Shahbaz Bhatti?s murder shows why we need secularism in the Arab and Muslim worlds

Two days ago, a courageous man, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Pakistani Roman Catholic politician and minister for minorities, was brutally gunned down by extremists from the radical Tehrik-i-Taliban group in part of an ongoing campaign of murder to enforce, defend and expand the country’s outrageous anti-blasphemy law. These maniacs described him as “a known blasphemer” because he was a Christian and because he opposed the draconian Pakistani anti-blasphemy laws, under which another Pakistani Christian, Asia Bibi, has been unjustly convicted and sentenced to death, although not yet executed. Bibi was accused of making disparaging remarks against the Prophet Mohammed, for which in, November, 2010, she was sentenced to death by hanging.

Pakistan's outrageous blasphemy laws and the campaign of murders
This flabbergasting miscarriage of justice kicked off a major debate about Pakistan’s despicable blasphemy laws. Pakistan’s Criminal Code includes Section 295, which forbids damaging or defiling a place of worship or object of veneration, and several subsections: 295-A, which prohibits offending religious feelings; 295-B, which criminalizes defiling of the Quran; and 295-C, which outlaws defaming the Prophet. Of these provisions, only 295-C would appear to raise the possibility of the death penalty. No one has ever been sentenced to death under this law before, and Bibi has not yet, and probably will not be, executed pursuant to her sentence. But the fact that it's even a remote possibility that she could actually and legally be executed for expressing her alleged religious opinions should be enough to appall any decent human being, whatever their religious opinions, and rings the strongest possible alarm bells about where Pakistani society has been and is heading.

Bibi is still alive. However on January 4, the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated by members of his own bodyguard for having made statements sympathetic to the plight of Bibi and questioning these draconian and utterly indefensible laws and verdicts. So while Bibi herself may or may not be killed by the state (local fanatics have bluntly stated that if she is not executed they will “take matters into their own hands” and her family has gone into hiding as a consequence), first Taseer and now Bhatti have been murdered by maniacs, not for allegedly committing blasphemy themselves, but merely questioning the propriety of these utterly barbaric laws against freedom of thought and expression.

The need for secularism in Arab and Muslim societies
Obviously this is a very extreme situation, and hardly representative of the generalized condition of the Muslim world vis-à-vis blasphemy laws and debates about how to deal with differences of religious opinion. However, it represents a fairly disastrous situation emerging in one of the largest and most populous Muslim countries, in which the state and radical vigilantes are in open competition as to who can outdo each other in using violence and threats of violence to impose religious orthodoxy on what is, after all, a quite heterogeneous society. I recently wrote a column about the need for secularism in the Arab world in the context of the uprisings against autocratic Arab rulers and the question of how best to build a better future for the Arab peoples. To my dismay but not surprise, I received numerous e-mails from people suggesting that secularism has had its chance in the Arab world and was not only a proven failure but also a proven source of oppression, autocracy, corruption and bad governance.

First of all, I would strongly disagree that genuine secularism has been a feature of most, if any, of the autocratic Arab states presently being threatened by ongoing or potential popular unrest. And, insofar as any of these oppressive governments have reflected some degree of secularism in their policies and laws, that has been one of the few sources of freedom rather than oppression. Tunisia under Ben Ali, for example, suffered under a corrupt, autocratic, unaccountable and kleptocratic dictatorship, but at least the Tunisians weren't having much religious bigotry shoved down their throats. The same certainly can’t be said for many other Arab states that are at least as corrupt, autocratic, unaccountable and kleptocratic, but which also do more to attempt to enforce a degree of religious orthodoxy, only adding additional layers of oppression and further limiting freedom.

Secularism is not responsible for oppression
Blaming the rather limited secularism that has existed in some of the Arab dictatorships for their autocratic tendencies and mismanagement is a little bit like saying that because a serial killer kept a neat and tidy home, this personal fastidiousness therefore somehow contributed to their criminal mayhem. The two are obviously not connected, and trying to draw a causal link between secular principles and oppression or corruption because they both may have been attributes of certain governments is a fatuous logical syllogism. It's a fallacy analogous to a pseudo-logical progression to the effect that: “all dogs have four legs; my cat has four legs; therefore my cat is a dog."

There is not the least reason to think that secularism itself contributes to corruption, oppression or bad governance, even though some secular governments (totalitarian communist regimes, for instance) have certainly been strikingly repressive. But the only arguments that can place that repression at the feet of secularism are those that presume there is some kind of connection between religious devotion and both morality and political freedom, neither of which can be maintained with a straight face. No one who lives in the real world could possibly believe that religious devotion actually makes people more honest, or more inclined to political liberties for that matter. Just look around you, no matter where you live, and proofs positive against such assertions are ubiquitous. The intimate although not, of course, inevitable, connection between religious dogma and zealotry on the one hand and political and social repression on the other hand is irrefutable. The certainty that comes with intense religious belief lends itself very readily to all kinds of social and political restrictions, as the entire sweep of human history demonstrates. There are other forms of certainty that lead to equally disturbing levels of oppression, but religious fanaticism is one of the quickest, and most powerful and common, ways to get to a tyrannical mentality.

Secularism must be properly defined and applied
So the premise of these questions challenging my call for Arab secularism is inadmissible to begin with. But I think the Pakistani experience, although it is admittedly uniquely extreme, strongly demonstrates why secularism as a political value is an essential aspect to reform in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and is not optional at all. First, let’s define very clearly what we mean by secularist, in case there’s any confusion (which there seems to be). Secularism means this neutrality of the state on matters of faith, and the refusal of the government to either privilege or punish any religious tradition that does not violate the inalienable rights of protected persons such as children, minorities, women or other individuals, or that does not involve the commission of mayhem or other extraordinary crimes and abuses. It means that the government does not interfere with the practice of religious devotion, but also does not favor one interpretation of religiosity over another, and provides space for not only a multiplicity of religious orientations, but also an agnostic perspective that embraces skepticism and an atheist position that rejects everything that cannot be perceived by human empiricism and reason.

Secularism has been misinterpreted and misapplied in many countries
Obviously, certain forms of secularism can and have gone too far, even in relatively free societies. For example in France, cultural practices such as the wearing of cross necklaces, Jewish kippas or headscarves for devout Muslim girls have been banned from public schools on the grounds that they offend state neutrality on religious grounds. This is not secularism at all. This is faux-secularism being used as an excuse for cultural chauvinism and the suppression of both cultural and religious norms that do not in anyway infringe upon the rights of others and cannot be viewed in any serious light as a threat to the neutrality of the state on matters of faith. So, obviously, it doesn’t take a totalitarian communist regime to be oppressive against faith, which is not what secularism involves at all. It can also come from the French tradition of "Laïcité," which derives from the revolutionary period of trying to drive Roman Catholic political influence out of the governance system in the country following a tradition in which it was closely aligned with the monarchy and the aristocracy. This set of values, based on a very different set of concerns, is now applied to Jews, Muslims and other religious minorities who never had any access to abusive power, and in the case of Muslims to almost any power at all, in a blatantly cultural-chauvinist attempt to suppress immigrant cultural traditions.

Secularism is not iconoclasm. It is not the state rejection or suppression of religious sentiment or practice. In this regard, France, and several other European countries, have it absolutely wrong. Liberty, of which secularism must be a key component, means maximizing the range of choices available to individuals, which certainly includes wearing crosses, kippas and headscarves if people feel religiously or culturally inclined to do so. How on earth would any of that impinge on the fundamental rights of anybody else? It minds not me if people want to wear superstitious crosses or tiny editions of the Quran around their necks, skullcaps or turbans on their heads, sport nicely trimmed or silly looking beards, or don either elegant or frumpy headscarves. Why it bothers anybody else if people do things like that, I completely fail to understand, and how it could possibly be a matter of public policy is absolutely incomprehensible. This is an irrational, and indeed a phobic reaction to diverse cultural, religious and sartorial opinions, tastes and norms that any heterogeneous society will have to deal with in a tolerant, open manner that maximizes the range of choices available to individuals without offending or impinging on the rights of others. Telling people how to dress, with some very extreme exceptions like public nudity of course, isn't secularism at all, it's just narrow-minded, bigoted and pointless stupidity.

Secularism is essential to liberty because all societies are heterogeneous
The reason that secularism is essential — understood in the sense that it involves the strict neutrality on matters of religious faith, and neither the privileging of any religious order, nor the suppression of any order that stays within the law, broadly defined — is that all societies are heterogeneous. Some of them lie to themselves and claim to be homogenous. But in fact, all societies — absolutely all of them — are heterogeneous on matters of religion and include devout people from traditional faiths, schismatics, small denominations, people who are spiritual without adhering to any specific theology, agnostics and, of course, atheists. There is absolutely no society on earth that does not contain this range of opinions.

Therefore, if the state is not neutral on religious matters it will be oppressive in some manner or other. For example, in the United Kingdom, which still has an established Church of England, the taxes of all people go to subsidize the weird superstitions and social and political power of that organization. This isn't exactly religious oppression, but it isn't fair or neutral either (the UK and other European countries also still have blasphemy laws, although they're not as draconian by any means as the Pakistani madness described above, and rarely enforced). Non-secular states will, by definition, in some way or other impose certain arbitrary views of one group of people, probably but not necessarily the majority, on everybody else in some manner or other, and this can very frequently have dire consequences for freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and all other aspects of fundamental social, intellectual and political liberty. The biggest champions of secularism ought to be religious people themselves, since a religiously neutral, secular government is the best guarantee of the actual freedom to practice religious beliefs in an unimpeded, unregulated manner. The problem is that all-too-many religious types consciously or unconsciously yearn not just to practice their faith but to impose it or its implications on the rest of society, which secularism would preclude.

The Pakistani catastrophe could spread
The catastrophe of religious intolerance unfolding in Pakistan at the moment is, as I have acknowledged already, extreme by any standards, and deeply, profoundly alarming. Few, if any, Muslim societies are actually considering executing anybody on the grounds blasphemy or apostasy (although the US-backed “liberated” Afghanistan government did consider such a thing a couple of years ago, though it abandoned the idea under international pressure), and I can’t think of any other society in which politicians are being murdered for defending the rights of people to not be sentenced to death for so-called “blasphemy,” which in this case plainly amounts to the persecution of a religious minority. No doubt this is a very advanced case of religious paranoia, chauvinism and hysteria, the global epicenter of which, unfortunately, presently seems to lie in the Afghanistan/Pakistan area, for complicated historical and cultural reasons. Of course, there are some other Muslim societies that have analogous issues, including Saudi Arabia, northern Nigeria, Sudan and Iran, to mention just a few. But none of these are as disturbing as the Pakistani case is quickly becoming.

However, anyone who thinks that this process could not possibly be extended to other parts of the Muslim world, or indeed places for that matter, is deluding themselves. There are other parts of the Muslim world which already have seen the resurgence of lapidation (stoning) as a punishment for sexual offenses, and the prosecution, persecution and abuse of people who are seen as apostates, blasphemers or heretics. The essential principles for extreme punishments against blasphemy, heresy/or apostasy are present in all three major monotheistic faiths, and could be applied by extremist Muslims, Christians or Jews anywhere in which they feel able and motivated to do so, with plausibly authentic theological justifications. At present, for complex historical reasons, extremist Muslims seem to be most enthusiastic about such unmitigated barbarism, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

My point about secularism is that is the only system that is suited to religious heterogeneity, because it precludes the dominance and tyranny of any particular religious orientation over others. Those societies that claim to be religiously homogenous are lying, and suppressing the diversity that in all cases at least lies beneath the surface. There is no such thing on earth today, and probably never has been, a society united in its religious opinions. I not only can't imagine such a thing, but were one to emerge it would be almost by definition an Orwellian nightmare. As I noted above, self-professed secular government systems have committed unbelievable atrocities, and secularism — whether via the Soviet model of irreligious tyranny, or the French model of gratuitously and pointlessly suppressing innocuous religious expression in public spaces such as schools mainly as a vehicle for cultural chauvinism — can, of course, also lend itself to oppression. The essence of liberty is to maximize the range of available choices individuals and groups in a society may access, as long as they do not impinge on the inalienable rights of others.

As I say, the French version of secularism, Laïcité, is no model to be followed either. It's not the neutrality of the state on matters of faith, but a kind of low-level hostility to religion, or at least innocuous religious expression in public spaces. Secularism is not a panacea, and obviously can be both distorted and deployed for abusive purposes. But the important principle of state neutrality on religious matters has to be upheld, even though it can be abused in the wrong hands, because the alternative makes oppression or discrimination virtually inevitable. And the threat of religious extremism is infinitely more dangerous than the possibility of a misinterpretation or misapplication of secular principles. The unconscionable plight of Asia Bibi who is being persecuted by the state itself, and the outrageous murders of Shahbaz Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer by even more extreme anti-government zealots, is probably the most extreme case in the world today of religious fanaticism run amok. Apparently in Pakistan today it is enough to rhetorically defend the most fundamental principles of secularism and, indeed, basic human decency, to be killed by maniacs.

American Muslims need to speak out forcefully and clearly
There hasn't been total silence from American Muslims about the slide in Pakistan towards unprecedented levels of religious barbarism by both the state and vigilante or terrorist groups, but much more needs to be said by many people and organizations. Of course the primary onus should fall on Muslim American organizations oriented towards the South Asian immigrant community which has the closest links to and information about Pakistan and the rest of the area. Some of the organizations that fall into that category have been disgracefully silent and are maintaining that silence as the situation continues to deteriorate, presumably because they do not want to have an internal argument about the subject or alienate any potential constituents. This is absolutely unacceptable. More broadly, Muslim American individuals and organizations, even those who don't know much about Pakistan and what is happening there, need to wake up to what is spiraling out of control in one of the largest and most influential Muslim societies in the world. I don't believe that Muslim American organizations and individuals have no ability to at least rhetorically try to influence the calamity that's unfolding in Pakistan. The ability to influence is obviously very limited, but I don't accept that it is zero. And, even if Muslim Americans can't really have any influence on Pakistani developments, at least for their own dignity and, of course, their reputation with other Americans, they should make their outrage and disgust crystal clear.

I've often written that it's ridiculous to expect Arab and Muslim Americans to run around commenting on everything bad that happens in every Arab or Muslim society in the world, since such a thing would be impossible and such an expectation is an absurdity. In fact it's a trap, and one we can't possibly allow ourselves to fall into. However, what's happening in Pakistan demands a clear, unequivocal stance and some kind of effort to communicate loudly and unmistakably, especially to whatever Pakistani audiences are reachable as well as to our fellow Americans, that Muslims in the United States and, hopefully, all around the world, are appalled by the behavior both of the Pakistani state towards Bibi and by the murders of politicians by extremists for defending rather basic concepts of freedom and decency. Silence doesn't necessarily imply consent, but in a situation like this it's certainly an abdication of responsibility and a moral, political and religious failure. And as for those many people who took exception to my call for a commitment to secularism in what we all hope will prove an emerging Arab social and political renaissance, I present the tragic, broken body of Shahbaz Bhatti as Exhibit A in my argument.


On March 2, ISNA issued the following condemnation of the Bhatti murder:

"Islamic Society of North America Outraged by Brutal Killing of Pakistan's Minister for Minorities"

On March 3, MPAC, of course, strongly condemned the murder:

"MPAC Condemns Assassination Of Christian Minister In Pakistan And Will Address Religious Freedom In Geneva"

On March 3, ICNA also condemned the killing:

"Assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti Condemned by ICNA"

This last statement has an interesting relationship to the critique of ICNA's stances by Peter Skerry and Gary Schmitt in the Boston Globe in January.  They noted that "They clearly understood that the killing of Christians by Muslims [as now again demonstrated in the Bhatti case] is not something about which they [ICNA] could remain silent. Now these leaders must confront the reality that in contemporary America, genuine religious pluralism requires them to be just as outraged when Muslims kill Muslims." That wise admonishment still applies, of course.


A reader points out that the Church of England, while an Established church, does not presently derive any ongoing income from the UK taxation system. He's right. But of course its income relies heavily on various endowments and landholdings that were acquired from the state during, and as a result of, it's Establishment. So while my details were wrong, I still maintain that there is an unfair relationship between the C of E, the state system in the UK and all other religious denominations and orientations.