Louay Fatoohi's Blog

The Threat of the Religious to Religion and the Nonreligious to Freedom

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I welcome Baroness Warsi’s remarks that “militant secularisation” is threatening religious freedom in Britain and Europe. Fanaticism is often associated with religious individuals and groups, but atheists and anti-religion movements can be equally intolerant. Warsi is spot on when she says: “One of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.”

In December, David Cameroon described Britain as a “Christian” country. Some welcomed this view but many attacked it. But the Prime Minister did not make this up, as almost 50% of Britons still describe the country as Christian, even if the percentage of those who describe themselves as religious or Christian has been falling in recent times and will probably continue to fall.

As a British Muslim, I do not feel threatened by Britain being described by politicians as Christian or by half of its population using this identity. I see Christianity as a faith, and religious faith for me is an intimate and private relationship that the individual has with God. This is a fundamental human right that no one should be denied.

Where I find religion — that is any religious identity — a threat is when it is turned into politics, power, control, and aggression, i.e. when it is used as a cover or pretext. Even though I do not believe in the doctrines of Christianity, I completely respect the rights of others to embrace them. But I am completely against those for whom being Christians means helping equally fanatical groups and individuals kick a whole people out of their land to facilitate the return of Jesus or the coming of the awaited Messiah. Anyone has the right to believe that Jesus will return or that the Messiah is yet to come and will come, but when exercising this faith means destroying the lives of millions of people then it is no more a religious faith. This is the same abuse of religion that Islam has been subjected to by those who use it to advance political agendas.

Those who oppose religion rightly point out that religion is open to abuse. There are numerous examples throughout history of this. But what the anti-religion groups choose to ignore to observe is that there is no concept, principle, practice, or doctrine — whether religious or not — that is immune to abuse or has not been abused. Think of “democracy.” It is such a positive concept that anyone who appreciates freedom loves. But then think of how it was used as a cover by Bush and his gangs and followers to launch a devastating war against Iraq that has destroyed a whole country and its people. Think of how many times Western leaders cited the once unique position of Israel as the only “democracy” in the Middle East to provide cover for its crimes against humanity. Does this mean that “democracy” is intrinsically wrong? Of course not. Even the concept of “charity” has been abused in various ways.

As long as Christianity is treated as a religious faith it should not be a concern for anyone. What people should keeping an eye on is any attempt of politicize Christianity or for that matter any other faith.

Copyright © 2012 Louay Fatoohi
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2 thoughts on “The Threat of the Religious to Religion and the Nonreligious to Freedom

  1. I think Baroness Warsi makes the mistake here of conflating secularism with some kind of political wing of atheism. I have little time for the condescending approach of Richard Dawkins, and have no problem with people self-identifying as Christians in this country, or accepting the important role of Christianity in our history. But it’s interesting that the Reverend Giles Fraser, who demolished Dawkins on just this point about what it means to be a Christian country, refers to himself as a ‘secular priest’.

    So my question would be, in referring to ‘militant secularism’, does the problem Warsi addresses even exist? If we look at the reality, we have more than 20 bishops (speaking for one denomination of one religion), who are part of our legislature purely on the basis of being representative of our official state religion; the only other nation I’m aware of that has this arrangement is Iran. And of course, the head of that state religion, in our case, is also the head of state. Furthermore, an act of collective worship is mandatory in all schools. No-one would seriously argue that any of this is under threat, so if secularism is simply about separation of church and state, and not confused with the promotion of atheism, then it would seem that those on Warsi’s side of the argument have little to fear.

    It’s also quite amusing, I think, to hear Warsi calling for more Christian values in the public sphere, fearing this is under threat. I say this because some of the most strenuous opposition to the policies of her government have come from those very same bishops, who presumably think that making the sick and the poor pay for the failure of rich politicians and bankers isn’t really what Jesus’ teachings were all about. But her government has rejected those particular Christian values expressed by the bishops in the public sphere, by overturning those amendments that would seek to protect the most vulnerable in society.

    In fact, the only time in recent memory that members of this government have defended the beliefs of Christians in the public sphere, is when it was ruled that a Christian business owner acted illegally in turning a couple away from his business just because they were gay. The politician who supported that business owner’s ‘Christian values’ is Chris Grayling, a minister in the very same government department that has called the ‘Christian values’ of those bishops seeking amendments to welfare policy, ‘out of touch with public opinion’. This could lead to a whole other debate about whether such people are really concerned about Christian values (and what that actually means anyway), or socially conservative values.

    There are of course atheists like Richard Dawkins who do come across as being fundamentalist themselves, and I don’t see what they hope to achieve in patronising and mocking those of faith. But nobody’s right to a religious identity is seriously under threat in this country, and that is certainly not the aim of anyone who could genuinely be called a secularist. The best we can hope for is a healthy debate in the public sphere between those of all faiths, and indeed those of no faith, and on balance I think we’ve got that just about right.

  2. Aaron, you make very good points. Conflating secularism with materialism and ultimately atheism is a popular mistake. This is particularly what earned “secularism” a bad name in Muslim societies. The separation of religion and state is often taken to mean the rejection and denial of religion.

    Religious freedom is not only the freedom to choose one’s own faith but also to be open about it. While anyone in the UK can choose whatever faith they want, admitting publicly this religious identity, in particular in certain social and official contexts, is not always without cost. Tony Blair had a problem even converting from one Christian denomination to another when he was Prime Minister, and he had to wait until he left office. It is not that he could not have done it, but it has consequences. So I agree that we are not talking about the lack of freedom to publicly declare one’s religious identity, but there is an increasing unease about doing so in certain contexts.

    In the case of someone holding public office, which is what Warsi is really talking about, this openness about one’s religious belief, or the lack of it, is not only a right but must also be a duty. People have the right to know whether an action by that person might have been influenced by their faith. One related illustration of this unease comes in an interview with Blair when he was asked about his Christian faith just for Alastair Campbell, his director of strategy and communications, to intervene and prevent him from answering a question by now his famous quote “We don’t do God.” Blair was also advised not to end his speech to the nation at the start of war in Iraq with “God bless you.” What did Campbell know that we did not?

    I think one thing that draw Blair and Bush to each other and made them feel a sense of mission about the Iraq war is aspects of faith they shared. While one can argue about how much information Bush can process and make sense of, Blair is certainly no idiot, and some of the arguments and supposed evidence to justify the war in Iraq could only be driven by belief, that is religious in essence, that the war had to happen. This is what Bush said in 2003:

    I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, “George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did. And then God would tell me “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.” And I did.

    Similarly, Blair’s long-term political agent in his Sedgefield constituency had this to say about him: “It’s very simple to explain the idea of Blair the Warrior…. It was part of Tony living out his faith.” This is what Blair himself had to say about his decision to go to war in Iraq:

    That decision has to be taken and has to be lived with, and in the end there is a judgement that, well, I think if you have faith about these things then you realise that judgement is made by other people, and also by… I mean by other people, by, if you believe in God, it’s made by God as well and that judgement in the end has to be, you know, you do your…

    This is the kind of language that if used by a believer of any faith to justify an act of violence, let alone start a war that killed hundreds of thousands and destroyed the lives of millions, they would rightly earn them the title of “terrorist.” Not the holy warriors Bush and Blair though.

    There is sensitivity about expressing one’s religious identify and it does affect one’s freedom to do so. In the case of someone in public office it is the expectation that they must not allow their religious faith to drive their action. But my problem with all of this is that it is only an instrument of hypocrisy. What we are telling those people is simply to not say anything that might suggest that their faith play a role where it should not. This does not prevent them from allowing their faiths to drive their actions; it only hides the fact that it can do and at times does, and often provides good cover for that. This agreed secrecy also prevents others from questioning the real motives of these people.

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