Extinguishing Fires, Lesson 1: Add Fuel

The Middle East has plenty of problems.  Not having enough religion in law and politics definitely isn’t one of them.

I argued here that the United Kingdom’s involvement in Libya was, on balance, correct and I am overjoyed that the Libyans have overthrown a monster and given the Arab Spring its greatest and ugliest scalp yet.

It worries me, though, when I read that the new Libya might be an Islamic state whose principle source of law is Sharia law. I examined this religious dimension in the context of the Egyptian revolution here and I think a lot of those points are relevant for Libya, too. But as with Egypt, one of the things that cheers me up is that I don’t think Libyans will want to trade one lack of freedom (a dictatorship) for another (a theocracy).

I was watching Channel 4 News a few weeks ago when it was becoming clear the Fat Lady was piping up and that it was time for Gaddafi to leave the Big Bedouin household. The report showed masses of people in Tripoli praying in public and the reporter said, “this would have been unthinkable under secular Gaddafi”.

I thought that was a very poor use of the term “secular” as it only perpetuated the common misconception that Secularism is anti-religious or that it bans religion from the public arena, because it isn’t and it doesn’t. It simply doesn’t afford, say, a religious gathering any special privileges or special respect that wouldn’t be given to any other form of gathering, be that of tiddlywinks players, Morris Minor enthusiasts or even cheesemakers (however blessed). If Gaddafi didn’t allow such religious gatherings purely on the basis they were religious gatherings then that was discriminatory and anti-religious. It certainly wasn’t secular. I also didn’t like the reporter’s implication that Secularism is somehow synonymous with oppression and tyranny.

If people in Libya were persecuted before for their religious beliefs and are not now, or if they were not allowed to openly manifest or practice their religion before but are now, then that transformation is a very positive thing – and actually in accordance with secular principles.

I don’t think open religiosity is bad for Libya or anywhere else. I have the right to be openly unreligious and others have the right to be openly religious.

When I discuss Secularism with a religious person I often say to them how delighted I am that they are free to choose a religion for themselves. And not only to choose the religion they want but also to manifest, practice or interpret it in the way they want, because it’s essential to remember that not all members of a certain faith or even a certain denomination necessarily agree with each other about all matters religious.

Genuine religious freedom must give religious people the freedom to disassociate themselves from religious “leaders” they don’t like, who try to speak for them and who love to assert control over every aspect of their lives (in particular their bodies). I tell religious people that I want to live in a country where they continue to have those freedoms.

And when I say I am delighted for them, I do mean this genuinely and not in a patronising way. If religious faith inspires them then it inspires them, in the same way that a song, a film or a book might inspire me. I might find many aspects of all major religions illogical, comical, hypocritical and even highly immoral, but I can’t assume to know the precise details of someone’s beliefs simply by reference to which religious label they give themselves. For example, there are people who would class themselves as Christian, Muslim or Jewish who don’t even believe in God! Not all Christians believe homosexuals should be put to death, despite what Leviticus 20:13 says, and not all Muslims or Jews embrace the similarly dogmatic and immoral sections of the Koran or the Torah, either. To a large extent, consciously or otherwise, religious people focus their attention on the nice bits of their religion or holy texts that they like and just avert their eyes from the nasty bits they don’t like – or are even blissfully unaware of the nasty bits until someone (often an unreligious person) points them out.

Religious freedom is a good thing. The major caveat is that there is a limit to it: the rights of others. This is why Secularism is so important and why I hope Libya eventually turns its back on Sharia law or a desire to define itself as an “Islamic state”, or any other theocratic constitutional configuration.

To end I will shamelessly reproduce the following interesting explanation of Secularism from my Egypt post, which I took from here (third paragraph from bottom). It’s by no means a perfect, all-encompassing definition or even explanation of Secularism but it does deal with some of the key themes:

In very simple terms, secularism is the desire to see a society organised around a common language. Secularism does not banish religion from society, but rather makes common ground for people of all religions and none. Secularism says that a society is most cohesive when certain common rules are agreed and when the running of society is not dependent on belief in one or other purported divine revelation. Secularism doesn’t say that religious people cannot be inspired by their religious beliefs, and cannot seek to enter the political sphere, but rather that when they present their arguments they should do so in a language that is accessible to everyone, making a reasonable case for their positions that does not require an a priori acceptance of certain religious claims. For example, a Christian may believe that helping the poor is a divinely ordained duty based on his or her reading of the gospels, but in a secular society this desire should be expressed rationally, in a language that is universal, rather than through the citing of biblical passages and emotive arguments about their Lord and Saviour. That way a Jew, a Muslim, or an atheist can happily get behind the Christian’s proposals regarding alleviating poverty without having compromised their personal beliefs (or lack of them) in any way. Seen in this way, secularism is actually a very positive thing for religious people, in particular religious minorities, for they can continue to practice, and be inspired by, their religious beliefs, and also fully participate in society.