Modernism isn't written in stone
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 25 August 2007)

Since the Enlightenment in the 18th century, and Voltaire's hatred of the Church's authority, Western civilization has gradually separated religious and secular power. In Europe the last state to change was Spain, where the Catholic Church remained powerful until the end of dictatorship in the 1970s. The U.S. considers separation a fundamental principle, even if evangelicals try to shape policy. But not all democracies totally oppose mingling the two realms. In Israel, Orthodox Jews have privileges not extended to other citizens. In Canada tax money goes to Roman Catholic schools. Nevertheless, it's a long time since we considered theocracy a plausible form of government.

Not so in the Middle East. In fact, that region's central conflict has now taken the form of a struggle between secular nationalism, represented by states like Egypt, and Islamism, most spectacularly embodied in Iran. Pan-Arab nationalism, now some seven decades old, is failing. Far from uniting several states in a durable confederation (the United Arab Republic of Egypt and Syria effectively lasted three years), it hasn't even managed a free-trade treaty.

Barry Rubin, an authority on the Middle East, recently pointed out that radical Islamist power has reached a critical mass and seriously challenges Arab nationalism. In the chaos of Iraq, Islamism plays a large role. Elsewhere, Hamas and Hezbollah grow stronger and more open. Rubin says, "For years, probably decades, to come, the Middle East will be shaken by a titanic battle between Arab nationalism and Islamism for control."

This shouldn't surprise us. Most of the world was controlled for centuries by powers grounded in religion; much of the world still is. Mark Lilla of Columbia University, in his forthcoming book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West (excerpted on Sunday in The New York Times) says our problems now resemble those of the 16th century. Conflicts over competing revelations and dogmatic purity entangle the world. "We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong."

The West, overly confident, believed that our material success would persuade the rest of the world to follow us toward secularism. We invented modernism and most of its benefits but it is precisely modernism that many ideological Muslims despise.

Lately the separation issue has appeared in Ontario. Not long ago, the provincial Liberal government discussed embracing Islamic Shariah law as part of the province's legal system. Now John Tory, Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leader, argues for funding many forms of religious schools. Tax money for Roman Catholic education being embedded in the Canadian tradition, Tory and many others consider it only fair that other religious schools also get support.

They explain that Ontario will maintain standards by supervising the various religious-school curricula.

Have they any idea of the theological and bureaucratic nightmares they are inviting? We'll need armies of officials to negotiate with those who say they want support -- Hindus, Copts, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and Protestants. Which of the many Protestant sects will be supported? Which Muslims? Which Jews? Those religions will inevitably become deeply involved in provincial politics --and politicians will find themselves in religious disputes.

On this and related issues, complacency disarms us. We imagine that rights and freedoms won by earlier generations are written indelibly in stone. They are not. All political principles are contingent and may be endangered at any moment, sometimes by surprising opponents. For instance, new enemies of free speech appear in every age, making it necessary to refight the battle against restraints on public expression.

Once it was necessary to combat the Christian clergy's assumption that it should regulate all public expression. Today, with that danger behind us, we find free speech attacked by those who believe no individual or group should ever feel insulted for one moment by anything said in public, even accidentally. Free speech has been crippled by an exaggerated and prudish sense of decorum in all matters involving religion, race, class or sex. Generations of students now learn that one society is as good as another, all should be respected equally and anyone believing otherwise is a bigot.

The principles of secular government, secular schools and a secular judiciary are threatened in the same way, usually by good-hearted people anxious to extend equality to every corner of society. Freshly challenged by the possible expansion of school funding, secular government must be freshly defended. Experience has taught us that the separation of church and state remains essential to modern civilization.

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