Under the banner “Multi-Faith Gathering for Peace”, thousands of people marched two weeks ago in Quebec protesting a proposed Charter of Values which, if passed by the state’s government, will prohibit public workers from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols. In order to prevent any unavoidable subjective interpretation of the term, the Charter makes clear which religious symbols are deemed conspicuous: the Muslim Niqab and Hijab, the Sikh turban, the Jewish Yarmulke and the Christian cross (if large and worn around the neck).
Quite clearly, Quebec, today a part of Canada, is thus following in its ancestral progenitor’s footsteps, seeking to “purify” the public sphere of any religious symbols, just as France did in 2010 with its own law “prohibiting the concealment of the face in public space”, meant to do away with the Burqa and the Chador. No doubt, there is also quite a bit of Islamophobia here, just as in France, though I would suggest that at the bottom of this Islamophobia lies, among simple xenophobia and prejudice, a generous amount of old-fashioned enlightenment-style anti-religious sentiment.
Thus taken, Quebec’s Charter of Values seems to me not, in essence, about spreading or upholding liberty or equality. In truth, I would say, it is more of a reactive and clumsy attempt at defending an extreme version of separation between religion and state, one that was tried for the first time during the early years of the French Revolution, tried again in countries of the former Communist Bloc, failed horribly both times, but continues to live as a phantom in the minds of anti-theists for whom the idea of religious belief insults a particular conception of human dignity.
“The Kantian imperative to have the courage to think for oneself”, wrote Terry Eagleton once, “has involved a contemptuous disregard for the resources of tradition and an infantile view of authority as inherently oppressive.” Ironically, the same Kantian imperative is today enforced by the resources of the state, whose authority, as shown all too clearly in both the French and the Communist revolutions, can be just as much oppressive, if not a whole lot more.
What the current events in Quebec reveal to us is the rebirth of the friction between religion and state, brought about not only by the injection of fresh “belief” by Muslim immigrants to European countries, but also by the rising of new forms of Christian believers in North and South America, renewed struggles and cooperation inside Islam, and a new interest in the Jewish religious life in Israel. It is the frontline where believers and atheists, traditionalists and anti-theists meet, and where, all too often, liberal agnostics find themselves in the awkward position of fearing religious fundamentalists while at the same time envying their conviction.
The idea that religion is the result of some sort of faulty line of reasoning, and thus will gradually disappear as humanity learns to think strait (another inheritance from the Enlightenment), has today been almost completely abandoned by students of the sociology and psychology of religion. As Peter Berger observed, what modernity has indeed brought us in the religious sphere is not religions decline, but its plurality.
“Modernity is not necessarily secularizing; it is necessarily pluralizing” writes Berger, pointing out that what is characteristic of modern society is increasing divergence of religious forms and practices. And while this is far better, I would believe, in the eyes of religious people then the simple dwindling away of faith, it does pose not a small challenge for them, as they now have no choice but to contend with alternative answers to many of the questions their religious life asks. In other words, far from killing religion, what modernity has allowed is a competition between different religions, which, in an open and tolerant society, leads unavoidably to diversity.
If this diversity is not to be the first step on the way to a religious war, it is crucial that the very same open and tolerant society be the background for profound inter-religious dialogue. Speaking of the Enlightenment as we have, we must happily admit that what it has also bequeathed to us is the framework in which different faiths can live side by side, which is liberal democracy. It is by firmly maintaining the principles of liberal democracy on the one hand, and frank and candid dialogue between religious leaders and believers on the other, that a not only a tolerant atmosphere can be maintained, but also actual religiousdevelopment, as religions learn from each other.
Most of all in the Middle East, where religious tension, as well as diversity, is extensive, direct interfaith dialogue is essential. Extremism on all sides must be denounced by religious leaders, and an example set by them through meeting, recognizing and respecting both sides’ representatives and faiths. This will not only (and most importantly) contribute to the religious aspect of our mutual coexistence here, but may even be found beneficial if a multi-faith cooperation is needed in case of an attempt to restrict individual and public religious rights by the state, such as in Quebec. It does, however, call for courageous religious leadership, and the honest will to act not only when a person’s own free exercise of faith is jeopardized, but when the others’ is. I truly hope The Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land will rise to the challenge.
Published on The Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land’s Internet site.