Secularism

Dialogue

Yusuf Smith has produced a considered and helpful response to my last post, discussing his defence of Ken Livingstone’s conduct over the Qaradawi affair.

His point is that orthodox religious figures are, and ought to be treated by the state as the spokesmen for the particularly devout, and that where an orthodox perspective is helpful – as it is on the Hijab issue – they should be listened to.

I do agree that orthodox religious figures are appropriate spokesmen for the particularly devout. I think that we are both in agreement that they are not the appropriate spokesmen for what Yusuf terms “sinful muslims”; by which I think he means muslims who are not wholly observant and muslims who subscribe to non-orthodox or apostate muslim beliefs.

Sinful muslims, of course, make up the vast majority of muslims: the question is, how can they be represented and their views taken account of when the state consults, or hosts conferences, and so on.

This is not, incidentally, a problem confined to islam. In fact, its a common problem which arises in relation to all faith groups (and their fluid, amorphous “membership”). The problem is compounded by the fact that pretty much all orthodox religious establishments tend to be well organised, lavishly funded, and take a robust line against dissenters and apostates.

The GLA hosted conference was organised by a group called “Pro-Hijab“, a name which encapsulates both its desire to protect the hijab, and its advocacy of hijab wearing. Conference participants included a diverse group of bishops, muslim clerics, philosophers and lawyers.

The conference was entitled “A Woman’s Right to Choose”. Speakers ranged from those who merely opposed attempts by the state to prevent women from chosing to wear the hijab, to those who – like Qaradawi – regard it as obligatory. It did not, as far as I can tell, involve speakers who – while supporting a genuine choice – were opposed to the hijab and counselled women not to wear it.

I am a supporter of the right to choose to wear the hijab. However, there are genuine concerns that women are being coerced by religious family and community members into wearing the hijab. Coercion ranges from of physical threats to insinuations that failure to wear a hijab is a sign of immodesty and sexual immorality. There is a need to treat take threats seriously.

The following question arises. How does the state represent the views and needs of non-observant, non-orthodox and apostate muslims when issues such as the hijab are being discussed?

Should the GLA have insisted that the hijab conference included vocal opponents of wearing the hijab, as a condition of its support? Or should there have been a parallel, GLA sponsored, “Reject the Hijab” conference?

The danger is, as we have argued, that communities are defined by religion, and then by the orthodox within that religion, and that the representatives of the orthodox within that religion are taken to be the spokesman for that religion as a whole.

Yusuf and I both agree, I think, that this sleight of hand should be resisted. However, I would be interested to hear suggestions as to how the state might put the non-orthodox majority on an equal footing with the orthodox minority.

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