EU Neighbourhood: secularism for promoting peace, dialogue and reconciliation

Julie speaks at an event she hosted in parliament on using secularism to promote peace. 

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The debate on geopolitical and security issues is often left to stern men in suits and uniforms. I have chosen to get involved in this debate in order to try and raise more progressive, social, and alternative perspectives. The richer the debate we have, and the broader the discourse, the more likely we are to avoid repeating past mistakes or being tripped up by our own prejudice, and the more likely we are to find tools that work.

The European neighbourhood is certainly in the convulsions of conflict of overwhelming complexity. In Ukraine, Egypt, Libya, Turkey, Syria, Azerbaijan, and across the region, historical grievances, religious warfare, ethnic tensions, economic interests, and geo-political posturing all add up to an immense collage of human suffering.

And yes, a conflict between globalisation and localism, between pluralistic humanist values, and reactionary conservatism, and between secular values, and politicised religion are at the root of these historical processes.

True processes of peace and reconciliation must be local, be of, for, and by the people themselves. They must come through recognition of the Other, acceptance, dialogue, and tolerance.

Let’s define secularism: it means the separation of religion and state, and the equality of all citizens before the law, regardless of religion. Secularism emerged in a Europe that was weary of centuries of bitter religious conflict. It came about as part of the Enlightenment, and the set of values that included human rights and citizenship, the rule of law, and eventually fully developed democracy and social justice.

Secularism is certainly a useful tool for the construction of open pluralistic societies and an important aspect of stable democracies, although it must be a very tolerant and accepting secularism. It must promote diversity, and strong minority rights, freedom of speech and association, and strong protections for religious freedom. It must be rich, multi-cultural, and inclusive, and most importantly, it must genuinely come from the grass-roots upwards, with participation that is institutionally protected.

Of course, in many parts of the European neighbourhood it is hard to speak of social inclusion, as it is hard to speak of society at all, amongst the horrors of war, chaos, and crimes against humanity.

However, we must not fall into the easy trap of simple realpolitik – of propping up secularist autocratic regimes that oppress their own people, simply as a lid on religious extremism, or others who may risk Western interests. That is, arguably, part of the reason we got to where we are to begin with.

Mubrarak, Saddam Hussein, Assad – all of them were secularists to varying degrees, who repressed their people to varying degrees, violated human rights, amassed immense wealth through their corrupt nepotism, and fuelled the ethnic and religious tensions that led to the horrendous conflicts we are seeing now.

In Turkey, years of secularism backed by military strong-men has now seen an Islamist swing the other way.

Azerbaijan, which prides itself on its secularism, has seen gross human rights violations by an autocratic Azerbaijani government. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, and many others have documented the Azerbaijani regime crack down forcefully on opposition, and imprison and torture dissidents. Freedom House ranked Azerbaijan at 160 out of 180 states for press freedom in 2014. This is certainly not the kind of secularism we should aim to promote.

Often, those who monitor the political developments in conflict-torn regions, fall for simplifications of black and white, for-us or against us. A nuanced and detailed view of these complex situations which humanises those involved is extremely important.

I have always been a great believer in people-to-people contact, promoting understanding, recognition, reconciliation and tolerance through grass-root engagement by civil society. Be it through cultural initiatives, the arts, education, or business and social business – an open, secularist, multicultural society must be built from the ground up.

We as Europeans must support and promote core values of human rights, human dignity, democracy and the rule of law. We must supply the humanitarian aid needed, and provide material support to those who are struggling for those values in our neighbourhood.

We must also support these values, secularism being among them by supporting and empowering civil society organisations that promote such grass-root reconciliation and peace. Empowering those who seek open dialogue, and a tolerant and diverse form of secularism, from women rights organisations, LGBTI rights, or media freedom groups to those promoting interfaith dialogue – all these the European Union must give a stage to.

Hopefully by helping to facilitate dialogue, the European Union could be a force for peace in its neighbourhood.