Spiritual Straits: Secularism’s ‘safe space’?

Ruth Townsend 21 January 2015

In a secular age, religion gets a lot of bad press.  Or rather the extreme manifestations of it do. 

One small call for freedom of speech against fundamentalist ideology was voiced by Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian writer who set up an online forum, 'Liberal Saudi Network', which challenged the dogmatic rule of an autocratic monarchy.  Amongst other things, Badawi promoted the idea of secularism, praised the Egyptian revolution of 2011, and argued against the stifling of personal creativity which a theocratic monarchy imposed. For this act of disobedience, Badawi was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to ten years in prison and one thousand lashes.  He received his first fifty lashes in a public flogging earlier this month. 

The barbarity of the Saudi Arabian government has sparked international outrage, particularly from secularised and liberal states in Europe, to whom the absolute intolerance of political dissent and the brutality of its punishments is incomprehensible.  Current affairs became awash with a flurry of public comment condemning ideologies which are informed by religious belief.   

But what is difficult for us in the nominally secularised West to accept (the actual faith of its people, conveniently, doesn’t appear to have a bearing on this label) is that secularisation is not a neutral space in which to talk about religion and faith. 

The uncomfortable truth is that when religion is suppressed from the public sphere, it necessarily involves the suppression of people to whom this or that religion is essential to their sense of selfhood.  France’s ban on the wearing of the niqab in 2011 is a pertinent example of a blanket ruling which eliminates from the public gaze a faith or philosophy which doesn’t fit the state’s prescribed ideology.  And we must ask: what sort of liberalism is that? 

The contentious point is that outwardly innocuous legislations like this one carry the same implications of the public flogging of Badawi for his refusal to bow to the principles of an autocratic state.  Raif, too, was exercising his right to form his own beliefs.

Religious debate is healthy and good, but we cannot fall into the trap of believing that an atheistic philosophy is in any way a neutral ground from which to condemn or judge.  The secular state too can commit small and yet insidious attacks on the liberal principle of individual freedom and civil liberty, which encompasses a right to follow a religion and embrace its traditions.  No religion orders its followers to commit the type of atrocity in which an innocent man in imprisoned for exercising freedom of expression.  But the idea that liberalism can only exist in a world which is governed by a suppression of religious belief is wrong.  Such suppression incites instead the sort of resentful hatred which any truly liberal society would shun.