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Coffee House

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.

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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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