What follows here after some introductory paragraphs repeats almost verbatim a post that I published over on my personal blog back in 2007. Now, my thinking has moved on a little bit since then, and you will see a slightly different formulation and emphasis in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State: I am less enthusiastic, for example, about the word “religionist” than I once was, and I would no longer be so quick to dismiss the word “Islamophobia” as merely stupid (I discuss the issue of “Islamophobia” in the book). But what I have to say in the 2007 post, responding to some views of Australian moderate/liberal (I guess) Muslim author Waleed Aly, still strikes me as about right and as fairly clear. Aly questions why we should want a separation of church (or mosque) and state, and is sceptical that there is any basis for such a principle in modern democracies. Should we agree with him?
In developing his views, Aly uses arguments that should, I think, cause us concern. But reflection on this also raises more general questions about the priorities and motivations of secularists. In researching Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, I was struck by how many supporters of a church/state separation do not share my suspicion of using state power to enforce religious morality. For me, this is a priority – indeed, a higher priority than some other concerns that perhaps are clearer examples of church/state entanglement but are less oppressive (I have in mind, for example, the established churches of Europe). For some of us, at least, the greatest fear in contemporary circumstances is not that we will be required to put up with or take part in religious ceremonies and the like; rather, it is that politicians who are able to command electoral support will bring their religions’ doctrines, particularly those doctrines relating to canons of conduct, to the table of ordinary politics, and attempt to impose them on an unwilling minority.
These issues are always important, and my return to them is provoked by, among other things, the appointment of a new Executive Director at the Secular Coalition for America – a person whose priorities might be rather different from mine, judged by her interviews so far. So permit me to return to this via my reflections on Aly’s sceptical rejection of a separation between religious doctrine and government…
In People Like Us, Waleed Aly spends a whole chapter attacking the idea of a separation of Church and State, and defending Islam from the charge that it is incompatible with secularism. He argues that the separation of Church and State makes no sense from a Muslim perspective, because Islam (or at least Sunni Islam) has no established hierarchy that could be called its “church” and no official doctrine that it could impose through the powers of the state. He is scathing about secularists in a way that I find disquieting.
He describes an occasion when he spoke on a panel and was subsequently asked by a number of audience members who pressed him on his attitude to the separation of Church and State. He found the whole idea confusing, thinking it sufficient that if a politician brings specifically religious moral attitudes that are out of touch with the mainstream, then he or she will be electorally punished. In other words, democracy is the cure for any untoward imposition of religious doctrine and morality through state power.
Of course, audience members found this unreassuring, and it’s no wonder that a number of them kept pursuing the issue (evidently with mounting frustration at his seeming obtuseness). Later, Aly spoke to one of his interlocutors but evidently still gave her no real reassurance.
What is surprising is that Aly never mentions Locke or Mill in his discussion of all this, and never discusses the principles on which a liberal state – such as Australia – stands. He imagines that the phrase “separation of Church and State” is all about struggles between kings and popes – issues that are of no interest to anyone in the contemporary context. He genuinely seems to have no understanding of what is really at stake in this discussion.
The question is not about kings and popes (though it is certainly relevant to the temporal ambitions of the current pope). It is about how religionists of any stripe can reassure the rest of us that they will not use the coercive power of the state to impose their contentious (and, let’s face it, usually miserable) moral doctrines, should they come to command an electoral majority. We are concerned about the tyranny of the majority, not about the attempts of a minority to bring others into line … for which political hubris the remedy would, indeed, be an electoral one.
Of course, it does not matter whether or not what is being imposed comes from a literal “church”. The fear is that politicians who are able, somehow, to command an electoral majority will bring their religions’ doctrines to the table and attempt to impose their doctrines on an unwilling minority. This is something that we have good reason to fear. Islam, of course, is a minority religion in Australia, but it may well become more popular in the future and meanwhile there could easily be cases of Muslims entering into alliances over particular issues with other religionists. Aly’s interlocutors obviously wanted to be reassured about all that, and Aly failed to say anything helpful.
Unfortunately, the impression has been created by many Muslim leaders that Islam seeks to control all aspects of individuals’ lives and does not shrink from using secular power to achieve its aim. We are all well aware of extreme examples in recent history, such as Afghanistan under the benighted Taliban regime. Until that fear is laid to rest, it is quite rational for the rest of us to fear Islam’s political ambitions – which is one reason why the word “Islamophobia” is so stupid. A phobia is an irrational fear, but secular Westerners actually have perfectly rational reasons to be at least wary of Islam, as Aly himself fully appreciates and acknowledges.
It’s true, of course, that religionists – Muslims; Christians; Hindus; fire worshippers; devotees of Thor, Aphrodite, Baal, or Quetzalcoatl; or whatever – often feel that their religious identity is something “given” rather than chosen, and somehow essential to them. It is not possible for them simply to leave it behind like checked-in luggage when they enter the public sphere.
Fine. That’s understandable, but it raises the bleak possibility that they will use the public sphere as a means by which to impose religious doctrines, or specifically religious morality. Some may even see nothing wrong with this – and those are the people whom we have every cause to fear. If the Quetzalcoatlists or the Thorians take this stance, then they stand outside of the Enlightenment compromise … and just as they can give no guarantee of tolerating the rest of us if they come to wield the coercive power of the state, they have no claim to toleration by us. If that is their attitude, they are outside the Lockean circle, beyond the pale of liberal tolerance.
However, it’s way, way, premature to conclude that Islam falls into such a category. As I’ve written in earlier posts, Locke thought that atheism and Roman Catholicism were beyond the pale, but this has turned out not to be true – atheists can be peaceful and honest citizens as much as anyone, and while the current Catholic leadership appears less and less interested in the Lockean concept as it is understood today, and more and more inclined to impose its views by force of law where it can, Catholics have also made good citizens. The expansion of the circle of liberal tolerance to include a wide range of religious and non-religious worldviews has been a great success story in Western history. There is every reason to think that almost any religious sect can come to value the political benefits of voluntarily joining the circle.
So what should Waleed Aly have said?
Well, he could have said something like this:
“I cannot guarantee that I’ll come to the political table setting aside my identity as a Muslim. But I can guarantee you this much: from within my understanding of Islam, I accept the political values of individual liberty and religious tolerance. I do not make the Christian distinction between Church and State, but I realise that what you are really concerned about is whether I understand that I am living in a liberal society and whether I accept the distinction between sin and crime. Yes, I do understand and accept those things. From within my own view of the world, I can see the necessity for tolerance of all views that advocate reciprocal tolerance. I also accept the political need for something like John Stuart Mill’s harm principle (we can discuss the details of the ‘something like’, but I am not using weasel words). I can say unequivocally that it would not be my intention to prohibit behaviour merely on the ground that it is theologically wrong in my understanding of Islam. I will look for clear secular harm before I invoke the might of the state in an attempt to restrict liberty. I will not invoke the superiority of a way of life that is favoured by Islam, and I will respect the right of others to pursue their own conceptions of the good, however foreign to Islam’s values. Nothing in my understanding of Islam prevents me acting in accordance with those liberal political values, knowing that I live in a liberal country.”
I have hopes that Aly could give that undertaking – or something very like it – sincerely. Elsewhere in his book, he shows that he does value religious tolerance and does understand the distinction between the theological notion of sin and the secular political notion of crime. Many liberal Muslims, perhaps most, could probably give such an undertaking – perhaps with more sincerity than some Christians.
That is what we need from religionists when they enter the public sphere. When Aly was grilled by the audience at his panel session, that is all he need have said.
It would be reassurance enough.