There was a good programme last week on Channel 4 about Muslims looking for love, or at least marriage. It was called ‘Extremely British Muslims’, and it did indeed show us some young Muslims who were very much like anyone else. But it was also a reminder that many Muslims have a deep-seated assumption about religion and secularism that the rest of don’t. Lots of these young Muslims, though not very religious, saw it as their duty to become more religious as they grew up and settled down. Religion, for them, was an essential part of becoming responsible, civic-minded, family-minded, and about putting away youthful selfishness. And – the other side of the coin – secularism was assumed to be devoid of such healthy values, the site of mere hedonism.
This is a big difference from the majority culture. The rest of us, even if we are religious, see that there is plenty of good in secularism. We are familiar with the long tradition of secular humanist idealism, and we know many people who strive to exemplify it. Muslims are more likely to have a binary moral narrative, drummed into them in childhood and difficult to dislodge: social virtue is religious, secularism is the site of selfish rebellion against it. Their own young lives seem to prove it: they drift away from religion for a while, in their self-centred late teens and early twenties.
Don’t Christians also see their religion as the supreme moral tradition? Yes, but they tend to feel that moral virtue has spread beyond their religion, so that atheists have authentic moral insights. This is a major part of the reform that Islam needs – it must admit that there is virtue in secularism.