How not to advance secularismo: events in Europe and Iraq are instructive in promoting ecularist social agenda …

How not to advance secularismo: events in Europe and Iraq are instructive in promoting ecularist social agenda …

Conrad Goeringer

As the U.S. imbroglio in Iraq continues, one thing is certain: the Bush administration has no clear roadmap for checking the advance of Islamic fundamentalism in either that country or the entire Middle East region of the world.

Indeed, it has been a cornerstone of American foreign policy to court religious movements when and where possible. The Eisenhower administration transformed the cold war from a volatile political confrontation into a religious crusade against “godless Communism,” passing a slew of constitutionally suspect laws (such as the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance). Religious elements pervaded the Vietnam War. And later, Ronald Reagan extended diplomatic recognition to the Vatican and assisted the Roman Catholic Church in its efforts to replace the crumbling authority of various Communist Parties with its own absolutist hegemony.

Half a world away, the U.S. was sowing the dragon’s teeth of future religious wars when it supported Islamic fundamentalists, the Mujahadeen, in ousting the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. The collapse of the rump government in Kabul created a power vacuum soon filled by warlords–many with ties to the international arms trade and traffic in drugs–and a subsequent civil war fueling the ascendance of the Taliban. The U.S. intervened citing the involvement of the Afghani regime and Osama bin Laden in the events of 9-11. While the subsequent military conflict seemed quickly resolved, the more daunting agenda to install some sort of popular, democratic regime in Afghanistan has proven to be elusive.

From Europe and Iraq, we now have more disturbing examples of how NOT to advance the cause of freedom and secularism. Both demonstrate not only the problem of dealing with religious extremism–in these cases Islamic fundamentalism–but how civil liberties are a necessary component in promoting a secularist agenda. Policy decisions which erode these liberties (or fail to establish them in the first place) encourage the fundamentalist outrage, and transmogrify the popular perception of these religious authoritarians and clerical fascists into “fighters for freedom.”

In March, the government of President Jacque Chirac passed legislation aimed at clamping down on a growing wave of Islamic fundamentalism by banning Muslim headscarves in French public schools. Germany followed suit with a similar law prohibiting the same gear for teachers.

Chirac’s proposal was aimed at the preservation of “French culture” by forbidding any signs or apparel that “lead to an immediate recognition of religious affiliation.” Technically, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses are also banned; but the legislation clearly targets Islam, especially since France now has an estimated five million Muslims–the largest such community in western Europe.

Like much of what governments do, the ban on head scarves has achieved little in terms of protecting secularism and may, in fact, be fueling the fundamentalist cause. Critics have rightly pointed out that one unintended consequence will be to encourage Muslim parents to send their children to private, fundamentalist schools where they are less likely to experience secular influences and teachings. The mullahs now operating in France are all too happy to exploit this opportunity. Thanks to the Chirac government, they will have a new wave of impressionable youngsters to indoctrinate in stern Islamic teachings including the unsavory principles of Jihad.

The “secularist” French state also now casts itself in the role of a religious–or is it “secularist”?–bully, imposing a dress code on families and students who pay for these public schools with their tax money. The very principles of secularist social policy, strict neutrality by the government in terms of religious favoritism, is transformed into an invasive creed interfering in the most personal of decisions. How students dress is, and should remain, a strictly private affair.

Teachers, whether in Germany or in the United States, are a different matter altogether. They are symbols of school authority. By wearing sectarian headgear, jewelry or other symbols, they clearly convey a religious message which can intimidate students, or suggest that a school or other public institution endorses religion. Students may feel compelled to join in religion-related activities these teachers may endorse or promote, even “voluntary” events such the See You At The Pole prayer rallies.

This type of distinction between the private and the public is, unfortunately, lost on the Chirac government. The ban on scarves simply fuels resentment, plays into the agenda of Islamic activists, and unfairly positions secularism as something antithetical to personal rights and individual choice. Students wishing to wear such clothing will equate a “secular” environment with unfair regulations that violate personal and family choice, and even private tastes. Rather than expose the children of Islamist immigrants to a diverse cultural and learning environment, it encourages parents to instead seek out alternatives schools which inevitably will embody a Muslim religious agenda.

Another example of failed policy is the current U.S. dilemma in Iraq in terms of dealing with Islamic insurgency.

However one evaluates the military aspect of the current American involvement, the U.S. has thus far failed to win “hearts and minds” of many Iraqis who, increasingly, are flocking to the banner of Islamic extremism. This deplorable process was accelerated last month when administrator Paul Bremer, Washington’s key man in Baghdad, ordered the Al Hawza newspaper shut down. So much for the idea of promoting civil liberties and a free, independent press. Bremer justified the move, telling reporters that Al Hawza–which often expresses opposition to U.S. conduct in Iraq–was “hurting stability” and spreading “false information.” One might make the same charge of Mr. Bush who has been less than candid with the American people regarding his military crusade in the Middle East, particularly over the testy issue of whether “weapons of mass destruction” dotted the Iraqi landscape.

It seems that Al Hawza did print false information, specifically blaming American operatives for an explosion that killed more than 50 Iraqi police recruits. But as recent developments at the New York Times and now USA Today clearly demonstrate, the American press is not necessarily a benchmark for measuring journalistic integrity and accuracy. Padlocking the doors and presses at Al Hawza undermines what little credibility the United States has in promoting its promise to replace the authoritarian Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein with a secular, free and civil society. And like banning scarves or other religious symbols for students in public schools, it provides Iraq’s emergent cabals of theocratic mullahs with new followers, and raises suspicion about the ultimate Western agenda.

Both the French and Iraqi incidents clearly indicate that secularism cannot be defended or promoted without being linked to other important principles, including civil liberties and personal rights. Chirac’s reckless move to ban scarves has prompted widespread resistance (opponents are now replacing Islamic headgear with bandanas, which are not covered under the present statutes) and provides Islamic militants with a new issue to rally potential supporters. Banning Islamic newspapers makes the American presence look more like an occupying military and cultural force, and certainly a hypocrite on the issue of promoting freedom in a post-Hussein Iraq. Secularism thrives best in open societies where personal choices are maximized, and the airing of all ideas is a right, not a privilege.

COPYRIGHT 2004 American Atheists Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group