Dr Abdul Wahid explains how state sanctioned secularism will always supersede the “officialdom” of religion, and Ireland’s ‘yes’ vote on same-sex marriage was a prime example of this.
The result of a vote on same-sex marriage was inevitable in Ireland. How so, when the Catholic faith is so central to Ireland’s identity? The answer lies in the nature of Ireland’s secular state rather than in its supposed religious identity. In reality, state “recognition” of any religion does not mean much in real terms.
Ireland’s constitution mentions that: “The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion”.
This is similar to the many constitutions in the Muslim world, which begin in the name of Allah (swt) and explicitly mention that Islam is the “official” religion of the state.
The primacy of secularism
However, all secular states share more than a separation of religion from political life. A secular state believes that secular values ultimately trump religious values in society – but the speed at which societies travel towards this ultimate destination differs according to the country.
A recent high-profile case in Britain illustrates the issue well. A bakery was found guilty of violating equality laws by refusing to make a cake with a logo supporting same-sex marriage. The judgment was made on the basis that the Christian owners of the bakery had refused services based on the customer’s sexuality – though the owners argued they did not know his sexuality – rather they disagreed with the political cause espoused by the slogan. Some who have commented say that this case has meant the banishment of religion from the commercial world.
Similarly, many years ago, well-respected Catholic adoption agencies were closed in Britain on the grounds of conscience, since they could not see how they could provide adoption services to same-sex couples going against their beliefs.
Neither of these were apparent to many who supported the equality legislation – but they represent the triumph of the secular doctrine over religion in every situation when conflicted issues are resolved.
When society agrees that religion has no role in the public space, even “practising” religious people will concede that those who have a different personal morality should be legally allowed to express their beliefs, even if it conflicts with their own deeply held religious convictions.
Hence, religious people who believe in the legitimacy of traditional marriage will vote ‘yes’ because they have accepted the collective-religion of secularism which overrides the personal-religion of Catholicism.
The confusion of some Muslims
Over the past few years, some Muslims have adopted the language of secularism within their political discourse in the Muslim world – for example in Turkey and North Africa.
Initially, it appeared to be a pragmatic tactical acceptance of the dominant secular norm in their societies. By embracing the language of secularism, they could argue for more political and religious pluralism within dictatorial societies. This, they hoped, would permit a space for Islamic political expression.
But what started pragmatically evolved. Scholars altered their juristic opinions and thinkers their political philosophy to justify a principled endorsement of the secular state as an end in itself, believing that “Islamic ends” could be achieved within that framework by secular democratic means.
All of this illustrated they did not understand the beast they were trying to ride.
For when society as a whole accepts the secular basis of the state, it has accepted that it trumps everything else – and just as in Britain, when the laws change conflicting with religious belief and in accordance with secular freedoms, society will accept these.
Within the Muslim world there needs to be a greater understanding amongst ordinary people and opinion formers as to whether the fundamental nature of the state they want is one that is at odds with their Islamic values and beliefs, which is what a secular state is, even though they might feel it is simply the removal of “mullahs” from politics.
Christianity makes provision for “rendering unto Caesar” in society whilst rendering unto God in private. Islam places God firmly in both spheres and explicitly warns against believing “part of the Book”, whilst rejecting other parts.
Where does this road lead?
Just as some Muslims haven’t appreciated the true direction of this secular road within the Muslim world, I feel many non-Muslims haven’t appreciated the ultimate destination on their journey.
I am not engaged in any struggle to overthrow the secular order of Britain or Ireland. Unlike the artificial post-colonial constructs in the Muslim world, these are states whose legitimacy was recognised by the last legitimate Islamic ruler or Caliph in Ottoman times. But I do think I owe it to those around me to point out some home truths about the direction their road is leading society.
The logical conclusion to the idea that personal freedom should be fully legalised, provided it does no individual harm to others, would be the legalisation of all manner of currently prohibited relationships, including incest, adult-child relations and multi-partner marriage – as well as the legalisation of euthanasia, drugs, prostitution, pornography, cannibalism etc.
Purists argue these matters in philosophical terms, that if a matter is undertaken with consent, or is a personal act that harms no one else directly, the law of the state has no place to prohibit these thing.
The fact that Judeo-Christian tradition prohibited these things is irrelevant. As time goes on, test cases will arise to push the boundaries – and we will undoubtedly see further movement down this road.
Some will say this is exaggeration. But it is not.
The physicist Lawrence Krauss was asked about incestuous relationships at a debate. Krauss reflected on a thought experiment of consenting brothers and sisters having such a relationship, with contraceptive cover to prevent genetic risks to potential offspring.
The gay-rights activist Peter Tatchell has argued in the past that society should acknowledge what he said was a “truth that not all sex involving children is unwanted, abusive and harmful”.
In Denmark, bestiality was legal until April 2015. However, the arguments that overturned this law were arguments about the inability of animals to consent. Denmark is proud of its liberal traditions, decriminalising prostitution in 1999.
In May 2015, Natalie Bennett of the Green Party in the UK said she was open to the idea that “polyamorous” marital relationships (i.e. three or four people getting ‘married’) could be legalised.
It is not that the people advocating these views are crazy. They are devout believers in their secular liberal principles, and they see these suggestions as the ultimate and inevitable expression of such principles. However, Muslim advocates of a secular basis of a state – as well as many non-Muslims – are often unaware of the destination of this road.
Challenging secular principles is not bigotry
Discussing these issues can be sensitive because what is free expression for one is beyond normal and acceptable for another. One can either risk causing offence or remain silent.
However, what should be clear is that discussing these matters isn’t about being abusive. Nor is it saying to start treating anyone unjustly.
For Muslims it is about two things. Firstly, upholding a clear Islamic position on such matters. Secondly, explaining the unforeseen harms of the secular position.
Upholding the Islamic position on sexual relations
Islam recognises sexual feelings within human beings. It encourages people to express those in a particular way, validated legally in marriage.
It does not accept that people simply express those feelings freely, but then nor does secular society, or else there wouldn’t be limits on the age of consent, relationships between family members, sexual acts in public etc.
The Islamic texts are quite clear that sexual relations between unmarried men and women, between the same-sex, or between humans and animals are all unlawful i.e. sinful acts accountable by Allah (swt).
The unforeseen harms
The fundamental dichotomy between Islam and secularism is how it views the individual versus society.
Secular societies place individual rights above potential societal harms. Even where exceptions exist, like the criminalisation of drug use, the trend is towards more freedom for the individual.
This has profound societal consequences, with huge gaps existing where families would formerly help each other, and an overburdened state struggling to fill ever-growing gaps.
Moreover, in all of this, no one seems to look at the best case scenario for the well-being of children. When the designers Dolce & Gabbana raised this issue, they were resolutely attacked for offering an opinion. Nonetheless, in those attacks no one answered their basic concern.
When Muslims see obvious problems that can cause obvious harms, it would be so wrong to remain silent. Moreover, they cannot simply say that just because Britain or Ireland have legalised this form of relationship that we are to stop saying that it is unlawful in the eyes of Allah (swt).
Dr Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and the Prospect Magazine.