Talking about the hijab ban in France and plans to allow “painless” female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation) in Italy, Letter from Gotham writes:
Can somebody please tell me what is the difference in principle between outlawing one religious custom and allowing another? I recognize that wearing a scarf does no harm to anyone. My point is, isn’t the secular society the ultimate authority?
She asks again.
I’m not clear on what he opposes. Is it this particular ruling [hijab ban], or the right of a secular government to ban certain religious practices? [… Should] nice, sanitary female genital mutilations […] be allowed? After all the parents want it. Or does a secular government have the right to interfere in the practice of religious customs?
I think she raises an important point. My opinion is that on the general concept, there are definitely times when the state can and should interfere into religious or cultural affairs. This should be restricted to practices which are barbaric or otherwise restrict the rights of individuals or groups, etc. It is always a good idea to consider whether a specific policy will work or not and what its side-effects will be.
Thinking about this issue, I came across an excellent post at Pedantry.
I’m an advocate of secular government, and I believe secular government can only be a success when religious people demand it as something in their own best interests.
This is very close to my own stance as well.
I think there are legitimate grounds to see in contemporary Islamic legal thought the possibility of a system of laws and governance that need not be excessively unjust or alienating and would certainly draw on more genuinely local traditions than copying European legal and political ideas directly. I think there may even be grounds to think that the development of such a code might be preferable in the real circumstances that prevail in the Middle East to imposing European legal standards.
I prefer to criticise (or praise, when the opportunity arises) modern Islamic politics on the basis of what it wishes to establish rather than because of its religious origins alone. Indeed, having claimed that it is wrong to deny people their religion when they undertake political acts, I can hardly condemn Islamic political ideology for being both political and Islamic. I think non-Muslims could take a far more progressive approach to Islamic politics by criticising it for what it actually proposes rather than for its lack of secularism. When Islamic political activists demand the promotion of social justice because Mohammed commanded it, the secular advocate of social justice should not start getting picky about whether social justice is desirable because it’s what God wants or for more secular reasons. When Islamic politicians demand a second rate status for women or non-Muslims because of something they claim their religion demands, rather than either debate Islamic theology or demand that Islamic politicians establish a secularism neither they nor their constituents believe in, we ought to go and hunt down Islamic political activists with contrary ideas so that we can support their alternatives.
Scott has hit on a very important point here. Most of the Muslim world is not secular. Most people there take their religion very seriously. Also, in most of these countries, the secular elite that have ruled over the years have not really being a smashing success.
There are Islamic political parties in a number of Muslim countries, for example the religious alliance MMA. But a number of secular parties also have some religious character. A secular culture like Europe is not likely in the Muslim world in the near future and we cannot force them to adopt secularism.
The Muslim states should be allowed to develop their own path to a tolerant, good political system. This system would be based on their local culture and religion to some extent.
This obviously does not mean that we allow the extremists like Taliban etc. to take over entire states. Instead we should judge actions rather than a take binary decision between secularism and Islamism. If a political leader advocates for the government to take care of the poor, a la the Alabama Governor, that is well and good. Mistreatment of minorities and women obviously is not.
You might say that the theory is fine but the real world is different and there are a lot of extremist Islamic parties. A counterexample is obviously the Turkish AKP. A number of political parties, both explicitly Islamic and generically Islamic, have been willing to be part of democratic systems. Their actions need to be watched, but there is no reason some of them shouldn’t evolve into liberal democratic parties.
The alternative is not attractive either. Secular dictators which flout the rights of their people can become huge liabilities. US support of such dictators will be seen by the people of those countries as inimical to their interests. Plus these dictators haven’t really done much good. I don’t think Algeria would have been worse under FIS than the military government and the civil war it has gone through in the last decade.