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Who Owns 'Humanism'?

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What would happen if the different faiths began automatically adding 'humanism' to their names, Islamic humanism, Buddhist, Judaic, Hindu, Christian humanism, for example - then explored what each meant. We'd probably end up with a rich dialogue based on a celebration of two great realities: our shared humanity and the richness of our different religious traditions. In some countries, this is far from just a utopian vision.

But globally we seem to be heading in the opposite direction: towards greater division and a reduction of religion to what Ed Husain, author of The Islamist, described as "terrorism, anger and conflict". The World Economic Report gives figures: the societal risk from the rise of religious fanaticism increased from 10.9% to 12.3% last year.

Much initial wishful thinking accompanied the popular uprisings too quickly called the 'Arab Spring'. This has dissipated in the course of 2012 and the coming year seems more than usually uncertain. The anger that had welled up against authoritarian rulers was never likely to die away while its causes remained: unemployment, lack of personal security, lack of democratic accountability, a public space governed not by debate but by the threat of violence or violent conflict itself.

The trouble with recourse to the 'domino effect' is that it implies all the dominoes are the same. They never are. Political and socio-economic country profiles are different. So are the secular and religious balance in the forces of transformation as well as in the regimes they oppose. The mistake is to imagine that because change from below in one country - say Tunisia - is relatively smooth, the same will apply in different circumstances elsewhere.

Implementing 'a duty to protect' is today one of the most difficult both ethically and in realpolitik foreign policy terms. In a situation of asymmetric warfare, particularly when other military interventions are already taking place, as in the Spanish Civil War, a decision not to intervene militarily can be a form of taking sides. But the decision to intervene is also freighted with negative potential.

The clear and present danger is not so much fanaticism as its crucible, for Islam, a particular Salafi takfiri mind-set: the clinging to social models from an imagined past, rejection of an eclectic cluster of items defining 'the West', everything from secularism to short skirts, Christianity to modernity, 'western' democracy to Muslims with the wrong religious practices. It has jumped continents and crossed deserts, from North Africa and the Middle East, to sub-Saharan Africa. It is alien to most mainstream African Islam and society. The Mali of two years ago was a flourishing, open society with a tolerant form of Islam and a track record of notable conflict resolution. Today we are worrying where the French-led military intervention against jihadists will end.

But, of course, takfiri salafism can merely form a brand of austere Puritanism; it does not necessarily result in the terrorism that is, for example, disrupting the life of the north-east of Africa's largest state, Nigeria. But it shares certain features of it. One is a closed mind that cannot deal with complexity, diversity and ambivalence. Instead it inhabits a polarized world starkly divided into the good and the bad, the righteous and the wicked, a Manichean vision that cannot tolerate nuances, dialogue or debate. In its terrorist mode the division runs through the personality itself: on the one hand alienated, insecure, with an anguished loss of identity, on the other a martyr and an heroic warrior, creator of a new world, a member of the elect.

This is not a uniquely religious mind set. It is a pathological one, or at least shows features of it. There was very little religion in Timothy McVeigh's motivation for the Oklahoma bombing nor in Breitvik's no less appalling slaughter in Oslo. But they shared a divided mind and a divided world in which they were warrior heroes, champions of a cause justifying the slaughter of innocents. And they sustained this imaginary world thanks to the same closed mind that characterizes those committing violence in the name of God.

There is no easy way to contain the spread of this mindset and the violent world it projects. It is not irreversible. De-radicalisation programmes have illustrated that. One of its preconditions is the same as a key element in its reversal: the absence or presence of gainful employment. A meaning for life that encompasses the vision of a shared humanity, a theology of life rather than an ideology of hatred and death in religious garb, would be no less important.

The answer has to come from within each faith. Each needs to be challenged whether the word 'humanism' can truthfully be put after its name as its central distinguishing ethical feature. And I would include a secular faith in progress, autonomy, and reason. The question is what kind of politics and society would each religious - or secular - humanism look like?

Well, a religious-friendly democracy and a democracy friendly religion would be a start. That needs a lot of elaboration. There is much more to democracy than elections: notably a civic space marked by a conversation about the Common Good. So let us say simply that in each of these different humanisms should be found intimations of this society and politics, a compelling story of hope in action and of open minds at work.

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