Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Secularism shares the chracteristics of totalitarian regimes: Baroness Warsi strikes again

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Sayeeda Warsi
Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservative peer and Cabinet Office minister, has a track record of riling secularists – a look back at the occasions when she's been mentioned on this blog shows that in the past two years she has declared that the Coalition government will "do God", suggested that anti-Muslim bigotry is acceptable around the dinner tables of middle England, and insisted that Britain needs to become more Christian.

Now, in an article in today's Daily Telegraph, Warsi has dusted off her old arguments in order to claim that "a militant secularisation is taking hold" of society. The comments coincide with her trip to the Vatican as part of a British delegation (a reciprocal visit following the Pope's UK tour in 2010), and the Baroness points out that, when she meets the Pope today, she will be giving him her "absolute commitment to continue fighting for faith in today’s society".

So how exactly is "militant secularisation" taking hold? Over to Baroness Warsi:
"We see it in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won’t fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere."
In her article, Warsi is talking about the whole of Europe, so it's possible she isn't referring to Britain in this passage. But if she is, it will certainly come as news to many secularists that the British state "won't fund faith schools", especially with the information coming directly from a minister in a government committed to funding faith schools.

In Warsi's view, "faith has a vital and important role to play in modern society", and in order for it to play this role European societies need to become "more confident and more comfortable in [their] Christianity", because "the societies we live in, the cultures we have created, the values we hold and the things we fight for all stem from centuries of discussion, dissent and belief in Christianity". With this in mind, Warsi says she is astonished "that those who wrote the European Constitution made no mention of God or Christianity".

And what of those who argue that states and societies should not be founded on religious foundations? For Warsi, they are embracing a dangerous principle:
"For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities. That’s why in the 20th century, one of the first acts of totalitarian regimes was the targeting of organised religion."
Reaction to Warsi's article has focused on this last statement, but it's important to point out that she qualifies it in the next paragraph:
"I am not calling for some kind of 21st century theocracy. Religious faith and its followers do not have the only answer. There will be times when politicians and faith leaders will disagree. What is more, secularism is not intrinsically damaging. My concern is when secularisation is pushed to an extreme, when it requires the complete removal of faith from the public sphere. So I am calling for a more open confidence in faith, where faith has a place at the table, though not an exclusive position." 
Nevertheless, it's clear that Warsi doesn't view secularism as a positive – note that the best she can say is that it's "not intrinsically damaging". Her outrage at the absence of God and Christianity from the EU's Lisbon Treaty is particularly telling, and it would be interesting to know what she makes of the American constitution, which requires the state to remain neutral on matters of religion. According to Warsi's argument, the First Amendment would surely be an expression of militant, even totalitarian, secularism, but it has allowed an array of faiths to thrive within America's diverse society.

Secularists argue that, in a Britain (or Europe) populated by people of many faiths and none, it is better for the state to adopt this neutral stance towards religion. But for Warsi, "faith has a key role to play in bridging" the divides between different communities. Perhaps so, but secularists would also argue that faith has the power to divide, sometimes violently, and as such it should not be placed in a position of power. Neither should one religion be seen to underpin our contemporary society on account of its historical dominance. Warsi suggests we should be proud of our "Christian foundations", and even believes that such pride can benefit non-Christian Europeans. But, as Kenan Malik argued in a recent essay for New Humanist, European history is hardly a simple tale of Christian heritage, and European civilisation (whatever that may be) has been moulded by both Christian and non-Christian influences. The religious landscape of Europe, through both secularisation and immigration, has changed profoundly in the last century, and secularists argue that we should embrace this diversity by agreeing that it is no longer appropriate for religion to play a dominant role in public life.

This issue is the subject of a lively and ongoing public debate, but it is not one that is enhanced by drawing parallels with fascism and Stalinism. Baroness Warsi does not quite stretch to mentioning Hitler in her Telegraph article, but by comparing modern secularists to 20th century totalitarians, it could certainly be argued that she has broken Godwin's law.

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