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Down with la laïcité — to beat Islamism, we need a secularism that encourages religion

16 January 2015

12:33 PM

16 January 2015

12:33 PM

‘We are avenging the Prophet Muhammad’ shouts the jihadi murderer as he escapes, having killed 12 at Charlie Hebdo. In Syria, an American fighting for al-Qaeda says: ‘I want to rest in the afterlife, in heaven. There is nothing here’.

There are thousands of young men and women in our midst who share these sentiments. They believe that their cause is worth dying for – and they want to have that honour, confident in the reward that they will get for their actions. They are disillusioned, not disenfranchised. Many are well-educated, with a good family life. But they seek a value that they can fight for – a cause for which they can die.

There is the sense that in the west – to quote Jimmy Porter – there ‘aren’t any good, brave causes left’. Western values are vacuous, adrift without root or anchor. The eternal has been lost, replaced by the individual and the material, seeking maximum gain for minimum effort. The charge of decadence is admitted – even defended in the name of liberty. We preach secularism divorced from our heritage. What do we have to offer against appeal of militant Islamism?

The west does have something, secular pluralism. It was born of our particular Judaeo-Christian heritage, and depends upon it – but it does not require one to be a religious believer to believe in its value. The religious must recognise and respect the utility of the secular worldview – and the secular must recognise and respect the inherent value of the religious.

Last weekend, political leaders marched with millions in Paris to demonstrate unity. The symbolism was powerful, but protests will not puncture the theology and ideology of Jihadi fanatics and their Islamist advocates. What will defeat that is a better understanding of the motivations of the killers and their spokespeople and a broad challenge to their worldview. Ordinary Muslims do not share the political worldview of hardline Islamists and Jihadists — hardly surprising given they are the main victims of their violence. Even in a Muslim country such as Pakistan, at elections non-violent Islamists garner less than 20 per cent of the vote.

Islamists and Jihadists believe in creating an Islamic State that applies their version of sharia as state law. ISIS are experimenting with such a state now, Saudi Arabia has adopted parts of this extremist Islam, Nigeria and Boko Haram, too. Muslims (the vast majority) who reject this version of Islam are then accused of being kafir or disbelievers, known as making takfir. Jihad is then declared on these Muslims by extremists. The pursuit of this Sharia-based Islamic State, Jihad, and Takfir are all justified by literalist adherence to hadith, or alleged sayings of the Prophet.


Muslim scholars cannot simply say is ‘Islam is peace’ but ignore the hadith material which is read by radicals as evidence for beheadings, killing apostates, blasphemers, forcing women to dress in veils, and avoiding contact with unbelievers. Our political leaders must better understand the motivations of radicals, and support Muslim religious scholars to uproot scriptural literalism that is the fuel for the fire of radicalism.

Jihadis are murderers, not martyrs. They are headed to hell, not heaven. They murder, maim and spread mayhem in society where Islam intends peace and stability. Suicide bombings in Palestine have led to the creation of a security wall. Palestinians from Gaza cannot visit Jerusalem, and vice versa. What has the strategy of violence achieved? In France, Charlie Hebdo, a provincial satirical magazine with declining subscriptions, has again reprinted cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed and is now printing three million copies in 21 countries.

We need a neutral alternative to such an uncompromising outlook. Yet the concept of secularism is complex, contested. We cannot defend French laicite: an aggressive secularism that pushes religious expression into the shadows. In a France that broke with its religious past in the violence of the revolution, laicite has usurped what it sought to destroy. Laicite is the civic religion, blinding its adherents to the value that our religious heritage can bring to public life. Instead, prayer rooms are banned from university campuses, hijabs from government buildings. In a country whose kings once bore the title ‘Most Christian Majesty’, religious expression is now confined to the home.

France is not alone. The decline of religious practice dominates northern Europe. Immigrants – mostly religious – increasingly find a godless society. Although Britain is no exception, the British approach to religion is markedly different. In practice we are secular, but religion is not excluded. Our head of state is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England – whose bishops sit in parliament side by side with Muslims, Jews, Hindus and others. In such an environment, what religion can feel excluded from the public square? Even in America, where the separation of church and state is constitutional, God is invoked in the oath of allegiance, God bless America is the clarion call, and sessions of Congress open in prayer.

Laicite reflects the popular view of secularism, defining the ‘neutral’ public space as one in which religion cannot feature. With no space for the religious, it fosters an institutional inability to understand a faith-based world view.
But the secularism of the UK or the US is truly neutral, privileging no one group to the disadvantage of others, but welcoming the sacred with the profane. This is a pluralist system that draws on the nation’s history, finding its roots in its religious heritage. Without this underpinning, those values that we hold dear cannot be sustained: our rights and freedoms drawn from our Judaeo-Christian understanding of the inherent dignity of the person; the rule of law derived from an emphasis on the divine appointment of government for the good of the people.

It is only through the lens of our religious history that we can understand our greatest humanitarian achievements: the evangelical fervour that drove Wilberforce; our opposition to tyranny; the refuge that we have given to the persecuted for centuries. A chapel that still houses a Huguenot church in Canterbury Cathedral stands as a memorial to this driving force; a 19th century author wrote of it ‘still that… eloquent memorial of the religious history of the middle ages survives, bearing testimony [to]… the large and liberal spirit of the English church, and the glorious asylum with England has in all times given to foreigners flying for refuge against oppression’.

Muslims have a complicated relationship with secularism. In many Muslim societies, atheism and secularism are synonymous. Muslim democrats such as Tunisia’s Raschid Ghannouchi and others reject French laicite as anti-religious, but accept US and UK secularism as accommodating of religion. They prefer religious pluralism or ta’addudiyah in Arabic, a more positive term than secularism. Our battle is not over words, but ideas — if ta’addudiyah engenders free and vibrant societies, then we must welcome it.

Ghannouchi lived in England for over a decade. He speaks fluent French and English. Muslims in the West need to better understand that secularism and religious freedom are the ultimate guarantors for the flourishing of healthy religion. Muslim leaders in Europe must stop the public hesitation and endorse a secular state as the best facilitator for private piety and public service. Turkey’s Erdogan pleaded with Arab lslamists in Cairo to adopt a secular constitution and guarantee rights to minorities and majorities. Had they listened to his advice, today Morsi might not be in prison. Similarly, the current trajectory of the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment across Europe cannot be placed solely at the doors of the far right. Muslim separatism has contributed to this animosity.

Shariah does not threaten the West, and we cannot let militants intimidate us. The fourteenth century Muslim scholar Imam Shatibi wrote that the shariah is about preservation of life, family, intellect, property and religion. These are known as the maqasid or higher aims of the shariah. Muslim thinkers have repeatedly asserted that any society that conserves the maqasid is an Islamic society. By that definition, secular Britain is already fully Islamic. The hardliners have no case. The onus is upon us to help peaceful Muslims defeat extremism by empowering the right side of the battle of ideas raging inside Islam.

Liberalism and pluralism are not abstract values. We too often take for granted the peace and harmony in which our countries exist. If in doubt, ask protestors in Tianamen Square or Tahrir square. We need to be more confident in our past and present and end this post-imperial self-flagellation and hand-wringing. There are numerous reasons why British and American embassies are flocked by Muslims seeking a new life in these shores.

Muslims, Jews and Christians all share an Abrahamic heritage. In our schools, we should not be afraid to draw on this heritage. Saying that Britain is a Christian country is an asset, not a liability. Secularism, understood properly, embraces all religions without fear or favour. This vision of secularism offers a more potent form of integration than laicite can hope to achieve. It is such an understanding that can inspire: a secularism that encourages the inherent value of the religious worldview and the utility of its contributions to society. There is the anchor to our Western values. On such ground all can stand.

Ed Husain is a senior adviser at The Tony Blair Faith Foundation and Peter Welby is editorial manager of Religion and Geopolitics

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Show comments
  • Liberanos

    We know with certainty that the next terrorist bomb, like the last, will be exploded by a devout muslim. Those sharing that religion cannot pretend it does not exist in that form, simply because they have a lower level of devotion to it. They need to choose whether to stay in a club with rules as primitive and sickening as we see exposed every day. Otherwise, by pretending those rules do not exist, they become accessory to them.

  • Donafugata

    If ” ordinary Muslims ” do not share the worldview of the hardliners then why, in the example of Pakistan, are a mere 20% voting for the non-violent candidate? The implication is that the majority vote for violence.

  • Donafugata

    If all they want is to rest in the afterlife, in heaven, I’m sure something could be arranged.p

  • Dutch_Boy

    “Suicide bombings in Palestine have led to the creation of a security wall.”

    Those were suicide bombings in Israel, by invaders from, if you like, Palestine.

  • Hitchslap

    “It is only through the lens of our religious history that we can understand our greatest humanitarian achievements.”

    What nonsense religious apologeticism. The only lens we need to view human achievement is the human eye. Religion is not required for our values, our ethics, our culture, our achievements, our spirituality or our future. it has slowed progression in science and human rights for millennia and thus slowed opportunities for humanitarian progression. The feminists and homosexuals of today can thank religion for the misery they have suffered. The scientists of today can thank religion for slowing scientific discovery.

    You incessantly appeal to conserving our “heritage”, all the while missing the point that it is the very fetters of religion-dominated heritage that we are trying to be freed from. We do not want to draw from our religious heritage, we want to forget that unthinking time in human history, as we have of the Dark Ages, and be cured of its hangover today. Religion is backwards and detrimental to a reasoned, civilised society; France has made brilliant steps forward in ridding ourselves of the parasite that is religion, and your only reason to discredit this is, essentially, “but what about our history?”. You’re clinging on to a bygone era.

    When historians look back on the 21st century they will thank atheists for spearheading the movement away from religious dogma and superstition and towards unbiased thought, critical analysis, scientific advancement and preservation of human rights. At last we may look forward to the end of holy wars, sexism, homophobia, closed illogical thought, dogma, belief without evidence, radicalisation, and terrorism. Secularism encourages reason not religion and no matter how many desperate articles you post on your Spectator blog, you can’t reverse this antidote to religious poison.

  • Smith Holden

    And if Churchill had converted to Islam? The London Central Mosque could not have seen the light of day without the authorization of Sir Winston Churchill, the personality who saved democracy in the West.

  • Smith Holden

    Cher Ed, Charlie Hebdo is a parisian weekly journal and all the editorial board members massacred by the terrorist Kouachi brothers on the 7th were typical Parisian journalists and cartoonists. Mosques have been attacked and Muslims fear repercussions, but they also understand that after the 11/1 JeSuisCharlie general mobilization, Muslims will have to protect their Liberty Mother France. Prime Minister Valls declared today France will eradicate “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid in French suburbs”. France will adopt both security and social measures to confront the radical islamists and recuperate its death lost children.Finally, Islam should be powered to safety by the religions of the Book and others. I approve your article.

  • edwinedaniel

    I have a problem with almost anything that comes from something associated with Tony Blair. He in my view is the most criminal liar among former and present world leaders, right up there with George Bush. This commentary ignores the question, What is hate speech and what should be done, if anything about it. We still apply it and restrict “Freedom of Speech” when it is directed against Jews or against women. Thus this “Freedom” is selectively available in the West and therefore has no universal value. It is surely time to stop waving it as a banner to justify hate speech against Muslims while we in the West continue to bomb and murder them with drones.

  • Hogspace

    My incredulity at this article was rising until I got to the last lines. “Blair faith foundation”. Truly, I could lose my dinner. Please hand him over to the Iraqi authorities, someone.
    We need an aggressively ATHEIST state, in which gender apartheid, misogyny, homophobia, discrimination against LGBT people, criticism of apostasy, repression, genital mutilation of infants, religious slaughter and religious education of children are all utterly prohibited in and by any religious organisation.

    • carl jacobs

      Behold the Chekist with his commitment to the Revolution and his M-1895.

  • Richard

    PC paralyses everyone. We turn into leaves in the wind. The UK has gone from being a country to a geographical location, where who breeds wins. Soon there will be a challenge mounted against English as sole language as being against human rights. Wait and see. It’s the classic trying to please all the people all the time.

  • justsomeone

    This article is all very well but it’s utterly useless. If you say we should state Britain is a Christian country, then others will say “you’re giving Christianity special status and excluding Muslims”. If you say “since this country’s laws are fair, it means we already have Shariah”, large numbers will say: “We need to implement Shariah and you must say it’s fair”.
    Meanwhile we keep importing extremist Muslims who are in favour of Jihad. I don’t believe we even ask our would-be immigrants whether they broadly support any Jihadist groups. We just import them all.

  • Bruce Long

    Jamesian pragmatism again. You don’t care what people believe as long as they believe something that keeps them in check for you and your wealthy buddies. Pragmatists are narcissistic and arrogant in the extreme when pontificating the middle ground. I am sure that you think that all new atheists are really unsubtle black and white dunces with no teatime manners.

    But had it occurred to you in all of your glorious relativistic intellectualising and postmodern deconstructionist gold plated waffle-twat anti-science, that being pragmatic all the time is not rational or reasonable, and that when it comes to Islamic doctrine sometimes you ought to just call a spade a spade? The problem is not bad apples – it is a horrible doctrine.

    Faithism is no boon to humanity. A boon to rich monarchs and their preistly castes perhaps, but not to anyone else – even if you can convince them to believe that it is.

    The doctrines of Islam and Christianity both are disgusting and violent, and duplicitous and ridiculous, and no amount of pseudo-historical and quasi-intellectual romanticising is going to change that. If you sugar coat a dog turd it’s still a turd, and if you convince someone to eat it and that they like it – then? Still a dog turd.

  • LolaHeavey

    France and the rest of Western Europe have never honestly confronted the issues raised by Muslim immigration (we should probably blame liberals for this). Now we are told once again that it is the fault of the West. This is sickening.

  • polistra24

    You don’t need any sort of secularism. Secularism has destroyed most of the world and killed 100 million people directly.

    That’s EXACTLY why hardline Christianity and hardline Islam are growing. They are healthy immune responses to the fatal disease of secularism.

    Europe needs to rebuild an active Christianity. Get rid of your effete Archbishops and Popes, and let the Africans show you how a living and breathing Christianity works.

    • itbeso


  • damien

    no, we need to get rid of religion full stop…..and when someone mentions “god” you should ask them “which” god

  • freddiethegreat

    It’s actually very simple. Everybody is religious, especially Dawkins. Religion is simply worldview. And there is no vacuum. Get rid of one religion (such as christianity – however badly practiced) and another moves in. In this case, secularism, but under the Islamic onslaught it is becoming shaky and may well be replaced soon.

  • Perseus Slade

    Religion offends me. Ban it!
    At least give it no state support.
    Make inculcating into into defenceless children a felony.

    • carl jacobs

      Just out of curiosity (and assuming this isn’t some failed attempt at irony):

      1. Who are you that anyone should care what offends you?

      2. Do you even have children, or are you too busy and self-important to take the responsibility even as you tell other people how to be parents?

      • Perseus Slade

        So you believe filling your children`s heads with scary untrue tales?
        What kind of person are you?

        • carl jacobs

          My kids call me ‘Dad.’ That’s the kind of person I am. I take it you have no right to the title. It figures. The world is filled with atheists who are ever so concerned about children in the abstract but wouldn’t share their time or money with them on a bet. This is where I point to the fertility rate of that particular demographic.

          Now if you had any authority to define the difference between truth and falsehood, I might concern myself with your condemnation. But you don’t, so I won’t. In fact you are like a man born blind who says “Where is this light? I have never seen it.” Those who can see don’t generally follow the direction of the blind.

        • eeore

          So the Gruffalo is on your list too?

        • justsomeone

          What about filling children’s heads with scary untrue tales about human made global warming?
          Should it be mandatory or prohibited?

    • carl jacobs

      So my younger daughter reviewed this post over my shoulder and her (verbatim) response was:

      Atheism offends me. Ban it!
      Make inculcating it into defenseless children a felony.

      The mark of a bad argument is that it can be easily turned against the advocate’s own position. Sarah picked that right out, she did. But what does she know, since I feloniously filled her head with scary untrue stories?

      • Perseus Slade


        • carl jacobs

          That’s quite the powerful response, there, Perseus. Did you make that up all by yourself, or did you read it in a book?

    • justsomeone

      You don’t quite realize that everyone all of us – you included – are indoctrinated, one way or another. No matter whether it’s into consumerism, socialism, a particular religion, atheism. One way or another, the ideas we breathe in as children and the attitude we see around us, including subtext, shape us. In that sense we are all a product of our time. You can’t fight it.
      You propose to indoctrinate everyone into atheism. That’s so hilarious and you really should see the irony. So what would we do then if someone, a parent for example, tells his child that there’s a God or a divine purpose to life? You’d want him arrested or to have his child removed from his care?
      That’s a totalitarian state. And once you’re willing to act so brutally, it won’t stop there.
      By the way, people’s default mode is religious. This type of belief is hardwired into us.
      You’re a product of the left-wing, nanny-state, “if we don’t like it, ban it” times.
      I’m a product of the “it’s a free country” and “live and let live”. This includes (gasp) the idea that if someone wants to open a pub or cafe in which people can smoke, he can. And if someone doesn’t like being around cigarette smoke he can go to some other cafe or pub. That’s a very basic democratic principle.
      There’s no such thing as complete freedom but I’d rather have more of it than less of it. That includes the freedom to tell your child there’s a tooth fairy or that only stupid people believe in God, or that God exists.

  • cestusdei

    Baloney, sharia does threaten the West. Islam is a threat, until it reforms itself or is reformed by force.

    We do need to encourage Christians to exercise their faith more publicly and stop discriminating against them. For example, not firing them for wearing a cross. Likewise every Muslim nation MUST recognize equality and religious liberty for everyone. No more persecution of Christians.

  • carl jacobs

    There is the American concept of secularism that restricts the church from any established position in the Gov’t. There is the French concept of secularism that drives all religious viewpoints from the public square. They differ in their definition of neutrality.

    The French deliberately intend to privilege the non-religious. All may participate in the public square but the price of participation is to assume materialist presuppositions upon entry. Neutrality is defined as “non-religious.” This is not a neutral position. A materialist view of man will for example drive a very different instantiation of law. It amounts to an establishment of irreligion as the civic religion.

    Originally, the American Founding Fathers saw religion as the necessary check on the passions of man. Neutrality was defined in terms of no religion possessing institutional advantage. Yet they expected religious people to bring their religion into the public square in order that representative gov’t not allow the population to consume itself in self-indulgence. The Founding Fathers would never have countenanced an equivalence between religion and irreligion. They would have expected irreligion to lead to cultural dissipation. As religion has disappeared in the American cultural elite, that elite has progressively pressed for adoption of a more French model. And as expected we see the cultural dissipation.

    The conceit of man says that “Man can be moral without God.” Of course he can, and by definition. When man becomes his own moral authority, there remains nothing to condemn him. Which is why the West is disintegrating in self-indulgence and hedonism. The richest culture in the history of the world cannot so much as find the will to reproduce itself. One day people will write Greek tragedies about us.

  • Secularist

    Banning the cartoons will not end the quarrel.

    With France’s already exceptionally large Muslim numbers,
    other issues will come up : the banning of homosexuality, the
    introduction of Sharia.

    A stand will have to be taken. If not here, where? If not now, when? If not we, who?