Is the man a secularist or isn’t he?
Although I have never voted Labour I am not instinctively allergic to everything coming out of Tony Blair’s mouth. I don’t dismiss everything he says – even though that might be the fashionable thing to do – because I consider that intellectual sloppiness.
I acknowledge some of his achievements in power, such as the Civil Partnership Act which put homosexual couples on a near-equal footing to heterosexual couples. This was a giant leap forward for our democracy which put a number of powerful religious noses firmly out of joint, but then social progress inevitably tends to do that.
He also deserves some credit for more or less taking on board Alastair Campbell’s prudent advice not to do God in government. This is in stark contrast to the approach of our current prime minister, David Cameron, who I am guessing is less religious than Blair but who has specifically said his government does do God.
Cameron’s Big Society project is a dystopian power vacuum waiting to be tenanted by religious power. It represents the entrustment of public services to the care of (amongst others) religious institutions, and to hell with the consequences – as long as the accounts of UK plc get a good spring clean. This, I think, demonstrates very clearly that a politician can be personally religious whilst not bringing religion to the political table at every opportunity (Blair) and vice-versa (Cameron).
But is Blair a secularist? It’s hard to tell. He guest-edited the Evening Standard on 27 June 2012 and this included a lengthy piece by Sarah Sands, What Tony Blair did next. As he has done before, Blair succeeded in confusing the hell out of me with his views on the role of religion.
On the one hand he cannot resist using the type of terminology that is now commonplace in this great debate of our times:
“There is an aggressive secularism here [Britain] – the aggressive secularism actually has a common link with the aggressive view of religion.”
Interestingly, he fails to provide any examples of what might constitute “aggressive secularism” or how it might differ from mere “secularism”.
Later on, though, he says:
“It [Iraq] will end up with a happy ending but it has to go through what the whole region has to go through which is to put religion in its proper place and to realise democracy isn’t just a technical system but an attitude of mind.”
I agree that religion has to be put in its proper place. Isn’t the only way to achieve that secularism, though?
Blair also had his own piece in the same edition of the paper, We can’t ignore the Middle East’s hunger for change. He seems to make reasonably clear his disapproval of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood that took power in Egypt’s recent election:
“If, as seems likely, Muslim Brotherhood governments continue to emerge, we have to accept the result and work with them. But we should do so with no illusions and without abrogating our responsibility to argue the case for true democracy. The best judgment is that the Muslim Brotherhood covers a range of different positions, some a lot more open than others. But the fact is that unless the Brotherhood adjusts and reforms, some of its positions, in some places, are going to be incompatible with progress, possibly with peace.”
He makes the vital distinction between genuine democracy and the simple act of voting:
“So we should be very clear: democracy is not just a way of voting but a way of thinking. It includes not just the freedom to vote but freedom of expression, media and religion. It is pluralistic in its essence.”
I agree. But isn’t the only way to achieve freedom of religion (as well as freedom of expression) secularism?
He goes on to say:
“Remember that in Egypt, yes, the Muslim Brotherhood won a majority. But the outcome was close. There are a lot of worried liberal-minded people there who believe in more secular democracy as we do in the West. [Hang on. I thought secularism was aggressive?] They shouldn’t be forgotten.”
And this is the crux of Blair’s inconsistency. He believes the Middle East needs secular democracies. I agree with him on this. But he seems to think that secularism is aggressive and therefore undesirable, and that we shouldn’t have it in the UK. On this I obviously disagree with him. I think what he’s trying to say is:
“YOU, backward middle-eastern savages, clearly cannot handle the high-octane fusion of politics and religion so you must have a system which separates these. That system is secular democracy. WE, sophisticated westerners, CAN handle this mixture.”
Here’s the thing, Mr. Blair. We can’t handle this mixture either. We can’t handle an official state religion. We can’t handle clerics in our legislature as of right. We can’t handle faith schools. We want secular democracy, too.
I hope the emerging democracies of the Middle East take Blair’s advice and embrace secularism; not only because that is in their best interests but also because they might be able to convince our politicians to do the same one day.
Blair is not the only culprit here. There appears to be a shameful convention amongst British politicians to only use the language of secularism when talking about the Arab Spring, presumably because this is the easiest way of saying “we don’t want the Islamists in power” – though in fairness to Blair he does make his disapproval of Islamist governments reasonably clear. In the context of UK politics, though, secularism is a dirty word.
As I have argued before, secularism itself does not guarantee democracy but it is an essential component of it (second section of that blog post).
It is possible for a country to be secular, such as Turkey (though there are worrying signs this is changing), whilst at the same time lacking basic democratic rights such as freedom of speech. Similarly, a country with strong democratic credentials like our own will always have democratic imperfections without secularism.
Some religious people will use this to discredit the idea of secularism. “Well what about Turkey”, they will say, “they are secular but that’s a very bad place to live for some.”
Sorry, what is your argument? Are you saying Turkey would be more democratic if it were not secular? Are you saying an Islamist Turkey on Europe’s doorstep would be better than a secular Turkey on Europe’s doorstep?
Isn’t one of the factors that makes Turkey remotely stomachable its secularism?