By Syed Kamall
As we continue to absorb the tragedy that unfolded in Paris last Friday and seek answers to how young men of North African origin raised in France and Belgium could equate their faith with such violent acts, there have been the inevitable statements about the incompatibility between Islam and western values of liberal democracy.
Last week, politicians representing centre-right parties from the UK, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa gathered at the Conservatives and Reformists International Summit in Tunisia to reflect on the challenges faced in today’s world.
We wanted to show how the centre-right movement can provide a balanced response that respects the practices that are important to Muslim communities with a pluralist, secular state.
We gathered in the country where the tremors of revolution that has gripped the region were first felt, some five years ago. As the tremors have echoed across the region, the tensions and stresses that still beset other countries have calmed in Tunisia. The revolution has given way to reform, and reform has led to a transition to stable democracy.
In a region that needs success stories, Tunisia stands as a model which many of her neighbours may aspire to. Part of the reason for her success has been the recognition by the people of Tunisia that the absolutism of secularism or religious fundamentalism is not the only path. As revolution takes hold, an exchange of one form of coercion for another is not the answer to a false dichotomy between volatility and autocracy.
The answer to a secular dictatorship is not a religious dictatorship. It is an open society, in which freedom of worship is accepted along with freedom of speech, assembly and contract.
Tunisia only has to look at Europe to see the parallels in their own political reform and Europe’s shift in the relationship between church and state. Towards the end of the 19th century, newly unified polities in Italy and Germany wrestled with the impact of secularisation, most notably in Germany with the Kulturkampf. 19th and 20th century Britain similarly grappled with the role of Christianity in a period of modernisation, punctuated by two World Wars. Our laws no longer restrict marriage, abortion or blasphemy as in the past, while regulation of Lord’s Day has been unwound as time has gone by.
Today, church attendance has fallen dramatically but self-affiliation with Christianity has not diminished. Personal identification with Christianity and other religions remains an important part of modern British life. Institutionally however, religious convictions are increasingly expressions of personal and societal values, rather than state-mandated orthodoxy. Whilst the state provides the conditions for religious practice, it is the person who puts their religion into practice. It is man who has a relationship with God, not the State.
This sometimes uneasy consensus recognises that the authority of God over man does not justify the authority of man over man. Virtue cannot be coerced. We must all make our own choices. And take responsibility for those choices. This is the corner- stone of centre- right politics.
Islam places great emphasis on personal responsibility. Perhaps that’s why, in its golden years, the Islamic world was also the centre of global commerce. Long before modern capitalism emerged in the northern Italian city states, and then in Holland and in England, secure property rights contributed towards Muslims creating prosperous societies.
From this central notion builds a wider truth: that the state does not have a collective identity. It can’t be devout or charitable or honest. It can only provide a context in which individual citizens can pursue those virtues.
The transition to democracy in the region must be grounded in those terms. Openness and pluralism ensure that there is a space for personal freedoms to take hold and society to flourish. To ensure that the state enables enterprise without crowding it out. That it secures property rights without encroaching on the private sector. That the law remains a mechanism for individuals seeking justice, not an instrument of state control. That religious laws or privileges are not required to recognise faith. Our job is to roll the rocks away so that the grass can grow.Dr Syed Kamall is a Member of the European Parliament for London and leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists group, the third largest of the eight political groups in the European Parliament.