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Humanist Peer stresses the need for secularism in a changing Middle East

Former Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist group spoke in a House of Lords debate on 9 December called by the Archbishop of Canterbury on Christians in the Middle East.

Lord Macdonald condemned the persecution of minority religious and non-religious groups in the Middle East, and argued that secularism is the most effective means of ‘protect[ing] the rights of all its citizens to hold their own beliefs and religious practices.’

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I thank the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for this timely debate and for his clear and insightful review of the situation of Christians in the Middle East.

As we have heard today, the potential for greater violence against Christian communities is feared by millions, and the Arab spring, which raised such high hopes, might now remove some of the protection that was previously imposed by dictatorial state edicts.

The violence against Coptic Christians in Egypt goes back decades, as we have heard. Given past hostilities, the recent killings in Cairo must confirm their worst fears following the recent election results. Even in more tolerant Tunisia, elections brought to power an Islamist party. However, in Tunisia we may also glimpse the possibility of a new political path away from past intolerance. The president of the victorious al-Nahda Party, Rached Ghannouchi, says that lessons have been learnt from North Africa’s harsh past. He recalls the experience of a generation ago in Algeria, where the electoral victory of an Islamist party with an extremist agenda was brutally crushed by the Algerian military and other vested interests. Mr Ghannouchi assures the world that he wishes to govern with a wide coalition of Tunisian political parties.

It is interesting, too, that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt also claims to have become more accommodating to other parties with differing views. The Egyptian-born cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, preaches a now moderated Sunni message weekly on Al-Jazeera from his base in the pro-western state of Qatar.

These Islamists blossoming in the Arab spring say that they now prefer the model of reform and Islamist government successfully deployed in modernising Turkey to any repeat of the bloody Algerian adventure or the risk of a return to violent repression by the army in Egypt. In Turkey, while moving to join the EU and embracing the market economy, the Freedom and Justice Party has also defanged the military and dispelled the threat of a coup against its electoral legitimacy.

Of course, the optimism about the Arab spring may turn out to be misplaced. In fact, realists predicted the rise of long-repressed Islamist parties in possible alliance with authoritarians in the military. After the first election, they warned, the Islamist victors would ensure that it was the last fair election-witness Iran. That might still be the case, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, suggested.

Nevertheless, the most viable option is to attempt to turn the rhetoric of reform into reality and to direct it towards endorsing the values and the institutions of the international community. As a former chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, I readily accept that interfaith dialogue, as advocated by many of your Lordships today, is a more productive route than any alternative that I could propose. Noble Lords will surely have the support of non-believers in their efforts to encourage tolerance and dialogue, and most assuredly in every effort to protect Christians and other groups, including converts-apostates from Islam, who often live with even greater risk of persecution. In return, I hope that faith groups will be equally strong in their defence of non-believers. The democratic West has propped up a range of unlikely and often unsavoury allies for strategic reasons, and as a by-product offered protection from sectarian violence to vulnerable groups. If that strategy is now in question, we might try a route of real democracy and accept that we will not always welcome the electoral outcome. I agree with my noble friend Lord Parekh that democracy can be its own corrective in exposing and discrediting the policies of extremists.

The most reverend Primate noted that today is Global Anti-Corruption Day. I note that tomorrow is International Human Rights Day. Our basic document for the democratic direction of nascent Governments in the Middle East must surely be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The great moral document, which emerged from the horrors of the Second World War, states that:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”.

There are many other explicit and inspiring articles in that great declaration that have been carried into the European Convention on Human Rights, such as the statement:

“Freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society … for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.
There is scope here for constructive interfaith dialogue and the consolidation of democratic secular experience

The European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into UK law in our Human Rights Act 1998, has also, through case law, moved to recognise a category of “religion or belief”. Humanists and faith groups might also find common cause in explaining that an ideal secular state is simply one that protects the rights of all its citizens to hold their own beliefs and religious practices.

I hope, too, that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury will amplify the analysis made in his 2006 lecture, Secularism, Faith and Freedom, to promote procedural secularism. He spoke of a situation in which,

“religious convictions are granted a public hearing in debate; not necessarily one in which they are privileged or regarded as beyond criticism, but one in which they are attended to as representing the considered moral foundation of the choices and priorities of citizens”.

That would be a very pertinent contribution to the debate on the constitutional challenges that attend the Arab spring. I also hope that it will be propagated by the UK Government and that secularism can be rescued from the misunderstandings that are so widespread still in some faith communities.’


Read the full debate

The BHA provides the Secretariat for the APPHG but it is not affiliated to, or part of, the BHA. For more information about the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, see

The British Humanist Association is the national charity representing and supporting the interests of ethically concerned, non-religious people in the UK. It is the largest organisation in the UK campaigning for an end to religious privilege and to discrimination based on religion or belief, and for a secular state.

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