It never fails to baffle me when people jump on the ‘attack secularists’ bandwagon with such gusto. I usually just assume that whoever is making this argument doesn’t really understand what secularism is. At its simplest, secularism means that laws will be completely neutral to the religious beliefs of those who seek legal remedy. It does not mean that hordes of secularist zealots are going to go around smashing manger scenes on people’s front lawns, or that people will have to have secret church in the basement of their local Darwin Temple, and yet that seems to be the recurring myth that gets tossed around.
We are a bit spoiled here in Canada, where our biggest religious/secular fights have to do with stuff like whether or not Sikhs are allowed to carry kirpans into court. We’re lucky not to live in a religious-majority country (at least in the political sense), where our church/state skirmishes are usually small and don’t result in major harm. We are lucky, indeed, that we don’t live in Indonesia:
An Indonesian court sent a “chilling message” Thursday by giving Muslim extremists light sentences for a vicious mob attack in which three sect members died, rights activists said. Twelve people stood trial but none faced murder charges in what human rights campaigners said was a travesty of justice in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country. The sentences ranged from between three and six months’ jail — less than prosecutors had sought and well below the maximum penalty of 12 years.
Anyone who thinks that this is me trying to make a Dawkins-style “Dear Muslimah” point about Canadian problems not being worth discussion is profoundly mistaken. Those that know me well know that I am game for pretty much any fight that I get get my blog-teeth into. I am not trying to minimize the problems that we have here, nor am I really seeking to ‘put them into perspective’. There are a lot of things to care about, and if we start ‘triaging’ the suffering of our fellow creatures, we’ll be so paralyzed with bickering that nothing will get done. There are, however, two points that I am trying to make with this news item.
1. Secular legal authority is a good thing
The reason why the fight for secular authority is a good one is because it necessarily precludes this kind of lax sentencing. The judicial powers in Indonesia should be ashamed of themselves for allowing this disgusting miscarriage of justice to go forward. Hopefully the condemnation from the international community will be strong enough that the sentences can be revisited, but I don’t hold out any great hope, given Indonesia’s recent track record. They would like to represent themselves as a secular democracy, but it is becoming increasingly clear that they are a theocratic state with a pretense of modernity. Pro tip: secular countries cannot have blasphemy laws.
With a truly secular court, there would be no reprieve granted to those who commit crimes based on religious outrage. Crimes are evaluated based on the harm they cause, rather than who has caused them. This protects both the minority and the majority, since members of the majority can easily be reclassified as ‘minority’ as soon as they have any doctrinal disagreement with whoever holds the reins of power. This issue of minority/majority brings me to my next point.
2. Secular authority protects minorities
If we can judge a society based on the way it treats its least powerful people (and if you are a humanist, you should), then secular authority and its inherent consistent application of law will stand up against oppression (which always flows from the majority to the minority). The light sentence received by those that perpetuated these attacks is particularly horrifying when you consider the nature of the attacks:
A secretly filmed video of the Cikeusik rampage sparked international concern when it appeared online within days of the attack. The reaction in Indonesia, however, was muted. The footage shows police fleeing the scene as the enraged mob — armed with machetes and knives and shouting abuse at the “infidels” — launched an unprovoked attack on a house owned by an Ahmadiyah follower. A handful of Ahmadiyah men tried to defend the property with stones and slingshots but they were quickly overwhelmed. Then the killing began. The mob clubbed and stoned their defenceless victims to death in front of police, then stood around and joked over their shattered bodies. Several Ahmadiyah tried to flee but were hunted down and badly beaten.
Meanwhile Ahmadiyah member Deden Sujana is facing up to four years in jail on charges of incitement, disobeying police orders and maltreatment because he ignored police orders to evacuate the house.
This couldn’t happen in a country whose legal authority was truly secular. Indonesia’s courts don’t even seem to wish to maintain the illusion of secular governance. If they are a theocracy let them be so, but then they should be condemned for their actions.
The lesson for us in Canada is clear: we must continue fighting for secular legal authority here; not simply because it’s right, but because it’s dangerous if we don’t.