Keep religion out of politics, now more than ever

Liberal political systems allow space for personal religiosity. Those based on faith will squeeze pe

If you doubt that there are similarities between the nutty fringes of the three major monotheistic religions, try guessing which religious crackpots are responsible for the following:

  1. The photoshopping of female parliamentarians into bearded men in a newspaper
  2. Running clinics where homosexuality can be "cured" through prayer
  3. Advocating state-funded sex changes as a "solution" to homosexuality

(scroll down for the answers)

As well as sharing antiquated, uncompromising and illiberal views on women's rights, sexual freedom and homosexuality, religious extremists of the three Abrahamic religions are also all currently enjoying renewed public attention.

The US Republican primaries have given a platform for candidates to shamelessly compete for the evangelical Christian right, and out-do each other in their venomous stances against abortion, gay marriage and homosexuality more generally. The growing influence of Israel's ultra-orthodox Jewish community, the Haredim, was highlighted by December's protests after an eight-year-old girl was filmed being verbally abused by Haredi men for "dressing immodestly". And in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, extremist Islamist parties (as well as more moderate ones, of course) have been thrown into the spotlight. Individual conversions may happen for all kinds of reasons, but when religious nuts gain real political prominence, the cause tends to be political too.

All this has reminded me that the secular system in the UK is both rare and a privilege.

Thankfully we don't have the muscular, aggressive secularism of France -- where wearing niqab (the full-face veil) and street prayers are banned. But public debates in the UK tend to remain secular, even when it comes to hot topics like gay marriage, abortion and euthanasia.

The result is that opposing sides are speaking the same language, and a compromise or solution is easier to negotiate. When one side maintains that "abortion is a sin" and the other argues that a woman ought to have control over her own body and reproduction, it is hard to see how the two sides will ever reach an agreement.

But when the debate centres on the right to life of an unborn child versus the rights of the mother, the argument is easier to resolve: hence the 24-week limit on abortions in the UK. Secular debates generally produce more liberal results, and are more likely to find solutions that promote women's rights, gay rights and individual freedoms.

This is not simply an abstract point, because following the revolutions in North Africa last year, Libyan, Tunisian and Egyptian citizens are resetting the relationship between religion and the state. I can understand why, if you are a practising Muslim, the Islamist parties have appeal. Many of their beliefs resonate with ordinary Muslims, and unlike many newly formed secular parties, they have added credibility because of their long history of opposition to the former regimes.

On top of this, I have sympathy for the view that Islamist parties, once they have to deal with the very secular nature of everyday politics, will be moderated by their experience of political power.

However, I have also concluded that if you are both a Muslim and a liberal, you would be better off voting for a secular party than an Islamist one -- even if parties such as Al Nahda and the Muslim Brotherhood show every sign of being reasonably rational and moderate.

My argument is this: a liberal political system allows plenty of space for personal religiosity, but a religious political system, where policy is debated in religious terms, threatens to squeeze personal freedoms.

I am not anti-religion -- I simply believe that believers of all major world religions ought to be wary of their mad fringes, and of any political system that readily lends them a soap box. Women, religious minorities and gay men and women all stand to lose out in a political system that frames public debate in religious terms; devout Muslims have no reason to fear a secular, but robustly liberal state.

The answers to the quiz above: 1. A haredi newspaper photoshopped female Israeli parliamentary candidates into bearded men. 2. Republican Michele Bachman and her husband Marcus own clinics that are purported to "cure" homosexuality through prayer. 3. The Iranian government provides grants for sex-changes but punishes homosexuality by death; Iran consequently has one of the highest rates of sex-change of any country in the world as for many gay men and women, changing sex is the only "solution" left open to them.

Sophie McBain is a staff writer for Spear's

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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On civil liberties, David Davis has become a complete hypocrite – and I'm not sure he even knows it

The Brexit minster's stance shows a man not overly burdened with self-awareness.

In 2005, David Davis ran for the Tory leadership. He was widely assumed to be the front-runner and, as frontrunners in Tory leadership campaigns have done so enthusiastically throughout modern history, he lost.

The reason I bring up this ancient history is because it gives me an excuse to remind you of this spectacularly ill-judged photoshoot:


“And you're sure this doesn't make me look a bit sexist?”
Image: Getty

Obviously it’s distressing to learn that, as recently as October 2005, an ostensibly serious politician could have thought that drawing attention to someone else’s boobs was a viable electoral strategy. (Going, one assumes, for that all important teenage boy vote.)

But what really strikes me about that photo is quite how pleased with himself Davis looks. Not only is he not thinking to himself, “Is it possible that this whole thing was a bad idea?” You get the distinct impression that he’s never had that thought in his life.

This impression is not dispelled by the interview he gave to the Telegraph‘s Alice Thompson and Rachel Sylvester three months earlier. (Hat tip to Tom Hamilton for bringing it to my attention.) It’s an amazing piece of work – I’ve read it twice, and I’m still not sure if the interviewers are in on the joke – so worth reading in its entirety. But to give you a flavour, here are some highlights:

He has a climbing wall in his barn and an ice-axe leaning against his desk. Next to a drinks tray in his office there is a picture of him jumping out of a helicopter. Although his nose has been broken five times, he still somehow manages to look debonair. (...)

To an aide, he shouts: “Call X - he’ll be at MI5,” then tells us: “You didn’t hear that. I know lots of spooks.” (...)

At 56, he comes – as he puts it – from “an older generation”. He did not change nappies, opting instead to teach his children to ski and scuba-dive to make them brave. (...)

“I make all the important decisions about World War Three, she makes the unimportant ones about where we’re going to live.”

And my personal favourite:

When he was demoted by IDS, he hit back, saying darkly: “If you’re hunting big game, you must make sure you kill with the first shot.”

All this, I think, tells us two things. One is that David Davis is not a man who is overly burdened with self-doubt. The other is that he probably should be once in a while, because bloody hell, he looks ridiculous, and it’s clear no one around him has the heart to tell him.

Which brings us to this week’s mess. On Monday, we learned that those EU citizens who choose to remain in Britain will need to apply for a listing on a new – this is in no way creepy – “settled status” register. The proposals, as reported the Guardian, “could entail an identity card backed up by entry on a Home Office central database or register”. As Brexit secretary, David Davis is the man tasked with negotiating and delivering this exciting new list of the foreign.

This is odd, because Davis has historically been a resolute opponent of this sort of nonsense. Back in June 2008, he resigned from the Tory front bench and forced a by-election in his Haltemprice & Howden constituency, in protest against the Labour government’s creeping authoritarianism.

Three months later, when Labour was pushing ID cards of its own, he warned that the party was creating a database state. Here’s the killer quote:

“It is typical of this government to kickstart their misguided and intrusive ID scheme with students and foreigners – those who have no choice but to accept the cards – and it marks the start of the introduction of compulsory ID cards for all by stealth.”

The David Davis of 2017 better hope that the David Davis of 2008 doesn’t find out what he’s up to, otherwise he’s really for it.

The Brexit secretary has denied, of course, that the government’s plan this week has anything in common with the Labour version he so despised. “It’s not an ID card,” he told the Commons. “What we are talking about here is documentation to prove you have got a right to a job, a right to residence, the rest of it.” To put it another way, this new scheme involves neither an ID card nor the rise of a database state. It’s simply a card, which proves your identity, as registered on a database. Maintained by the state.

Does he realise what he’s doing? Does the man who once quit the front bench to defend the principle of civil liberties not see that he’s now become what he hates the most? That if he continues with this policy – a seemingly inevitable result of the Brexit for which he so enthusiastically campaigned – then he’ll go down in history not as a campaigner for civil liberties, but as a bloody hypocrite?

I doubt he does, somehow. Remember that photoshoot; remember the interview. With any other politician, I’d assume a certain degree of inner turmoil must be underway. But Davis does not strike me as one who is overly prone to that, either.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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