New Statesman deluded about Islamism; secularism revisited

Like many people, I don’t read the New Statesman any more. Here’s something from Harry’s Place by Andy Lambert which confirms this decision and goes a tiny way to make amends for not posting nearly enough here on the problem of political Islam.

I know little about post-Islamism (according to Andy Lambert the AKP in Turkey, which has its origins in the same Muslim Brotherhood as Hamas, is an example) and having spent a bit time with a Malaysian colleague on Friday evening, I wondered what is happening there and whether their parallel sharia system is contained or not. A brief look suggests that the body of law referred to by its critics as Ketuanan Melayu (‘Malay hegemony’) embodies discrimination and is an obstacle to secularism, as Regina Lim writes (in a very informative paper of uncertain provenance but hosted at the Political Studies Association). In 2008, this Malay hegemony was implicated, along with the long shadow of colonial law, in the resignation of long-standing cabinet member, secularist and proper democrat Zaid Ibrahim. The influence of Islam in the legal system allowed for the conviction, also in 2008, of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for the charge of sodomy of which he was cleared after serving four years of his sentence. At the current time he is now on trial for new allegations of sodomy which he says are politically motivated. Clearly the law should literally butt out of sodomy between consenting people – and I’m thinking Oscar Wilde here too.

I am attempting to follow the work of the UCL political theorist and secularist Cecile Laborde.

A must-read, Cecile Laborde has an illuminating piece in this month’s RSA journal which sets out the differences between the Reformation and Enlightenment strands of secularism (the first emphasising conscience, the second, democracy) noting that they are not mutually exclusive, and neither is a fair way to conceptualise the proper relationship between state and religion in contemporary societies. (One of the things I love about the RSA is the willing welcome it gives critics of its own Enlightenment project.) She goes on to make the case for a secular state:

“In what sense is the secular state an important democratic ideal that we all have reason to endorse? It implies neither hostility to religion nor an intention to exclude it from public and social life. Freedom of conscience is one of the pillars of the secularist tradition (and is particularly central to Reformation secularism). Respect for freedom of conscience should not, however, be interpreted as a substantive claim according to which particular beliefs are true and should be politically entrenched as such. Rather, religious believers, when engaged in public debate about a particular controversy, can appeal to the importance of particular beliefs to them personally and can then explain to others how they relate to the issue at hand. What they cannot reasonably expect is that their views will prevail, or that religious rights will automatically trump other rights, in particular those associated with the tradition of Enlightenment secularism.”

Then she discusses the obligations of religious believers, namely their preparedness to offer political, secular reasons for beliefs they seek to make comprehensive under a justificatory structure which defines a secular state.

“Take the example of funding. Can a case be made, in a secular state, for the channelling of public funds towards religious organisations and activities? The answer depends on the context. What is not permissible is to subsidise religion on the grounds that it is intrinsically valuable, or that it promotes important truths, since this would violate the requirement of state neutrality.

By contrast, it might be permissible to argue for state support of religion by appeal to public, secular values. For example, one might claim that faith-based associations that provide a public service on the same terms as similarly situated secular organisations should not be discriminated against as recipients of public funds simply on the grounds that they are religious. So there might be good secular reasons for state support of religion, but only on the basis of (and conditional upon the respect of) democratic values. Likewise, if religious believers are to make a claim for exemption from the application of general laws, it will not be permissible for them simply to say that claims of conscience should trump other values. Rather, religious believers must explain to others the sense in which theirs is a rightful claim, one that respects and promotes the values of freedom, equality and reciprocity. Generally, while a secular state must make space for conscientious objection, this space will be narrowly constrained by, on the one hand, the demands of reciprocity and, on the other hand, those of equality.”

It needs saying in these times that the growth of Islam itself is nothing to fear – it does not make inevitable the triumph of Islamism, nor preclude the secularism we need to collectively defend as the only guarantee of equal religious rights and freedoms for all.

Relatedly, dump the New Statesman along with everybody else (circulation down to 22k these days according to Wikipedia), and instead see One Law for All, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, and this by Paul Kelly in the New Humanist.

My next post will be on the Con-Dem coalition Academies Bill, if it’s the last thing I do…

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