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To see segregation of this type as divinely mandated is to degrade religion

That certain Muslims want to hold segregated meetings in universities should not blind us to a few important considerations

By on Monday, 16 December 2013

Education Secretary, Michael Gove said that segregating men and women in lectures was "pandering to extremism"

Education Secretary, Michael Gove said that segregating men and women in lectures was "pandering to extremism"

Here we go again. There has been another dispute all over the papers about religious freedom. Or so it seems. Writing in the Telegraph Matthew d’Ancona tells us (or his headline does) that “’Religious freedom’ cannot be allowed to trump equality.” It is interesting to note that the phrase gets inverted commas.

That certain Muslims want to hold segregated meeting in universities should not blind us to a few important considerations.

First of all – are religious freedom and equality polar opposites? Does religious freedom threaten equality? It is hard to see how it could. After all, the most religiously unfree countries – Saudi Arabia, Iran, China – are also countries that are very unequal. The most religiously free countries – places like the United Kingdom and the United States – are places were equality seems much more assured. Leaving aside exactly what we mean by equality, the places where anyone would rationally chose to live seem to be places that value religious freedom.

Second, can we see religion and the Enlightenment as polar opposites? Only if we use religion in the widest possible sense. It would be hard to claim that Scientology can be reconciled with Enlightenment values; and it is clear that the Enlightenment did not touch the Ottoman Empire, still less the land of Arabia, in the way it touched Europe and North America. Some religions clearly reject the Enlightenment; but not all do. One has to distinguish. Catholicism neither rejects the Enlightenment out of hand, nor embraces it unthinkingly. Rather it is a critic of the Enlightenment, and that is absolutely correct, for the Enlightenment, amongst other things, promoted critical thinking. It is wrong to lump all religions together (though this mistake is commonly made), just as it is equally wrong to see the Enlightenment as a monolithic movement.

The Islamists who want to hold segregated meetings in universities are doing something that no Catholic would ever want to do. The common ground between Catholics and Islamists is vanishingly small. But the Islamists’ actions are used to discredit all religious groupings. At least that is the implication, it seems to me, of Mr d’Ancona’s article.

What this dispute over segregation tells me is that we have here a problem with Islam (or perhaps with one strain of Islam), but we do not have a problem with religion as such. That is a vital distinction. Mr d’Ancona has written: “The segregation row has forced us to confront the friction between religious sensitivities and core aspects of our common citizenship.” This is false. The conflict is about Muslim ‘sensitivities’, or more accurately, the desire to introduce Sharia-compliant practices into the shared secular space. Religious sensitivies of other complexions are not in play here. The mention of gay marriage is a red herring: that battle was fought to preserve an institution that predated Christianity, not sacramental marriage as such.

What is really at stake here is the question of the relationship between faith and reason, something that was the subject of John Paul II’s great encyclical Fides et Ratio. They should complement each other, and never be at war with each other. The seperation of one from the other leads to the impoverishment of both. To try and separate the two was the great mistake of the Enlightenment, just as it is the great mistake of these Islamists.

Segregated audiences of this type are simply against reason, and to see segregation of this type as divinely mandated is to degrade religion. That is all that needs to be said about this particular dispute. But the relationship between faith and reason will grind on for years to come. We must not leave the followers of Robespierre unchallenged.