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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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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