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Keeping Faith with Secularism

"State suppression of free religious expression by free citizens is unacceptable in any secular democracy, and it is an offence against the free society that is the birthright of every Canadian," writes Akaash Maharaj.


Akaash Maharaj
20 January 2011

The Khaleej Times

OTTAWA - If history has but one lesson, it is that when religion and politics mix, both are degraded.

The democratic ideal of separation of faith and state is, therefore, as much in the interests of faith as it is in the interests of the state. It demands freedom of worship without political interference, as much as it demands a civil society free of religious compulsion.

A secular democracy ensures that government can not intrude into the relationship between the individual and his Maker, and that no tyranny of the majority can curtail the most personal exercise of private conscience. By the same token, it also guarantees that public institutions answer to the expressed will of the people, instead of to particular groups who believe they hold a privileged insight into the interpreted will of the Divine.

Crucially, a secular state is not one that is hostile to religion: it is one that is blind to the religious choices of its citizens.

In this vein, recent efforts by governments to restrict religious expression are grave errors in judgment. In Canada, Bill 94 to deny public services to Muslim women who wear the niqab follows in the footsteps of France’s law banning students from wearing religious items in public schools.

Such laws play upon the cheap political capital to be gained from marginalising small or unpopular groups, at a time when fear and insecurity ripple through society. But these laws also corrode the very principles of tolerance and inclusion they purport to defend.

When the state takes an interest in regulating religious expression, it invites religious institutions to reply by using their force of numbers to remake government policy. More seriously still, excluding people of faith from the mass of society is the surest way to isolate and drive them into the arms of radicalism.

No matter how alien or jarring we may find particular practices, the suppression of voluntary religious expression is a far greater evil. It is not secularism: it is atheism as a coercive state religion. It is no more acceptable in a free and democratic society than sectarian persecution or forced conversions.

I believe that, as Canadians, we understand this instinctively. Our country was first forged out of a colonial tolerance between Protestants and Catholics, later out of an amalgam of Abrahamic faiths, and today encompasses a society that is largely disengaged from formal worship. As much as any other people in the world, religious inclusion and state secularism are at the heart of the ideals that bind us together and define us as a nation.

There is no denying that we are living through an age when our ideals are being tested. To what extent do our values of tolerance require us to tolerate practices that stand accused of emanating from intolerant philosophies? If demographic changes in our liberal-democratic society cause our cultural centre of gravity to shift away from our established social values, which should prevail: our identity as liberals or our identity as democrats?

These are not easy questions, but the answers certainly do not lie with those small minds who would trade upon our most unworthy fears.

It is precisely in moments of uncertainty, when our mettle is tested, that we have the greatest obligation to so what is right rather than what is easy, because it is only through the exercise of courage that we prove ourselves worthy of our country’s name.

State suppression of free religious expression by free citizens is unacceptable in any secular democracy, and it is an offence against the free society that is the birthright of every Canadian.

Canadians of all faiths and of no faith have a responsibility to stand up for our country’s character, and to stand against government efforts to dismantle our separation of faith and state.

Akaash Maharaj has served as National Policy Chair of the Liberal Party, which currently leads the Canadian parliament’s official opposition. His personal web site is www.Maharaj.org.

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