Monday, 19 September 2011

Islam in a secular Europe

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On Friday I attended a debate in London on "Islam in a secular Europe", organised by the British Humanist Association and the Central London Humanists ahead of the March for a Secular Europe, which took place on Saturday afternoon. It was an interesting debate which highlighted some useful areas for agreement, as well as some tricky issues on which the religious (in this case, Muslims) and non-religious find it more difficult to agree.

The debate was chaired by Rashad Ali, a former member of the extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir who is now director of the counter-extremist organisation CENTRI, and he began by allowing each member of the panel to make their opening remarks. First up was Maleiha Malik, Professor in Law at King's College London, who stresssed that, in contrast to some hysterical public perceptions, European Muslims are a very powerless religious minority, and therefore need secularism to protect their religious freedoms. She outlined her own definition of secularism, which entails the absolute institutional separation of law and politics from religion, and the provision of secular, not religious, justifications for public policy. Malik went on to argue that, on the whole, liberal constitutional law in the UK has proven perfectly adequate for resolving issues concerning the accommodation of Muslim culture, as well as other religious disputes. As examples she cited the equality laws around sexual orientation, in particular the Ladele Case, where it was ruled that a Christian registrar could not refuse to conduct same-sex civil partnerships.

Second to speak was Yahya Birt, a convert to Islam and co-editor of the recent book British Secularism and Religion: Islam, Society and the State. He began by saying that there is every reason to think that the majority of Muslims in Europe are perfectly comfortable with secularism. He then discussed the importance of recognising that there are various forms of secularism, and pointed to the differences between the American and French versions. Neither, in Birt's view, particularly apply in the UK, where the attitude towards religion is one of "neither dominance nor disappearance". He suggested that a key question is whether there are secular justifications for the role of religion in society, for instance faith schools (Birt thinks there are).

Next we heard from Maryam Namazie, who is spokesperson for the Council for Ex-Muslims of Britain and One Law For All, which campaigns against the use of Sharia law in the UK. Where the previous panellists focused on the position of Muslims in Europe, particularly in the UK, Namazie addressed the issue in terms of the power of Islamist regimes around the world. She started by pointing out that secularism is a crucial and minimum precondition for civil society, and that religion is central to the debate. Of all religions, Islam, argued Namazie, is most central to the debate, because it is the banner of a political movement – Islamism. She suggested that a major problem with the debate over secularism and Islam is that if you show concern about Islamism and Sharia law, or more specifically stoning or executions under Islamic regimes, you are accused of Islamophobia and scapegoating Muslims, and this is used to close down debate. She ended by advancing her view, which she has previously outlined in more detail, that we are living under an "Islamic Inquisition", whereby Islamists hold political power in many parts of the world and seek to close down criticism and dissent.

Namazie was followed by Humeira Iqtidar, who is a lecturer at King's College and author of Secularising Islamists? Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ud-Dawa in Pakistan. She began by saying it is important that secularism does not become an ideology that "trumps democracy", as it has in being used as a reason to support dictatorship in Pakistan, for example. Iqtidar then turned to the issue of Islam in Europe, arguing that current anxieties stem from Europe's colonial history and the perception of Europe's unique place in world history, and pointing out that it is important to remember that the presence of Muslims in Europe is not something new. She also addressed Namazie's notion of an "Islamic Inquisition", suggesting that it is a dangerous idea, as it implies that there is something analogous to the Christian Inquisition, with a methodology behind it. She compared this with the Nazi demonisation of the Jews, which eventually created a situation where anti-Semitism could be instrumentalised.

The final panellist to speak was the former diplomat Sir David Blatherwick, a supporter of humanism and secularism who once served as the British Ambassador to Egypt. He pointed out that religious fanatics falsely like to present secularism as a threat to religion, whereas it is really about providing a level playing field for all beliefs. It is a framework, not an ideology. He also suggested that Muslims and non-Muslims spend too much time discussing their differences, when most people would agree on basic principles of human rights. With that in mind, he asked what we are really talking about when we mention a "clash of civilisations". He pointed out that secularism should entail a common society in which everyone can participate, and ended by noting that nothing divides a society as much as religious separation in schools, as he discovered during his time working in Northern Ireland.

Following Blatherwick's contribution, the event was opened up to questions from the audience, and it was at this stage that some of the areas of disagreement became apparent. The issue of burqa bans always has the ability to divide opinion, and this was the case on Friday, as Humeira Iqtidar's view that bans, such as that imposed in France this year, close down conversation, was contrasted with Maryam Namazie's contention that bans are not necessarily totalitarian, and can instead be about where society draws a line as to what is considered acceptable. As evidence for her "Islamic Inquisition" thesis, Namazie pointed out that the conversation always focuses on the right to wear the burka, rather than the right not to wear the burka. There was conflict within the audience as one member stated that the elephant in the room when discussing Islam in Europe is race, and suggested that some opposition to the burka stems from racism. Other audience members objected, pointing out that their opposition is based on feminism, and there was further controversy when Maleiha Malik suggested that some European feminists have allied with the racist far-right in their opposition to Islam, citing the Somali-Dutch activist Ayaan Hirsi-Ali as an example.

There was also controversy over an audience question concerning the Qur'an, with the Muslim panellists being asked if there were any parts of the book (particularly those concerning violence) that they reject. Both Humeira Iqtidar and Maleiha Malik objected to the question, with Iqtidar pointing out that there is a fantasy that Muslims in general are more religious than followers of other faith, and Malik suggesting that picking out lines from a text and asking individuals to justify is at best an anti-intellectual pursuit, and at worst something verging on persecution. From the humanist perspective, David Blatherwick agreed that analysing a text verse-by-verse is pointless, and suggested the best solution is to talk to Muslims about their beliefs.

So was it useful to debate the subject of Islam in a secular Europe? I'd say it certainly highlighted the fact that secularism isn't something that is valued only by atheists, with all the Muslim speakers pointing out that it is essential for guaranteeing the religious freedoms of Muslims as a minority living in a multi-faith society. The debate also highlighted numerous disagreements, but that too is useful for understanding the position of Islam in Europe.

One subject that is clearly controversial is the link between criticism of Islam and the far-right, with humanists and secularists objecting to the notion that their positions on Islam can have any connection to the positions of racist groups such as the British National Party or the English Defence League. Humanists are quite right to distance themselves from those groups, but in my view it is wrong to act as though the two positions exist in isolation from each other. There are times when the secularist and far-right views will overlap, for instance on an issue like the burqa, and it is important to acknowledge that this can cause problems in communicating the secularist arguments to Muslims. This is why it is crucial, in my opinion, for humanists to mount a critique of racism and the far-right that is as robust as the critique of Islamism.

Another controversial issue in the debate was Maryam Namazie's "Islamic Inquisition" thesis. Namazie is an Iranian dissident who campaigns courageously against Islamist regimes around the world, and her critique is informed by that international perspective. However, Friday's debate was about Islam in Europe, and I am unsure how useful it is to frame such a discussion in terms of am "Islamic Inquisition". I agree that we have had issues in Europe concerning Islam and free speech, not least with the Rushdie affair and the 2005 Danish cartoons controversy, but I found myself in agreement with Maleiha Malik when she pointed out that it is important to make a distinction between Tehran and Tower Hamlets. While international events have had a significant effect on Islam in Europe, particularly since 2001, there is clearly a huge difference between the experience of those living under oppressive Islamist regimes and those living in a Europe which now includes a sizeable minority of Muslims, and I think we risk losing nuance if we frame a debate on Islam in Europe in such terms.

Interested to hear your views on these issues – please do share in the comments.
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