Does secularism turn political religion into a problem?

Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
2 September 2007
This was Professor Jose Casanova's contention in the opener of the Van Leer Institute/Network of European Foundations conference on Religion and Democracy in Europe. It's not the economy, stupid ... it's secularism.

He makes a convincing case: we start with a liberal, secularist world view that ses the European nation struggling to emerge out of the clutches of a fused Church and Monarchy of the high middle ages, through the reformation and elnlightenment which together create the three autonomous spheres of religion, politics and science. This is associated to the development of freedom, the possibility of self-realisation and democracy. Any new incursions of religion out of its well defined, private, box should be treated with great suspicion according to this view.

Professor Casanova convincingly argues that this carricature does not correspond to any historical reality. Most intriguingly, he thinks that the hugely pro-democratic influence of Christian Democracy should teach us a lesson. Reluctant democrats, Catholics all over Europe turned into democrats through parties finally reconciled with the liberal institutions. The enemies of democracy became a major strength.

So how does this apply to Islam in Europe today? Christian democracy has always seemed to me to have been a slightly unwilling convert to Liberal Democracy. The shock of World War 2, and the unacceptable associations that any form of anti-democratic reaction had implied, was a large part of the re-invention of political Catholicism into Christian Democracy. One would hope for no similar historical shock to jolt Europe's Muslims into Islamic Democracy.

Or maybe terrorism is that already, and its silver lining will be the emergence of an Islamic Democracy? Casanova's important point is that we should not let false perceptions of the role of securlarism in the democratic make-up put any unnecessary obstacles in the way of that.


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