Devaluing Secular Government?

The idea of separating religion from state was a major advance in political thought, yet massively undervalued. So much so that many in the West take it for granted. Two recent articles — one about Pakistan, another about France — underscore how that idea deserves greater appreciation and strengthening.

To grasp the importance of secular government, observe its negation in Pakistan. Consider the tragic story of one teenager, Anwar Ali. During a prayer meeting at the neighborhood mosque, he thought the imam asked who loves Mohammad, and naturally he raised his hand. But he had misheard the question; in fact the imam had asked who does not love the prophet. The imam denounced the boy for blasphemy, a crime punishable by death.

The story turns from awful to grisly. In shame the boy went home. He cut off his right hand. And he brought it back to the imam in penance. “What I did,” the boy later said, “was for love of the Prophet Mohammad.” His father said he felt lucky to have a son so devout. And doubtless the boy and his father really believe all that, but it is also a crucial factor that in allegations of blasphemy, as the New York Times reports, it is “nearly impossible for the accused to defend themselves in court. Even publicly repeating details of the accusation is tantamount to blasphemy in its own right.”

That incident in Pakistan calls to mind life in Europe long ago, before the Age of Enlightenment, when the dominant religion of the time — then it was Christianity — denounced blasphemers and burned heretics. Politically, with the advent of secular government, we’ve come a long way since then.

But to grasp why the separation of religion from state must be bolstered within the West, consider an article in The New Republic.

Published a year after the attacks at Charlie Hebdo, the article pushes back on France’s policy of secular government, known as laicite. Broadly speaking, that policy encompasses freedom of religion, the separation of religion from government, and constraints on religious expression. Laicite was intended to block the influence of the Catholic church on affairs of state. And over all laicite is an admirable policy (though some applications, such as bans on religious attire, arguably infringe on individual freedom).

So, against the backdrop of the jihadist attacks at Charlie Hebdo and months later at multiple locations in Paris — attacks intended to punish France for failing to bow in submission; attacks carried out by holy warriors animated by the goal of a totalitarian Islamic society wherein religion and state are inseparable — The New Republic floats this outlandish suggestion, “Is it time for France to abandon Laicite?”

The article, which you can read here, attempts to defend its proposal for rolling back laicite, but the argument conspicuously ignores the actual character and basic goal of the Islamic totalitarian movement, while harping on the at-best peripheral issue that some Muslims purportedly chafe at the country’s secular laws. In the end the proposal boils down to appeasement of the Islamist movement.

It is revealing of our present intellectual climate that a reputable, intellectual magazine — for decades a bastion of American liberalism — has published an article that calls for putting hammer and chisel to the wall separating religion from state as a means of abating the threat from a cause seeking religious totalitarianism.

What’s needed now more than ever is wider understanding and an uncompromising defense of the separation of religion from state as a cornerstone of a free society.

(Originally published on Times of Israel.)