Why Secularism Should Be Interventionist

Some authors, such as Mayanthi Fernando, believe that there are two types of secularism: classical and new. I am mainly concerned with how these authors define the former. They say that it is “non-interventionist” or, at least, they contrast it with the latter which is “interventionist”. This is a view that I completely disagree with. Secularism, to be effective, requires some form of intervention.

Secularism is essentially the separation of church and state. The purpose of this separation is to limit the influence of religious institutions on public life, guaranteeing greater personal freedoms for individuals. All of this requires some form of intervention. Non-interventionist secularism does not work. Consider, for example, the United States of America. Its foundational principles and constitution are explicitly secular and strictly prohibit laws that favor religious institutions. The reality however is that the country is very lax in its implementation of such principles. All of its presidents should be devout Christians and are expected to uphold Christian values; their currency is emblazoned with “In God We Trust”; in court, citizens are expected to swear on the Bible (sometimes the Quran); and religious institutions persistently lobby to limit the freedoms of other groups, such as the LGBTQ community and women, in favor of laws that fit their particular interests. All of this is a result of the lack of proper secular education and bad implementation of secular principles, both of which require some major interventions on part of the state.

Such interventions must be implemented at the institutional level and should not infringe on the personal freedom of others. This means that the nature of this intervention should not concern itself with religious practice but rather its institutions. A case in point is the controversy in France over the ban on religious garments, with many taking issue with banning the hijab. This is of course seen by the French as a means to assimilate the Muslim population, which in principle is not bad. However, the application is questionable and quite paradoxical when you consider that France allows countries like Saudi Arabia to fund its mosques without trying to ensure that there is no conflict between the values being preached there and those of the French. How do you expect them to assimilate when you do not monitor their institutions? Why infringe on their right to practice while simultaneously allowing countries that have an intolerant interpretation of Islam to build their institutions in your country? Many would argue that this form of intervention violates neutrality, and that the state should not interfere with the affairs of these institutions. However, it is foolish to be neutral when these institutions are hostile towards the state and its people. The state and church should indeed be separate, but at the same time, the interests of the state should take precedence over those of the church. In other words, the state should have more power and influence than the church. Neutrality is important but not at the expense of the state and its people.

The function of secularism is to protect citizens from being exploited by these institutions. This can only happen when the state is willing to uphold these principles. Some authors, like Gerardo Marti, argue that state intervention is required to maintain pluralism. Failure to regulate the power of these institutions will cause something like what is happening here in Lebanon. Lebanon offers no real regulation of its religious institutions, allowing them instead to compete in the political sphere. This has fostered an environment of sectarianism and mass political corruption that often manifests itself in violence. Examples range from the Lebanese civil war to the Sunni/Alawite conflict between Bab el Tabaneh and Jabal Mohsen. A failure to regulate the influence of religious institutions has given rise to a country where sectarianism sometimes seems inescapable. Many basic human rights are being denied because of religious and sectarian considerations in the country. For example, Gibran Bassil, the Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, argues that women should not be allowed to pass on their citizenship to their children because it might cause certain demographic shifts that threaten the “balance” of sectarian representation. This shows that the power of religious institutions and leaders should be limited. These institutions play an important part in the values of the general population, so it is no wonder that they want to seize power and influence so mercilessly. You cannot promote an environment of pluralism when religious institutions are allowed to foster an environment of hostility.

In conclusion, it is inaccurate to describe classic secularism as being “non-interventionist” because protecting and upholding secularism requires intervention. This intervention is to be mainly focused on religious institutions. Its aim is to protect the general population from exploitation for religious and sectarian purposes.

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