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The Limits of Faith in the Public Square

This is the first of three papers delivered at a seminar on religion and politics that was organized with Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, on the occasion of his recent book Faith in the Public Square. The seminar was held at Radboud University in December 2013. The second and third papers will be posted in the near future.

Rowan Williams’ book Faith in the Public Square, which is based upon several lectures, should not be read as a compendium of political theology, but instead as a “series of worked examples of trying to find the connecting points between various public questions and the fundamental beliefs about creation and salvation” (p. 2). I read the book as an attempt by Williams to provide the reader with themes, thoughts, and questions which are relevant to current debates about what kind of society we want to construct, how we should deal with pluralism, and how we might engage with any conflict between the religious and the secularist in contemporary society. And that is exactly what it does.

I want to address three issues that arose while I was reading, namely: the distinction between procedural and programmatic secularism, the limits of Williams’ approach and, related to both, the issue of gender segregation at UK universities.

The distinction between procedural and programmatic secularism that Williams draws in this book has been made frequently by him before. In Williams’ terms, the former refers to a public policy which does not give preference to one religious body over another, where the state sees itself as the overseer of a variety of religious communities and where necessary, assists them to keep the peace together. Programmatic secularism on the other hand is the kind of secularism where public manifestations of religious allegiance are inhibited or even banned so that everyone shares a public loyalty to the state.

I think, however, drawing on the work of people like Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, that this distinction is not a tenable one. I even doubt whether procedural secularism has ever been possible without programmatic secularism. Williams cites India as an example, an interesting one indeed, but even in this country, it is quite clear that the mode of secularism which they have adopted is heavily and increasingly influenced by Hindu nationalists.

When examining procedural secularism, it is striking that Williams points to the role of the state as overseeing and, where necessary, mediating between religious parties in conflict. Asad and Mahmood might argue however that the rhetorical opposition to religious conflict has, from the very beginning, served as an organizing impetus and legitimizing logic for secular liberalism. In a similar vein, Goldstone illustrates how secular liberalism, instead of eliminating extreme forms of violence and conflict, attempts to redefine the manner in which, and, most importantly, the reasons for which, one should be willing to defend and offend, and kill or die. Williams appears to take a rather ambiguous stance here. On the one hand he acknowledges that suggesting that Muslims are loyal to the umma first and foremost is troubling as it increases suspicion against them. But he also writes (p. 39) that it is desirable for Muslims to make clear that they have a straightforward primary loyalty to the nation-state, a loyalty that is unaffected by the private connections individual Muslims may have. This is precisely what secularism, whether procedural or programmatic, aims to do if we follow Asad’s line of thinking: orientate people’s loyalty to the state and ensure that the state has a monopoly on violence by demarcating religion from public life and submitting it to the rule of the state. Underpinning this, there is always a set of beliefs as to of what is the public good, what is virtuous citizenship, and so on; therefore there is always a programmatic secularism. Even more so because the freedoms that are supposed to come with secularism are often based on a particular definition of modernity in which people and nation-states become more modern if and when they are freed from the burden of religion.

I think in particular, in the case of Islam, or the cases (plural) of islam, and the debates surrounding it any separation between procedural and programmatic secularism is blurred. An idea which is prevalent among many critics of Islam today, as Williams rightly points out, is that there is no possibility of secularization in Islam, that loyalty to the umma goes far beyond all other loyalties and that Islam has a complete program for ruling life through law. Williams gives the examples of Tariq Ramadan and Maleiha Malik, who contradict such statements through their work on what it means to be a Muslim in current European society. The work of both of these writers is certainly important and interesting, but these are people whose thoughts are, to a large extent, probably compatible with the secular arrangements of a large number of European states, albeit not all of them.

When reading Williams’ book, however, I couldn’t help but think (perhaps not unsurprisingly given my work with Salafi Muslims and Muslim militant activists) just how do Williams’ ideas hold up when we have Muslims publicly declaring their loyalty first and foremost to the umma, rejecting any loyalty to the nation-state, and even rejecting the very concept a nation-state itself? Can we still uphold this procedural secularism (although as I have said I have my doubts about this concept as a whole)? This is a very topical question as several European states have demonstrated that secularism can have a very ugly side, illustrated in its treatment of radical activists, and the changes in the laws on terrorism that they have made—changes so radical that people’s basic human rights are threatened. Can procedural secularism exist with and withstand those who object to it in a militant way and/or who do not recognize it? Put differently, what are the limits of Williams’ solution in the face of Muslim and other religiously militant activists?

Lastly, and I will end with this, I have to say I enjoyed reading the book enormously as it challenges people to think and rethink their own conceptualization of the religious and the secular against the background of current debates. One such interesting debate is ongoing in the UK at the moment. It might be interesting, at this point, therefore, to put an actual situation in the frame and address these same questions to this real-life context, then, perhaps, derive more concrete conclusions.

In April 2013, Leicester University began an investigation after a lecture was given during “Islamic Awareness Week” which, at the request of one of the visiting speakers, had separate male and female entrances to the lecture theater and separate seating arrangements for men and women. At another university—the University College of London—an Islamic organization that attempted to enforce segregation at a debate about faith was banned from the campus. In response to these (and other previous) events, with its usual pragmatism, Universities UK released a guide stating that if women and men were seated separately, but side by side rather than men at the front and women at the back, there would not be any gender inequality, and voluntary segregation could be permitted.

Universities UK said that an opinion from a senior barrister, Fenella Morris QC, had been sought and that she had concluded that the advice they had published was “an appropriate foundation for lawful decision-making by universities.” But this solution was heavily criticized, not just by liberals but by the right wing too. So how do we move forward in a conflict such as this? What are the limits of the religious and the secular now?

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