Don’t count me among the mourners – habitual or seasonal – even though there are good reasons to mourn about our descent into darkness. I see a silver lining in the deep dark. Yes, I do. And I say this on reasonable grounds.
The perpetrators of blackmail and terror in the name of religion and the self-appointed guardians of the faith are the losers of history. It took Europe over two centuries of turmoil and wars to resolve the issue of the separation of state from religion. European societies were plagued by this problem for centuries and popes and princes fought for the bodies and souls of their subjects. The governed had no role except to remain subservient to one or the other or both.
It was Martin Luther (1483-1546) who successfully challenged the pope and his church, laying the foundation for the separation of state and religion. But it didn’t happen overnight or without turmoil and wars. The pens of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704), Voltaire (1694-1778) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) put more firepower to the ongoing revolt against tyranny (secular and religious) on the continent.
The spread of literacy and Protestantism along with the exhaustion from wars helped translate the idea into practice by the end of the 18th century. It was resolved that states, monarchies and republics would be governed by man-made laws based on the principle of equal freedom for citizens to choose their rulers and practice their faith (religion).
To put it differently, the state would have no right to interfere in matters of faith. The basic responsibility of the state was to protect each individual’s freedom: “Its highest purpose should be to preserve the absolute freedom of its citizens, except insofar as the exercise of that freedom would injure other people or deprive them of their own freedom.” (Thomas Jefferson).
There are numerous states governed by man-made laws that are based on the freedom of citizens to choose their governments and practise their faith. Of course, nothing is perfect and we shouldn’t expect it to be. The religious state is being exposed for what it is or would be in many countries.
In these societies, two forces are now at work: the rising tide of education and exposure to the mass media and the existential threat that the religious right poses to a normal and secure life. I expect their combined effect will be the undoing of the misguided extremists and their terrible acts of blackmail and terror. But it will take time and, perhaps, claim many more lives. We can already see the growing signs of resistance. How can we not be optimistic?
But sitting on the sidelines is not an option: nothing is inevitable, except death. We know generally the roots of contemporary jihadism: the failure of the so-called secular governments, dictatorships and quasi-democratic to create opportunities for ordinary people to participate in activities that enhance their wellbeing. These regimes preside over a corrupt system that rewards predators and parasites at the expense of the majority. They provide a fertile ground for all kinds of protest movements, including the one for a religious state.
In some societies, predatory and corrupt regimes have also used religion and the religious establishment to legitimise their rule. The war in Afghanistan against the ‘infidels’ was the trigger for international jihadism. Once the Soviet Union and the US withdrew from the war theatre, the so-called mujahideen were at war against the rest of the world. Terror became their main weapon.
We know that the war on terror alone invites more terror. The front must be expanded to include a struggle against all forms of corrupt and tyrannical regimes. We must make our governments transparent and accountable; promote inclusive policies for literacy and healthcare; provide safety nets for the vulnerable; reform the curricula of schools and madressahs; guarantee freedom of speech and association; protect the rights of individuals through a judicial system that works fairly and efficiently; and adopt economic policies that generate growth and redistribute incomes from the rich to the poor.
Neglecting the poor and the unemployed, especially the youth, is one of the major sources of recruits for fringe groups, including gangs and jihadists. Access to purposeful education and employment opportunities for both men and women tend to reduce their feeling of alienation, frustration and anger.
The responsibility for leadership rests on the shoulders of civil society groups, intellectuals, mass media and NGOs to fight against corrupt regimes and encourage the electorate to reject political leaders whose only interest is to perpetuate the system from which they and their cronies benefit. Don’t accept any tyranny – religious or secular. We must use every opportunity and means to enable the ordinary people – they know their suffering well – to stand against oppression, injustice and deprivation. This is a long and demanding agenda, and there are no shortcuts to making progress towards a civilised existence. It is a painful and sordid process. But it has been done successfully in many countries and most of their citizens are reaping the harvest.
The writer teaches at Simon Fraser
University. Email: mkhansfu.ca