Thank God for secularism

Charles Cowling

 

Posted by our religious correspondent, Richard Rawlinson

 

RR writes: I had planned to discuss funerals in Islamic cultures, but concluded anyone interested could find such information elsewhere. See link to 10 Muslim Funeral Traditions here:

Instead, I want to address concerns about Islam’s conflict with faith-tolerating, secular society. This is not about funerals per se, but it’s waving the flag for freedom in a forum that celebrates choice in the field of secular and religious funerals.

A few years ago, I worked for a time as an expat in the Middle East, where I interviewed for the Catholic Herald the Bishop of Arabia about the struggle to attain the same religious freedoms for Christians in Arab nations that Muslims enjoy elsewhere in the world. A few weeks ago, an Arab friend I met in the region visited me in London, and conversation turned to grief between Islam and the West.

As he drank my wine, he described himself as a moderate-but-observant Muslim who admittedly lapsed on some observances. He said he was offended by the way, since 9/11/01, Islam has been defined by despotism, claiming the West is demonising his faith as purely radical, and thus impeding progress in battling terrorism – effectively consigning us to a state of permanent war with the world’s billion-plus Muslims.

I replied by asking him if he would support the battle against terrorism by speaking out against the uses of the Quran for radical purposes. After all, he perceived himself to be a Muslim who embraced our freedom culture, for whom sharia is a matter of private belief, not public mission. Yet he stuck to the line that the West was inflaming the ‘Arab Street’, and seemed reluctant to link ‘real’ Islam with regarding women as chattel; killing those who apostasise from Islam; institutionalising religious intolerance in society, or regarding Jews as subhuman.

The problem is that while moderate Muslims are a reality, they are often in denial that Islam itself is in conflict with secular society, because it’s not merely a religious doctrine, but is a comprehensive socio-economic and political system whose tenets are fundamentally at odds with democracy.

Almost from the beginning, the West has tempered religion by acknowledging the legitimacy of secular institutions, thus making space for individual freedom.

Like Communism, Islam doesn’t ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ but rather aims to control the state without being subject to it. By insisting on the submission of everything to the will of Allah, they end up with the Taliban, Iranian Mullahs and al Qaeda.

All religions are exclusive, but Islam almost immediately developed into a state which seemed to be all of a piece with the religion. The Koran is its spiritual and secular book of law – Allah’s personal word, with orders that need to be fulfilled regardless of place or time. Then there’s Muhammad, a warlord who is nevertheless deemed the perfect human role model.

In his book America Alone, Mark Steyn says we have three options: 1) capitulate to Islam, 2) wage all-out war against it, 3) it undergoes a reformation and enlightenment, retaining its name but eschewing its political substance. With 1) and 2) being unacceptable and horrific, is the best way to achieve 3) accommodation or resistance?

I believe resistance is the best course of action. A concrete theology of moderate Islam does not exist and will have to be created. It will have to be non-literal and reformist, and will have a tough time competing with Islamist ideology, which is anti-constitutional and anti-freedom in many of its core particulars. Instead of letting my friend pretend to be moderate, I’d rather empower him with a clear choice: defend Islamic despotism or man up as a reformer by promoting a coherent, moderate Islam that embraces the West, and in particular the separation of secular public life from privately held religious beliefs.

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Gregory PistulkacharlesRichard Rawlinsonjames showersJenny Uzzell Recent comment authors

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Gregory Pistulka
Guest

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Richard Rawlinson
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Richard Rawlinson

Much appreciated James.

Charles, may I belatedly say how shocked I am that a fine wordsmith like you uses the abbreviation ‘Xtian’! It sounds like an alien tribe in a sci-fi movie, and somehow far worse even than the shortening of Christmas to Xmas. 😀

james showers
Guest
james showers

Thank you Richard, for taking such a very clear and bold stand on the issue of the radicalisation of the Muslim faith. I have come late to the discussion, but I agree with you that it is time to stand firm, to challenge the liberal idea that dialogue will resolve this threat, and reject the racist label for so doing. Dear, but very silly old Rowan Williams’ recent own goal that we should prepare to accept some degree of Sharia law was a shocking example of this pacifying approach; how naive, given Sharia law’s gynephobic, punitive, and barbaric content, as… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Jenny, I look forward to your reply. Perhaps you could also explain why The Catholic Church’s interfaith document, Meeting God in Friend and Stranger, ‘fills you with forboding’.
http://bradforddistrictfaithsforum.org.uk/sites/bradforddistrictfaithsforum.org.uk/files/Meeting%20God%20in%20Friend%20and%20Stranger.pdf

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

Hi, Richard
Not avoiding your questions, but ridiculously busy for the next few days (only just got back INTO the office at %pm). Do you mind hanging on a few days and I’ll answer your questions.
btw, if Interfaith dialogie is ‘cosy’ it is probably also useless.

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

PS Vale, re your Maugham quote, I also like Dudley Moore’s: ‘The best car safety device is a rear-view mirror with a cop in it’.

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Hi Vale “Is our only difference my reluctance to apply this just to Islam?” I think our difference is that I prefer the secular state to have a lighter touch but one governed by common sense. Of course, it should prevent human rights abuses by any religion, but I’d prefer it if it didn’t interfere when the faithful are just quietly going about their business. That can seem too aggressive and loaded with agenda. However, I do appreciate there’s a fine line between what’s harmless and what’s harmful. Aspects of Islamist behaviour are clearly contrary to our democracy and should… Read more »

Vale
Guest
Vale

And there’s the rub, isn’t it? At the start of this post you said that the response to militant Islam that you would choose would be resistance. How do you resist without cramping, limiting, denying someone else’s freedoms? I don’t like, anymore than you do, the appetite governments of all stamps have for micro managing my life but I do expect them to create a space that allows me to live my life as I choose as safely and securely as possible. It is a way of resisting, of setting boundaries, of marking out the lines that must not be… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

GM, yes, research yourself and share it with us! I don’t want to be the only one considered ‘unhelpful’ for not spouting sweet nothings about cosy inter-faith dialogue. Vale Belated reply to one of your comments! “Let’s stop all this divisive nonsense of state funded religious schools… Let’s have a bill of rights that asserts a common law and common standards of justice…Or am I being too aggressively secular?” A wee bit! As a libertarian, I find this proposal too Big State, bossy, interfering and legislative. Did you know the last Labour government introduced some 300 new laws. In Orwell’s… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

Maybe the Emirates are more plutocratic than theocratic – so it’s OK to build one for the expats. How about the more secularised Muslim states (Turkey, Syria)- would they allow one for their own Muslim or ex-Muslim citizens, I wonder? well, not asking you to do my research for me Richard but I’ll have a look to see what I can find.

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

GM In answer to your comment: “It is, I understand, considered sacrilege under Islam to cremate a human corpse. So presumably, in a theocratic Muslim state, it would be illegal to do so?” Abu Dhabi in the United Emirates has recently opened a crematorium, even though cremation is prohibited in Islam. ‘We didn’t have cremation before; only burying bodies,’ says Mohammed al Ketbi, who is in charge of cemetery services for Abu Dhabi. ‘As our traditions and customs, it’s something strange for us, but we’re opening this facility for the expats.’ For more information see http://www.arabianbusiness.com/first-uae-crematorium-expects-strong-trade-455309.html It’s worth pointing out… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Jenny

I’d be interested to hear how would you describe this country’s religious heritage and its present state regarding secularism and faiths?

I’d also appreciate any specifics about the places my words are ill-informed and not particularly helpful.

I won’t be offended and respect the fact you seem very knowledgable on a range of religious matters.

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

GM, no argument about the need to oppose extremism and fundamentalism and certainly terrorism wherever it comes from. Pretending that all faiths are perfect and that there are no issues that need to be addressed is not only foolish but actively counter-productive. With my RS hat on I have actually participated in a national initiative aimed at tackling such matters.

I do admit though that I find the ‘our heritage is more Christian than anything else’ argument a little tired.

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

GM, glad we more or less agree on this matter. Charles, I have no doubt that a minority of Christian clergy show disrespect to civil funeral celebrants on occasion. I also have no doubt that the odd BHA celebrant is disrespectful to clergy. Such disrespect is, of course, unnecessary. Religious and secular celebrants should respect each other as they both play important roles. However, persecution of secularists by Christians or of Christians by secularists is nothing compared to the hate crimes of fundamentalists. Once this Muslim debate has moved on, there’s plenty of scope for gentler discussion about the desirability… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

This poem is reasonably well-known. Brecht did a version of it; it comes originally, I’m told, from Pastor Niemoller. “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no-one left to speak for me.” I’m afraid I disagree with you Jenny about what’s been written… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

This is an abridged version of an explanation of terrorism by psychiatrist Dr Emanuel Tanya: A man, whose family was German aristocracy prior to World War II, owned a number of industries and estates. When asked how many German people were Nazis, the answer he gave can guide our attitude toward fanaticism. ‘Very few people were true Nazis,’ he said, ‘but many enjoyed the return of German pride, and many more were too busy to care. I was one of those who just thought the Nazis were a bunch of fools. So, the majority just sat back and let it… Read more »

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

Hmmm…not sure I know where to start with this one! Charles, thank you for bringing us back onto death and funerals. I agree with Vale, I think that genuine secularisation is a ‘good thing’ not least because it opens the way to genuine religious freedom. A good secular state allows the same religious freedoms to followers of all religions and none. That includes (from our perspective) the right to a fully religious/liturgical funeral for those to whom that is meaningful. Religious involvement in politics? Yes, absolutely! Religion is a deeply political thing and most people have religious views of some… Read more »

Vale
Guest
Vale

Well I think I agree with all that, Richard.

Let’s have a stronger statement of the secular common or core values. Let’s stop all this divisive nonsense of state funded religious schools. Lets disestablish the CofE (the prospect of Charles as Defender of the Faith is, frankly, risible). Let’s have a bill of rights that asserts a common law and common standards of justice.

We are, as you say, already plural – let’s for goodness sake stop pussyfooting around

Or am I being too aggressively secular?

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Jon On the contrary, far from demonising Islam, liberals are too soft. It’s the leftist phobia of being perceived as racists for criticising despotism by non-whites. The same people would be happy to attack Westerners who behaved in such violent , sexist and anti-democratic ways. You say Muslims face inequalities around the world. Nowhere near as much as a non-Muslim faces in an Islamic state. Saudi Arabia still bans non-Muslim worship. I’m afraid I don’t acknowledge ‘our’ role in the problem, caused by Islamists – caused by atrocities such as 9/11, not by ‘our’ retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq.… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Charles, if I gave my Muslim friend a hard time about Islamofascism, shall I bring up gun-weilding Buddhist monks over dinner with my Bangkok friend? Her response might be illuminating but I suspect she’s more interested in being in London for the shoes shopping.

https://www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk/2012/04/funerals-from-around-the-world-buddhism/

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Chomping at the bit to join in on this one but I scarcely have time to moonlight this brief comment, and am dining (with a visiting Thai Buddhist from Bangkok) tonight so my additional thoughts will have to wait…Suffice to say I think I was too kind in the blog! I even selected an image of extremist cleric Abu Qatada looking like a friendly Fr Christmas instead of choosing one in which he looks like the villain he is.

gloria mundi
Guest

Jon, there is demonising on both “sides,” for sure. But in fairness to RR, although it may be important to help moderate Muslims if more of us more of the time worked to stop the demonisation of Islam as purely radical, the major work must surely be done by Muslims themselves? How many Muslims would listen to me arguing that they need to tone down their views, and dilute what some of their religious leaders seem to be taking from the Qu’ran? I’m with Vale, that the benefits of secularism – within which one can be a Muslim, an atheist… Read more »

Vale
Guest
Vale

I agree with the headline for this piece, but find myself becoming quickly uneasy thereafter. I can’t make the same distinction between the religious states that Islam has produced and the benignly secular west, for example. Religious belief of all flavours is by it’s nature inclined to assert it’s primacy within a state and, if we currently enjoy the benefits of secularism they are hard won and continually challenged. I don’t accept Mark Steyn’s three responses at all – if only because isolating Islam as the issue within the swirling mess of regional politics, strategic, historic, colonial and resource based… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

Blog writers like a comment or two, it keeps the thing alive – I’m puzzled as to why this thought-provoking and forthright post hasn’t attracted any comment? (Until Gloria blunders in as usual, they all groaned…) Perhaps because it’s not directly about funerals. But RR is trying to cast light on important issues. Of course, only Muslims can “promote a coherent, moderate Islam” etc but it might help them do so if some Western liberals stopped sentimentalising Islamic societies and national positions. It can’t, comrades, be entirely the fault of the USA and the UK, despite appalling errors of leadership… Read more »

Jon Underwood
Guest

Hi Richard, The issue I have with your piece is that it feels very finger-pointing. You seem content to require Muslims to do all the work while you simply assess if they’re met your standards. What about your friends point that the West is simply demonising Islam as purely radical? Rather than try and change this pernicious dynamic your article seemed to compound it. Also what about the very real inequalities that Muslims face both in the UK and globally? I would suggest that trying to address these is a more effective way to undermine extremism In summary, in order… Read more »