It is absolutely right that every group should enjoy the fruits of the Enlightenment in their freedom of belief (which, of course, covers the freedom not to believe).
Take this News Letter article on the Belfast Islamic Centre applying to move to new premises.
We welcome Sammy Wilson’s notion that normal planning regulations should not be relaxed for the application and that no public funds should support it. This is in line with our own secular vision and could help set precedence for a consistent attitude to all religious centres.
However, the snide comments about Islamic countries, we note exclusively by Protestant commentators, are irrelevant; the BIC services Muslims regardless of nationality, including those from the UK and Ireland.
It is true many Islamic states don’t grant such freedoms, and such brutal theocracies ought be opposed, but it’s counterproductive to cite the behaviour of foreign Muslims as the rationale for criticism of those living in Northern Ireland. It is also true that many Christian states did not grant such freedoms either, before the Enlightenment forced their hand, and some contemporary Christian societies are no less intolerant than middle eastern theocracies. It is to the rise of rational, secular Enlightenment values we owe our relative freedom, not Christianity.
To those expressing fear that ‘the Muslims are taking over’, consider that like any religious group, they come in all shapes and sizes, including secular, liberal, gay and apostates. Just like most of us, the latter chose to abandon their religious beliefs. Religion is not fixed from birth, though the fact it relies on birthrate speaks volumes of the relative value of truth versus indoctrination. Muslims are not a monolithic group, any more than Christians are.
We already know what it’s like to have religion imposed on us – Christianity does it on a daily basis. No equal marriage, school worship and a confessional RE curriculum, denial of abortion access and adoption rights, gay blood ban, prayers on council agendas, Sunday and Easter trading and licencing laws and so on – all religiously motivated policies imposed on everyone in Northern Ireland. By entrenching our values and laws in secularism, granting no privileges to any religions, then no religion can easily be imposed on everyone. Secularism protects everyone, including the minorities.