Why Costello is wrong about secularism.

In a speech condemned by Muslim leaders, the Australian Treasurer, Peter Costello defended the Pope’s criticism of Islam. Speaking on 23 September to the Australian Christian Lobby, Costello also advocated the merits of secularism. In this he held up Turkey as an example of a country that other Muslim nations should follow.

There was much in what the Treasurer said that made sense. The attitude from which his view derives however, has much to do with myth, misconception and misrepresentation. There is certainly much to be recommended in secularism. It does indeed promote economic progress as well as democracy – in fact it necessary for both. This was well recognised by Ataturk, who firmly entrenched secularism in Turkey for these very reasons. Turkey is a good example of secular state in a Muslim country, which is precisely why Muslims leaders do not like it. As Islam is inherently non-secular, they therefore see it as a betrayal of their faith.

Despite these positives, Mr Costello’s speech had serious problems. There is more than irony in an avowedly Christian politician lecturing Muslims at a Christian gathering on how they should implement their religion. But this was not the worst of Costello’s arrogance and hypocrisy. He claimed that secularism was part of Christian doctrine. Centuries of religious strife in Europe indicate otherwise.

Mr Costello is further in error when he promotes the myth that Australia is a secular country, Apart from the fact that the High Court in 1981 declared that there is no separation of church and state in Australia, Mr Costello also openly declares that Australia was founded on so called “Christian values”. These values are no doubt what leads to the enormous tax breaks given to religions and the fact that 70 percent of Federal funding for education goes to religious schools. These are hardly characteristics of a secular state, Mr Costello.

The underlying danger of the behaviour of people such as Mr Costello is that they just don’t see the problem. They are therefore in fact themselves part of the problem. Attacking Muslims is not a solution. What should be attacked are ideologies, not the people who adhere to them. While people may be amenable to reason, they will not be amenable to coercion. People such as Mr Costello are unable to see things this way because they themselves are victims on the same faults as the people they criticise. You cannot advocate rationalism if you are yourself incapable or unamenable to it.

The great tragedy of the so-called “war on terror”, of which Mr Costello and his Party are major proponents, is that it is entirely misconceived. The lesson of Ataturk, which Costello applauds, he has not himself followed. It is quite pointless to seek to impose democracy in any Islamic country without first securing secularism. The religious servitude implied by the rule of “God’s law” is plainly incompatible with the rule of law as determined democratically. This is an obvious fact, confirmed by numerous examples, which seems like many others, to have been strangely elusive to Western “intelligence”.

The consequences of this strategic blunder, that religious blindness on all sides has led to, are almost incalculable. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were purported to be to install democracy. Democracy is impossible without secularism, yet in no way has secularism been promoted by these invasions. Instead, Islam has been entrenched in the new constitutions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, thus condemning these countries to long term totalitarianism. The Western military involvement in these countries is now a doomed enterprise in pursuit of a goal that has already been rendered unachievable.

The only hope is that the world will somehow come to its senses, recognise that the pursuit of ancient religious ideologies is unnecessary, undesirable and inherently destructive. Instead, it is desperately necessary that we dedicate ourselves to the common good of humanity, based on the universal principles of freedom, justice, honesty and compassion.

Sep 27, 2006

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