Freedom – A Peaceful Solution
In 2021 the French President announced sweeping new laws against religious “separatism” aimed at freeing Islam in France from “foreign influences”. He outlined new measures to “defend the republic and its values and ensure it respects its promises of equality and emancipation”. This article is a response to these restrictive new laws, mainly imposed on French Muslims, denying them the right to freely express their faith, as they face increased pressure to ’secularise’ in order to survive in the harsh storm of Laïcité afflicting the nation.
by Yusuf Islam
There is no greater freedom than the freedom to be yourself. But if freedom can only be utilised when it becomes compulsively secular, then it leads to incarceration and unfair oppression for those who wish to encompass a more spiritual side of life.
What shapes a France’s identity is, of course, its history. So one can never really understand the essence of the nation and the political policy of Laïcité without reference to the most revolutionary period of political and religious upheaval ever experienced in Europe in the late Eighteenth Century: the French Revolution.
I was an ardent fan of the subject in my youth. The idea of wealthy monarchs living it up in luxurious palaces, while wielding heavy taxes on the poor hard-working lower classes, suddenly being imprisoned, judged, and then unceremoniously taken by horse-cart through the streets to meet their end at the guillotine, satisfied my young and exuberant sense of instant justice and FairPlay.
During a two-year period, known as the Reign of Terror, it was not just the royalists who were in for the chop, the Gallican Church (otherwise known as Roman Catholicism) also became targeted. Anti-clericalism became violent and the new revolutionary authorities abolished the Catholic monarchy, nationalised Church property, exiled tens of thousands of priests, and killed hundreds more. The list of undesirables even extended all the way to the founder revolutionaries. The frenzy to establish the new ideal society meant that countless numbers of them later needed to be executed for being the ‘wrong’ kind of revolutionary.
When all the chaos and bloodshed passed, I suppose there were certain positive outcomes recognisable in the realm of intellectual and philosophical thought. However, I would still have problems with the use of the word Enlightenment, as it implies the job was done, and there is nothing further to be enlightened about. That being said, the concept of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity was no doubt one of the most noble and ethical conclusions to the whole macabre experience; no one can doubt those principles as being a praiseworthy contribution to the development of civilised values and human ideals. The great philosophers which France and Europe in general reared through the period of ‘enlightenment’, are testimony to the atmosphere created by those principles and the impact they have had on the world.
Freedom of thought means freedom to look beyond the limits of inherited culture or religion, to explore the universe and scientific possibilities in order to advance the boundaries of human knowledge and intellectual potential in a common quest for the Truth. However, the way that slogan is manipulated today by politicians and self-serving personages might make a few of those eminent philosophers want to come back and start another revolution. As Hegel wisely put it, “When liberty is mentioned, we must always be careful to observe whether it is not really the assertion of private interests which is thereby being designated”.
The abundant protections in modern French law provided to individuals who wish to launch abusive media attacks against people of faith, without any balanced protection for their victims, is surely a sadistic interpretation of what was once a much nobler concept.
Sincere proponents of laïcité say that it does not necessarily imply hostility of the government against any religion, asserting that French State secularism is actually based upon respect for freedom of thought and freedom of religion. It is easy to agree with that, but it’s hard to see how that squares with government laws which indirectly promotes unqualified freedom for the vilification of a section of society’s religious beliefs, or deny Muslims the right to conscientiously cover themselves in accordance with their faith, or for Christians to wear a cross, or Sikh boys to wear their turbans, or Jewish boys their kippas, if they so desire. How can that possibly be honestly considered as ‘respect’.
If the prohibition is designed to safeguard their freedoms, then why is their freedom to wear what they wish denied them? French law has become hard to understand today, mainly because it exhumes a non-negotiable paradox: If you live in our liberal secular society, and want to benefit from its liberty and freedoms, you must lock up your personal conviction and hide the key away. How is it possible to have liberty and imprisonment at the same time? This is surely like a coo-coo clock that doesn’t know if it’s midnight or midday.
How can France in all sincerity as a member of the European Union live with these two faces? How can it remain loyal to its principles and freedoms, as contained in the European Convention on Human Rights, when it rides over those rights with such nonchalant swagger?
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance. (2) Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
True freedom of conscience held-up to be an invincible right for every human being, means nothing if it only benefits and serves one particular ideological persuasion to the exclusion of others. Is it really possible for people to proclaim themselves masters of neutrality, if you then impose restrictions on the liberty of those who’s conscience lead them to think differently, who may believe in metaphysical realities of a Divine nature, and conform themselves to the requirements of a religion, per se, which represent that?
Will the French Republic start a movement to censor and rewrite Divine scriptures? Doesn’t that sound like the original argument for freedom of speech eating its own tail? Be warned, remember the saying of Jesus as reported in the Gospel according to Matthew, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to”. [i]
As for the concept of a non-religious neutral state, where all people may live in peace and harmony, without necessarily agreeing with each other on the object of human existence, I do not think that’s such a bad idea. A bridge should remain neutral; it belongs to no side. So how can a bridge stop people from crossing and honestly remain its guardian? An ideal society should be an open ground for all to live and breath without fear of violence or endless antagonism. If some wish to call it secular, go ahead. I see nothing wrong with the concept of a truly ‘secular’ society, if it focusses on worldly matters; keeping peace and maintaining law and order, prosecuting crime and criminals. But to brand people as suspects and unsocial misfits because they believe in a particular religion—in this case, particularly Islam—is utterly offensive to the best nature and history of our common humanity. “There is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice,” said, Montesquieu.
True freedom allows for equal balance and opportunity for all citizens of a society. A believer should be allowed—within the limits of civil law—to utilise his or her liberty in expressing their faith in the Supreme Being, if they believe it is true. And for those who don’t believe in God and do not choose to follow any religious path, they should also be free to exercise their conscience, if that’s what they believe—while again, remaining within the limits of the law and that which the early European philosophers strove so hard to define.
“Law is the sum of the conditions under which the wishes of one person can be united with the wishes of another in accordance with a universal law of freedom.”
That was a profoundly wise saying of Emmanuel Kant. His solution was not that unique. You may say he was ‘beaten to it’ by the teaching and sayings of the great spiritual teachers and guides of the Divine Way, Jesus as well as Muhammad:
“Treat others as you yourself wish to be treated”
(Jesus, Son of Mary)
“Love for your brother what you love for yourself.”
And so, we arrive at a similar destination, while agreeing on the principle of ‘universal freedom’ for all and still respecting others’ rights, it struck me in that the solution is to be found in the open seas: Freedom is like the nature’s wind, blowing here and there and available for all on the vast open seas of good (and bad) fortune. As for the faithful believer, he uses it to guide his sails and speed his boat towards the direction God has mapped-out through the captainship of His prophets and messengers, hoping for paradise at the end of his or her journey. Whereas, for atheists, he uses it to guide his boat in whatever direction he wishes, to whichever place his heart so desires, with no concern about anything called the ‘Afterlife’. It might be possible, however, that when the weather changes, and thunder breaks over the stormy ocean, and wave upon wave rises, some may return to their original nature and start calling to God for help. As has been said, ‘You never find a disbeliever on a sinking ship’.
Now let’s leave that and return to calmer waters. During normal weather, in order to avoid a clash of boats and unnecessary conflict on the open seas and allowing freedom of passage for all (by-passing, for convenience sake, the present conflict over fishing rights between France and the UK), there need to be laws which safeguard the peace and sanctity of every free seafaring soul.
So if you believe in freedom, you must allow for differences and variances in its utilisation under the law. If people choose to be guided by the majority—whether the nature of the majority is religious or not—freedom as such should mean protecting it for everybody, as long as it does not cross the line and diminish the rights of anybody. Put another way by Friedrich Carl von Savigny:
“Law is the rule by whereby the invisible border line is fixed within which the being and the activity of each individual obtains a secure and free space.”
The reward for adopting such an approach would hopefully bring peace to all parties and people of different persuasions. While the atheist would enjoy his freedom to be left alone and not forced to go to church, mosque or temple, believers would be equally free to worship within the boundaries and laws of the society in which they choose to reside. To repeat a verse of the Qur’an here, utilising my freedom of choice:
Let there be no compulsion in religion. The truth stands clear of error… [ii]
Now while that should be the guiding principle, it is true that certain religious followers and authorities impose strict rules on the population, which I would say goes against the principle of that generous accommodation, provided by God. Even if there are certain imperatives which believers are expected to perform, one of the maxims of Divine Law and prophetic guidance which God has indicated, is that His law favours ease and accommodation:
God wishes for you ease, He does not wish for you hardship. [iii]
The Prophet instructed his companions when visiting different foreign lands, particularly those of Christians and Jews, to invite people to the Oneness of God. And if they accepted that, then to inform them God has instructed them to pray five prayers, offered in one day and one night. And if they start to pray, to tell them that God has enjoined on them Charity (2.5% of their excess wealth), to be taken from the rich among them and given to the poor. And if they agree to that, then to avoid taking from them the best property of the people. [iv]
And from the Qur’an, again, one of the foundations of universalist approach to different beliefs and systems of law, we read:
So let the people of the Gospel judge by what God has revealed in it. And those who do not judge by what God has revealed are ˹truly˺ the rebellious.
We have revealed to you this Book with the truth, as a confirmation of previous Scriptures and a guardian over them. So judge between them by what God has revealed, and do not follow their desires over the truth that has come to you. To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. If God wanted to make all mankind one community, He could do so, but He wishes to test each of you according to that revelation which you have been given. [v]
This article is in no way meant to forever silence critics of Muslim faith and culture, simply to help open another window to a view which has not been given much attention, from a person who has tried to stay loyal to his convictions and still believes in the Peace Train.
Yusuf Islam July 28, 2021
For those who wish to altercate and jump into another direction at this point, reviving the controversy of the Satanic Verses and the false accusation that I supported the ‘Fatwa’, I would ask you to read my brief article on my website https://catstevens.com/editing-floor-blues/ entitled ‘Did Cat Stevens Say, ‘Kill Rushdie?’ For those who want even more elaboration, please wait for the publication of my memoirs next year—God willing.
[i] Matthew 23:13
[ii] The Qur’an, The Heifer, 2:256
[iii] The Qur’an, The Heifer, 2:185
[iv] Sahih Bukhari
[v] The Qur’an, The Table Spread, 5:47-48