Sunday 31 October, 5.30pm until 6.30pm, Upper Gulbenkian Gallery
This year, Belgium and France both took steps towards banning women from wearing the Muslim burqa in public, and similar bans have been seriously discussed elsewhere in Europe. Meanwhile Switzerland has banned minarets. So is Europe now putting its own ‘secular’ culture before religious toleration?
The legacy of the Reformation and religious wars, followed by the Enlightenment, spawned a particular tradition of secularism in Europe based on the separation of religion and politics, and the principle of tolerance. Of course, religious conflict was never completely stamped out, but until recently it was assumed that religion was becoming less important, as the process of secularisation unfolded, and enlightened, liberal values took the place of superstition and deference to religious authorities. This assumption has been upset most starkly by the growth of Muslim communities all over Europe, made very visible by the appearance of women in headscarves and burqas, as well as more dramatic manifestations like the protests against the notorious Danish Mohammed cartoons in 2004 and 2005. Following 9/11 and 7/7, the presence of large communities within Europe who seem not to share its values has caused panic among many would-be guardians of European secular liberalism. Are they right to see the burqa as a symbol of dangerous reaction that must be suppressed? Or are such concerns overblown, and even racist?
In Britain too there have been heated debates about hijabs and niqabs, but tellingly, concerns about religious threats to secular values are not confined to Islam. When then shadow home secretary Chris Grayling said before the general election that he thought Christian bed and breakfast owners should be allowed to turn away gay couples, there was an outcry, and all mainstream commentators agreed that the law should prevent any such discrimination. But some conservative Christians have protested that it is they who suffer discrimination, or even persecution, because of their religion. For them, it is not Islam that threatens to undermine traditional culture, but a militant secularism. The debate about faith schools and whether they should be allowed to privilege members of their given religion reveals a similar tension. So who is tolerating whom, or not?
At the heart of the issue is a conflict over what secularism means: is it about leaving religion behind and embracing modern, liberal values, or instead about allowing individuals and communities to live by their own values without official interference? Should religion have special treatment, in the form of exemptions from equality legislation, for example? Or is such legislation itself too prescriptive for a truly secular and multicultural society? Should we all be free to discriminate according to our own consciences? Should Europe stick up for its liberal values against religious threats, or turn the other cheek?
Listen to session audio:
|Dr Evan Harris|
campaigner for secularism in the public sphere; former science spokesman, Liberal Democrats; writer, Guardian Political Science blog
chair, Minotek, Norway; author, Dialogue on Violence, Suppression and Extremism
freelance journalist; producer and reporter for Sweden's public service radio
Brussels correspondent, The Times; co-author, No Means No
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)
Germany’s angry debate about immigration has its roots in the multiculturalist emphasis on difference.Sabine Beppler-Spahl, spiked, 25 October 2010
Both Europe’s burqa-banners and burqa-defenders are denigrating tolerance by inviting the state to police our beliefs and thoughts.Brendan O’Neil, spiked, 25 October 2010
Ian Buruma’s short book is a kind of sequel to Death in Amsterdam, his book about the murder of Theo van Gogh and the limits of tolerance. It goes beneath the superficial counterpositions of today’s religion debates – religion versus secularism, multiculturalism versus intolerance – to identify some more interesting dynamics at work.Dolan Cummings, Culture Wars, 19 September 2010
The fools who want to obliterate the face veil in the name of Enlightened values clearly don't know what Enlightenment is all about.Tim Black, spiked, 19 July 2010
A secular-minded government rejects excessively religious dress in schoolEconomist, 15 July 2010
Sarkozy's legislation is only the latest move in a centuries-old grapple between the French state and organised religionRuth Harris, Prospect, 14 July 2010
In Spain earlier this month, the Catalonian assembly narrowly rejected a proposed ban on the Muslim burqa in all public places — reversing a vote the week before in the country’s upper house of parliament supporting a ban. Similar proposals may soon become national law in France and Belgium.Martha Nussbaum, New York Times, 12 July 2010
On Wednesday, Spain became the latest European country to advance legislation to ban burqas and other such face veils. Many of those in favor of such laws cite women's rights, but does criminalizing their clothing help?Der Spiegel, 25 June 2010
Postwar Europe was built on an intolerance of intolerance and a downplaying of national tradition—a mindset praised as anti-racism and ridiculed as political correctness. It has often made integrating newcomers hardChristopher Caldwell, Prospect, 4 May 2009
A leading US Christian says that faith in Europe will be re-energised by a creative Christian minority and by the example of Islam. But he is too sanguine about the integration of Muslims and aboutEric Kaufmann, Prospect, 25 November 2007
Even if hijab-wearing is a genuine choice, does that make it obligatory for us to respect it? Any more than hijab-wearers respect women who wear shamefully little? What we would not ban, we do not have to condone.Cathrine Bennet, Guardian, 23 January 2004
Radicalism then and now: the legacy of 1968
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