The Blog

Religion and Secular Liberalism Should Enrich Each Other in a Modern Democracy

Ignorance of others in a pluralist democracy is a big enemy. In recent decades the lack of religious literacy in Europe is becoming ever more evident. On the other hand, many religious minorities have an equal knowledge deficit in the nature of secular liberalism as well.

The debate as to how religious ethics and not dogma can exist side by side with liberal democracy, even enrich one another, has to be carried out with tolerance, respect and objectivity.

The chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips waded into the debate on religion in modern society and suggested that "being an Anglican, being a Muslim or being a Methodist or being a Jew is just as much part of your identity and you should not be penalised or treated in a discriminatory way because of that. That's part of the settlement of a liberal democracy." His recent comments on Muslims that "continuously pretending that a group is somehow eventually going to become like the rest of us is perhaps the deepest form of disrespect" has, however, created interest in some and unease amongst others.

Religion, particularly Christianity in Europe, has been a major influence on art, culture, philosophy and law. Judaism and Islam have their own spheres of influence. But in the post-Renaissance world, the separation of church and state or the lack of authority of religious leaders over political decisions has become a key feature of modern democracies. In some Muslim majority countries, such as Turkey or Tunisia, over the past century state secularism was ruthlessly against their own majority religion - Islam. As a result, the European and Muslim experience of secularism is not exactly similar.

Although Muslims were able to create successful long lasting pluralist cultures in the past, their current reality in many places is unsavoury. Early Muslims turned a pre-Islamic 'Ignorant' Arabia from barbarism to a seat of civilisation. Consequently, Muslim rule in Baghdad, Cordoba, Istanbul and in Delhi were based on knowledge and pluralism.

Muslims, like many others, feel secure where there is an atmosphere of freedom and reasoning, not in anarchy and blind following (Taqlid). In Muslim history there was a method of continuously renewing and re-interpreting Islam with the context of time and space through the power of reasoning (Ijtihad). Sadly, stagnation overtook this process some time ago.

Muslims can be socially conservative on some issues, but are more than capable of being loyal and productive citizens while confidently practising their faith without fear. However, religious or social conservatism of a people should not be conflated with radicalisation, extremism or terrorism.

As a 'community of communities', British Muslims are a heterogeneous group with no single figurehead - theological, social or political. The moral and ethical principles of Islam demand from them to be responsible and active citizens in Britain. Many professional Muslim youth are at the forefront in their voluntary and civic activities.

As such, labelling Muslims as moderates, liberals, conservatives, extremists or Islamists is not helpful.

Any debate on any community needs to be objective and evidence-based, not skin-deep. The reality that Muslims are being seen as 'others', 'suspects' or 'subversives' by some is not based on personal experiences in the neighbourhoods, workplaces and other civil society arenas.

Over the decades Britain has become an indisputably pluralist country and its model of pluralism has so far worked well; better than many developed countries. The metaphor for such a dynamic society is a multi-coloured human garden, where diversity does not lead to parallel lives amongst people but seeks to enrich all of them.

Many Muslims live in neighbourhoods suffering from multiple sources of deprivation and exclusion from mainstream society with poor living conditions. But we should not forget there are other groups such as the white working class who are also seriously disadvantaged. In spite of being in the lower level playing field, Muslim participation in the education, economic and voluntary sector should be seen as encouraging.

Young Muslims particularly have been in the hot seat for some time. Measures are needed to recognise their importance in society, defeat negative stereotypes in the media and eradicate barriers so that they are able to formulate their Britishness with multiple, but complementary, identities; this will give them more confidence in their self worth.

Mosque Open Days and the recent MCB's 'Visit My Mosque Day' have proved that mosques and community centres are looking to build friendships, trust and mutual respect with their neighbours. They should be more frequent and more structured.

Islamophobia, like anti-Semitism, is a sad reality now but overplaying or underplaying its importance is dangerous. There is no need for political correctness in our robust democracy. There is also no room for undermining a community and putting any group into a corner.

What we need in our fractured world today is more openness and transparency that will facilitate an objective discussion on how people from all backgrounds - religious or secular - can know one another better and co-exist in the spirit of plurality.

As human beings, we have our unique individuality. Yet, we are destined to live together with dignity and to appropriately steward our shared planet. Nothing is more imperative than to strive for this sacred human undertaking now - individually and collectively.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is a noted civic leader, intellectual-activist and commentator.