By Dr. Salman Al-Azami
Secularism is a concept that separates the state from any religious affiliation claiming that religion can be practiced at individual level without any control of how others should lead their lives. However, no definition of secularism denounces religion and refuses the right of people to practice religion. Western democracies are mostly secular and in principle allow their citizens to practice religion as a matter of human right. State secularism means that religion has no role to play in the running of the country, nor does the state have the right to stop anyone from practicing his or her religion. However, the term atheism is commonly linked with secularism though they are not exactly two sides of the same coin as often suggested by some people. If secularism separates the state from religious influence, atheism denies the very existence of divinity. Yet, we can witness forced intermingling of the two terms where aggressive atheism has hijacked secularism for its own benefit.
Religious extremism has no place in modern society, but neither does aggressive atheism. Aggressive atheists find it fashionable to attack people’s religious beliefs and ridicule them with every opportunity they get; they are extremists in their own right. It is a shame the bigoted views of self-declared ‘militant atheists’ like Richard Dawkins are so often reinforced by the tabloid press. Such people believe that religion is the centre of all evils, though their views against their opponents are as ill-informed as those of some religious extremists. If a religious fanatic preaches killing in the name of religion, it is no doubt condemnable, but why is a person like Sam Harris who, while criticizing Islam, considers it, “ethical to kill people for believing them” revered as a hero?
This unashamed battering of religious beliefs is extremely counterproductive to a so called ‘humanist’ agenda, which in hindsight is a ‘political idea’ as rightly put by Madeleine Bunting, a columnist for The Guardian.
A couple of years ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury used the unfortunately tabooed word Shariah and instantly became the target of a frantic media campaign with one tabloid publishing a large photo of a veiled woman with the heading ‘What a Burqa!’ Without having the foggiest idea of what the word means, these media campaigns implied that – with less than 3% of the population being Muslim – Britain is turning into an Islamic state and every woman in this country is about to be forced to wear a veil. That a small suggestion of incorporating some aspects of Shariah law pertaining to Muslim family life, similar to the way in which Jewish law already exists in this country could be blown out of proportion is unthinkable. Yet, this has happened in modern Britain. Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, as if ridiculing religion is an essential part of secularism.
Secularism never suggests this hostility towards religion. A broad definition of the term given by Kosmin (2007) says, “A secular person is someone who is non-religious, irreligious, or generally uninterested in, indifferent to, or oblivious to religious beliefs, activities, and organizations”. The Islamophobia witnessed in the western media in recent times rather demonstrates the opposite. We now live in a society where religious orthodoxy is deemed to be dangerous, and attacking religious sentiments is accepted as freedom of expression. Conservative Chairman Baroness Warsi rightly commented recently that Islamophobia has now become widely socially acceptable. In a recent debate on BBC TV, journalist Dame Ann Leslie has gone to the extent of calling the Islamic hijab a ‘bin bag’ as if it is a universal human right to be able to mock religious practices.
The media never stops criticizing some Muslim countries for their human rights violations, and blame religion for it. I do not support the policies of many Muslim countries, and believe that their oppression comes from lust for power rather than anything to do with religion. I have no intention to enter into a theological debate of whether they are doing the right thing or not. However, the aggressive atheists in the western world do not look at the issues rationally, rather their motto is, ‘heads I win, tale you loose’. For them, if Iran and Saudi Arabia make women wear hijab, it is violating women’s freedom; but if the French police arrest women for wearing the niqab, it is not. If an extremist like Anjem Chowdhury speaks provocatively, he is rightly condemned; but if someone ridicules The Prophet Muhammad (Peace be on him), then it is Western liberalism. What type of double standards are these?
One must realize that religion is a fundamental part of many people’s lives and aggressive atheism can never change that. Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris may have made millions from book sales, but they have not been successful in changing many people’s minds. The ‘humanist’ approach many atheists advocate should ensure that people can follow their respective religions without threat of ridicule. Intolerance towards opposing views is dangerous – be it religious intolerance or atheistic intolerance.
Dr Salman Al-Azami holds a PhD in Linguistics and is a Lecturer in English Language at Liverpool Hope University. His research interests include bilingualism, language in education, religious discourse & media and language of advertising.
Photo Credits – http://www.atheistbus.org.uk/bus-photos/
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