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Why 'questioning secularism' destroys religious freedom

By Bronwyn Winter - posted Friday, 2 May 2008

The relationship of Islam to modern democracy - or rather, the assumption of its incompatibility with it - has once again been under the spotlight in Australia. The recent “IQ2” debate, held in Sydney’s City Recital Hall on April 15, polarised public opinion around the issue in Sydney’s professional elite, with a relatively even divide for and against the proposition that Islam was not compatible with democracy. Fifty-four per cent of 5,521 respondents to a Sydney Morning Herald poll published the same day supported the incompatibility thesis while 52 per cent of the audience on the night of the debate voted against it.

This polarisation is worrying in itself, but even more worrying is the terms in which the debate is framed.

First, Muslims are no more nor less able to live within democracies than are followers of other faiths; the battle for secular democracy was a long and violent one within Christianity also, and is by no means over, as was demonstrated by the former Howard government’s relentless re-Christianisation of public space, community services and government funding directions (such as increased funding to Christian schools).


Second, Islam is as internally diverse as other religions, and has ultra-fundamentalist anti-democratic factions just as it has pro-democracy, pro-secular schools of thought.

Third, and most importantly, the debate question is illogical, as we are being asked to compare two things that are different in nature and in their social function. Religions are to do with transcendence, faith, and the idea of divine law decided by a supernatural entity; democracies and various other political systems are to do with the terre-à-terre dilemmas of governance and social organisation, and with positive law decided by human beings.

I am aware of the arguments that there is no separation of church and state within Islam, but nor was there, at one point in time, within Catholicism; and many scholars of Islamic thought, that one might broadly describe as the inheritors of Islamic modernism, would refute the argument that the Koran is able to fulfil the function of generating positive law.

Linked to this positing of “Islam” in relation to democracy is the idea of “questioning secularism” that has become a fashionable topic for conferencing and publishing both within and outside academia in Australia as elsewhere. The argument here, however, is similarly flawed, and similarly dangerous, as it displaces the more important debate about racism and structural discrimination. It also dodges the real question about religion and the secular in Western countries, which surely should be the continued influence of the Christian church in what should be a religiously neutral public sphere.

Framing these debates around a “questioning of secularism” is based on confusion - often deliberately maintained in the service of religiously conservative agendas - between the imperfect realisation of secularism in Western societies and the very principles of secularism itself. Secularism is not about atheism or the persecution of religious believers, it is about maintaining absolute religious neutrality in public institutions, including public education.

“Questioning secularism”, far from creating a more liberal space for all Muslims, is opening a discursive space where both Muslim and Christian conservatism can come galloping back into the public sphere.


Concerns about the place of Christian conservatism have been raised via, among other things, media discussion of the Exclusive Brethren’s donations to the Liberal Party (ABC, April 30, 2006, The Sydney Morning Herald, July 1, 2006), and, more recently of the funding and politics of Hillsong Church and the Mercy Ministries (The Sydney Morning Herald, March 18 and 19).

More recently again, concern about Islamic fundamentalist incursions into public life and in particular the life of our secular university system have been expressed in relation to Saudi funding of the Griffith University branch of the tri-university National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies (The Australian, April 22, April 30).

While the terms in which The Australian has reported this are on occasion unfortunate, bankrolling of various community and educative initiatives has been a typical Saudi strategy to gain a space for conservative proselytism across the world, from Paris to Manila. One thus has good reason to be concerned about sources of funding within public educational institutions that are potentially linked to a theocratic agenda.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Bronwyn Winter is a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, School of Languages and Cultures, Department of French Studies. She is also Director of the Faculty of Arts International and Comparative Literary Studies program.

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