Juan A. Soto

Secularism, multiculturalism, Islam and the death of neutrality

Radical secularism has advanced with little to no opposition over the past half century across Europe and the West. However, it seems to have evolved to specifically address —or destroy— the pre-existing religious values. Moreover, its so-called non-identification principle, that is, multiculturalism, is de facto discriminating between religions, targeting Christians and favouring other faith minorities such as Islam. This, in turn, undermines the self-proclaimed neutrality of Western liberal democracies.

Most of the twentieth century has been marked by an ever-expanding reach of secularism across the West —as well as some other areas of the world—, especially since the end of the Second World War. One example could be the Communist authoritarian type of secularism, but I will specifically refer here to that which is particular of liberal democracies.

Post-Enlightenment secularism in Europe has increasingly resembled French-coined laïcité, which not only takes a stricter stance on separation of church and state, but de facto —and sometimes even de iure— goes against the religious experience anywhere beyond one’s own household. This is not how liberal political theorists have often referred to secularism. Namely, defining secularism as one implication or consequence of the so-called ‘state neutrality’, which consists of a strict restrain from public institutions to discriminate against or in favour of any given conception of the good life. That was the case when secularism, or moderate secularism, first emerged. It saw organised religion as a private benefit for individuals and families but also as a potential public good, which could justify the state assistance in various instances. The practice of this modus vivendi was rarely perfect and the way public institutions helped religion —in particular, institutionalised religion— differed greatly from country to country. However, secularism did not seek to replace one comprehensive conception of the good life with a new one. It merely spoke of respect and the importance for various sensibilities to be included in society.

As we can see, secularism, if compatible with liberalism and also a feature of it, must not be a rejection of the religious, but a principle of neutrality that gives everyone the freedom to express his faith. Radical secularism, however, is a step (or more) away from this starting point. As a matter of fact, it has very serious implications insofar as it rewrites the notion of liberal neutrality and replaces it with new policy that abandons the non-identification principle and ironically admits what so many have historically claimed, which is nothing but the impossibility —in practice and in theory— of the previously sacred notion of neutrality.

This new notion of neutrality —which is not neutral at all— is not inclusive but exclusive, as it pushes religious people away from the public square. At the same time, it is also discriminatorily exclusive, for it treats very differently the various faiths that we find in the pluralist societies of the West. In particular, it specifically targets Christians and favours various religious minorities. In particular, Islam.

If pluralism is the expression of liberal democracies at a value-based level, multiculturalism operates in a similar fashion when it comes to culture and demographics. And here, too, Christianity is forcefully being expelled from the public square whereas other religions are being allowed —and even helped— to step in. In the West today, Christians do not enjoy the same level of public recognition than other religions do. Furthermore, over the past two decades, they have experienced the highest levels of violence across the West. Christian churches and sites have been broken into and looted, priests have been murdered, etc. According to a Gatestone Institute’s report, in 2019 alone there were recorded over 3,000 attacks against Christians in Europe, which was an all-time high. These attacks overwhelmingly involve the Roman Catholic faith although various Protestant churches have also been targeted. One example of the latter is that of Germany, where according to the same report, attacks against Christian churches occur at an average rate of two per day.

This alone is a major issue and fairly recent in contemporary history. Not so much, however, in other parts of the world, for let us remember that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world. Nevertheless, what is truly worrisome is the attitude of governments of liberal democracies in the face of this anti-Christian hostility which is sweeping across the West. For the most part —for there are notable exceptions such as Hungary and Poland— they seem determined to willingly ignore this phenomenon. As a result, we witness the convergence of radical secularism with the emergence of Islam due to immigration —mostly illegal— and higher fertility rates. Two joint realities that puts liberal neutrality against the ropes.

As seen above, radical secularism profoundly undermines the liberal notion of neutrality. But, at the same time and regarding Islam, it should not be branded as racist or bigoted to genuinely ask whether neutrality is at all desired for liberalism insofar as it seems somewhat imprudent. In other words, even if one agrees that today’s radical secularism should undergo a transformation that makes it compatible with neutrality and tolerance, one can also agree that it can be rather suicidal to apply Western traditional norms of secularism to an extra-Christian religious identity that the West has not known before and especially to those which plainly affirm to have no interest in toleration but conversion —always a milder term than submission.

Moreover, by protecting —through positive discrimination and various other means— other religious minorities, Western democracies are creating dangerous situations, such as the activation of ancient rivalries —and even war— among them but in the midst of open, liberal societies. That is also particularly the case of Islam, for empirical data show how ongoing wars elsewhere also penetrate the West together with demographics. One example is the evidence that show today the highest numbers of antisemitic attacks across Europe since the 1930s and 1940s.

The struggle between two or more religious faiths is different than the struggle between a secular state or a secular demos and a religious group. Historically, Christians and Muslims have fought, won and lost, but neither has been capable to decisively defeat the other. And what is more, they understood each other. Secularism, however, does not seem to understand religious struggle. And it must, for the West has been transformed. It was Christian and it is now officially secular. The ongoing war, as a result, is not between Christianity and Islam but between Islam and Western (radical) secularism, hence making the conflict dynamic different. Christianity understood Islam in a way that secularism cannot, which gave the former a competitive advantage over the latter. Therefore, it can also be argued that secularism should not be totally pre-empted of any moral consideration toward all religions if it seeks to ensure its own survival. Under these lenses, secularism cannot be both respectful of Islam and outraged at its values, as it is today. The current harbouring of a faith that despises what secularism stands for can only end in disaster. That is precisely why it is so ironic that secularism has embarked in its own crusade against the only religion that contributed to its very emergence. This may come as a contradiction in terms, but perhaps it is a necessary one, for there are always limits for tolerance, as Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance brilliantly depicted.

Radical secularism is a young religion in a way and contributes to the claim that liberalism is not such a shallow or thin ideology, but a rather thick one. A replacement ideology. And it has not yet learned to carry political power magnanimously. This places secularism in a difficult position to address internal critiques for its overlook of neutrality and on the intellectual defensive against Islam. A new understanding of secularism represents the West best chance for finding a way forward.

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