The hornet’s nest of freedom of religion: Reply to Mateen Elass

The right to religion is a shaky historic compromise between two epochs in human social evolution: dependent subordination and individual autonomy. By attacking secularism, religious freedom subsumes itself into freedom of thought, of expression, and of association—no longer anything special.

The hornet’s nest of freedom of religion: Reply to Mateen Elass

This polemic, written before the Muslim meltdown in the wake of Sheikh Dr Yasir Qadhi’s admission that the Qur’an has not been perfectly preserved, is offered here as a contribution to a debate developing at time of editing, concerning the relationship between secular and religious opponents of jihad. The tone of this essay should not be seen as reflecting either my attitude towards, or my willingness or otherwise to collaborate with, religious opponents of jihad. It is written in the same spirit as Karl Marx’s reply to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Abu al-Walid ibn Rushd’s reply to Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali.

Mateen Elass, in his The Hornet’s Nest of Muhammad’s Islam,[1] reflects on the dangers of jihad and the need to combat it. Already that is enough for all who fear what Islam has in store for the world to rally behind him. The purpose of his critique of jihad, however, which is not stated, is to channel Muslims leaving Islam towards Christianity and specifically away from secularism. It is perfectly legitimate to want to protect Christianity from Islam, even to want to expand Christianity at the expense of Islam. It would just be more honest to say so. It is in the subterfuge he employs to his purpose of boosting Christianity, namely, the belittling of secularism, that Elass deserves no support and, indeed, should not be allowed to get away with it just because his fight for Christ happens to coincide with the fight against Islam. He does not know it, but he shares a common cause with Islam: confining humanity to an unfree condition.

Since Elass’ project is fundamentally dishonest, cognitive acrobatics is necessary when he comes closest to revealing his real objective:

As millions of Muslims have discovered, their religious longings, never fulfilled under the harsh rules of Islam, are met in the good news of a God who draws them in love to Himself, and who promises eternal life to those who follow the way of Jesus.

In what is, for the most part, a good piece of writing, Elass condenses the problem of jihad and an effective way of eradicating its fountainhead, the ideology of Islam, by posing the question: What does it take to defeat an ideology (by which he means a jihad-spawning ideology)? To this Elass proposes a three-pronged strategy:

1. Extreme power
2. Demonstration of the deficiencies of Islam (its moral corruption, logical inconsistencies, historic excesses, the many imperfections of the Qur’an, its theological blunders, the social and developmental realities of Muslim societies compared to what the Qur’an proclaims, on the one hand, and non-Muslim social realities, on the other)
3. Presentation of preferred ideologies, by which he means only two: “Enlightened secularism” and “the Christian faith.” It is not clear whose preferences these are.

This is where Elass’ text becomes questionable. Since the eradication of jihad is not presented as a good in itself, one begins to wonder whether it is not simply a device for propagating “the Christian faith” and more importantly, for protecting Christianity from “Enlightened secularism.” The actions Elass lists as required to solve the problem of jihad derive not from his own rigorous critique of the reality of Islam and Muslims, but are assembled from the works of others (which he only partially understands) for the narrow purpose of protecting and expanding Christianity. While expanding Christianity does mean combatting jihad, it does not mean advancing freedom, for if it did, it would not matter to Elass whether those leaving Islam embraced enlightened secularism or converted to Christianity.

Instead, Elass takes his approach to its illogical logical conclusion, which is to equate secularism with Islam. One wonders how “Enlightened secularism” ends up as a “preferred ideology” on his list when he knows beforehand that it is no alternative to Islam. The intellectual rigour necessary to have put together the list of counter-jihad measures Elass proposes is conspicuously absent from his treatment of secularism and is little more than a prejudicial construct with the a priori objective of enfeebling secularism before Christianity:

A life of freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and other like documents makes for a society where human beings can decide for themselves what pursuits to prioritize, (emph. AP)

“Decide for themselves,” which Elass has a problem with, is freedom, and there’s the rub. Elass’ problem with secularism is that secularism makes people too free and thereby marginalises God, something that no believer, whether blood-spattered jihadi or happy-clappy Christian, can countenance. He is not saying that people should not be free, for he is trying to persuade them to Christianity, rather than coerce them. Elass, who lists secularism as a “preferred ideology,” at every turn shows his readers that he does not prefer it. Secularism, to Elass, is a bigger problem than Islam. Of course, this is an argument that cannot be made, and Elass does not attempt to make it. Baseless arbitrary assertions, highly-privileged interpretations of ideas and historical revisionism are all that Elass has to fall back on in his attempt to aggrandise Christianity and belittle secularism. One wonders why such shenanigans should even be necessary if, as Elass claims, “millions of Muslims have discovered …the way of Jesus.”

Elass’ conclusion suggests that he doesn’t actually understand the list he has assembled from others. “In the end the problem of Islamic terrorism will not subside until one of two futures is realized: either Islam conquers all enemies and reigns globally, or the ideology of Muhammad’s Islam is debunked and derided for the evil it has spawned,” (emph. AP). ‘Debunking and deriding Islam’ is only one item, number two, on Elass’ list. It is an item already copiously accomplished. Intellectual defence of Islam is already comprehensively discredited. There are many Islamic apologist websites whose sole reason d’être now is to limit the damage caused by such debunking and deriding of Islam, and yet while Muslims leave Islam, jihad rolls on. This nuance is lost on Elass.

The debunking and deriding of Islam has been underway since the first day the Arab hordes emerging from the desert made contact with a civilisation more advanced than themselves, and, it seems according to the latest scholarship, before their ideology had even been consolidated and given the name Islam. Their barbaric savagery and brutality horrified those unfortunate enough to find themselves in their path, and this well documented.

It is impossible for a Muslim to countenance there being anything wrong with Islam, even more so to entertain the idea that the Qur’an might not be perfect. In extremis, they may be driven to criticising Muslims, but they will either deny that the criticised Islam is Islam, or will call the critic a liar. It is a condition so hard-wired into the Muslim that even those who no longer have the barbaric ethics necessary for Islam still find themselves unable to repudiate anything in the Qur’an, even its barbarism.

Irshad Manji, a Muslim, tells us that the Qur’an is not divine, but divinely inspired—ohhh dear. That's taking an awful lot of liberty with Allah's love. Such fantastic cognitive contortions to square the circle of the Qur’an’s barbarism with the modern Muslim's civilised ethics are par for the course. As long as they can confine the now inescapable mess that is the Qur’an to the realm of “interpretation,” as Maajid Nawaz tries so very hard to do, they can avoid examining the actual text. So enslaving is the Muslim identity that those who have brought themselves so far as to want to actually cleanse the Qur’an of its barbaric verses, and thereby in effect having apostatised, still insist that they are Muslim and that the Islam of the Qur’an is not Islam.

Debunking and deriding Islam serves a different purpose: it helps to wean the ethical and enlightened Muslims off Islam. Muslims are impervious to reasoned argument. Showing them all the ludicrous scientific errors in the Qur’an, all the historical falsehoods and all the contradictions, non-sequiturs, inconsistencies and logical fallacies, cuts no ice. However, doing so helps to create an atmosphere in which Islam is ridiculed and laughed at, rather than feared. Reason and reality they can easily withstand, but against laughter the Muslim’s faith crumbles. He is but a creature of fragile ego, the Achilles heel of all supremacists. This is one fatal weakness; there is another.

Islam is nice, like us.

The Muslim who no longer has the ethics of a barbarian has a problem today: they are human enough to be embarrassed by their religion. Yasir Qadhi does his best to stave off this embarrassment, but he fails to understand that the Muslims who come to him embarrassed about Islam and Muhammad and distressed by the incessant mockery and laughter, are no longer the kind of person that they need to be for Islam. They have become the kind of person that they need to be for freedom. This, more often than not, is the tipping point, the trip switch that allows all the other lights, whether one-by-one or all at once, to be turned on. Increasingly, Muslims find the barbaric ethics drummed into them since early childhood giving way to the civilised ethics of the secular Enlightenment. This is why Elass must restrict himself to the labels, rather than the substance, and cannot be honest about the list he puts forward as his own.

What about ‘Extreme power,’ correctly the number one item on the list? It is the reason Israel still survives and her people continue to prosper. Yet, the top item on Elass’ list is not mentioned again. Could it be that “extreme power” does not sit well with Christian ideology? If a Christian proposed extreme power as an effective counter to jihad, it begs the question of why jihad has all but wiped out Christianity in its heartland, the Middle East. We never learn what Elass has in mind when he counsels ‘extreme power.’

What about ‘Presentation of preferred ideologies,’ item number three? Elass wants to discourage Muslims from understanding the Enlightenment and secularism for themselves, and prefers them to be content with the wonders of Christianity. I propose that these conundrums underlie Elass’ slippery claim that,

As millions of Muslims have discovered, their religious longings, never fulfilled under the harsh rules of Islam, are met in the good news of a God who draws them in love to Himself, and who promises eternal life to those who follow the way of Jesus.

Given the dire consequences of leaving Islam, all figures pertaining to apostasy must be taken as significantly understated. Whatever the number of Muslims converting to Christianity, it pales against those leaving religion altogether. Whereas previously one had to read between the lines to infer the extent of atheism in the Muslim world, real figures are increasingly becoming available. Of course it is not in Elass’ interests to acknowledge this. He prefers to imply (by claiming “millions”) that Muslims leave Islam because they found their “religious longings, never fulfilled.” Am I, and the very real millions of others[2] who have left and are leaving Islam and all religion along with it allowed to take offence at this imposition of “religious longing” on us, or is the taking of offence a privilege reserved for the faithful?

Mateen Elass sees only that the practitioners of Islam and Christianity do opposite things, one is commanded to do bad things and the other is commanded to do good things. He does not see that they have many things in common, the most important here is that they are both commanded. Muhammad’s Muslims hate because they are commanded to hate. Jesus’ Christians love because they are commanded to love. Since, by his own religious logic, neither Muslims nor Christians can tell their gods what to command, it could just as easily have been the other way round. The arrival of secularism was our signal that we have grown up and no longer need to be commanded one way or the other. We have become perfectly capable of deciding for ourselves and taking credit for our good decisions and responsibility for our bad ones. In no commanded behaviour is a human being free.

Elass’ main problem is with secularism, because under it, people decide for themselves. In this case it should not matter whether people are Christian or Muslim, for in neither case do they decide for themselves. Since not being secular does not equate to being Christian, Elass now has to redefine monotheism as positing two gods of different character. The nice god, the “God who draws them in love to Himself,” is the Christian god; the nasty god is the one with “the harsh rules,” the god of Islam. And now it is self-evident that Elass’ god is greater. Elass’ problem is not yet solved, however, for the Muslim can just as easily assert, and does assert, catastrophically so, that his god is greater than Elass’: “Allahu-akbar.” In their arrogance, Christianity and Islam are of a kind.

To say about Muslims leaving Islam that, “their religious longings, [have] never [been] fulfilled under the harsh rules of Islam,” suggests knowledge of those religious longings, which he might well have, and that it is at least possible that those who remain Muslim do have their religious longings fulfilled under the harsh rules of Islam. Similarly, by that logic, there are Christians whose “religious longings” are not fulfilled by a “God who draws them in love to Himself.” It is possible to argue that a god that draws in love is likely to get more takers than one who drives with harsh rules, but then the exact opposite can just as easily be argued, especially if one god offers watching lions lie down with lambs, while the other offers seventy-two buxom virgins. A religion, constructed as it is on purely arbitrary endogenous criteria, cannot make a case for itself against another religion without resorting to exogenous, and hence secular, criteria. Elass does, in fact, do exactly that when he contrasts love against harshness, and finds the former superior to the latter. His problem here is that love and harshness are human emotions and attributes, and to these secular criteria his gods must submit for judgement. Secularism is the criterion by which Elass judges Christianity superior to Islam. It might surprise Elass to learn that atheists judge religions by the same criterion and find them all wanting; we are just more honest and consistent about it. Or, as Prof. Richard Dawkins famously quips, "We, too, reject other people's gods. We just go one god further."

Elass does not realise, or perhaps he is too wrapped up in his faith to realise, that the very secularism he so glibly dismisses as “not up to the task [of debunking Islam],” is the same secularism that guarantees his freedom to choose submission to the commandments of a religion, his freedom to choose which god or gods to submit to and his freedom to choose how to submit, in short, his freedom to choose to be unfree and to what extent to be unfree. When still left to its own devices, Elass’ lauded Christianity had offered its adherents none of these freedoms. Instead, Christians—the people of the loving God—meted out harsh punishments on one another for centuries for not submitting to their loving God in quite the right way.

Heresy (credit:

It is secularism that put an end to all the savagery that religions call ‘holy wars.’ In one instance the carnage did not stop for a full century, while in another we grapple with it to this day. Islam, free from the restraining influence of secularism, sees its adherents blowing up one another’s markets and mosques crammed full with people who worship Allah in a slightly different way. Muslims need to recognise that they do not need Elass’ Christianity; they need the force that stopped Christians from doing to one another what Muslims still do to one another today. That force is secularism.

Christianity’s ingratitude towards secularism goes right back to Martin Luther’s opposition to the humanist and great scholar, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), whose work formed one of the foundations of secularism. Contrary to popular belief, it was not Luther who set Christian’s free from the shackles of Catholicism. It was his contemporary and erstwhile friend, Erasmus, who set everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, free from the shackles of faith, and Luther who limited the reach of that freedom for Christians, confining it within the strictures of a particular early form of Christianity. Although Luther had nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg in 1517, Erasmus saw further and understood that all Luther was offering the unfree was a less onerous form of unfreedom. Luther’s translation of the Bible into German can be considered in relation to Erasmus’ reconstruction of the pronunciation of ancient Greek. It is my opinion that Erasmus, learned in the works of early Christian writers, sought through his work to save “the sweet name of liberty” from the crossfire of the great Christian carnage that would surely come.[3]

Desiderius Erasmus (credit: magnoliabox)

Western Christianity, co-parent with capitalism to the autonomous individual, had arrived at an historic juncture: forward to freedom or back to the Bible. This historic tension is perfectly captured in the interaction between the two contemporaries, Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus. Luther’s 1525 On the Bondage of the Will was little more than a panic reaction to Erasmus’ publication of The Freedom of the Will a year earlier, just as Mateen Elass’ The Hornet’s Nest of Muhammad’s Islam, is a panic reaction to the phenomenon of Muslims exercising their free will to go straight from Islam to atheism. Both Luther and Elass are desperate to protect God from the seemingly uncontrollable rise of freedom amongst people who are supposed to be Christian and Muslim, respectively. Elass is disingenuous when he tries to characterise the wave of apostasy hitting Islam as nothing more than “millions of Muslims hav[ing] discovered… their religious longings, never fulfilled under the harsh rules of Islam, are met in the good news of a God who draws them in love to Himself, and who promises eternal life to those who follow the way of Jesus.”

It is true that there are Muslims converting to “the way of Jesus”, but there are also Muslims converting to the way of Buddha, the way of Shiva, the way of Zoroaster (and more modestly than Elass’ “millions” would imply) and, Heaven’s forbid, the way of free control over their own lives (far more likely to account for “millions”). It dismays Elass, as it had dismayed Luther five centuries ago, that today’s dump-the-deen movement, like the earlier chuck-the-Church movement, is out of control and must be reined back. It is one thing to assail Muhammad or to assail the Pope, but to assail God! This cannot be countenanced. For God’s creation to deny his dominion over them and to trample on his power and control over human affairs in their headlong rush to freedom, equality and justice conceived by themselves was going too far. Like Luther, Elass must forestall a full-scale break for freedom out of religion and, like Luther, offer those suffering “under the harsh rules of Islam,” the loving rules of Christianity instead.

Unfortunately for Elass, the autonomous individual has arrived in present-day Dar al-Islam, just as it had, unfortunately for Luther, in 16th-century Christendom. The “millions” of apostates that Elass claims for Christ, are in fact risking their lives for the freedom, equality and human rights denied them, rather than for the loving unfreedom of Christianity. Apostates from Islam find themselves at the beginning of the same process, Enlightenment, that Erasmus and the other progenitors and formulators of universal rights and freedoms were at the end of, when they set up their institutions, drew up their constitutions, formulated their laws and grounded their values that guarantee universal freedom, rather than establish yet another sect of Christianity, minutely differentiated from all the other sects sprouting at the time, each anxious to preserve their peculiar subjugation to a supernatural being in their own peculiar way, in effect, a fragmentation into cults.

In a particular manifestation of their greater project, the fathers and mothers of universal freedom and human rights recognised that for Christians to have the freedom to practise Christianity, they needed protection from religion. Secularism promptly delivered freedom of religion and guaranteed it by subjugating all religion to secular law, thereby providing them all with freedom from religion. It would do Elass and the faithful well to humble themselves and reflect on the debt they owe to secularists, people who stand to gain nothing from faith, but protect the faithful’s right to it all the same.

The secular freedoms enjoyed in the West are often credited to “our Judeo-Christian heritage.” Those who make this bold claim do not explain how Catholicism could have arisen on the basis of that same heritage and had to be neutered through a string of bloody wars, or why the demand for secular freedom is now growing louder in the Islamic world, which the Judeo-Christian coupling is expressly formulated to exclude. Hellenism, just to be clear, was a cultural and ethical achievement of paganism, out of which also “our Judeo-Christian heritage” arose. One might say of Elass what was said if Tatian:

Tatian could see nothing but evil in the Greco-Roman civilization. Indeed, Tatian’s Discourse to the Greeks is less a positive vindication of Christianity than a sharp attack on paganism.[4]

Is it then not more likely that the autonomous individual and the “personal relationship with God” are two competing solutions to the problem of subordinate dependence, as had characterised all human social relations up to the advent of capitalism? The autonomous individual first arose in Christendom, but the bloodiest and most intractable fighting was not between the autonomous individual and the personal relationship with God, but between rival relationships with God. The autonomous individual, in order to construct his secular Republic on Earth, had to build into the foundations of that republic “the freedom of religion,” not for his own benefit, but for the benefit of the warring relationships with God. It might have looked like a good idea at the time, a magnanimity that secularists could even feel smug about. But it is a time bomb, and Elass is its ticking countdown. Sooner rather than later, secularism is going to have to resolve the biggest mistake it has ever made. In an ironic twist it is a Christian who wants to bring it on.

What if secularism is so severely compromised by its indulgence of “freedom of religion” that Islam, the ultimate proof of the folly of freedom of religion, has completely hollowed it out from the inside while Christians were hard at work either interfaith dialoguing or “bringing people to Christ.” Secularism had made its covenant with Christianity: a neutered Christianity subject to secular law in exchange for the guarantee of freedom of religion.

But secularism should have had better lawyers, as ‘religion’ and ‘Christianity’ and two different things. Where the secularist sees the right to worship, the Christian sees the right to worship Christ, and moreover, in his own peculiar way. He had agreed to submit to secular law so the other Christian would not kill him while worshipping; secularism was there to protect him. No one said anything about Jews. It was a freedom Christians had won and they were not about to share it with those who would deny Christ, let alone drink the blood of Christian children and other such certainties. It was a deal that secured them swearing on the Bible, personal first names being “Christian” names, Sunday being “the Lord’s day” and the calendar year being “the year of our Lord.” All of this and more secularism conceded so free people could get on with what free people do best: decide for themselves.

While Christians enjoyed their freedom of religion, that freedom continued to elude the Jews. No one talked of “our Judeo-Christian heritage” until growing anti-Semitism in the United States finally compelled “liberal-minded Protestants, Catholics and Jews” to work together to promote “brotherhood” and invent the idea. But a lexical trick does not transmute conflict into unity. The ‘unity’ of the notion of ‘Judeo-Christian’ depended for its propagation on teams of a trio: a rabbi, a minister and a priest. Despite Jonathan Sarna’s gloss of “three ennobling spiritual traditions,”[5] the proselytising monotheism in the mix could not find a unified voice to bring to its great brotherhood with Judaism. The great Christian internecine bloodletting, which secularism stopped by banging Christian heads together, rumbles on in the sham “Judeo-Christian ethics.”

Proselytising monotheism (credit: lincolntimesnews)

A proselytising monotheism, by its very nature, cannot be a reliable partner for peace with anyone if it cannot even find peace with itself. The inevitable showdown can be postponed with lexical games and the like, if the proselytising monotheism is Christianity. But if that proselytising monotheism is Islam, a faith unencumbered by commitments to secularism (or ethics, for that matter), then lexical games, such as “Islam is a religion of peace,” and “Islamophobia,” become obscene, cynical and suicidal. The notion of “Judeo-Christian” ethics could bump along for a century, but it took a mere twenty years for the “religion of peace” to all but bomb, shoot, stab and rape that ennobling unity into a jabbering, cowering, pathetic mess. If Elass wishes to destroy secularism, then he would do better converting to Islam,[6] than pouching adherents from it.

As paganism highlights, ethics has nothing whatsoever to do with gods of any kind, whether they rule in council or solo. It is consistently present in all humans and has consistently evolved along with human social evolution, only to be constrained, corrupted and perverted, in one way or another, by the different stages of religion along the way. There is a reason the ethics of Muslims are so much more barbaric than the ethics of Christians, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the one having a God of love and the other a God of hate.

Even though Islam arose six centuries after Christianity, it is predicated directly on paganism, and an isolated, primitive form of paganism, at that, whereas Christianity arose out of an established monotheism, Judaism, eventually a non-proselytising monotheism that itself arose out of paganism. Secularism is in dire need of rebirth, and its catastrophic flirtation of proselytising monotheisms must be put firmly behind it. A proselytising religion, by definition, contradicts freedom of religion, because it posits right beliefs and wrong beliefs, true prophets and false prophets, and true gods and false gods; in short, right and wrong choices of religion.

As I have argued before, at this stage of our evolution, a significant portion of our species will continue to incline towards faith. If we accept this inclination as part of the heterogeneity of our species, then it is up to secularism to render the religious inclination harmless without harming the religiously-inclined.[7] For secularism to be universally appreciated for the human accomplishment that it is, it must recognise that proselytising monotheisms are inherently destructive. This it cannot do while it is foundationally and conceptually wedded to a proselytising monotheism, albeit one whose proselytising fervour is no longer remotely as devastating as it once was, but the danger is never far beneath the surface, as Mateen Elass attests.

The real contradiction of such compromised secularism only fully emerged when another proselytising monotheism, Islam, gatecrashed the party without a ‘freedom of religion/neuter’ invitation. Unneutered, barbaric Islam proceeded to dictate its terms to secularism that then all but abandoned its guarantee of freedom of religion to Christianity. Christianity had merely encumbered secularism, while Islam destroys secularism and Christianity along with it. The last rapacious religions secularism ran into were the twentieth-century totalitarianisms, religions with human gods.

(credit: timeshighereducation)

Secularism’s catastrophic encounter with Islam means there is no way back to the grand delusion of freedom of religion. Secularism’s renaissance, if there is to be one, will have to arise within the cultural context of polytheism, non-proselytising monotheism or atheism, and go hand in hand with the paramount freedom of the individual, the protection of the individual, the de-recognition of “group rights” and the criminalisation of proselytising. If secularism is to have a future, it is going to have to find it in robustly defending the right to practise Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, etc., or none of them, against any right to practise either Christianity or Islam, unless the latter two are so thoroughly syncretised that they are beyond recognition: no Hell for heathens, heretics or the kufaar to go to; no souls to be “saved.”

It must be a condition of practising any religion that there shall be no proselytising, and no induction of children into religion, regardless of whose children they might be. There was a time when parents had the self-evident right to sacrifice their children to their gods (many still do), induct them into a religion while their minds were still malleable, and marry them off to whomever they chose, including their god. Where such practices still obtain, they must end. Provided these conditions are met, anyone shall be free to at any time adopt or leave any religion, and to practice it in any way they choose. Only then will secularism be able to live up to its responsibility of protecting the freedom of the individual and only the individual.

While Mateen Elass sees millions of sad Muslims with unfulfilled religious longings blocked by harsh Islamic rules whom he can bring to the loving Christ, his self-evident answer to all religious longings, millions of Muslims have for 1400 years brought their own self-evident answer to the unfulfilled religious longings of the kufaar, especially Christians. They do not succeed as they once did because they are no longer able, at least in Western lands, to kill those who decline their “invitation,” at least not yet. That is because in the parts of the world where most of their proselytising (da’wa) now takes place, Muslims are subject to secular, rather than religious, standards of behaviour. Elass might want to humble himself and reflect on that, too.

One sometimes encounters the refrain, “Islam is not a religion; it is an ideology.” The first part of this two-part claim is manifestly untrue, but it is often asserted as a basis for denying Islam privileges that flow from the freedom of religion. This attempted expulsion of Islam from the club of religions betrays a fear that Islam, by its excesses, will spoil the party for all religions. Already, Islam has, inadvertently, to be sure, caused the concept of blasphemy to be abolished in many Western countries, rather than caused it to be extended to protect itself against freedom of speech.

Islam holds up a mirror to all religions when its advocates argue, quite correctly, that if one religion may be practised, then so may another. Promoters of other religions can, of course, advance that their religions are subject to secular laws and do not interfere with the rights and freedoms of the citizens, protected by secular law and guaranteed by secular principles enshrined in legal instruments such as constitutions. The problem with this would be their effective admission that they are all neutered under secularism; in other words, God must obey the law just like anyone else. This would be a sound argument to advance, but as we have seen with Mateen Elass, that is not a position a Christian proselytiser would want to find himself in, how much more so a Muslim one.

To advance that Islam is an ideology also fails to differentiate between Islam and other religions, as all religion is ideology. Yet there is a distinction between the ideology of Islam and the ideology of the neutered religions. Islam is a totalitarian ideology, while the ideologies of other religions practised under conditions of freedom are consistent with the autonomous individual, which allows them to be freely chosen or not chosen.

Choice is the unique bequest of the Enlightenment to its social creation, the autonomous individual. Choice is as fundamentally antithetical to Islam as it is to all totalitarianisms. For the anti-Islam promoters of religion, such as Elass, to acknowledge that the ideology of Islam is totalitarian would be to open the possibility that other totalitarianisms, too, are religions, as indeed they are. The same cognitive processes and emotional states displayed by the religious are to be observed amongst those resigned to their totalitarian submission.

It is a commonplace to describe China, as “communist” and “atheist,” while it is neither. It is one of the most religious places on earth. Mao Zedong’s flirtation with Marxism-Leninism was a crude, if expedient, syncretism with Confucianism, in which the trappings and rituals of the old order were destroyed in a fantastic orgy of cultural obliteration to make way for those of Maoism, retaining and building on the psychology of Confucianism: hierarchy, absolute obedience and correct thought. China has a strikingly superstitious population, not at all the supposed diehard materialist atheists of religious propaganda.

Ideologues like Jiang Qing seek to expunge the post-1949 corruptions by making Confucianism the official state religion of China.[8] Chinese Communist Party leaders themselves flow seamlessly between “communism,” “socialism,” and “state capitalism” as the occasion demands, clearly to avoid a sudden breach with “harmony,” a central Confucian doctrine, and a particular concern of former Communist Party leaders Hu Jintao, Deng Xiaoping and others.

There is no God but Mao, and Xi is his messenger (photo: telegraph)

The dissimulation that China is atheist suits both the ruling elite within China and religious propagandists outside of it. Christian ideologues like Elass need the ideology of China to be atheist in contradistinction to that of Christianity in order to protect God. Chinese ideologues need China to be atheist so as better to persecute religions with supernatural gods. In China, the Chinese Communist Party, through the Confucian doctrine of absolute obedience, is God. Absolute obedience means, “human beings cannot decide for themselves.” This much Elass declares right up front as his fundamental problem with secularism:

A life of freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and other like documents makes for a society where human beings can decide for themselves what pursuits to prioritize, (emph. AP).

Janet Horne, accused of riding to the Devil on her daughter as a pony, was burnt at the stake in Scotland in 1727.[9] Anna Göldi admitted under torture that she was in a pact with the Devil, who had appeared to her as a black dog. She was beheaded in Switzerland 1782.[10] In Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, two children claimed to be possessed by the Devil. Twenty-four people and two dogs were executed in the ensuing “witch trials.” The Bill of Rights was passed in England in 1689. The United States Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. Secular law had spoken. That was the last of Christians killing those who would not submit to Christ. Elass might wish to note the parallels with Islam here.

Elass’ problem with secularism is Islam’s problem with secularism is China’s problem with secularism. Freedom of religion is the soft underbelly of secularism that walks a fine line between guaranteeing the freedom to deny choice for oneself and avoiding denying choice for society as a whole. When it comes to choosing between these two conditions, Elass has made his stance perfectly clear. He opposes conditions “where human beings can decide for themselves.” For Christianity, as for Islam, that will just never do. Everyone must be “saved,” by means fair or foul. The barbarism that Islam employs to this end, secularism has taken away from Christianity. But never fear; Elass is on the case.

It is worth noting that apostasy from Islam holds our attention because of its heightened significance in that religion. But headline-grabbing as the phenomenon might be, it obscures the general social eclipsing of religion overall. All religions have been losing adherents in favour of free choice premised on secularism. No one pays any attention to priests complaining of empty churches. The age of religion is over because the age of subordinate dependence is over. Capitalism took care of that.

The right to religion has always been a shaky historic compromise in the transition between two great ages in human social evolution: dependent subordination and individual autonomy; the former sustained by belief and the latter by freedom. It is a right that has been eclipsing itself and is destined for irrelevance as it is gradually subsumed into freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom of association—no longer anything special. Elass’ efforts amount to, firstly, turning on the very thing that has saved his religion from self-destructing, and secondly, turning back human social and ethical evolution. Now that a truly badass God worshipped by people who love death more than we love life is in the frame, secularism can no longer put off its reckoning with “freedom of religion”.

[1] Mateen Elass, “The Hornet’s Nest of Muhammad’s Islam,” 25 October 2019,

[2] BBC News, “Atheism in Egypt: The challenges facing non-believers?” YouTube, 11 February 2014, See also France 24 English, “Egypt's push against atheism and ‘non-believers’,” YouTube, 29 September 2014, and VOA News, “Middle East Atheist Channel Defies Taboo,” YouTube, 1 May 2015,

[3] James D. Tracey, “Erasmus: Dutch humanist,” Encyclopaedia Britannica,,

In this [new edition of the Adagia] and other works of about the same time Erasmus showed a new boldness in commenting on the ills of Christian society—popes who in their warlike ambition imitated Caesar rather than Christ; princes who hauled whole nations into war to avenge a personal slight; and preachers who looked to their own interests by pronouncing the princes’ wars just or by nurturing superstitious observances among the faithful. To remedy these evils Erasmus looked to education. In particular, the training of preachers should be based on “the philosophy of Christ” rather than on Scholastic methods. Erasmus tried to show the way with his annotated text of the Greek New Testament and his edition of St. Jerome’s Opera omnia, both of which appeared from the Froben press in 1516. These were the months in which Erasmus thought he saw “the world growing young again,” and the full measure of his optimism is expressed in one of the prefatory writings to the New Testament: “If the Gospel were truly preached, the Christian people would be spared many wars.”

[4] John N. D. Kelly, “Patristic Literature,” Encyclopaedia Britannica,

[5] Jonathan D Sarna, American Judaism: A history, Yale University Press, 2nd ed. 2019, p266.

[6] Yasir Qadhi, “Is Secularism in Crisis? Shaykh Dr. Yasir Qadhi & Prof Tariq Ramadan,” YouTube, 27 October 2020, or better still, Giulio Meotti, “The Religious Transformation of French Schools,” Gatestone Institute, 23 January 2020,

[7] Koenraad Elst, “Why do Christians try to Convert you?” Centre for Indic Studies, YouTube, 25 May 2019,

[8] Ruiping Fan and Erika Yu, “The Renaissance of Confucianism in Contemporary China,” Springer, 2011,

[9] W N Neill, “The Last Execution for Witchcraft in Scotland, 1722,” The Scottish Historical Review, April 1923, Vol. 20, No. 79, pp. 218-221.

The victim was an insane old woman from the parish of Loth, in Sutherlandshire, who was condemned to death by the sheriff-depute, Captain David Ross of Little Dean, …for having transformed her daughter into a pony and had her shod by the Devil. …The old woman was duly ‘wirreit at a stake and brint in assis’.

[10] Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz, “Anna Göldi,” 23 September 2005, (in German) “In February 1782 G[öldi] was arrested on the pretext that she had ‘cursed’ the girl. She [then] cured the girl, thereby only confirming to her pursuers that she was a witch,” (translation by AP).