Standing Up for Secularism

In Saudi Arabia this week, doctors advised that the next phase of the punishment of liberal blogger Raif Badawi be postponed until he has healed from the first. Badawi has been sentenced to ten years in prison, and 1,000 lashes, for openly advocating secularism on his blog “Free Saudi Liberals.” Badawi has received only 50 of those lashes so far, and it has already put his life in danger.

The main difference between Saudi Arabia and the United States is . . . that one country allows a religion to control the coercive apparatuses of the state and one does not.
Michael Austin
Meanwhile, back in the United States, pundits and politicians regularly label the elected president a criminal and a traitor, and call openly for his assassination. The consequences of their actions? Nothing. No arrests. No lashes. No mysterious disappearances. Just a bunch of good Americans waiving a flag and accusing their president of high treason.

Why such different responses? Hint: the answer does not lie in the field of comparative religion. The main difference between Saudi Arabia and the United States is not that one country is Muslim and the other is Christian. The difference is that one country allows a religion to control the coercive apparatuses of the state and one does not. The difference is secularism.

Secularism sometimes gets a bad rap in the Christian corners of the United States. People assume that it means that the state officially opposes religion, giving rise to the familiar “War on Christians” rhetoric that occasionally finds its way into respectable publications.

But this is not what secularism means. A secular government is one that treats all forms of belief, including unbelief, exactly the same. It is what James Madison argued for so forcefully in his majestic 1785 treatise, “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessment.” Madison believed that the government should always adopt a posture of strict non-cognizance towards all religious beliefs. Another name for this is “the separation of church and state.”

Madison, of course, was working within a much larger Enlightenment framework that understood that the mechanisms of state power are inherently coercive. They exist to make people do stuff. This can mean using carrots, such as tax incentives or preferential treatment. But it usually means using sticks: taxes, laws, official policies, police forces, jails, and armies. Like most Enlightenment philosophers, Madison believed that these coercive mechanisms should only be used to protect legitimate state interests. They should never be used to enforce religious beliefs, which exist prior to and wholly apart from the social contract.

Madison had history on his side. Neither states nor religions have generally done well when mixed with each other. Those who assert that Christianity is inherently more peaceful than Islam must strategically distance themselves from a thousand years of human history—the Crusades, the Inquisition, and Europe’s great wars of religion. This was a long time ago, they say. Things have changed. Precisely—and what has changed the most is that Christianity no longer controls armies.

Nobody understands this better than the Saudi Arabian blogger now facing a thousand lashes. In one of his most controversial columns in September of 2010, Badawi wrote, “Secularism respects everyone and does not offend anyone … Secularism … is the practical solution to lift countries (including ours) out of the third world and into the first world.” He is absolutely correct. But the reverse is also true: abandoning secularism is the quickest way to turn countries (including ours) from thriving first-world democracies into ignorant third-world dictatorships.

So here is the tragic irony: as the 21st century takes shape, the greatest test that Western states face in their commitment to secularism has become their willingness (or unwillingness) to extend religious freedom to their Muslim citizens. We saw an example of this just last week, when self-styled patriots in Fort Worth, Texas protested the decision of a local school board to allow a Muslim group to rent one of their facilities to put on a conference. The title of the conference was “Stand with the Prophet against Hate and Terrorism.”

In a secular nation, a Muslim group must have the same right as a Christian group, a chess club, or the International Brotherhood of Elvis Impersonators to rent a public facility. The permission process for building a mosque must be comparable that for building a McDonalds. And people who wear a niqab cannot be subject to different laws than people who wear a nose ring. We cannot ask the state to take action for or against any person or group based on a religious belief or unbelief. This is the principle that most sets us apart from the nations that we don’t want to be.