To begin with watch this 8 minute video clip of Maryam Namazie being interviewed on the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation — slightly older sibling of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news programe One Plus One, regarding her One Law for All campaign, which she has now taken on the road to Australia. The clip is important, because it shows quite clearly the difficulty that liberal democratic systems have in making distinctions between dimensions of culture whose importation with immigrants enrich a nation, and those dimensions which threaten a nation’s wellbeing. This distinction, while sometimes difficult to make, is vital to the maintenance and prosperity of the world’s representative democracies.
The key point comes when Ms. Haussegger asks Ms Namazie what we are to say to those people who say that this is a part of their culture? This is a weak spot in liberal democratic polity, but “One Law for All” puts its finger on the problem. The key response is Ms Namazie’s answer. Law is not a private cultural matter, and how disputes, such as issues of domestic violence, the worth of a woman’s testimony, the division of the marital assets, the disposition of the children of the marriage, etc. (though she does not speak of all these), is a matter of public concern and must be settled by one law, the law that applies to every citizen equally, and that those who would use their religion for political purposes, to impose their religious values on a portion of society, should not have the liberty to do so under the pretence that it is a part of their cultural expression. Nor should they have the right to do so under the claim that it is an expression of God’s will, disobedience to which would be dangerous to a society — but this is another issue and not open to discussion in this post.
These are issues of tremenduous importance and should not be skirted by anyone who is concerned about justice, equality and freedom. Christian dominionist and patriarchal movements in the United States are in a very similar position, and they should be challenged by all means that the law offers, especially as this concerns children and their upbringing, and the rights and freedoms of women. The idea that families are totally private spheres and that what takes place within them is of no public concern is one that needs to be revisited. Parents should not have the right to home school their kids if that means that children do not get the opportunity that should be open to all members of society, though perhaps more importantly, to its children, to benefit from a sound education in matters which are now, whatever biblical purists may say, part of the stock of human knowledge and understanding. To permit any person in society to be subject to the whims and fancies of the quick changing know-nothing idiocy of religious parents in this respect is something which should be opposed by all citizens concerned about the continued health of democratic nations as genuinely functioning democracies. And this applies equally to matters of reproductive choice and employment for women.
This means, be it noted, that the time for separate school systems for Catholics, which is widely practiced in Canada in many provinces, should come to an end, even if it takes constitutional change to do it. It is time that we began to be concerned about the public expression of faith in the context of children’s education. To allow Muslim children to parade their faith commitments in the presence of other school children, by setting aside times and places for prayer, is a political and not simply a religious undertaking, and those who are responsible for the education of children should recognise this. Public schools in Canada are not madrassas, and should not even resemble them in any respect. Public schools are secular institutions where children are given an education which will fit them for life within the surrounding society. This does not and should not include public demonstrations of faith on school property, nor should children be permitted to leave school during the day to fulfil their religious “obligations.” Religion must recognise that it is a marginal activity in society, and must make itself compatible not only with the multiplicity of belief systems existing in society, but must also recognise and respect the fact that some people have no religious beliefs at all. Society itself in its public institutions should not be in the business of preserving or enabling the perpetuation of religious traditions. If Muslim children, for example, are expected by their parents to do daily prayers five times a day, they must adjust the times of such religious expression to times when they are not involved in activities in the public sphere. Religion and its demands must give in to public patterns of behaviour and time constraints for that behaviour.
This means, I think, that religions must be put on notice that their intrusion into public affairs will be looked upon as political activities, and those organisations that indulge in such politicisation of faith will lose tax benefits. Churches or other religious institutions which actively enter the political process, either by recommending to adherents how they must vote, or by warning politicians that should they vote in certain ways their standing within their religious community of choice will be called in question, should be sharply told that any further infringements of the independence of the political process from the intrusion of religious interests will render the income of their religious institutions immediately taxable.
This is no time for a light hand in this matter. With the increasingly high profile that religious institutions are attempting to secure in public discussion, some fairly firm measures will be needed to prevent secular societies from being highly religiously politicised. Extreme cases of such religious politicisation can be seen at work in places like Pakistan, and the idea that such extremes could never happen here is only a pious dream. Religions, by their very nature, do not respect boundaries, and will overstep them given the chance. This is obvious in recent years in the number of Roman Catholic politicians who have been threatened with excommunication should they fail to vote in ways favoured by the Catholic hierarchy. And just the threat of violence and death has managed to silence many in the media from offering adequate representation of the dangers that a highly politicised Islam represents to all democratic polities.
We need Maryam Namazie’s “One Law for All” campaign in all democracies, because religion is ubiquitous and a standing threat to democratic ways of settling disputes and establishing law. There’s an interesting discussion going on between the New York Times’ Op Ed columnist Ross Douthat and the New Yorker’s Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza. Lizza says, in a New Yorker piece about Michele Bachmann, “Leap of Faith: The Making of a Front-Runner,” that Bachmann’s campaign will be “a conversation about a set of beliefs more extreme than those of any American politician of her stature, including Sarah Palin, to whom she is inevitably compared,” a statement that he follows up immediately with the over-the-top claim made by Bachmann that homosexuality is “personal enslavement,” stressing the point that Bachmann’s extremism is worrying.
Lizza quotes other extremist remarks of this emotionally and ideologically volatile personality, but makes the point that after the transformative effect of having given her life to Jesus, Bachmann, and her husband Marcus, underwent a further transformation when they watched a series of films made by Frances Schaeffer which traces the history of Christianity and what Schaeffer saw as its primary focus on the infallibility of the Bible as a whole and the importance of the penetration of everyday life by its ethos and teachings. He was profoundly anti-modern, and indeed, according to Lizza, in his Christian Manifesto, published three years before his death, Schaeffer argued
… for the violent overthrow of the government if Roe v. Wade isn’t reversed. In his movie, Schaeffer warned that America’s descent into tyranny would not look like Hitler’s or Stalin’s; it would probably be guided stealthily, by “a manipulative, authoritarian élite.”
This is the sticking point for Douthat. In his response to Lizza, Douthat claims that Schaeffer did not argue for the violent overthrow of the government. On the contrary, we are told, Schaeffer made important distinctions:
It’s true [says Douthat] that Schaeffer repeatedly urged his readers to consider using “force” to resist unjust laws. But he also insisted that “the distinction between force and violence is crucial,” warning Christians considering civil disobedience to remember “that overreaction can too easily become the ugly horror of sheer violence.”
Of course, one might argue for hours over what Schaeffer meant by “sheer” violence, since it is not at all obvious in context that he ruled out violence carried out for holy purposes, such as returning America to its founding principles in an inerrant scripture, and the overturning of Roe v. Wade in particular, a matter that was before the courts when the films were made that so strongly influenced Bachmann and her husband.
The point that I am trying to make, however clumsily, is that the danger from religion does not come only from the Islamist extreme, or from Roman Catholic meddling in education and public affairs, or in Protestant dominionism (which was greatly influenced by Frances Schaeffer). Nor is it only about the “academic” question whether Schaeffer commended violent overthrow of the government to rectify the situation created by the Roe v. Wade decision. Nor is it the question whether religious people should be able to express their views in public, or argue religious conclusions in the public sphere. It is whether religions should be able to impose their will on others regarding matters that are simply no longer in dispute amongst large numbers of people, and whether imposing that political will on people is, in fact, a legitimate expression of the processes of representative democracy. The American political process seems to think that the issue is still in dispute, but I believe it should not be, and there should be some way to limit the kinds of political expression that are considered legitimate within the framework of democratic political campaigning. In their extremism, I suggest, all the Republican candidates have overstepped those limits, and the reason for this trespass on territory usually reserved for tyrants is due to their religious convictions.
It has long been held that a representative body, democratically elected, cannot democratically, like the Weimar Republic in 1933, effectively vote itself out of office, as was done by the Reichstag in 1933 through an enabling motion which states, in Article 1:
In addition to the procedure prescribed by the constitution, laws of the Reich may also be enacted by the government of the Reich. This includes the laws referred to by Articles 85 Paragraph 2 and Article 87 of the constitution. [articles dealing with the budget and borrowing]
In his speech before the passing of the enabling motion, the “Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich”, of 1933 (“Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Nation”), Hitler said the following:
By its decision to carry out the political and moral cleansing of our public life, the Government is creating and securing the conditions for a really deep and inner religious life. The advantages for the individual which may be derived from compromises with atheistic organizations do not compare in any way with the consequences which are visible in the destruction of our common religious and ethical values. The national Government sees in both Christian denominations the most important factor for the maintenance of our society. It will observe the agreements drawn up between the Churches and the provinces; their rights will not be touched. The Government, however, hopes and expects that the task of national and ethical renewal of our people, which it has set itself, will receive the same respect by the other side. [my italics]
If this sounds suspiciously like some of the things being said by the Republican front-runners, this is perhaps no mistake, for it is quite evident that just such a moral cleansing is what people like Bachmann and Perry have in mind. They are possibly even as deeply sunk in the occult as Hitler and his cronies were, although the occult in this instance happens to be a fairly extreme version of Protestant fundamentalism and its peculiar personal experiences of redemption.
Which brings me back, at the close, to the idea of One Law for All. It is quite clear that the Republican campaign is not founded on the ideal of one law for all. In his meeting with fundamentalist leaders in Texas recently, Governor Perry asserted that one of the unchanging parts of his platform is the determination to overturn Roe v. Wade, and therefore to make a different law to govern the choices that women will be able to make for themselves. This is almost solely a religious undertaking. It has nothing to do with human rights, but with the rights of a god to be obeyed and worshipped by certain actions, and it is extremely troubling to see the same kinds of political extremism coming to unchecked expression in the United States in ways that are increasingly dominating the scene in other places, such as Pakistan. Religion may, as A. C. Grayling has suggested, be going through its death throes, but if so, we must do all that we can to make sure that these throes are not also, as A. C. Grayling justly fears, characteristically bloody, as so much religious extremism turns out to be.