Is Islam Reconcilable With Democracy? What Religion Is?

Editorial: A French philosopher looks at the relation between religion and democracy, and suggests Europe’s Christians have a unique claim to reconciling the two.

Paris mosque (JohnCohen)
Paris mosque (JohnCohen)
Luc Ferry

The question of whether or not Islam is compatible with democracy has been raised a thousand times before. The question has been posed again by France's ruling center-right UMP (Union for a People's Movement) party, with its decision to open an official public debate on laicité, this country's historically rigid form of separation of church and state.

The debate seems to me as justified in substance as it is inappropriate in form. For the role of politicians is not to debate matters that have been regularly discussed for more than 20 years. Their role, instead, is to act. The specific conflict which sparked the debate has a clear answer: of course streets should not be blocked so that people can pray right in the middle of them; but at the same time, believers should not lack places of worship either.

Since everyone agrees with both of these statements, why keep droning on about it? Acting is always better than talking. This does not mean that the question about whether Islam is compatible with democracy is not worth asking. But the debate should come from a perspective that is theological, not political.

Many political thinkers do not consider Islam and democracy contradictory. Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country, currently offers irrefutable proof that Islam and democracy are not irreconcilable. Some philosophers, such as Malek Chebel (author of Islam's Great Figures) tend to agree. The Algerian philosopher has repeatedly spoken about the history of "Enlightenment Islam," and maintained that it only needed resuscitating. But Elie Barnavi, an Israelian historian and diplomat, is convinced of the contrary. "The politically correct answer to the question whether Islam and democracy are compatible with each other would be to say that they are. But the truth is that they are not: Islam and democracy obviously do not mix. But nor does Judaism and Catholicism," or any other revealed religion.

When dealing with this conundrum, one often tends to forget an essential aspect of it, which is that the world's three main religions do not give the same meaning to the concept of secular society. Because of its intrinsic nature, Christianity is the only religion that has made possible -- or one might even say, favored -- the creation of secular and democratic societies. The fact that this was born in Europe is no coincidence.

Why? Well, it is mainly because conscience and inner feelings are at the very core of Christianity, which does not seek to regulate everyday life. Not only does Jesus give to Cesar what is Cesar's, but he constantly exhorts people to look inside themselves, as in the episode of the woman taken in adultery. Read the Gospel of John, and you will see that it is impossible to find a single precept about how to pray, how to dress, what to eat or whom to marry. External duties are something Jesus is not interested in, and he constantly opposes the spirit to the letter. In the Gospel according to Mark (7:15), for example, Jesus tells people that "Nothing outside a man can make him "unclean" by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him "unclean.""

This is another way of saying that earthly food and religious rituals do not matter all that much. The purity of the heart always takes precedence over ‘clean" food and daily occupations, which explains why Jesus accepted all men and women -- including prostitutes- so thoroughly ostracized by Orthodox Judaism.

Thanks to this clear distinction between spiritual life and external actions, Christianity has opened the way to secularism, and has made Europe what it is today. But things are different in other parts of the world, and the famous talk about "Europe's Christian roots," as demagogic as it might sound, is no less valid. Secularism, which should not be understood as atheism but as the neutrality of the state towards religion, is the main reason why communities live peacefully today in Europe. This is the miracle made possible, not without pain, within our Republic, itself more of a child of Christianity than some would care admit. This is a torch that we have inherited, which we will have to preserve and protect from the fanatics who aim to see it extinguished.

Read the original article in French

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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