Militant secularism in Western Europe

In response to a landmark case in the European Court of Human Rights involving two British women who were dismissed by their employers for wearing crucifix while working, the government of the United Kingdom is set to argue that Christians have no right to wear the crucifix at work. British ministers will point out that since wearing of the said symbol is not a requirement of the Christian faith, the right to wear it cannot be invoked against the right of employers to set out a uniform policy that bans the wearing of the said symbol.

In accordance with Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right of individuals to manifest their religion or belief, some religious symbols like the Sikh turban, the kara bracelet and the Muslim hijab are given special protection against company policies. The government’s position, it seems, is to strike a balance between the right to manifest one’s faith and the right of employers to define what their workers should wear at work. The idea is that the prerogative of companies must be limited only when it adversely affect the practice of a worker’s faith, and, since Christianity doesn’t require the wearing of crosses, non-wearing of crucixes doesn’t adversely affect the practice of one’s Christian faith.

This case involves several crucial questions regarding human rights: Does the right to manifest one’s belief in accordance with Article 9 apply only on manifestations that are ecclesiastically sanctioned and not on those that are personally-motivated? How important are company prerogatives when weighed against freedom of religion and freedom of expression? Indeed, can the State define what is a requirement and what is not within a religion, as the British government ministers are trying to do? It would be interesting how the European Court would resolve these questions.

But beyond these legal questions, I find this development very interesting because it represents resistance by proponents and defenders of religion against an overwhelming tide of secularism in the United Kingdom and beyond.

Most students of sociology would argue that there is a war between secularism and faith, and in that war both sides are more or less on equal footing– indeed, the very divisive and emotional national debate in Britain over the legalization of homosexual marriage is still too close to call. But I think this characterization is no longer accurate. For all intents and purposes, I think secularism has won. Despite the fact that the United Kingdom remains to be officially Christian– the Queen is the head of the established Church while the Lord Bishops, at least technically, help make laws as members of the House of Lords– the national discourse is already grounded on secularist principles. And this is true not only in Great Britain but throughout Western Europe as well.

For many staunch proponents of secularism, however, having the national discourse grounded on secularist principles is not enough. They are actively seeking to marginalize religion and remove it from the public square. As a result, Western Europe’s brand of secularism is increasingly becoming militant in orientation. Atheist thinkers, for instance, are actively calling for the eradication of religion, characterizing it as a threat that must be banished from society. And they are quite successful in influencing the public’s mood. Indeed, why else would companies be willing to risk a high-profile trial at a European court just to stick with their ban on crucifixes?

Last year, the world saw how oppressive militant secularism can be when France decided to ban the wearing of burqa, an Islamic clothing that covers a woman’s whole body, in public. The supposed intention of this ban is to combat what secularists see as a religious-based oppression of women; yet women who wear it willingly choose to do so as a matter of faith. As a result, many Muslim women are now forced to choose only one of two rights: freedom of religious expression and freedom of movement. Those who choose the former are in virtual house arrest, since they couldn’t venture outside their homes wearing burqa.

While religious fundamentalism is no doubt a threat to democracy and a hindrance to progress, viewing religion as inherently fundamentalist is dangerous. Indeed, by trying to sideline religion for fear of fundamentalism, staunch secularists become fundamentalist themselves; and secular fundamentalism, as we are seeing in France, can be as oppressive to liberty as religious fundamentalism.

In this respect, ironically, Turkish society is way ahead of its Western counterparts. Having gone through its own brand of secular fundamentalism, imposed by the Republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, that sidelined Islam for many years, it has now become confident enough to allow Islamic ideas to contribute to the forging of a vision for modern Turkey. Contrary to the fears of the West, this phenomenon has not led to the dilution of secularism or democracy. In fact, the Islamist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is preaching secularism throughout the Arab world.

Clearly, militant secularism is the next hurdle in the evolution of Western European societies. Having achieved secularism only relatively recently, many are understandably very zealous in preserving the gains and preventing religion from again encroaching on many societal spheres. I think this is a natural part of the maturation process of the said societies. As an optimist, I think the natural direction of societal evolution dictates that, sooner or later, these societies would realize the folly of secular fundamentalism and its inconsistencies with democratic ideals.

The real question is, how long would it take Western European societies to get past their secularist zeal? I think this would depend a lot on how the leaders of the faiths would respond to the overwhelming secularist trend. Proponents of religions must continue to strongly argue for their cause, but their arguments, as President Barack Obama said, must be based on “universal, rather than religion-specific, values.” They must defeat secular fundamentalism not by showing that it is against their god’s will, but rather because it is against democratic ideals.

Unfortunately, religions themselves are yet to get their acts together, and many religious leaders remain too myopic to see the need for their churches to adapt to a changing society.


3 thoughts on “Militant secularism in Western Europe”

  1. Tolerance of individuals beliefs is, in my opinion, the best gauge of a mature democracy which in turn leads to balanced policy-making. This is the reason why moderate Islamist Turkey, notwithstanding the Israel dispute, is considered by many – especially Western nations to be a leader in the region. The curious thing about respecting differing opinions is that intolerant devotion to prejudices should also be respected.

  2. It’s a euphemism for bigotry but what I’m basically saying is that respect of secular, religious and philosophical beliefs is all encompassing and inclusive – respect for all kinds of prejudice so long as not expressed through media or actions that have averse effects on others. I also agree that company prerogatives must not encroach on personal beliefs and forms of expression, provided that these do not affect an employee’s performance. It all boils down to the societal values and what nations and rulers hold important – e.g. France on burqa as a symbol of oppression

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