Ken Gibson: Secularism is religion’s ally against extremes

Only secularism can offer religion and politics a peaceful accommodation

Islam is not the problem. Islamism is. So what’s the difference? Islam is the religion of over a billion people. Islamism is an ideology that insists Islamic law should shape and govern society. By its nature, every religious world view believes the world would be a better place if only its ways were followed purely.

The problem lies in the extent to which that conviction is pursued and imposed upon others. Within Islam there have always been tensions between those who, holding tight to their religion, have rejected the imposition of sharia law and those who insist on strict, state-enforced sharia.

Periodic revolution

History has shown us the struggle between these two forces fuels revolution periodically. The existence of that struggle debunks a myth that some would have us believe. That myth suggests that all Muslims are extreme. That is simply not true.

“Isms” always cause problems. The history of our island is a testament to that. When the two main religious traditions were hijacked and politicised, Protestantism and Catholicism became destructive forces, even as the majority of adherents remained peaceful people. It’s the controlling extremes that cause the problem.


Western criticism of developments in the Muslim world could benefit from reflection on our own history. In 16th century European history, the religious reformation was, at times, as political as it was religious.

Emergent Calvinism, while obviously religious, was as much a revolt against the sociopolitical order built around the Roman Catholic church. Neither side in the struggle can claim to have lived by the ideals of its faith. Isms always bring out the extremists.

It’s easy for western nations to look at the turmoil of the Middle East and judge from the comfort of our current position. We see large-scale massacres and what we, in the 21st century, understand as human rights abuses.

Struggles for legitimacy

But our struggles for legitimacy were no different. The Thirty Years War of the 17th century saw the massacre of a quarter of Germany’s population. Troops and mercenaries funded themselves by looting and extortion. The themes are remarkably similar to what we observe in the context from which Islamic State (IS) has emerged.

So how will it end? The options are few: a clear victory by one side or the emergence of a toleration.

Perhaps the answer also lies in European history. In the European story, Protestantism was not a homogenous group. Similarly, Islam is comprised of Sunni and Shia. It has moderates and extremists. It has an array of political ideologies. In that sense Islamism cannot win, for which ideology would prevail?

Legitimacy crisis

The legitimacy crisis in


continues to be resolved with greater separation between church and state: between politics and religion. It is possible for the religious to remain faithful to their teachings but cease insisting on their universal application. The recent marriage equality referendum in


demonstrates this.

In that sense, secularism is our friend. But secularism needs to be broad enough to allow legitimacy to both religious and nonreligious. Extreme Islam, as we see in the form of IS, cannot have the ultimate triumph. Secularism, the separation of politics and religion, is the only force that can deliver a peaceful accommodation.

History shows us this is a long, torturous route with a heavy price to pay, however.

The vast majority of the one billion Muslims are peaceable people looking for the freedom of legitimacy. Secularism is their friend and ours.

Religion and secularism do not, generally, sit comfortably. Therein lies the challenge: men and women of faith seldom advocate secular solutions to society’s challenges. Secularists seldom call for prayerful, spiritual reflection. Neither world view trusts or tolerates the other.

Mutual distrust

Religion and secularism both need to mature. Their mutual distrust portrays an underlying insecurity: perhaps a fear that the world view in question will not stand up to logical or academic scrutiny. Both, after all, are matters of faith.

As iron sharpens iron, religion and secularism have much to teach each other. They are friends and mentors, not enemies. As often is the case, a common enemy is required to unite two otherwise disagreeable groups.

Extremism is religion’s enemy. Secularism is its ally.

Ken Gibson is chief executive of Leprosy Mission Ireland