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Up Against the Wall

When Secularism Infringes on Religious Rights Around the World

Secularism, despite popular belief, is neither atheism nor a nonreligious belief system like humanism. It is a political movement that seeks the separation of religion and government and the elimination of discrimination on the basis of religion. This is said to contribute to democracy by protecting the rights of religious minorities. Secularism refrains from favoring one religion over another, or atheism over religious belief. It is a political principle that aims at guaranteeing the largest possible coexistence of various freedoms.

In Africa, despite the formal recognition and existence of a host of secular states, it is nearly impossible for any political-social movement to grow without engaging the influence of religious institutions, whether rooted in Judaism, Christianity, Islam or traditional beliefs. Echoing that point, the South African political activist Steve Biko said that religion in Africa was not a specialized function observed only on one day a week in a special building, but rather it featured in our wars, our beer drinking, our dances and our customs in general.

What is distinctive about the West today is that it demonstrates the other side of the secularist narrative: attempts by the state to influence the content of religious practice. It is the separation of the secular state from religion and not the other way around that militates against a secular outlook across civil society.

Tim Farron, an evangelical Christian who served as the Liberal Democratic leader in the United Kingdom from 2015 to 2017, was criticized for failing to answer questions about his personal views on homosexuality during the general election, despite making it clear that he supported equal marriage and LGBT rights. He was harangued until he stepped down in July 2017, effectively for not giving the state-sponsored line. He put forth in his capitulation that it would be “impossible” for him to be Liberal Democrat leader and “remain faithful to Christ.” He added:

From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith. I’ve tried to answer with grace and patience. Sometimes my answers could have been wiser. … The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader. … To be a political leader—especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017—and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.

Farron’s resignation was no victory for the LGBT community. This is a man who voted for equal marriage, opposed blood-donation bans predicated on sexual orientation and supported the posthumous pardoning of thousands of gay men convicted of gross indecency prior to 1968 when homosexuality was illegal.

Whatever else you might say about Farron, it is clear that his faith has not prevented him from toeing the party line. He is, in a sense, the epitome of what a secularist politician should be—quite simply, someone able to separate out the perspectives of their faith from public policy. Despite this, he was hounded out of office for not saying what other people wanted to hear.

Liberal intelligentsia viewed this outcome as progressive. From the perspective of secularism, however, it is a political disaster and a step backwards. There were barely any defenders of his position from the left or the right, or indeed, even from religious institutions.

One of the few was Benjamin Mercer in an opinion for The National Student. A publication not well known for its support of religious figures, Mercer had this to say:

Faith must be divorced from matters of state, and Mr. Farron has sought to maintain the divide. One needs only to look at his voting record to see how successful he has been: he has consistently voted in favour laws and legislation which protect and expand the rights of women and minorities. His faith may be conservative and reactionary but as a politician he has shown an admirable commitment to secular liberalism. He has voted for gay marriage and criticised it for not going far enough. I do not doubt that he has voted against his faith on many other occasions.

By contrast, his opponents have revealed themselves to be distinctly puritanical and reactionary. One might go so far as to call them illiberal. Even the hint of personal doubt is enough for celebrities, politicians and media types to hurl abuse. He has been branded “appalling,” labelled a “fundamentalist” and a “homophobe,” found guilty of “intolerance and prejudice.”

Whatever one may think of Farron’s politics, his private beliefs are his alone, and he should not be forced to make statements that go against his conscience. A commentator astutely lamented in spiked, “We usually look for sincerity from our politicians, not hypocrisy. In the case of Farron, these expectations have been reversed.”

If the experience of Farron highlights green shoots of intolerance growing, then state reaction to Islam is the fully grown forest.

In the summer of 2016, a number of mayors in the south of France deemed the wearing of the “burkini” an affront to French secular sensibilities. Feminists, too, decried this perceived attempt by religious leaders to limit women’s freedoms in beach wear. Sadly, the debate revived again last summer when the French regional mayors of Villeneuve instituted another burkini ban.

Technically, the burkini has no religious dimension attached to it. It was designed by Australian Aheda Zanetti to help Muslim women participate in beach sports like everyone else. The garb has no religious authority whatsoever. But what it has come to symbolize is where its power lies.

During the French presidential election, TV debates between Marie Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron in March heated up when Le Pen accused Macron of being “in favour of the burkini.” That elicited a rare flash of anger from Macron. “Don’t put words in my mouth,” he snapped. “I don’t need the talent of a ventriloquist … my views on the burkini have nothing to do with secularism, it is to do with public order. I want to avoid any public order troubles which divide society.”

But where are the reasonable grounds for Macron’s public order position in banning swimwear? There are none. Again, it is not what the garment does but rather what it represents that is the problem for both politicians. For Le Pen and many others, the restriction of the burkini is merely a vehicle for asserting opposition to rising extremist Islamic terrorism.

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy weighed in on the controversy this year when he called the full-body burkini swimsuit a “provocation” that supported radicalized Islam. He told a TV interviewer, “We don’t imprison women behind fabric.”

This debate highlights many of the contemporary features of the fault lines between modern secularism and the secularist defence of religion: the absence of a range of voices from civil society, the role of the state judiciary in opposition to regional power and the position of women, and women’s rights, under religious and civil law codes. Finally, it highlights the failure of politicians to defend secular society, in this case, by invoking abstract ideas of cultural nationalism or identity, and thus undermining notions of religious practice free from state interference.

Banning religious practices and groups is the flipside of Thomas Jefferson’s wall of separation. It is on this side where in Europe and America a new virulent form of anti-religious atheism has taken root.

A similar process of vilification has occurred over the past five years regarding religious male circumcision. Several European countries have taken steps towards outlawing the practice. In 2014, the ethics council of the Swedish Medical Association passed a resolution condemning the practice of male circumcision before the age of 12. That same year, the Danish College of General Practitioners issued a statement condemning nonmedical circumcision as “abuse and mutilation.” In 2012, and again in 2013, regional courts in Germany tried to ban or impose restrictions on religious circumcision. Also in 2013, the Council of Europe called for states to “promote further awareness of the risks of non-medically justified circumcision.” And in 2013 and in 2017, Norwegian and German governments took action to outlaw circumcision of males.

In an interesting twist, in 2013, a regional court in Germany ruled that any child undergoing circumcision must be old enough to discuss it with a doctor. According to the ruling, the child’s right to self-determination trumps his parents’ traditional right to have him circumcised in accordance with their beliefs. A unique alliance of Jews, Muslims and Christians in Europe and the United States protested the German law. The Central Council of Jews called it “an unprecedented and dramatic intrusion on the right to self-determination of religious communities.” The Islamic Religious Community argued that male circumcision is a “harmless procedure, a tradition that is thousands of years old and highly symbolic.” The European Jewish Association even asked Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene. And, following accusations of anti-Semitism, the German parliament passed a different law, allowing qualified members of religious communities to perform the operation in the first six months of a boy’s life. After that, circumcision must be performed by a physician.

Those campaigners who are proponents of male circumcision argue that such rulings are an attack on their religion and way of life. They also suggest that campaigns against cultural practices reflect an underlying anti-immigrant sentiment. Such implications of legislation against male circumcision are spelled out brilliantly by Kent University sociologist Frank Furedi in an article he wrote on the subject in 2013, in which he highlighted several features of a far more illiberal and intolerant hostility to long-held religious practices. He argues that these parliamentarians justify their assault on people’s way of life through the use of the apparently neutral language of health and child protection to legitimize their crusade. Furedi explains, “Numerous commentators have casually used terms like ‘genital mutilation’ or ‘sexual mutilation’ to describe [male] circumcision. The rebranding of male circumcision as a form of mutilation is an attempt to make it seem morally equivalent to the act and rituals of female circumcision, or what many describe as female genital mutilation.”

Those who believe the problems of the absence of secularist thinking in civil society are unique to African or religious societies are sadly mistaken and have not fully grasped the totality of secular society. The separation of the state from religion is an anathema. It has been said that secularism has not succeeded in defining the political landscape in Africa as it has in the West. I think this view is a fundamental mistake. Banning religious practices and groups is the flipside of Thomas Jefferson’s wall of separation. It is on this side where in Europe and America a new virulent form of anti-religious atheism has taken root. This type of critique of religion goes beyond the realm of the secular, because the objection is not based on reason and the extension of social rights but instead on a call for greater state control over religion. These views seemingly are fired by a jealous gaze at the autonomy enjoyed by religious institutions, which is every bit as problematic as the interference from clerics in secular politics in Africa. Indeed, attacks on secularism may prove more difficult to expose and halt as they are often couched in the soft language of human rights.

That religious freedom can be trivialized in this way really shows how empty and degenerate the concept of human rights has become. People should never forget that it took years of struggle and the sacrifice of untold lives to win the right for every individual to worship, or not, as they choose.

Kunle Olulode is Director of Voice4Change England, a national policy organization championing black and minority voices with the objective of engaging policymakers to drive more informed and responsive policies.

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