I started following Kenan Malik on twitter a few months ago and I have to say, it has been something of an education for me. Describing the dangers of illiberal liberalism as we struggle for a truly secular world, has been a been an eye-opener. Take for example the Hijab. Intellectually and emotionally I find the very existence of this garment, offensive. But can I, as a liberal, condone it’s proscription? I thought I could, or more accurately, I thought I could without thought. Can I justify the State interdicting the transmission of values and mores I find offensive, from parent to child? Can I censor all religious utterances I find objectionable?
The problem for me as a liberal, an atheist, a secularist, a moral relativist and a democrat, is that I have to believe in two contradictory, yet wholly fundamental principles, at once. I hold that the individual is paramount in all things. I also believe that society comes first. It may appear confusing, but I am well aquatinted now, with balancing this nonsensical philosophy of philosophies. I can get by without encountering a personal moral conundrum, which confounds this tension. The problem arises when I have to decide about something like the Hijab.
I don’t think it should be worn and I suspect that many who wear it, do so due to pressure and/or indoctrination. Should women then be required to apply for a license to wear a Hijab? The granting of which involves an invasive psychological examination, which may or may not include interviewing the immediate and extended family, and their Spiritual Advisors. And of course, there is just enough subjectivity in psychology to argue that all things being equal, a woman who chooses to wear a Hijab, is displaying a symptom of a psychological problem.
As much as I may long to see the disappearance of the Hijab, I cannot see how the State can fruitfully intervene in a liberal fashion. Yes, it can vindicate the rights of those women who do not wish to wear the Hijab, by offering asylum and/or criminal penalties, but to do anything, other than react to being invited into a situation where an individual desires to not don this particular item of clothing, is necessarily illiberal. I hate that this may be the only consistent application of my philosophy.
I cannot escape the awful feeling, that in trusting to the eventual victory of liberalism, over restrictive religious practices, that I am condoning the abandonment of powerless women today. Similarly, must liberalism, to remain pure, allow children to be taught hate and fear and disgust? I cannot see a way around it, because to do otherwise is to invite the State into all our homes, into all our heads. To monitor all of our interactions, public and private. Thus, if a major religion has homophobia as a basic tenet, then the State can only seek the ameliorate this sacerdotal hatred, by not endorsing it.
That is what defines a secular state, rather than a liberal one. As an atheist and a liberal, I have to tie myself in knots, to justify not going after the religions for misogyny, homophobia, child-abuse and anything else real or imagined that I can lay at the feet of the religious. A secular State isn’t as emotional.
A secular State, simply doesn’t make laws that reflect the prejudices of atheists, which Roman Catholics must obey, nor does it legislate for Hindu taboos which Moslems must follow. That is the most vital thing about a Secular State, the quality to which, both my atheism and my interfering liberalism must defer, not legislating for one side’s prejudices. Not supporting a taboo by legislation. Not using the law of the land to force Catholics and non-Catholics to adhere to Catholic dogma.
This is the reason I’m never really sure why organisations like the Roman Catholic Church conspire to thwart secularism. Is it because it wishes non-Catholics to obey its rules or is that it wishes the secular authorities to force Catholic to behave like good obedient Catholics?
Is this the reason that Christians are so against people like Tony Nicklinson receiving the help he so desperately wanted? Do they fear that Christians will opt for this service, thus reducing the power of the various Christian Churches? Or is there something even more arrogant and sinister at play? Do they wish for nonbelievers to play by Christian rules?
Many Christians, similarly rail against marriage equality, a woman’s right to choose, divorce and assisted suicide, yet none of these things can be forced on people who do not wish to experience them. In a secular State, I am free to marry whomever I wish and the Roman Catholic Church is free to disapprove, but I am unable to censor their disapproval. In a secular State, a pregnant woman would be free to do as she wishes with her body and I would not be allowed intervene, even if she chooses to forgo life-saving treatment, to protect her unborn child.
In a Secular State I would be free to live my life as a liberal atheist, as long as I did nothing which harms anyone else, without their consent. In a Secular State, a Roman Catholic would be free to practice, proselytise and campaign on behalf of their values, but again, would be constrained by law, from physically or legislatively interfering in the lives of those who do not share their beliefs.
Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure that I am cut out to be a campaigner for secularism. The fate of Tony Nicklinson leaves me too angry and bitter and not a little terrified. Does my future include having to starve myself to death, just to find final surcease? It is difficult to temper one’s words, to engage with respect, to give the benefit of the doubt, to people who have stood in judgement of Tony Nicklinson and the many other men and women who are enduring similar agonies.
You see I can speak about the Hijab and the Human Rights implications, because it is a Human Right i.e. some other human. Similarly I can speak about abortion with a certain detachment, I am a man. Gay marriage, I’m not gay. Divorce, I’m not married. Children’s rights, I don’t have children. But one day I may be afflicted by a debilitating disease. A condition that may render living, finally less attractive, than no longer existing. And the idea that my choices would be restricted by men and women who’s opinions I do not respect, fills my stomach with a raging tension. To be the tortured slave of another person’s prejudices? How does one learn calmness in the face of such vicious infamy?