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.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.