Thursday, 1 May 2008

RSA debate agrees – a secular state is best for Islam

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Broad agreement was the order of the day this lunchtime at the Royal Society of Arts, where four leading commentators on the role of Islam in Britain gathered to debate the question: "The Secular State – the best option for British Muslims?" The debate was chaired by the Muslim peer Baroness Kishwer Falkner.

Speaking first was Dr Usama Hasan, director of the City Circle, an organisation that seeks to promote the development of distinct British Muslim identity. Hasan opened by stressing that political secularism is desirable for all, but that many Muslims, himself included, would find it difficult to accept a state of "metaphysical secularism" – one that operates on the assumption that there is no god.

Hasan was followed by Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain, who suggested that the question taken on by the debate was something of a red herring. He stated that among the majority of Muslims in Western democracies there was no problem with secularism, and that the real debate concerns the roles of Islam or secularism in the governments of countries with majority Muslim populations. Bunglawala suggested that some Muslim countries have had negative experiences with secularism, for example in Turkey where the hugely popular governing Islamic AK Party has come under attack from a militant secular minority well entrenched in the state apparatus.

Next up was the Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai Brown, Chair of the organisation British Muslims for Secular Democracy, who began by stressing that secularism should not be seen as a "backdoor way of privileging atheism", and claiming that she finds "the fundamentalism of Richard Dawkins and Islamic fundamentalism" to be "two sides of the same coin". Brown added that she opposes the French style of secularism - which in her view has been used in "racist ways" and has given secularism a bad name. She stated that there is the greatest potential when the state is religiously neutral, pointing out that this is not yet the case in Britain. As an example of how a secular state can succeed in comparison to an Islamic one, Brown asked the audience to consider the relative stability and development in India since independence when compared to neighbouring Pakistan.

Ed Husain, author of The Islamist and founder of the counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation, was last to speak and, along with the others, came down in defence of secularism, stressing that it is the reason Muslims are able to live in the UK today. To highlight this he used the example of Abdullah William Quilliam, the British covert to Islam after whom the Foundation is named, who in the far less secular 1890s was stoned along with his followers for leading Muslim prayers in Liverpool.

Husain advanced three reasons why some Muslims have a "psychological block" against secularism. Firstly, the words for secularism in some languages, such as Urdu, have meanings equivalent to "atheism", which can prove off-putting. Second he blames the rising influence of Islamism, whose proponents have been more effective than others in making themselves heard, and lastly the reluctance of the liberal intelligentsia in the UK to stand up for secularism and liberal democracy. He thinks that the answer may lie in better teaching of the values of secularism and democracy in schools, particularly in history lessons where students need to learn about the conflicts and obstacles we had to overcome to establish the secular, liberal democracy we have today.

The debate was rounded off by Kishwer Falkner, who described her own experiences with religious groups lobbying the House of Lords. She praised groups, such as Muslims and Catholics, for being well-organised and ensuring they have a say in public affairs, but warned that at times the religious demands for exceptions from the law can go beyond belief in democracy and reach very exceptional levels.

So, that's my quick-fire rundown of the debate this lunchtime. It would have been interesting to have someone on the panel who wasn't backing secularism, but it's still fair to say there's plenty to chew on here. It's clear that while the speakers all support a secular state, there was uneasiness among them about the role of atheism (see Usama Hasan's problem with "metaphysical secularism"), and Yasmin Alibhai Brown's suggestion that the likes of Richard Dawkins are "fundamentalists" on a par with Islamic fundamentalists is sure to raise a few eyebrows. Brown also had strong opinions on the merits of French secularism (in her view it's "racist"), an issue covered by Joan W Scott in the March/April New Humanist.

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maxi said...

Why the 'uneasiness' over atheism? I mean, besides our taste for delicious BBQd baby, we really are no different from those of a religious persuasion...