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18 January 2012

Keep religion out of politics, now more than ever

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

By Sophie McBain

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.

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

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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