Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Separating politics and religion

The following is a piece I did up and shopped around to daily newspapers as an op-ed piece. I got no takers, so I thought I would stick it on the blog. Although I am seeing a separation in issues in this case, I would not like readers to assume that I do not think religion is beyond debate and discussion, I certainly feel very strongly that it is not exempt from that -- it's just that in this case, I don't think author Mark Steyn was really writing about the religion.

Canadian journalist and author Mark Steyn has been accused by the Toronto Star of writing an “Islamophobic polemic” in his book, America Alone: the end of the world as we know it. An excerpt from that book was published in Maclean’s magazine and now both parties are under investigation by the CHRC and its British Columbia counterpart. The basis for the complaints, brought by some Muslim students and the Canadian Islamic Congress, is that Muslims are likely to be held in contempt in violation of their right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their religion.

The problem this accusation poses is that Steyn did not write a book about religion. He wrote a book about politics and society.

Suppose Steyn had written a critical examination of socialism and made fun of some of the spokespeople for that socio-economic political spectrum. Would we be surprised to see socialist leaders like Jack Layton and Howard Hampton rushing off to the Canadian Human Rights Commission complaining that Steyn’s words would likely cause socialists everywhere to be held in contempt?

Yes we would, for two reasons.

The first and obvious one is that political criticisms are not grounds for complaints under the Canada Human Rights Act.

The second reason relates to why they are not included as offenses; it is because sharp debate about the principles and methods by which we organize and run our society in the court of public opinion is the lifeblood of our liberal democracy. We regularly argue about the vices and virtues of socialism, capitalism, communism, fascism and almost any political, socio-economic system in between. It is how we test our commonwealth against what it could be and how we find ways to adjust it for the better. We constantly renew ourselves in this fashion.

You certainly would not find Canadians filing complaints about attacks on fascism or communism, two highly discredited socio-economic-political systems. Why would attaching a deity to another political system somehow elevate that ideology into something sacrosanct under human rights legislation and beyond normal public analysis?

Harsh words are spoken in political dialogue. As long as they are not false, and therefore libelous, then the recourse for those who disagree is to write their rebuttals, citing arguments and marshalling evidence or examples in support of their positions. This is normal public political discourse and should always be encouraged rather than being censored.

Nowhere in the text of America Alone does Steyn evaluate and critically discuss the Five Pillars of Islam, the observance of Ramadan, the division of objects into clean or unclean, and any other significant aspect of Islam the religion as a religion. His passing references to some practices of Muslims, like women wearing headgear, or certain moral norms, are mainly cultural and not central to his theme.

One need only compare Steyn’s treatment of Islam with that of fundamentalist Christians, in American author, Chris Hedges’, recent book, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, to see the difference. The U.S. Christian right working to create a Christian nation out of a constitutional secular one is something new in American society. His book also deals with how this religion informs politics, but Hedges, who claims to be a moderate Christian, is unsparing in his disdain for the divisive doctrines and misguided scriptural interpretations of the evangelical fundamentalists. Steyn does none of that.

The Judeo-Christian tradition at least recognizes the separation of church and state: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto God that which is God’s.” Islam knows no such distinction and is as much a political ideology as it is a spiritual fountainhead.

Steyn concentrated his arguments on Islam as a political movement intent upon supplanting western liberal democracies with the Sharia as the operative legal system and the possibility of theocracies as the political systems. He doesn’t relish that idea. Few who are inculcated in the secular values of western liberal democracies would.

What these Muslims who are challenging Steyn and Maclean’s are really claiming is that no discussion of the political ramifications of Islamic imperialism is permitted in Canada. But, if the complainants don’t buy into the ideology then why would they not support the exposure of it rather than the censoring of it?

One hopes that if and when this matter ends up in front of a human rights tribunal the members of the panel will be able to distinguish the difference between an attack on a religion and its adherents from an attack on a political ideology, and recognize Steyn’s work as an appropriate discourse in the great tradition of liberal-democratic political debate, in violation of nobody’s human rights.

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