Another look at Secularism and Muslim non-conformity
June 10, 2009
In a previous post about President Obama’s view of free expression , I made these claims:
“The point of citizenship is to liberate people from State control over the way they live their lives. This remains true even when a democratic State wants everyone to accept secular values. But the promotion of secularism, a democratic value, should not prevail over democracy itself.”
Many people disagree with such views, both religious and secular. Religious tyrants hate diversity, we know that. What does the democratic tyrant sound like? “The point of democracy,” this tyrant argues, “is to use State control to liberate The People from having to suffer minorities living their lives.”
By the tyrant’s special logic, someone who won’t conform won’t join The People, and doesn’t really want citizenship anyways. After all, if a minority wanted citizenship, they’d want to be equal, and so they’d prove their equality by conforming to the majority. As the tyrant says, the only kind of equality that really counts is equality to The People: the Great Majority dictates who is really equal and who is not. So argues the tyrant.
What is the alternative to tyrannical democracy? Protection of a pluralistic democracy requires the protection of each individual person, not the protection of The People, whatever that means. Giving The People all the rights is precisely the path to tyranny, and tyrants know this well. That’s the tyrant’s lucky lifetime job: to protect The People’s rights. The People need protection from their Evil Enemies. Who can protect and lead The People? Hitler and Stalin knew well how to draw adoring crowds.
Hitler and Stalin? How’d we get there? You hate tyrants, you say. We’ve gotten pretty far from today’s issue of reclusive sects wearing odd clothing. Your kind of anti-religious secularism is the new and improved protection against tyranny, you claim. Do you suppose that wielding The State against weak minorities will keep you safe? Fleeing one tyranny can send you into the embracing arms of another tyranny. Let’s look closer at anti-religious secularism. Disagreement with protection of religious expression is loudly expressed by some secular people who seem afraid of religious minorities. Fear of minorities is a powerful tool, a tool that has long proven useful. Fear of minorities can be used for all sorts of political purposes. But none of those purposes are democratic.
The spirit of democracy does not lie in fear of minorities; the spirit of democracy lies in fear of majorities. To rationally deal with both kinds of fears, real democracy requires courage, a special kind of courage from each person and from society as a whole. Each person must have the courage to stand up to majorities as a free, thoughtful, and proud individual. The whole society must have the courage to tolerate and protect any individuals who would claim their freedoms. Absent such courage, the descent into paranoia and tyranny can be swift. Your zealous secularism won’t necessarily protect you then.
Countries where secularism is robust, where religious people are weak minorities, are beginning to think that anti-religious conformity is a great democratic value. Maybe countries enjoying their great “victories” over religious conformity are blind to the Majority conformities they are imposing on individuals. There is no victory for the spirit of democracy here. If you really respect free thought and free expression, don’t protect just the Majority. If you really respect individual liberty, don’t hand out citizenship to only those who would immediately surrender liberty. Muslims who disdain YOUR citizenship’s high price of social conformity display greater respect for democracy’s spirit than you. And you zealous secularists would feel the same, if you happened to live in a religious society that gives citizenship at the price of hiding your atheism.
Is the secularist so proud of the loftily high-minded freedom of thought and conscience? What the secularist prizes so highly, should not be denied to others. Yes, some Muslims, like many Christians and others, don’t value free thought and expression as much. So democracy should exclude them? What paradox, what hypocrisy, must a democracy embrace to exclude them? The zealous secularist thinks, "Of course, every mind should be equally free, but until you use your free mind to agree with me, you can’t be my equal." Would you teach someone how precious a free mind is, by first telling them that they can’t think too freely? Would you teach someone how wonderful a free democracy is, by first instructing them how to immediately conform? Lessons will indeed be taught, but perhaps not those you intend. The great lesson of real democracy over the centuries is that the courage to openly extend freedoms to non-conformists is rewarded in the long run by the growing devotion of non-conformists to democracy. The great lesson of paranoid closed societies is that the divide between the Good People and the Evil Others is eventually exploited by eager tyrants.
Let me close with one more warning to zealous secularists, if they would not learn from logic or history. Enjoy your democratic conformity now – but what will you do when The Majority turns upon you next? What rights will you claim when your beliefs and lifestyle are no longer the fashion, or (surprise!) you someday decide the Majority is wrong? The real purpose of secularism, of democracy, is to protect the freedom of each individual person’s mind and belief and lifestyle. The People need no protection, save from themselves.
#1 ckoproske on Wednesday June 10, 2009 at 9:15am
John. Stuart. Mill.
#2 Jenna on Wednesday June 10, 2009 at 7:17pm
Thank you. I’ve often become disheartened by persons that identify as “free thinkers” when they spout rhetoric that is just as divisive and prejudicial as that from fundamentalists. The duty of a secular society is to not impose any religious requirements on a citizen, for or against. The ultimate goal is, as Obama said, to educate all citizens in order to allow them to make their own decisions. Being forced to conform to what anyone else regards as aesthetically “proper” (matters of public health and safety excluded), is tyranny, no matter how it is justified or packaged. Yes, the veil represents oppression to many westerners, but to some Muslim women it is a way to prevent the overt objectification of their bodies. Disagree? That is your choice in a free society, but it is her choice to wear the veil.
#3 Nairb on Friday June 12, 2009 at 10:17am
Mr Shook says
“As the tyrant says, the only kind of equality that really counts is equality to The People: the Great Majority dictates who is really equal and who is not. So argues the tyrant. “
This is a strawman. Asking people to conform to the law is the norm in every state. When the law states no religous symbols (eg clothes) in schools or in public service - this is an enlightened, fair and ethical law.
#4 Nairb on Friday June 12, 2009 at 10:18am
Mr Shook says
“What is the alternative to tyrannical democracy? Protection of a pluralistic democracy requires the protection of each individual person, not the protection of The People, whatever that means. “
This is not about People Versus Individuals. This is about defining reasonable rules in society.
For example we do not allow people to walk around nude. Is this tyranny?
#5 Nairb on Friday June 12, 2009 at 10:21am
Mr Shook says
“Do you suppose that wielding The State against weak minorities will keep you safe? . Fear of minorities can be used for all sorts of political purposes. “
Strawman. In the case in point it is not oriented at minorities. The same rule applies to all (Christians cannot wear ostentatious christian symbols, jews cannot wear kippa, sikhs cannot wear turbans and muslims cannot wear a veil).Ensuring education is secular is not fear - it gives children protection from religion. Ensuring the public service is secular - symbolises and helps ensure the state is secular.
Fear is a tool used by everyone, including yourself in your final argument here.
Does it bother you that women are forced to accept 2nd class status due to uncivilised barbaric practices instilled through fear?
#6 Nairb on Friday June 12, 2009 at 10:26am
Mr Shook says
“Each person must have the courage to stand up to majorities as a free, thoughtful, and proud individual. The whole society must have the courage to tolerate and protect any individuals who would claim their freedoms. Absent such courage, the descent into paranoia and tyranny can be swift. “
Bravo. Agreed. The whole society must do this.It does it through laws that protect individuals. For example a “laissez faire state” could give consumers the freedom to be duped and conned and oppressed. An activist neutral state can enshrine laws that protect those in a potentially weaker situation. ( for example children or women who are culturally treated as inferior). I know which state I wiould pick to live in.
#7 Nairb on Friday June 12, 2009 at 10:29am
Mr Shook said :
“Countries where secularism is robust, where religious people are weak minorities, are beginning to think that anti-religious conformity is a great democratic value. Maybe countries enjoying their great “victories” over religious conformity are blind to the Majority conformities they are imposing on individuals. There is no victory for the spirit of democracy here. If you really respect free thought and free expression, don’t protect just the Majority. “
Its not about social conformity its about respecting the basic elements of the state ( Libert, Egalite, Fraternite). Americans do not allow communists to become citizens. France does not accept the appliction for citizenship of people who do not know what it is to be a citizen in a country where ALL (even muslim women) are considered equal and free.
Yes, that confers a responsabilty on the applicant.
As you say yourself each individual must stand up and be counted. Do you suggest it not apply to muslim women? Are they 2nd class?
#8 Nairb on Friday June 12, 2009 at 10:35am
Mr Shook said :
Yes, some Muslims, like many Christians and others, don’t value free thought and expression as much. So democracy should exclude them?
Thats not it at all. Another strawman.
In France the freedom of one is limited only by the freedom of others.
When the “freedom and equality of women” and the “freedom to wear a special type of clothes” come into conflict an arbitration between 2 freedoms is needed.
French law does not propose that the Veil - a symbol of oppression - be banned entirely.
It simply reserves 2 or 3 areas essential for secularism where the first freedom is protected. The second freedom is protected in all other areas. Personally I would go further.
I note that Muslims excluding a muslim women from going outside the family home on her own does not bother you so much.
#9 Nairb on Friday June 12, 2009 at 10:45am
Mr Shook said
“The great lesson of real democracy over the centuries is that the courage to openly extend freedoms to non-conformists is rewarded in the long run by the growing devotion of non-conformists to democracy. “
Discouraging certain religous practices in non citizens is not about conformism nor democracy. Its about Equality and protecting the equality of those who are weak in society due to cultural or religous practices that are Irrational, Barbaric and Uncivilised!
Your so called “real democracy’ does nothing for them. It is a castle in the air. It’s the rose tinted “Im ok , everythings ok”.
How many generations do you think it is reasonable to wait for the fundamentalist to “embrace democracy” and allow his wife go outside on her own but still wearing a burqa ?
Where is the freedom and equality for them? Where is the democracy for someone who is taught to be so submissive?
Taught by irrational fundamentalist and with the collaboration of those promoting pseudo enlightened principles of cultural relativism.
#10 Nairb on Friday June 12, 2009 at 11:05am
“Yes, the veil represents oppression to many westerners, but to some Muslim women it is a way to prevent the overt objectification of their bodies. Disagree? “
Yes I disagree.
But I am not sure where to begin.
If you were taught biology , you know that interest in other people’s bodies is natural and healthy in any animal. Yes, Humans are animals.
Secondly , you were careful to say SOME women. What about the others? Do you care about them?
Thirdly, what does condoning this symbol of oppression say to the countless women in poor suburbs who are being pressured to wear the veil by male thugs.
Why are they being pressured?
Because Wahhabi money is pouring into these suburbs to pick up recruits from the disaffected. You know, the sect that produced Bin Laden and 9/11 and the London bombing.
These young men are being manipulated by their social situation to conform to islam. Then they go to North Africa for a wife becuse a local one will not be submissive enough. And when the wife comes and starts to wear a burqa for perhaps the first time on request of her french husband and where she is obliged to go nowhere without accompanyment you complain when she does not get citizenship.
Thanks for your support of civilisation. Thanks for your support of womens rights. Thanks for your lofty ideals.
This is not about being proper. This is not a crusade against muslims. This is about protecting individuals, secularism and civilised values. Something that quite a lot of moderate muslims support in fact.
My feeling is that you are not well acquainted with the issues.