The Secular State and the Fundamentalist Challenge

For some two hundred years France, northern Europe and the anglophone world have essentially based their politics on the concept of the secular state. That is to say, political decisions have been argued for on the basis of reason and logic, rather than on some over-arching theological imperative. Even in England, with an established church, the Church of England during this time has not attempted to impose any theocratic pressure on the political process. This has not been to the detriment of genuine religion, nor of its practice, but, arguably, it has assisted individual faith and religious practice, in that identification of the state with a particular faith or denomination leads to nominal adherence to a state religion rather than personal and passionate commitment. Neither, where the state guarantees freedom of belief, has it led to constraints on practice or on proselytism. Only the Communist bloc, with its equivalent atheistic fundamentalism, sought, unsuccessfully, to kill off religion when it could not be subverted to its own use.

Over the past decade this political secularism has been under increasing threat. The rise of religious fundamentalism has not been met by a sufficiently rigorous intellectual response and the case has largely gone by default. Consequently, whether in islamic countries, in India under the BJP, within the southern states of the USA, in Northern Ireland, or in Israel, the malign encroachment of religious imperatives on the democratic process is increasingly alienating the members of minority faiths and is now threatening the social stability of many key areas of the world.

Throughout my political life I have sought to ally writing and lecturing to practical, representative, politics, and I have a string of publications to my name on contemporary political issues. Over the past dozen years I have largely worked overseas, assisting new and emerging democracies. Some of these countries are themselves deeply affected by the clash between secularism and religious imposition. In Yemen, for example, the situation of women in the south of the country has gone backwards since unification and the increasing imposition of islamic values on political structures. I have recently returned from a mission in Bangladesh where the Awami League, the party that successfully led the struggle for independence, and which has secularism in its constitution, told me how difficult it now is to campaign for secularism. Its leaders begged me to find influential individuals of like mind elsewhere to revive the principle and to assist their struggle. In India the much respected journalist and writer, M J Akbar, has fought virtually a lone battle for secular values. In America there are now at last the initial signs of an intellectual argument against the new fundamentalist conservatives. A "No-to-Political Islam" appeal was launched in August this year, backed by a number of influential academics, and, still more recently, Christian, Jewish and Islamic leaders in the UK have for the first time issued a joint plea for tolerance and against extremism.

There is an urgent need for a publication which reformulates the principle of the secular state, which analyses the situation in strategic countries, which applies the principle to those situations and which forcefully promotes it as a crucial means of confronting the immense danger that religious fundamentalism now poses to the harmony and progress of the contemporary world. This needs to be both intellectually rigorous and also highly practical, so that it can stimulate further debate and be a handbook for action by working politicians. It then needs to be followed up with the formation of an informal global group, probably via the Internet, to support and brief those in the "front line". I want to contact and link those around the world already engaged in aspects of such work and to pull together a group which can be influential and effective. I estimate that it will take a maximum of twelve months to achieve the main publication and thereafter a part-time commitment to maintain a topical website supported by hard copies of contact material.