Is religious fervor compatible with democracy?

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Sign sayes "Laicité my love" during a homage to Samuel Paty in Nantes, France, 18 October 2020 | Estelle Ruiz/NurPhoto/PA Images

If one believes that democracy is an abomination and against God’s rule, one may not even ponder it.

The events of October 2020 once again put the question of “secularism” on the political and intellectual agenda. First, a speech by French President Emmanuel Macron, in which he outlined his proposals for curbing “Islamic radicalism” in France; next, several horrific attacks by self-proclaimed Islamists, as if to confirm Macron’s misgivings; finally, reactions to Macron’s speech and his plan for action from Muslim political and opinion leaders around the world, followed by a debate (which is not entirely new) between groups of academics in France, accusing each other of pandering to Islamism or of attempted academic censorship.

Most western European nations were content in the belief that they had solved the question of governing religion and religious diversity through the separation of church and state, each in their own way, until the arrival of Muslim immigrants on a large-scale in the late twentieth century, who began (and demanded) to be recognized qua Muslims, as opposed to national identities of origin as had been the case until then, which in turn led to calls for models of multiculturalism, expressed by both their own spokespeople and sympathizing intellectual circles, in a move that paralleled the global rise of a postmodernist politics of identity.

In two recent pieces published on this platform, I argued in favor of the normative principle of secularism and against the widening practice of mixing politics and religion. As state-religion relations vary around the world, and here I aim to address secularism normatively, I need to clarify what I mean by it, leaving aside the question of whether the various models actually conform to the essentials of the principle – which, I suspect, is the major issue in France, rather than the principle itself.

At its most basic, secularism is a formula for social peace in a society composed of a variety of believers and non-believers, whereby individuals have the freedom of thought and conscience as specified for protection by international covenants. Although multiculturalists tend to think otherwise, it seems that the only way to guarantee this is through the constitution of a political space that is separate from and independent of religions, for the purpose of negotiating common issues and areas of concern, so that the social and political needs of all religious and irreligious members of society may be met.

Freedom of religion does not mean freedom for religion(s); it only means the freedom of an individual to have any religious belief they may wish to have, as long as their practice of that religion does not interfere with the rights and freedoms of others. This freedom does not protect religion itself, but the right to believe in one. It follows that the tenets of a religion may be sacred for the believer, but is not for anyone else. Secularism as a political arrangement that protects this particular freedom can only protect it as the right of a private individual, for it is nobody’s business other than the believer (or non-believer) to believe (or not) in a religion.

Therefore, an individual in any political capacity may not and should not bring into the public arena any rules that originate from their belief, for while they may be obligated to follow those rules, nobody else is. They may certainly have ideas that originate from their belief, which they may offer for discussion and debate, but the negotiation with others ought to be based on reason and not on any absolute truths, which may be valid for the believer but is not necessarily so for anybody else.

Belief, then, is a private matter, which may be practiced communally by those who choose to form or join such a community and thereby enjoy any dignity that may be derived from it, provided they do not interfere in the rights of others. Under these circumstances there will be freedom of conscience individually and collectively, but state affairs will be run on the basis of a common language of reason and negotiation.

Historically speaking, religion has always been at the center of politics; but if the aim is to create a democracy based on human rights, secularism as defined above is the necessary foundation for it. It is true that religion is about identity and community, defining the individual and his/her place within society, which in turn is the substance of politics. But it is also about faith, which renders it among all conceivable ideological vehicles the most convenient for authoritarian politics.

The point here is not that all believers are necessarily (or potentially) fundamentalists and hence anti-democratic. It is rather that, despite the real historical flexibility of religions, the inflexibility of religious modes of thinking (which pertain more widely than just in religions proper) entails a conflict between faithful devotion on one side and principles of deliberation and negotiation upon which democracy is based on the other. Being cognizant of this conflict and feeling apprehensive about it cannot be simply dismissed as racism, culturalism or Islamophobia. Religious faith has a specificity, which may be readily demonstrated through the following mental exercise, applicable to all religions, including quasi-religions.

Suppose I tell you that I am an “environmentalist” and so disagree with you on economic growth projects because they may harm the environment. We can debate this idea and convince each other one way or the other or reach an alternative idea that we both agree on. Or, we may be unable to change each other’s ideas, but in the context of democratic negotiation, we may reach a compromise and agree to build growth projects that minimize environmental impact or, failing that, to cut down on growth a bit, without abandoning it altogether, so that both our needs are met.

Suppose now that I tell you that I am Turkish (or Arab or Sudanese, etc.) and therefore do not support the idea of human rights. Although it may sound reasonable enough, especially if it concurs with your prejudice, this statement does not make any sense. Is there something in the natural constitution of a Turk (etc.) that contradicts the notion of human rights? One might perhaps speak of the absence of such a tradition in the history of that culture, but it could easily change even if it were true. Besides, not all Turks (etc.) are alike. Hence, as a blanket and prejudicial characterization, this statement (uttered by me or someone else) would be considered meaningless at best and racist at worst.

Suppose, however, that I tell you that I am a believer in the absolute commandments of God, to whom power belongs, and so oppose democracy as the rule of the mortal and the fallible. Now, this makes sense, because it is logically (and theologically) possible that for one who believes in God’s absolute power, rule by the people through democracy is unacceptable. It is therefore not a racist statement to claim that a devout believer cannot support democratic rule. Faith is not negotiable; its tenets cannot be changed through discussion and debate. If one believes (not just thinks, but believes) that democracy is an abomination and against God’s rule, one may not even ponder it.

We sadly see intimations of this idea in the statements of some spokespeople for Muslim communities in Europe and elsewhere, in their insistence on the presence of Islam in public and political affairs, shrouded in a theoretical rejection of the assumptions of liberal democracy and its implicit individualism, which they argue ignores community and identity as essential parts of human dignity. I argue, however, that if secularism is understood and implemented as the rendering of state affairs independent of religion, endorsing the principle of equal recognition of and respect for individuals qua individuals, whatever may be their communal identities, it is the only arrangement that could maintain social peace between non-believers and the variety of believers, without depriving anyone of their rights, freedoms and communities (cf. Ch.8 here). It is also the bedrock of democracy.

From openDemocracy

  • Muslim political and opinion leaders
  • Islamic Radicalism
  • Democracy
  • French President Emmanuel Macron

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