The Freedom To Be Religious: Wins and Losses

Gershom Gorenberg

Religious freedom is often confused in our parts with freedom from religion, and atheism is mistakenly equated with liberalism. For the state to be secular – so goes the thinking – everyone who lives in it should secular too. As political scientist Yaron Ezrahi once said to me, “The Israeli secular community lacks the understanding that you don’t have to secularize individual identity to evolve a secular state.”

Ezrahi made the comment to me when I was writing a story on Gil Kopatch, a stand-up comedian who for several months in the late 90s appeared on a Friday night TV show and presented a pointed, often-ribald commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Kopatch was attacked by the ultra-Orthodox for his supposed blasphemy. But he confused his secular supporters when he insisted “I’m a believing Jew” and expressed “love of Torah.” Secular MKs presumed that in defending Kopatch’s freedom of expression, they were also attacking religion as such. The idea that freedom of expression includes religious expression was beyond them.

Ezrahi’s comment fit the American model: secular state, religious society. But “liberal” Israelis aren’t alone in assuming that for the state should impose secularism. Here are several recent stories, starting with the most important:

  • Turkey’s top court voted narrowly yesterday against banning the country’s ruling party. The alleged offense of the Justice and Development Party was that it engaged in “anti-secular” activity, as proven by its attempt to allow women attending state universities to wear headscarves. Six out of 11 judges voted to shut down the party, but a majority of seven was needed. But the court did cut half of the party’s state funding. The court and the prosecutor represent Turkey’s old nationalist establishment, based in the military, viligantly loyal to Kemal Ataturk’s program of forced secularism.In its defense, the Justice and Development Party cited European Union principles of democracy. That fit its basic European orientation. (So much for the clash of civilizations: The pro-Islam party is also pro-Western and pro-democracy.)
  • A British court ruled yesterday that a school could not suspend a Sikh girl for wearing the bracelet required by her religion. Fourteen-year-old Sarika Singh of South Wales said the bracelet should be exempt from a school ban on jewelry; her school disagreed. In this case, at least on the surface, the school wasn’t trying to crush religion as such, but it didn’t understand that there was a difference between fashion and faith. But were it not for the assumption that people should give up their irritatingly non-conformist attachments to their religion in favor of fitting in, the school authorities would have seen this. Fortunately, the judge righted the wrong.
  • A French court turned down an immigrant’s application for citizenship because she wears the veil, in accordance with her understanding of Islam. According to the New York Times, “France’s highest administrative court upheld a decision to deny citizenship to Ms. Silmi, 32, on the ground that her ‘radical’ practice of Islam was incompatible with French values like equality of the sexes.” Now Faiza Silmi’s “radicalism” did not express itself by seeking to overthrow the state by force and violence, and there’s no report that she discriminated in any way against other women. Rather, the state decided in a somewhat patriarchal manner that by failing to dress as other women do, she was violating the principle of equality. Put differently, one can’t be too religious and also be French.

As my friend and mentor Marc Howard Ross wrote in his book, Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict, the battles over scarves and veils in France aren’t only about Islam (The word “Republican” in the following quote refers to French belief in the republic; it’s got nothing to do with the American party.):

In the hard-core Republican narrative, the French emphasize the individual citizen’s relationship to the unitary state that has historically rejected the relevance of intermediate group identities. It is the product of a centuries-long struggle to limit the power of the Catholic Church in the public domain. For its adherents, the secular state [is]… not all that is at risk – so is French culture.

In other words, a Frenchman is supposed to identify with the state, and the state is secular. Identifying with a religion as well is virtually an act of civic adultery. The Turkish generals feel just the same.

So do a good many Israelis, who see Zionism as having replaced religion as the way to express being Jewish. Their ultra-Orthodox opponents agree that one can be religious or Zionist, but not both. The classic religious Zionist position sought to solve the problem by making the state religious, at least in some ways. That way you could identify with both the state and religion without a conflict.

What all three positions miss is that the state can be the neutral protector of one’s right to have multiple, overlapping identities. It can be secular, and protect the right of a citizen to be religious.

2 thoughts on “The Freedom To Be Religious: Wins and Losses”

  1. In the British example you said, “…were it not for the assumption that people should give up their irritatingly non-conformist attachments to their religion in favor of fitting in.”

    I attended public schools where attire was almost unrestricted (though pretty conformist anyway) and have been in Catholic schools where uniforms are required. I like the idea of uniforms as a way of bringing all the students to a common point for learning, where they will be distinguished by how they do at the task at hand; not to get rid of non-conformity but to encourage it in one particular way through cultivation of the mind in a setting dedicated to that.

    How do either gang symbols or religious symbols have a bearing on secular education? In a non-religious school aren’t both irrelevant distractions from the work at hand?

    I don’t think of this uniformity as a declaration of disrespect for religious identity or identity of any kind but rather as an emphasis on what public schooling is about. When Iver Andersson and Abdul Aziz view each other in the classroom they see another person who belongs to the same class of learners.

  2. What if, instead of a religious item, it was a bracelet given to her my her grandmother, which she held dearly, and made her feel safe?

    My problem, is not with the self-expression of beliefs, but that religion is (especially in schools) often the only acceptable form of deeply held beliefs.

    Religion is merely one form of self-expression that should be protected. To elevate religion as a ‘holy’ form of self-expression, while ignoring other forms of self-expression (political beliefs, sociological beliefs, fashion as self-expression) discriminates against those of us who are secular, and do not have religious beliefs.

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