My title could apply equally well to the overly sensitive people in Pakistan who are too often urged to mob violence by any perceived insult to Islam or its prophet. However, I mean it to apply to those engaged in the sort of mindless religious violence that got a man beaten and then burnt to death by an outraged mob in Sindh province in Pakistan. Jerry Coyne justly quotes Steven Weinberg’s famous remark that
[w]ith or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
Clearly, free speech is a fantasy in a country where this happens so frequently, and it raises very serious questions about the ability of Islam to adapt to the modern world. I think this is something that needs to be faced very bluntly. While I am aware that there are those like Irshad Manji and Ed Hussain who think that Islam can moderate itself, and fit comfortably with democratic forms of governance, the evidence so far is not at all promising. I recall the televised conversation between Manji and Salman Rushdie in New York, where Rushdie’s dissent from Maji’s views, though politely expressed, was very clear. It was obvious that he did not think that Islam and democracy were easily compatible.
Many Muslims come to this country, sequester themselves in ethnic communities where women have almost the same status in a free democracy that their sisters have in Muslim majority areas of the world, and the Supreme Court has just muddied the waters as to whether a person’s freedom of religion permits her to wear the niqab, or the accused have a right to see their accuser. The question, to my mind, is whether people have the right to live in a democracy and yet practice age-old misogynistic customs which directly imply women’s secondary place in society and in the home, and whether other citizens are forbidden from raising the question of the conflict between these customs and democratic governance and the equality of citizens. Does sensitivity necessarily forbid criticism and distrust of those who practice customs so at odds with the presumed equality of all people which is enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms?
My own sense is that it does not. That does not mean that we should call down imprecations upon individuals in the street. That, of course, would be unhelpful and socially unhealthy. However, criticism itself should not be scrimped. We should not simply accept, supinely, the idea that there are classes of people in this country who do not count equally with others, that some of our citizens have a right to impose upon other citizens the types of intrusive invigilation which is characteristic of fundamentalist Islam. And, lest it be thought that I apply these strictures only to Islam, I think it is high time that we were very critical of other religious groups which disadvantage their members in oppressive ways. I am thinking here, particularly, of the Amish, who are permitted to withdraw their children from school at early ages, thus depriving them of opportunities, not only to learn, but to explore different forms of life than the ones their parents believe to be the only godly option.
I think it has to be squarely faced that Islam, as a religion, is, in its orthodox forms, simply incompatible with democratic governance, and until a radical theological movement of significant weight exists to challenge this orthodoxy, Islam will continue to be a danger to the kinds of freedoms that we value, and for which many have died. There is a tendency to consider radical Islamist theology, the Salafist thinking which has its origin in Muslim thinkers like Mawdudi and Q’tub and al-Banna, as a fringe movement, and yet it is arguably the core of Muslim thinking world-wide today. Justin Trudeau’s naïve acceptance of an invitation to speak at a “Reviving the Islamic Spirit” conference in Toronto, despite the fact that the theme of the conference could be taken to express an explicitly anti-Western point of view, is troubling. He pretends that he is standing up for the values of Canadians, but the theme of the conference, easily dismissed as religious window-dressing, is, in fact, worrying:
Divine Light for Living Right: Prophetic Guidance in the Midst of Modern Darkness
This can, I think, be thought to express an explicit rejection of modernity, and, with it, let me suggest, democracy. There is no sign that those who speak for Islam consider democracy a suitable form of governance. Indeed, the “modern darkness” of which they speak is directed explicitly against the modernity which has produced democratic forms of governance, freedom of the individual, and broad tolerance of individual experiments in living, all of which are so virulently opposed by most Muslim scholars around the world, who see modernity very much as it is seen by the Roman Catholic Church: as in competition with truth and holiness, and the apotheosis of relativism and atheism.
Quite aside from this is the claim that is repeated again and again by the religions that religion has a source of “divine light,” that it knows what is demanded of us by their gods, a claim that is quite simply falsified by the diversity of religious views which exist. We have seen, in the pope’s Christmas message this year, how the Roman Catholic Church is making renewed demands that its moral message be accepted as written into the very texture of human nature. This theocratic demand, that all the Roman Catholic strictures against abortion, contraception and assisted dying be instantiated in law, goes clean contrary to the understanding of the separation of religion from the state. Religions are nothing more than voluntary associations, and cannot be permitted to have any more standing in relation to government than yacht clubs and billiard clubs.
Religious claims to special sources of knowledge are one and all bogus, and must be seen to be so by governments, even by governments members of which are religious. Islam is particularly dangerous in the claims that it makes for recognition by government. So long as Muslims are in the minority, they do not make unacceptable demands on our forms of governance. However, as they increase in numbers, their demands will get harder to resist, since they will then have electoral power. It is all the more important, therefore, that the principle of the separation of religion and the state be reinforced by institutions which will preserve this separation, and make it difficult for candidates for election to make religious appeals to voters. Having private associations campaigning for the separation of religion and the state is no longer enough. This separation should be more stringently written into our constitutions and laws. It should not be possible for legislators to use religion as the basis for law, although it is now well-known that this kind of parti pris is unfortunately common. For a candidate for election to make promises to religious constituents that, if elected, he or she will make sure that … (where the ellipsis is filled with some act that would in some way privilege a particular religious view of, say, the value of human life), should not be acceptable in a democracy where religion and the state are supposed to be held at arm’s length from each other.
It should need no reminding, but in increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies it is probably worth reiterating, that the reason for the separation of “church” (religion) and state is based on the troubled history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, and the mutually destructive wars which convulsed the continent and its nations during that period when Christianity was in the process of breaking apart into separate confessional groups. To forget that history in the name of toleration, as Justin Trudeau has done, is to forget too much. It is all very well to tolerant, as, indeed, we should all be, but it is another thing when politicians address religious gatherings in the name of such tolerance. Trudeau seems to have forgotten that toleration should not extend to participation, as a politician in religious undertakings, and that is what he has done. According to Global News, Trudeau has just told the convention that
Justin Trudeau told an Islamic conference Saturday that groups who attacked his decision to attend the gathering only work to divide Canadians.
This is not necessarily true, and Trudeau seems to have forgotten in the process how divisive zealous religious belief can be. My disappointment that Trudeau should have attended the conference, and should have given this interpretation of opposition to his appearance at it, reflects very closely the disappointment I felt when the presidential candidates in 2008 appeared at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, as if to receive Warren’s blessing or nihil obstat. This kind of apparent endorsement of a religious demographic is inappropriate of persons one of whom was shortly to take the oath of office as President of the United States, in whose constitution they will swear to uphold, separation of church and state is an integral provision.