Secularism and Religious Extremism – Jack Davies

The first Turkish president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, once stated “He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government”. Although falling short of advocating a fully secular state, Ataturk highlights the weakness of a state reliant upon a particular religious doctrine to lend legitimacy to a government.

Secularism, according to Dictionary.com, is the view that public education and other matters of civil policy should be conducted without the introduction of a religious element. In simple terms, the separation of church and state. The separation of religious influence from public policy is greatest within OECD nations such as the United Kingdom and Belgium. Article 20 of the latter nation’s constitution states: “No one can be obliged to contribute in any way whatsoever to the acts and ceremonies of a religion, nor to observe the days of rest.”

Take a moment to absorb how revolutionary that excerpt is and how controversial it would have been in 1830 when the Belgian revolution created a new sovereign, secular state within a Europe dominated by religion. However, I am not interested in assessing whether secularism has been a success in these relatively stable nations, but in examining whether it can provide a long term cure to the epidemic of religious extremism sweeping in from the Middle East.

What Ataturk wanted is not a state where religion is excluded from mainstream society but a state neutral with regard to religion, as Belgium has been for 185 years. This means a state whose institutions neither favour nor disfavour a particular religious doctrine. Whilst this is taken for granted in most countries in the Western Hemisphere, to many in countries where the state stands as a ‘defender of Islam’ or where the dominant religion is ‘protected by the state’ the idea of a secular state is an absurd notion, sometimes even heretical.

However, terrorist attacks such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris earlier this month are on the rise and a viable solution is needed before the situation worsens. With the number of people killed in terrorist attacks having increased five-fold since 2000, it is essential that this solution is proven to prevent the cycle of religious extremism that has occurred throughout the last two decades.

A secular state, in its idealistic manifestation, would favour no particular religious doctrine. This would promote greater political stability in nations, such as Iraq and Pakistan, where religion is divided, both internally via a sectarian divide and between competing religions. For example, much has been made of the divide between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam and it’s permutations for the Middle East and the wider world.

Dividing church and state is rational. No religion is favoured so no religion is treated unfairly. Religion is kept out of public schools unless it is in the form of educating students about a religiously pluralistic society and there are fewer fatalities due to religious violence in secular nations.

The terrorists want to divide and conquer, so it is about time we showed them that a fair society where all religions are equal can defeat even the most hate filled extremist.

Jack Davies blogs at moralglobe.wordpress.com starts his undergraduate degree in politics and international relations in September. He is an avid campaigner and you can also find him on twitter @jackdavies4317.

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