In a recent speech to the Conservative Christian Fellowship, the Secretary of State for Wales, Stephen Crabb, asserted that ‘hard-edged’ secularism in the UK was partly to blame for ‘aiding and abetting’ extremism. His reasoning is that this secularism ‘delegitimises’ religious faith through ‘suspicion, fear and ridicule’, pushing this faith to the fringes of society. According to Crabb, it therefore follows that, ‘if you push faith to the margins, then to the margins and into the shadows faith will be outworked’.
Crabb is a committed and conservative Christian, being one of the Tory MPs who voted against gay marriage two years ago. It is therefore not surprising that he would seek to pin religious fundamentalism on anything but religion. Yet it is still worth looking at his arguments, if only to show how flawed and groundless they really are.
To start with, Crabb makes the assertion that Islam, is ‘ridiculed’ and ‘delegitimised’. But where is the evidence for this? I would suggest that Islam, as a system of a beliefs, is far more insulated from criticism than Christianity, with scrutiny being written off as ‘Islamophobic’. Obviously, it is true that Muslims themselves face racism and suspicion which Christians do not have to face, but this is an entirely different issue to ‘hard-edged secularism’. Loud-mouthed racists and far-right groups such as the EDL and Britain First are hardly the inheritors of Spinoza and Hume, and in fact frequently proclaim that Britain is a ‘Christian country’, and that we should defend Christianity against Islam.
Such racism is grotesque, moronic and completely unacceptable, but it bears no relation to the criticism of Islam as a set of beliefs. Indeed, criticism of Islam as a religion is rarely tolerated. We do not need to cast our minds back far to remember how many made apologies for the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, declaring that the cartoons were ‘offensive’, ‘Islamophobic’ and should not have been published, yet the cartoons mocking the Papacy and Christianity came under no such attack. Christianity is ruthlessly parodied, mocked and criticised by comedians, television and film and by wide swathes of authors and intellectuals. It is absolutely correct that it should be, but can you imagine Islam being treated in the same way? Of course you can’t.
Similarly, excuses are made for radical and conservative Islam that would never be made for Christianity. When the Iranian ex-Muslim and secularist, Maryam Namazie, attempted to give a talk at Goldsmiths University, members of its Islamic Society attempted to use tactics of intimidation to shut the talk down. Far from condemning this naked intimidation of a woman, Goldsmiths Feminist Society ‘stood in solidarity‘ with those attempting to shut down the talk. Warwick University banned Maryam from speaking altogether until pressure forced them to back down. Sharia courts which ‘lock married women into captivity‘, face little-to-no criticism from the left or the feminist movement. In contrast, LGBT+ rights group Stonewall frequently hand out the ‘bigot of the year’ award to prominent Christians in the Church and in politics, and criticism of Christianity by secular speakers is never censored by universities.
Based on this, I would suggest that Islam is rarely subjected to ‘hard-edged secularism’ and ridicule, whereas Christianity is. However, we do not see a rise in Christian extremism or young Christians leaving the UK to fight for a new Christendom. This alone is almost enough to show that secularisation has no bearing on radicalisation.
We do not know enough about the causes of radicalisation yet, but it seems fairly clear that they usually stem from material conditions of social exclusion coupled with the allure of ideology. The racism from individuals and groups I mentioned earlier, coupled with disgusting, dog-whistle sensationalism from the right-wing press, such as the Sun‘s awful ‘1 in 5 British Muslims support ISIS’ claim’, are almost wholly responsible for the climate of fear and racism that many Muslims have to experience, not secularists who seek to challenge dogma and the hold it has over institutions. If Christians faced the same level of contempt and scaremongering from our society, I would suggest we would indeed see the rise of radical Christian groups.
I would to like conclude with a quick history lesson for Mr Crabb. At no point in human existence has the rise of secularism been met with a rise in religious violence. On the contrary, it is only secularism which has reigned in the awful tendency of religions to murder, torture and repress all those who oppose them. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 saw an end to the bloody Wars of Religion which saw 1/3 of the population of Central Europe lie dead, and was a secular treaty, granting the right of nations and their citizens to follow whichever religion they chose. The period of free, secular inquiry which followed cemented reason and human rights above dogma and despotism for the first time in European history. Since then, we have never seen European states go to war over who has the correct interpretation of the Bible, or launch crusades to recapture supposedly sites, or kill scientists and philosophers who questioned religious supremacy. It is not through protecting our views from criticism that we make progress towards human freedom and rights, but through submitting them to reason, enquiry and debate. So sorry, Stephen Crabb, but the UK does not need less secularism, it needs more.