15 July 2010

Why secularism matters

Those of us who take our secular societies for granted need to be reminded that a great number of our fellow human beings live under governments that don't distinguish between politics and religion. That there exists cultures that conflate morality with one particular set of irreproachable, divinely-mandated rules. That those whom fate has cast into such a culture may have to pay a terrible price if their conscience should ever lead them to question and perhaps reject those rules.

One young Maldivian man paid such a price. "Ismail Mohamed Didi, the 25 year-old air traffic controller... was found hanged from the control tower of Male International Airport at 4:00am on Tuesday morning in an apparent suicide," reports J J Robinson for the independent Minivan News. Ismail had earlier applied for asylum in the UK after his atheism caused him to be ostracised and persecuted by his countrymen. As Islam is the state religion of the Maldives (the practice of other religions is forbidden by law and non-Muslims are denied citizenship), Ismail's apostasy would thus have been regarded not only as an abominable sin, but also a direct act of treason. This double crime - spiritual and temporal - is an unavoidable consequence of free-thinking in a theocracy.

Islam has yet to undergo its own Reformation, and although moderate Muslims everywhere decry the excesses of religious zeal displayed in countries like Iran and Afghanistan, there has been no widespread, concerted attempt to secularise Islam. While most countries have discarded the anachronism of an official religion (or never adopted one to begin with), the secular ideas of the Enlightenment have yet to gain traction in large parts of the Muslim world. Still, before we Westerners get too smug about our supposedly universal secularism, bear in mind that England, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Greece have a Christian denomination as their state religion. Yet in these places there is a liberal air of religious toleration, where laws exist to protect citizens from the sort of torment inflicted upon Ismail Mohamed Didi.

Ismail's tragic story should teach us this lesson: the more common harm perpetrated by institutionalised superstition comes not from spectacular acts of terrorism committed in its name, but from its more pervasive, insidious effects on society through legal, political and cultural structures. For every sensationalised account of a suicide bombing or abortion clinic shooting, there slips by unreported scores of people quietly suffering under the aegis of state religion. And that, arguably, is the greater evil.


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