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Pauline’s secular state of mind

Pauline’s secular state of mind

Friday 22 July, 2016
As our nation changes, where the division between church and government lies needs to be part of the conversation.
The story starts here...

Pauline Hanson’s appearance on QandA this week has spurred much-heated discussion Australia wide. While I found it hard to listen to her, I am glad she was on the panel. It was like looking through a crystal ball, and seeing an angry, scared and divided future. One in which no matter how many good, kind, Australian-born or migrant Muslims one encounters, there will always be that “but you can never be too sure of their motives love, they want to build mosques, Halal our shopping trolley, funding terrorism as they go, and make us all wear the burqa” wariness. While Hanson represents something legitimate, the reality of that point of view lies heavily on my mind, and it is a familiar one.

It’s the age old question of church (or religion) vs state.

This is exactly the conversation we should be having, given the current climate worldwide. The relationship between church and state is something that we here in Australia may have taken for granted. After seeing QandA raise and drop this issue, I do wonder if we, as a nation, have even grasped the finer points of this idea that this is important for so many people.

After audience member Cindy Rahal asked Hanson what constitutes a religion and a political ideology, Pauline goes on to state her understanding that Islam does not believe in democracy.

Host Tony Jones then pulls her up on that, citing Indonesia as an example to which she says that she feels the Indonesian government controls the people and their beliefs.

She then goes on to say:

We are a Christian country and I don’t believe that Islam is compatible with our culture and our way of life and that’s why we have problems in Australia and on the streets. A lot of people are opposing the mosques that are built here.

Rahal interjects with:

I think that Muslims in Australia have constantly been telling people like you and who support you that is not what Islam is about and I think you have very selective hearing and what you are creating is not one nation but a divided nation. You have a very one-track mind and unfortunately it’s very dangerous.

There is so much in this verbal exchange, more than I’m qualified to intellectually break down, but from my position as an interested layman, wanting to know more but trying to squeeze in the time to get the reading done, I’d say that this issue is the important one.

 

First: Are we a Christian country?

We are a secular country, although secularism has many definitions. We have a separation between church and state, as do many other (but not all) countries. England has the lusty Henry VII to thank for the early attempt at church/state separation back in the 1500’s. That being said, the United Kingdom doesn’t strictly meet the definition of a secular state given that England has a state religion and its members of parliament promise to serve the crown in parliament under God.

If Australia values its secularism, it should view the ever-encroaching march of the far Right’s Christianity as almost as challenging as it finds the perceived threat from Australia’s growing Muslim population.

But what about Australia?

The Australian constitution deals with religion in a much more straight-forward way, as such meets the requirements of a truly secular society.

Main article: Section 116 of the Australian Constitution:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

Tony Jones’ example of Indonesia as a secular Muslim-majority country has been found factually correct by the fact-check team. But it is as simple as that?

Here is a very interesting discussion on the issue which quickly unveils the constant pressure placed on the Indonesian government since independence (1945) for religious law to be reinstated into the constitution. While Indonesia still has a separation between religion and state, it falls short of being a fully secular society, as irreligion (atheism?) and many minor religious beliefs are not supported, though not outright punished. Having travelled around Indonesia a couple of times myself I have to say that I feel Indonesia to be a reasonable but tense example of a successful Muslim-majority secular country.

I would like to suggest that Malaysia is a better example of a truly secular Muslim-majority country, and indeed it is on some counts, but this may also be debatable if paper does not translate to everyday life. Nonetheless:

Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Malaysian Constitution. First, Article 11 provides that every person has the right to profess and to practice his or her religion and (subject to applicable laws restricting the propagation of other religions to Muslims) to propagate it. Second, the Constitution also provides that Islam is the religion of the country but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony (Article 3).

 

The status of freedom of religion in Malaysia is a controversial issue. Questions including whether Malaysia is an Islamic state or secular state remains unresolved. In recent times, there has been a number of contentious issues and incidents which has tested the relationship between the different religious groups in Malaysia.

 

So what do we take from those examples?

Is the take-home message that Islam can never be the majority religion in a truly secular state in the same way that Christianity can?

Or is it that Islam can exist and even be the dominant religion in a secular environment?

If so, who chooses?

Or, is the pertinent issue that religion should be as far away from secular society as possible?

I feel that all of the above are relevant, and need to be part of the conversation we need to have going forward, keeping in mind that the ‘West’ has practiced secularism for much longer than the East.

Maybe time is the only missing link here.

 

Second: What was Pauline saying when she said: “I don’t believe that Islam is compatible with our culture and way of life”?

I feel this is exactly where Pauline’s way of expressing her ideas gets in the way of her ideas. The gap between these ideas and her articulation of them is relevant, and may be one of the main reasons why she is immediately ignored as a reactionary.

However, It is absolutely imperative that we, the Australian people, understand what secularism could mean for our country, going forward; how it could be good for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

If Australia values its secularism, it should view the ever-encroaching march of the far Right’s Christianity as almost as challenging as it finds the perceived threat from Australia’s growing Muslim population. The religion question should be based on religion as a concept, not which one.

Whilst Pauline was visibly distressed at the idea of sharing a meal with one of the Muslim audience members on QandA, the distress wasn’t so much about eating with a Muslim, it was more the fact that when the questioner (knowing of her distrust of Halal) offered her a Haram meal, it appeared to be that she had no idea what Haram meant. (Forbidden in Islamic law – Ed.)

And that is symptomatic of the problem.

We all have a duty to participate in our democratic system on a daily basis and not just once every so many years. We all have the opportunity to stand up and unpick what is being said and string it together in a way that inspires intelligent and thoughtful debate.

We do need to discuss secularism in Australia; to discuss the role of religion in what it means to be Australian; to discuss the level to which religion (any religion) should be supported by government: is it right to fund religious chaplains in primary schools; is it better to fund Christian chaplains than ethics classes?

We need to discuss our culture and way of life: what does Christmas mean to Australia; is it right that we get paid more for working on a Sunday than a Saturday, when a comparitive few go to church anymore?

Secularism is only one part of a huge conversation centring around our national identity that needs to be had. As a new citizen (just coming up to one year), while I still remember what the citizenship test and ceremony stood for and symbolised, I can’t say that it taught me too much about what being, and feeling Australian actually means.

Without a well-defined framework of what Australian secularism means to all its citizens, we become fearful of what the future might hold, because we can’t put any changing demographic or influence into context. Whether we like it or not, we are all living in challenging times. The number of displaced people in the world in 2016 is massive, and Muslims are a significant part of that.

We need to be able to have this conversation about compassion and have that compassion measured by what it means to be a secular Australia – and not have the merit of the discussion purely measured by fear.

 

So what’s next?

Having seen Hanson on QandA, I hold little hope of her adding much more than bile to this argument but I remain convinced that we cannot and should not dismiss her or what she stands for because of that. As the incredibly articulate and composed Muslim questioners in the QandA audience demonstrated, those of us who can do better, should do and be better. Yes, that places an unfair burden on the innocent, but what is the alternative? Are we really in a position to sit back and either ignore or belittle this?

We all have a duty to participate in our democratic system on a daily basis and not just once every so many years. We all have the opportunity to stand up and unpick what is being said and string it together in a way that inspires intelligent and thoughtful debate. Perhaps we should all acknowledge that while we may not share these sentiments, there is much fear around immigration (Muslim immigration especially but not exclusively), much fear around Islamic State and terrorism, and much uncertainty around what it means to be Australian today – and how Islam fits into that vision.

No amount of wishing it would just go away will make it do so (it being ignorance and bigotry). We all need to respond by reading, talking, listening and participating more deeply in what is essentially a fascinating and potentially transformative time in history.

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