A Publication of Fitnah – Movement for Women’s Liberation
Volume 2, Issue 5
Editor: Maryam Namazie
Design: Kiran Opal
Secularism is a Human Right
Interview with AC Grayling
The below is a Bread and Roses TV interview broadcast via New Channel TV on 20 May 2014:
Maryam Namazie: What is secularism and what is the value of secularism for both believers and non-believers?
AC Grayling: Firstly let me say it’s a great pleasure to be with you as I’m a big admirer of what you do. Secularism has to be distinguished from atheism and from other isms, like for example, humanism, which are naturally associated with it.
Most people who are atheists are probably likely to be secularists, but there are religious secularists as well, because secularism is a view about the place of religion – the religious voice, the religious organisations – in the public square, as this impacts for example, public policy matters. And the idea behind secularism is that the public square of society should be neutral with respect to all the different belief systems or to no belief systems. That what people believe in their private lives and in their religious commitments is not relevant to the public debate other than as a special interest point of view.
I think it is a very important point that religious organisations and movements should recognise themselves as interest groups, lobby groups: they have a point of view, of course they want to put their point of view in public debate, but they should take their turn in the queue with everybody else – other NGOs, political parties, pressure groups, lobby groups – whereas of course for historical reasons, in many societies, religion has a massively inflated presence in the public square. It is given charitable status, it is given a seat at the top table, and is heard first by people in positions of temporal power and that, I think, is where things have gone so wrong in our world.
Maryam Namazie: On the issues of neutrality, some might say that the very fact that a secularist state demands that religion stays out of the public space, means that it is not really neutral, because it’s giving a sort of negative viewpoint on religion. That it’s not a good thing to be in the public space.
AC Grayling: It certainly is a view which has been of course developed from the enlightenment thinking, about how individuals living together in a society can best flourish. So in that sense it is a positive view about allowing all sorts of different viewpoints, all sorts of different beliefs, and no beliefs, to coexist peacefully side by side. Not privileging any one of them, and not therefore coercing others, either to believe or not believe. So in that sense it is a positive view. But the heart of it, the essence of it is neutrality with respect to these different viewpoints. That is, you allow people to have a belief and to practice that belief, providing it does not impact negatively on other people. But also, and very, very importantly, it allows people who have no religious commitment – who are atheists, who are agnostics, who don’t belong to a church or a religious movement – to live without the coercion or pressure, or a social ‘bad odour’, that used to be the case, and in some societies remains the case.
Maryam Namazie: You mention the fact that there can be believers who are secularists but can religion, can Islam, be compatible with secularism?
AC Grayling: Well this is a very interesting question about Islam because it would seem to be in the very nature of Islam that a secular society is impossible because Islam pervades every aspect of life. It is not just a religion; it is a social end and is in many ways a political philosophy as well. Of course nowadays people use the term Islamism to mean political Islam. But Islam is so all embracing. It permeates the lives and thoughts of people from the very earliest memories of their lives, all the way up through their education, and the presence of the religion’s demand on, or offer to, people is there every few hours when the muezzin cries from the mosque. So it’s very hard even to imagine a translation of the English word ‘secularism’ into Farsi or Arabic, which doesn’t have a negative connotation. [Read more…]