do with the (correct) response of [a] democratic state to diversity,” proposes three (or four) goals for a redefined secularism: “(1) Liberty: No one must be forced in the domain of religion or basic belief. This is what is often defined as religious liberty, including, of course, the freedom not to believe. (2) Equality: There must be equality between people of different faiths or basic belief; no religious outlook or (religious or areligious) Weltanschaung can enjoy a privileged position, let alone be adopted as official view of the state. (3) Fraternity: All spiritual families should be heard, included in the ongoing process of determining what the society is about (its political identity), and how it is going to realize these goals (the exact regime of rights and privileges). (4) We try as much as possible to maintain relations of harmony and comity between the supporters of different religions.”

In pointing to the advantages of his suggested “model of secularism,” Taylor says that, “It would never allow one to misrecognize the regime founded by [Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk as genuinely secular, making light as it does of the fundamental principles and even of the separation of state and religious institutions.” (p. 35-37) I could not agree more.

Previous articles of the columnist