Time for a little Intolerance
I’ve been having what seems to me, anyway, to be a very unsatisfactory conversation with a commenter named Delilah, so this is at least in part a response to her. Let me begin by borrowing, from Maryam Namazie, the following video clip:
Maryam entitled her post ”Yes I’m intolerant — as we all should be.” I agree, there is no room for tolerating religious intrusions into public space. Religions are, and must be, in our more complex, multiethnic, multi-religious societies, in which people may have, and have a right to have, no religious belief at all, private affairs. They should not govern our relationships, and religious believers must learn how to practice their religions without attempting to impose their religious priorities on the rest of us.
Of course, the other side of this is the view that secularism is an imposition by non-believers on believers, so secularism stands, in the public square, as a world-view, and as having no more right to public recognition than religious world-views. If this is true, then we are indeed in trouble, since there is no way we can adjudicate between world-views in public space. At the same time that Roman Catholics insist that their moral views regarding abortion and assisted dying be represented in criminal law, many Muslims have claimed the right to be governed by Sharia law. The pope has insisted, on occasion, that canon law is superior to civil law. This came out recently in a Belgian dispute with the Vatican. Muslims have enforced their own law of respect for Muhammad by threatening and, in some cases, actually using violence against those they feel are in conflict with their law regarding respect for the prophet.
However, there is an essential difference here. While secular constitutions can be justified by reference to secular issues alone, that is, by considering the effects of different legal regimes for the people who are to be governed by them, religious law is based, not on universally agreed upon or confirmable doctrines, but on religious beliefs which have no known justification, no methodology of justification, and no obvious basis in fact. John Esposito, for example, in an article published on the website for ARDA as one of their “guiding papers” — ”Rethinking Islam and Secularism,” – claims, quoting himself:
Under a regime of ‘secular fundamentalism’, “the mixing of religion and politics is regarded as necessarily abnormal (departing from the norm), irrational, dangerous and extremist.” 
And then he goes on, after saying that secularism is a political doctrine that grew out of Christian Europe, and that, in the aftermath of the colonial period, secularism from above
was but the first stage in a far more insidious trend where secularism as a comprehensive worldview has come to dominate all areas of life. 
But then he immediately quotes from Abdelwahab Elmessiri to this effect:
Secularism is no longer a mere set of ideas that one can accept or reject at will, it is a world-outlook that is embedded in the simplest and most innocuous cultural commodities, and that forms the unconscious basis and implicit frame of reference for our conduct in public and in private. The state … has even penetrated to the farthest and deepest concerns of our private lives. 
And then referring to another Islamic scholar, Esposito writes that secularism “does not necessarily guarantee peace and tolerance.” (4)
And of course he is right. Secularism does not guarantee peace and tolerance. Perhaps there are no such guarantees. Indeed, as Maryam Namazie points out, perhaps there needs to be a bit more intolerance. Quoting with approval Talal Asad, who reminds us that
A secular state does not guarantee toleration [evidence: "communal riots" in India (which were actually fomented by a Hindu theocrat in Gujarat)]; it puts into play different structures of ambition and fear. The law never seeks to eliminate violence since its object is always to regulate violence. 
Really? Where has Esposito been living, that he thinks he should simply accept without comment the idea that the point is simply to regulate violence? It is probably true that violence cannot be eliminated entirely, but the evidence that Steven Pinker provides in The Better Angels of Our Nature seems to indicate that we can go a long way towards the elimination of most or at least a great deal of violence that was once taken for granted.
Why does Esposito so readily agree, one wants to ask, with what Asad says about secularism here? Elmessiri’s idea that secularism penetrates ”to the farthest and deepest concerns of our private lives” is precisely the point of secular polities, for this is what religion, not what secularism does. Religion is the worldview that invades peoples homes, enters their bedrooms, is present at their sickbeds, or governs how people will die, whether they will or will not have children, and, in many cases, what their status in society will be. Secularism cuts through all of this extra historical baggage, stored up in religious tradition, and enables people to live in relative freedom so far as their sexual or family relationships go, who they will work for, what vocation they will choose in life, where they will live, how they will dress, and what they will do when they are not working. Religions govern all of these things, right down, in many cases, from the time of prayer and prostration before unseen and unproved and unprovable entities, to what your beliefs about the unseen will be, as well as to what you may do in bed, with whom and in what way. Indeed, here is graphic testimony to the troubling intrusion of religion into the personal life of an individual and the catastrophic effect it has had (see Maryam Namazie’s ”Islam is the most horrible thing I have experienced in my life“):
Like Ayan Hirsi Ali, the young woman in this video chose freedom, freedom from the intrusion of religion into her life, into what she can or cannot wear, into how she may or may not appear in public, into her way of thinking and believing, though she is now scarred for life by the machinations of religion. We should not tolerate those who think that religions have a right to do this sort of thing.
Esposito, however, wouldn’t like this. He would remind us, as one Muslim scholar puts it, that “the debate about Islam and its alleged compatibility with democracy/non-violence/pluralism/tolerance is misstated. The real question is not what Islam is, but what do Muslims believe and want?” (6) This, however, so far as democracy goes, is neither here nor there. What Muslims believe and want must be limited by diversity of views, even amongst Muslims. Christians, for example, are very diverse, and what Christians want cannot be defined with any accuracy, and, in any case, why should any group of Christians, even in a Christian society (supposing there were such a thing), get to define the kinds of beliefs and practices which everyone in that society should hold or practice? The curious thing is that, after quoting Abdelwahab Elmessiri regarding the intrusiveness of secularism, he goes on to say this:
A hallmark of Islamic politics has been the belief that Islamic principles and values govern all aspects of life and that Sharia acts as a framework for all human activity, whether in public or private realms. This belief counters the idea that a modern state’s legislation should not be dependent on any religious tradition. 
And then he goes on to say that al-Qaradawi holds that secularism and Islam are incompatible in any country with a majority Muslim population. That means, of course, that as soon as a population is a majority Muslim one, Sharia law trumps all other law and should govern all private and public behaviour. And while I can understand Esposito’s repeated point about the colonial experience, and how modernity and secularism or pseudo-secularism have been experienced in many Muslim majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa, this still does not answer some of the pressing problems that arise for any country in which there is a substantial Muslim minority, especially if they are of the belief, as Tariq Ramadan clearly is, that Muslim law is always superior to the laws in force for the time being in those lands.
Esposito points out that the Muslim scholar Ghannouchi is of the opinion that in the Muslim world secularism and despotism seem to go hand in hand; but of course, I would want immediately to add, and Esposito does not, that this is not what secularism is. Secularism is not simply aping the clothing, music, and other lifestyles of the West, but a form of government in which church and state are kept strictly separate because individuals and their freedoms count. Dictatorship and Western cultural styles may go hand in hand, but this is not secularism, and Esposito should know the difference.
Authoritarian governments [he writes, apparently continuing with Ghannouchi's point] take the worst of secularist doctrine and use it as a weapon against Islamists by equating Islam with fundamentalism and extremism and setting secularism as a prerequisite to democracy. 
But, again, this is not secularist doctrine. Indeed, we can see how far astray Esposito goes when he discusses Qaradawi’s concern that “secularists call for democracy and free elections when the result suits them, but as soon as an Islamist group does well they reject the result on any pretext.” (8) As anyone would do as well, if a Christian party were to achieve power, and then to begin legislating Christian moral doctrine, for secularism is the view that government, religion and law should be separate. Democracy is not simply rule by a majority, as Qaradawi and Esposito seem to hold, and it does not give the majority the right to impose religious priorities on all members of society. Muslims or Christians may establish rules for their own adherents; secularism is the belief that such rules should only govern those who voluntarily sign on to them. There can no doubt be disagreement as to what laws can be made that will govern all members of a society, but those deriving from a particular religious tradition are certainly amongst those that are ruled out by secular principles.
The problem becomes even clearer in relation to Ghonnouchi’s position.
Ghannouchi links secularism with liberalism and sees the failings of Western secularism, i.e.,, violence, crime, isolation, and lack of trust and cooperation between neighbors, as undermining civil society. 
He goes on to quote Ghannouchi to the effect that liberalism is synonymous with “selfishness, greed, and individualism,” and will ultimately destroy society itself — a very jaded vision of a free society, and a typically religious misunderstanding. The ideal society, of course, from Ghannouchi’s point of view, would be an Islamic state based on religious principles. This ideal, however, ”is very difficult if not impossible to achieve under current circumstances.” (9) How about under any circumstances? (And why, one might ask, should anyone but a Muslim think that an Islamic society governed by Sharia would be an ideal society?) Nevertheless, Ghannouchi thinks that, in the meantime, until such an ideal Islamic society can be established,
… the next best option is a “secular democratic regime which fulfils the category of the rule of reason, according to Ibn Khaldun” because such a regime is “less evil than a despotic system of government that claims to be Islamic.” 
This reminds me of Ibn Warraq, who says, of Ibn Khaldun, that, according to this worthy, “the caliph must belong to the tribe of Kuraish and be of the male sex: again, not democratic principles.” (Why I am Not a Muslim, 187) Not the rule of reason either, I suggest. But, enough of this. I could go on and on discussing Esposito’s “guiding paper”, and we could explore the many attempts made by Muslim scholars to deal with the idea of secularism and democracy. Some of them claim that there is no basis for the idea of an Islamic state in Islam, and others that democracy has precursors in the Qu’ran. Well, maybe, but this has to come to an end somewhere. The idea that the prescriptions of any religion are likely to produce an ideal state or perfect society is, I think, simply ludicrous; and while I understand why people in Muslim majority areas of the world should like to preserve their religious values at the same time as they allow for some of the freedoms that people in the West enjoy, it is not at all clear to me what sense this makes. Perhaps we will see as Egypt experiments with majority Islamist parties. I am not particularly hopeful. Religions like power as much as individuals like it, and they will hold onto it just as tenaciously. But this is not the way we should govern ourselves, because there will always be those who do not share the particular beliefs of those in power. So, religion should not be privileged in governance. People who want to go on believing and practicing their religion should have the right to do so, so long as that right does not impinge on the rights of others to ignore and even to criticise or lampoon the religion or the religionlessness of others. In one sense, of course, it is important, as Esposito points out, to know what Muslims want, but, whatever they want, there are bound to be some people living in their midst who don’t want to be Muslim at all, and don’t want to be treated as second or third class citizens, or as mere breeding animals who exist for the sake of men’s honour. What I find trying about Esposito’s exposition is simply that he takes the religion so seriously, as though the religious tradition of Muslims or Christians or Hindus or anyone else is particularly important for the understanding of how we should make our political arrangements. And when I suggest, as I do, that Esposito is an apologist for Islam, it is precisely this aspect of his work that I am referring to.