Sunday, November 19, 2006

On the triumph of intolerance

With regards to religion and its relationship to civil society, an old friend of mine has, I think, the right question: we had become accustomed in this country to people treating religion as something akin to a hobby in as far as it was understood to be something one did in private, in one's own time. You make think its a generalisation, or a stereotype - but I think it is true; the British have for a long time, perhaps since Cromwell, been suspicious of what used to be called 'religious enthusiasm'. What to do, he asks, when this is no longer the case, when there are apparently so many people who take it seriously?

David Starkey's answer is that we are confronted today with a situation where religion has to be 'put back in its box'. His argument is that the privileges that the Church of England have retained since Henry VIII have come back to haunt us in a multi-faith society because each religious grouping has a claim against the state on the grounds of inequity:
"Because certain privileges were retained for the established Christian churches, there is the argument from equity. This says that because the right to have faith schools has been accorded to the Church of England, Judaism and Catholicism, therefore we must give it to Islam.

Similarly, in the House of Lords we have the extraordinary situation where religious leaders sit ex officio in the legislature. Only one other country entertains the practice — the Islamic Republic of Iran. Now it is being suggested that because bishops are represented in the Lords, therefore rabbis, Catholic archbishops and imams should also sit there. This, in the early 21st century, is grotesque."
This much I agree with. Other religious minorities can justly claim they are discriminated against but it is absurd and intolerable for the British state to become the protector of faith in general, which is behind Prince Charles' fatuous suggestion that he should be called the Defender of Faith, indefinite article.

Starkey is right to call for a secular state and refreshingly right to suggest that history teaches us that such a secular state must reject Jacobinism. For as Ruth Gledhill reminds us, there is nothing more calculated to cause religious fundamentalists to flourish than to give the sense that they are being persecuted. This is why the various universities that have decided to proscribe the activities of Christian Unions on campus are being not only illiberal but unbelievably stupid. Christian unions, this piece says, are under unprecendented threat from students claiming they are 'exclusive'. A Christian group excluding people who aren't, em, Christians - fancy that. I wonder if socialist unions are being obliged to accept addresses from Tories? No, I don't really.

It's the same with Islam. I worry about people who don't seem to know what tolerance means. For there is no need for tolerance for things you approve of. The Dutch, who used to understand this very well, are in danger of forgetting this lesson from history. For their famous liberalism was not the product of the elimination of religion, as some seem to suppose, but because of the competing interests of the various religious groups that grew up in this historic centre of trade and commerce. Calvinists, Catholics and Jews here learned that religious tolerance was the better way than progroms, persecutions and pogroms.

Yet they are in danger of forgetting this with the proposed ban on Muslim clothing, as advocated by Rita Verdonk, the Immigration minister. No liberal should feel comfortable with 'national discussions' being conducted about what people wear. Here's the liberty I claim for myself, and therefore believe should be extended to others, perhaps the closest I have to a credo: I want the freedom to prostrate myself to Allah five times a day, go to mosque on a Friday and avoid bacon if I want to. Or the freedom to watch pornography whilst wearing a pink tutu, eating a bacon sandwich washed down with a beer, followed by a big spliff full of skunk-weed and white heroin, if I want to. Those who know me understand that while I'm much more likely to do the latter, I don't particularly want to do either but I claim it as my freedom nonetheless. Because I might feel the need to. Because my own bad decisions are better than good ones made on my behalf by somebody else.

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