Getting the balance right between faith and state implies that religion may actually have a positive role to play in society and that discussions need merely focus on the extent and nature of its role. That somehow there is a point at which we can find stability and equilibrium and even a more integrated society.
In fact, it is the complete opposite.
The more of a role that religion plays and the degree to which it has access to governing, state institutions, education, the law and so on, the more detrimental and divisive it is for society.
Let me clarify. In their recent opposition to sexual orientation regulations and gay adoption, the Catholic Church supported by Islamic organisations and other religious groups have asserted that they must not be forced to act against their conscience; that they should be allowed to discriminate; that it is their right to discriminate. In Iran, where religion is in power, it is no longer a matter of the right to discrimination; gays are openly hung in city squares for ‘perversion’.
Another example is attempts by Islamic groups to portray sexual apartheid as a matter of choice and belief – whether it be in defence of the veil or of a Muslim police officer refusing to shake hands with the Commissioner last month because it was against her religion to touch a man.
Where religion is in power, however, one can quickly see how rights and choice are empty rhetoric to gain favour in the west. In Saudi Arabia, for example, girls’ schools are locked as usual practice to ensure the segregation of the sexes. In 2002 when a fire broke out at a school in Mecca, the guards would not unlock the gates and religious police prevented girls from escaping – to the point of even beating them back into the school- because they were not properly veiled; moreover they stopped men who tried to help, warning the men that it was sinful to touch the girls. 15 girls died as a result and more than fifty were wounded.
As I said, the degree to which religious groups and institutions have access - that is the degree to which rights and lives are at risk.
And I would like to stress this point.
There may be and are people with beliefs that belong in the Middle Ages and it is their right to believe in whatever they choose so long as they don’t cause harm but organised religion is a very different matter.
Clearly, there is a big difference between Muslims and political Islam - as a contemporary right wing political movement like many others, as well as between Muslims and Islam, which is the ideological aspect of this contemporary movement and a belief like many others.
Blurring the distinctions between the two and the use of rights and anti-racist language here in the west to do so are devious ways of silencing criticism and opposition – criticism which is particularly crucial given the havoc that political Islam has inflicted in the Middle East and North Africa and more recently here in the west.
As I have said before, the language calling for restraint rapidly becomes one of threats and intimidation when Islamists has some form of political power. In Iran, Iraq and elsewhere, they kill and maim indiscriminately, tolerate nothing and no one, hang the 'unchaste', 'kafirs' and 'apostates' from cranes in city centres, and say it is their divine right to do so.
Interestingly, freedoms and rights used by religious groups to further their stranglehold on European society were originally gained to protect people from discrimination, persecution and oppression not the other way around.
When it comes to the Catholic Church, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Islamic Human Rights Commission (an oxymoron), the Finsbury Park and other mosques, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Saudi government and so on, then it is no longer a question of freedom of conscience or belief though they often portray it as the right to discriminate against gays; the right to veil women and children; the right to segregate; the right to threaten to death or kill anyone and everyone who transgresses their religious mores…
Various freedoms and rights of conscience, belief, expression, speech, and so on were gains for the powerless vis-à-vis the powerful and often vis-à-vis religion. How ludicrous that today powerful religious groups, lobbies and even states are now using these very concepts in an attempt to actually deny and restrict rights and freedoms in the society at large.
These Islamic groups, imams and ‘leaders’ are self-appointed to help keep so-called minorities in their regressive fragmented communities and run them on the cheap. Deeming religious organisations and repressive Islamic states as representative of the so-called Muslim community – which they aren’t - implies that masses of people choose to live the way they are often forced to and imputes on them the most reactionary elements of culture and religion, which is that of the ruling elite.
Even if it was the belief of a majority that women are sub-human and honour killing is justified, it is erroneous and dangerous to confuse the right to a belief and conscience of individuals with the right to then impose said beliefs and ‘conscience’ on society or segments of it.
Unfortunately, cultural relativism has lowered standards and redefined values to such depths that not only are all beliefs deemed equally valid, they seem to have taken on personas of their own blurring the distinction between individuals and beliefs (whether theirs or imputed).
As a result, concepts such as rights, equality, respect and tolerance, which were initially raised vis-à-vis the individual, are now more and more applicable to culture and religion and often take precedence over real live human beings.
This is why any criticism and ridiculing of or opposition to beliefs, cultures, religions, gods and prophets are being deemed racism, disrespecting, inciting hatred and even violence against those deemed believers.
We saw this during the organised protests by political Islam against the Mohammad caricatures.
The distinction between humans and their beliefs is of crucial significance here. It is the human being who is meant to be equal not his or her beliefs. It is the human being who is worthy of the highest respect and rights not his or her beliefs or those imputed on them. It is the human being who is sacred not beliefs or religion.
The problem is that religion sees things the other way around.
And this is the main reason why religion must be relegated to being a private matter.
More importantly than the fact that it divides, excludes, denies, restricts and so on is the compelling fact that when it comes to religion, it is not the equality, rights, freedoms, welfare of the child, man or woman that is paramount but religion itself.
The promotion of secularism is an important vehicle to protect society from religion's intervention in people's lives, especially in the face of religion’s rising access to power.
Of course nowadays, secularism is often portrayed negatively. Religious groups equate secularism as the other extreme of religious fanaticism. But this is untrue.
Religion excludes whilst secularism is inclusive and ensures that a sect or group does not impose its beliefs on all. That a person's religion is a private affair.
What secularism does is require that at minimum government offices and officials from judges, to clerks to teachers to doctors and nurses are not promoting their religious beliefs and are instead doing their jobs. In the same way that a teacher can’t teach creationism instead of evolution and science in the classroom; a pharmacist can’t refuse contraceptive pills to a women because of her beliefs; a male doctor can’t refuse to treat a woman patient or vice versa. We are seeing this happening more and more as religion gains influence in society.
These are sometimes portrayed as restrictions on religious beliefs or freedoms and religious intolerance as was the banning of religious symbols in France but again this is not so. One's religious beliefs are a private affair; public officials cannot use their positions to impose or promote their beliefs on others.
Moreover, when it comes to the veil, much more needs to be done than banning the burqa and neqab and the veil from state and educational spaces. The veil is a symbol like no other of what it means to be a woman under Islam - hidden from view, bound, and gagged. It is a tool for restricting and suppressing women. Of course there are some who choose to be veiled, but you cannot say it is a matter of choice because - socially speaking - the veil is anything but. There is no ‘choice’ for most women. In countries under Islamic rule, it is compulsory. Even here, in Britain, according to a joint statement about the veil from ‘Muslim groups, scholars and leaders’, including the Muslim Council of Britain, Hizb ut Tahrir and Islamic ‘Human Rights’ Commission, it is stated that the veil ‘is not open to debate’. The statement goes so far as to ‘advise all Muslims to exercise extreme caution in this issue since denying any part of Islam may lead to disbelief.’
As I have said before, take away all the pressure and intimidation and threats and you will see how many remain veiled.
When it comes to the veiling of girls in schools, though, children's veiling must not only be banned in public institutions and schools but also in private schools and everywhere.
Here the issue extends beyond the principle of secularism and goes straight to the heart of children's rights.
While adults may 'choose' veiling or a religion, children by their very nature cannot make such choices; what they do is really what their parents tell them to do.
Even if there are children who say they like or choose to be veiled (as some media have reported), child veiling must still be banned - just as a child must be protected even if she 'chooses' to stay with her abusive parents rather than in state care, even if she 'chooses' to work to support her family in violation of child labour laws or even if she 'chooses' to stop attending school.
The state is duty bound to protect children and must level the playing field for children and ensure that nothing segregates them or restricts them from accessing information, advances in society and rights, playing, swimming and in general doing things children must do.
Whatever their beliefs, parents do not have the right to impose their beliefs, including veiling on children just because they are their own children, just as they can't deny their children medical assistance or beat and neglect them or marry them off at 9 because it's part of their beliefs or religion.
Similarly, faith schools – state or private - must be abolished. This is indoctrination of children. Just as we have laws against the physical abuse of children, we must have laws against the psychological, emotional and ideological abuse of children.
The same applies to a Sharia Court for so-called minorities something that was successfully opposed in Canada and is now being promoted in the UK as a way to promote ‘minority rights’. Aside from the fact that Sharia law is inherently unjust, it is discriminatory and unfair to have different and separate systems, standards and norms for ‘different’ people. The concept of an Islamic Court adheres to a principle of separate but equal similar to that promoted by the former Apartheid regime of South Africa. It was clear then as it is clear now that separate is not equal. In fact it is a prescription for inequality and discrimination. It makes a group of people forever minorities and never citizens equal before and under the law.
To sum up, one of the important roles of the state is to keep religion out rather than getting the balance right. The law is especially important here. Religious groups often speak of coercion when opposing laws such as the banning of religious symbols or the sexual orientation regulations but much of law is just that – to coerce society to do what has become established norms - from preventing child abuse to domestic violence– much of it as a result of the struggles of the working class and social movements.
Now I know that there are those who say that the vile political Islamic movement has nothing to do with religion. In Europe, Islam is constantly being repackaged in a thousand ways to make it more palatable for the western audience. There is now moderate Islam, Islamic reformism, Islamic human rights, Islamic feminism, Islamic democracy... These notions would have been ridiculed by the avant-gardes of 18th century enlightenment. Nonetheless, Islam is key here both as the ideology behind and banner of the political Islamic movement; in fighting the movement, one cannot excuse or appease the ideology behind it. The battle for secularists is as much a battle against religion and Islam as it is a battle against political Islam.
As Mansoor Hekmat, the Marxist thinker has said: 'It has been proved time and time again that pushing back religiosity and religious reaction is not possible except through unequivocal defence of human values against religion. It has been proved time and time again that preventing religious barbarism does not come about through bribing it and trying to give it a human face, but through the fight against reactionary religious beliefs and practices. What price should be paid... to realise that Islam and religion do not have a progressive, supportable faction?' (Mansoor Hekmat, In Defence of the Prohibition of the Islamic Veil for Children.)
Let me end by adding that this has nothing to do with the clash of civilisations. In fact, the clash we are witnessing between political Islam and the US led militarism is the clash of the uncivilised. The majority of humanity, a third camp that wants nothing to do with either side, represents 21st century humanity and values. It is this front that must lead the much needed fight for secularism today.
The above is an adaptation of speeches given at the University of Westminster in London on January 27th at an Inter-Isles Forum for delegates from all elected political parties or their youth wings aged 18 –30 from Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and a secularist gathering in Paris, France on February 10, 2007.