Wednesday, October 21, 2015

How Conservative Religious Extremists Around the World have Declared War on Secularism

by Nomad

Evangelists and some politicians talk about a war on religion and religious liberties. The examples of victimhood they cite are generally somewhat vague. Yet the truth is, around the world, the victims are not the people of faith, but those holding secularist views.  

Death of a Bangladeshi Blogger

Niloy Chatterjee lived humbly in Goran neighborhood of the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka. In early August of this year, on a Friday night, (the Sabbath day in Islam,)  a  machete welding gang broke into Chatterjee's apartment, pushed aside his family members and hacked Niloy to death in his bed. All of the attackers were apparently members of the local chapter of al-Qaeda.

As the writer of a blog, the 40-year-old Chatterjee went by the pen name, Niloy Neel. He used his blog as a free speech platform to criticize religious extremism in the nation.  

Chatterjee was aware of the risks he was taking in expressing his support for secularism. In the Islamic faith, atheism is considered far worse than any other religious infidelity. 
Secularism is frequently equated- or purposefully transposed- with the word " atheism" (which is not the same). 

So let's clear this up. The dictionary tells us that atheism is a disbelief in the existence of a deity. 
However, secularism is the belief that religion should not play a role in government, education, or other public parts of society. Plainly, these are two very different concepts. In fact, a secularist may very well be as religious as any other person. It has nothing to do with the degree of one's personal faith at all.  
Only those with theocratic ideas would intentionally mix the two ideas.  

In his last days, Niloy reportedly wrote that he had been followed by strangers and when he contacted the local police they refused to register his complaint.

What makes that even more distressing is the authorities should have had every reason to take Chatterjee's complaint seriously. In the last year,  there have been three other deadly attacks on bloggers all viciously murdered for their views on secularism.

On May 12, 2015, 32-year-old Ananta Bijoy Das, known for advocating science and secularism, was hacked to death by a similar gang while on his way to work in the morning.
Before that, Washiqur Rahman  and before that, Bangladeshi-American blogger, Avijit Roy, was slaughtered while walking with his wife outside Dhaka University.

As the news of Niloy's death spread over the Internet, activists and bloggers were speechless, especially since Niloy was demanding justice for the other murdered writers. They now wondered:
'Who will be next for demanding justice for Niloy?'
We can say that Bangladesh is simply a nation overrun by religious extremists which have most likely corrupted justice and government. 
Yet, Bangladesh is not the only nation where secularist bloggers have been threatened or persecuted.

Lashings for a Heretic

Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian writer, and activist, was arrested in 2012 for "insulting Islam through electronic channels" and related several charges, including apostasy. Amnesty International has designated Badawi a prisoner of conscience, and says that the authorities detained him "solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression".

His punishment?
Ten years in prison, a fine and 1,000 lashes to be carried out over 20 weeks. The first 50 lashings were administered on January 9, 2015, before a crowd of hundreds in front of a Jeddah mosque. Only two days after the public whipping, the Saudi ambassador to France attended the Charlie Hebdo solidarity rally in Paris, where he paid his respects to those murdered last week for exercising their right to free expression.

But what kind of blasphemy did Badawi engage in? Here are a few translations of his writings
Secularism respects everyone and does not offend anyone ... Secularism ... is the practical solution to lift countries (including ours) out of the third world and into the first world.
This is not at all a heretical view. It is an educated one.
Much of the 19th and 20th centuries were shaped by secularist philosophy, but the idea was actually a product of the Age of Enlightenment.
That was the moment in human history when the Church's absolute authority was challenged on all fronts.

The German sociologist, philosopher, jurist, and political economist Max Weber, developed the theory of secularization, which said that as societies evolve, in the wake of scientific and technical achievement, religious values diminish, and religious values become much more of a private matter.

Liberalism took that idea one step further and said that democracy and the progress it brings could not exist where secularism had not removed religious interference with the state.

So, Badawi's ideas are neither revolutionary nor particularly radical. These ideas have been taught and discussed in university classrooms for over a century now.
That's what makes the Saudi decision to punish the blogger so unjust. He wrote:
States based on religious ideology ... have nothing except the fear of God and an inability to face up to life. Look at what had happened after the European peoples succeeded in removing the clergy from public life and restricting them to their churches. They built up human beings and (promoted) enlightenment, creativity, and rebellion. States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear.
For sharing those "radical" ideas, he sits today in prison, waiting to begin another round of brutal medieval punishment. He has been transformed into living proof that everything he described was perfectly accurate.
For me, liberalism simply means, live and let live. This is a splendid slogan. However, the nature of liberalism – particularly the Saudi version – needs to be clarified. It is even more important to sketch the features and parameters of liberalism, to which the other faction, controlling and claiming an exclusive monopoly of the truth, is so hostile that they are driven to discredit it without discussion or fully understanding what the word actually means.
Again, we in the West can perhaps dismiss Saudi Arabia, like Bangladesh, as abnormalities, of religious extremism that has taken hold of Islam. 
You might say, that's them, that's barbarity. You might be one of those that would claim that Islam is a failed religion. That it is only to be expected that such things happen in autocratic societies. You could say that in the West such things are not possible. We are lucky to live in a civilized part of the world.  
That's not us, you might say. 

The War at Home

Here, right in our own country there is growing backlash against secularism, by people who claim that people of faith are being persecuted. 

These anti-secular ideas are being promoted not in American mosques, but in American churches and in public meeting halls. And not by delusional right wing preachers from the backwaters but by supposedly respectable Republican politicians running for president.

In April, even in the midst of the murders of secularists in far away lands, former Senator and presidential hopeful Rick Santorum was criticizing the president for attempting to establish “a secular state religion.”

The phrase "a secular state religion" might merely seem like a profound ignorance of what secularism is, but, in fact, it is a carefully calculated effort to redefine and confuse terms. Listen to the more of his statement. 
Santorum said:
[W]e have the state establishing a new religion, a secular state religion, a secular orthodoxy that everybody is going to have to comply with.
Redefining words to suit your argument has always been considered intellectually dishonest. Secularism is and has never claimed to be a religion. How could it be?  Moreover, it has not attempted to force anybody to comply. Quite the opposite, in fact. It asks only that religion remain between the individual and his conscience.
Those facts don't stop Santorum.
We have the state establishing a new religion, a secular state religion, a secular orthodoxy that everybody is going to have to comply with. We have now the secular church that is being imposed on this country and anybody that defects is subject to persecution and prosecution.
Where are the Christian Raif Badawis in the US that Santorum warns us about? Did Kim Davis receive any lashings?
Secularism, claims Santorum, represents “a very serious threat to liberty in America.” 

We could shrug our shoulders and shake our heads in disgust if Santorum- never known for his rationality- were the only one disseminating such ideas. Another Republican campaigning for president is Bobby Jindal and he took deplores the evils of secularism.

In March, Louisiana governor Jindal warned that about the "trend in this country toward secularization, a trend where religious liberty is at stake." 
That is the reason this country was founded.
If he means, this nation was founded to escape religious intolerance, then this is only half the story. It was not founded to replace one form of intolerance with another.
All men were free to worship or not a faith or system of belief that soothe their individual consciences. That necessarily requires that governments and religion remain apart. No official endorsements, no official prohibitions. A government must be a model of tolerance.
Isn't that the principle of secularism?

On an earlier occasion, Jindal argued that people of faith must understand that they are fighting a “silent war” against the secular, liberal elite.

As a "trend," secularism seems to have been around a very long time. Jindal implied, it was  the liberal radical, Obama who was " trying to "change the idea of America." Change it from what to what?
Religious to secular?
That's just silly.
The whole idea that America is in danger of becoming secular is as intellectually dishonest as Santorum's twisting of words. Contrary to what Jindal claims, history tells a very different story about secular principles in the United States. 

A Nation Based on New Principles

While Thomas Jefferson's low opinion of organized religion is well established, there are plenty of other quotes from the founding fathers to conclude that they felt governments and religion should not be mixed, except on a very personal level. 

Secularism in the new country was one of the key factors that would separate Old Europe from the United States. One of the most famous promoters of secularism was Thomas Paine. 

His book "The Age of Reason," published in two parts in 1794 and 1795, was a sensation for its time simply because it said what a lot of people thought but didn't dare to put into print. 
It was so inflammatory that his friend Jefferson tried to talk Paine out of publishing. Ben Franklin warned Paine "not to attempt unchaining the tiger."
He urged him "to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person; whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification by the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a good deal of regret and repentance."

Franklin didn't seem to argue with Paine's doubts about the faith but pointed out the benefits religion often produced.  It's easy to see why Franklin and Jefferson, despite their personal beliefs, gave Paine this advice. Paine wrote:
All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet, as if the way to God was not open to every man alike.
Paine could be dismissed as a crank or a hell-raiser. He was unique only because he was so blunt about his detestation for churches in general and Christian churches in particular.
Yet his ideas were shared- more or less- by many of the founders of the nation. Listen to what John Adams wrote:
“. . . Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind.”
No mention of divine intervention. No discussion of a theocratic system but of a government based on the natural authority of the people alone.
James Madison too states:
“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”
Hardly a recommendation for mixing Church and State. That old fox, Ben Franklin made this astute observation:
“If we look back into history for the character of the present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practiced it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England blamed persecution in the Romish church, but practiced it upon the Puritans. These found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here [England] and in New England.”
And now the surviving Far Right churches are practicing the same bully/victim pattern. One minute they are talking about America as a Christian nation- which, in one sweep, disenfranchises Muslim and Jewish and Hindu and Atheist Americans- and the next minute, the same people are complaining about being deprived of their religious liberty and an imaginary war on religion.

The truth of Franklin's words is clearly on display in other Republican candidates in 2015.   

The Boogeyman of Secular Theocracy

Once one Republican candidate hits on a good thing then they all seem drawn to rephrase the same idea. 
Candidate Ted Cruz, for his part, echoed Santorum and Jindal but upped the ante. He told Christian college students at Liberty University that "religious liberty has never been more under assault."
"As believers we are called to action, not to sitting quietly and hiding our faith under a bushel, but to stand and speak no matter what the consequences."
GOP candidate Mike Huckabee has long been known for waging war against "secular theocracy."
"We've divorced ourselves from an understanding that we cannot survive as a republic if we do not become once again a God-centered nation that understands that our laws do not come from man, they come from God. It is the natural law of God."
This, in theory, allows Huckabee to ignore whatever law doesn't suit his description of God-approved.
Like Santorum and Cruz, Huckabee targeted liberal secularists as the enemy and Christian believers as persecuted victims.
"We’re never going to be fully understood by people on the secular left. They don’t want to understand us, they want to ridicule us, they want to hold us in contempt, they want to hold us up to scorn and so they’re going to because we represent a direct threat to their worldview."
Another 2016 Republican presidential candidate, once high in the polls, Dr. Ben Carson, said in May,
“Don’t let the secular progressives drive God out of our lives. We have to stop letting them bully us. … We back down too easily. It’s an important part of who we are."
That's a sentiment that the machete-armed murders in Bangladesh would have wholly supported. Carson's speech would have been both inspiring and inciting. 
Raif Badawi who still awaits his next round of public whippings probably doesn't think a lot about the so-called plight of secular theocracy. The much-talked-about war on religion must seem like a very surreal concept for a man in his position.
For him, Carson's words might be profoundly depressing but not be a surprise. 
The Saudi blogger denounced the same misrepresentations in his own country:  
For they have succeeded in planting hostility to liberalism in the minds of the public and turning people against it, lest the carpet be pulled out from under their feet. But their hold over people’s minds and society shall vanish like dust carried off in the wind.