These days, one hears a lot about religion. Maybe this is due to massive waves of Islamic immigration to the West, or the dubious notoriety of ISIL in the Middle East or simply put a revival of the need for faith-based values generally in an increasingly complicated world.
My own recollection of the role religion played in my family was being forced by my parents to attend Sunday school, which I skipped about as often as my mother found reasons not to attend Sunday church. Eventually Sundays became like other days of the week. As if excuses were required, my mother expressed her disgust at the pastor’s preaching about this or that passing ‘moral disgrace’ at home and abroad. Intermittent skipping thus became a way of life devoid of any official link to religion.
Freedom from religious persecution
From a historical point of view, one can better understand why some geographic locations became tied to the practice of religion more than others. For example, the US colonies were populated by religious sects fleeing persecution in Europe. Colonies like Virginia and Pennsylvania were very much religious projects and they attempted to conserve their narrowly defined faith-based values much longer.
If we look at Australia, religion did not play a big role in the British colony, which was populated by the ‘riff raff’ of English society that was not particularly appreciated. Many were Irish and Scottish trouble makers that the home country sought to expel thanks to a long and arduous voyage by sea to down under. The establishment of the Australian colony was not a religious project in the same sense as the American colonists.
Canada was founded by French and English traders mainly for financial gain. Fear of American manifest destiny did play a role but one wonders whether the desire of the traders and bankers to protect their money and prestige rather than exposing it to American competition was the real motivation. Canada was a business transaction and those who participated in it made fortunes building the national railway linking the new colonies from coast to coast. Greed was the motivation, not religion.
In all three of the examples given above, the Aboriginal tribes who were on the land before the whites were forced to accept the European fait accompli.
So, the historical legacy of religious colonization is fairly patchy and not uniform. In time, with urbanization, religion took a back seat to secularism culminating in an officious separation between the political state and religion. Not that religion ceased to play a role in political sphere rather official secularism gave way to unbridled capitalism and the felt need to make money for luxury and pleasure. Religion gave way to temptation.
Religion is making a comeback
With the 20th century and its mass immigration of Muslims to Europe, Australia and America, religion is making a comeback. A number of Islamic newcomers have arrived and they seek to practice their religion as per the religious guarantees promulgated by host Western juridical institutions, bills of rights and constitutional guarantees. Many of these were made as a quid pro quo for the desired separation of church and state.
These countries are defined in Islamic law as dar al-ahd; that is, countries or lands of the Covenant where Islam can be freely practiced and where there is an agreement to facilitate that end.
Accordingly, the Muslim newcomers have sought to build mosques, designate cemeteries, educate their youth, teach the Arabic language of the Holy Koran and wear religious clothing according to interpretations of Islamic law.
Given the above, it seems natural that conflicts would arise especially in those locations where there is little or no historical justification of religion. The secular nature of the state and society is challenged by the new infusion. In places where religion was the raison d’être for the political authority, Muslim immigrants are considered as ‘People of the Book’ and all the guarantees that protect Christians, Jews and other religious groups apply to the practice of Islam. So much for al-Qeada’s theory of jihad based on a declared war against the Crusadaers. They are very much two sides of the same coin and both have difficulty adjusting to more secular societies.
Safeguarding the right to practice religion
Moreover, one of the common adjustments made by Western countries in reaction to the influx is to rely on the guarantees religion already has such as constitutional guarantees, laws and edicts and, if necessary, recourse to international law. There has been an effort by most governments to integrate Islamic newcomers using the tried and true freedom of religion clauses from our own juridical universe.
The problem is that these guarantees, the public acceptance and belief in them, have long expired due to lack of use. It has been a long time since any religion in the locations mentioned above has been threatened by the public powers. Like all laws that are not used, these guarantees were set adrift in a sea of secularism. They tend to be taken for granted and have been dusted off specifically to respond to renewed interest in religion – everything from the Tea Party neo-conservative religious revival talk to calls for sharia law for Muslims in some areas.
Renewing them may prove problematic since it requires a massive reset of values including a nagging doubt about whether such guarantees are even necessary.
Back to the future
Back to the future is a tall order for many polities that failed to predict the massive influx coming. The response has been to fall back on an extremist view of multi-culturalism buttressed by the old guarantees of freedom of religion. One could argue that this raises more problems than it solves. It also puts the newcomers in focus and may provoke reactions that make their lives more precarious in the host country.
Observation confirms that wild eyed multi-cultural extremists have difficulty putting aside their own ideological pre-conceptions in favor of a more pragmatic and helpful concern for the communities they want to protect.
To interpret any societal pushback on religious immigration as simply bad faith inspired by red neck visions of humankind as our priests of multi-culturalism would have us believe is dangerously naïve and puts Muslim immigrants in an awkward position. We can begin to resolve this problem by putting aside the multi-cultural political spin and attempt to address how our secular institutions need to change to accommodate the presence of faith-based immigration. You do no service to the ‘other’ in attempting to mimic the ‘other’ rather than being the historical ‘us’.
Unfortunately, the Aboriginal nations were never so fortunate to have benefitted from this cognitive curiosity of our time.
*Bruce Mabley is a former Canadian diplomat having served in the Middle East, and is the director of the Mackenzie-Papineau think tank in Montreal.