We always knew it could happen: A devout Muslim heads a conservative political party that takes office in a multicultural Western country, then leads a campaign to enforce mandatory prayer and to lobby for religious-based values and laws. How will people react?
Well, it happened in Britain this week, and here's how they reacted: Judges and leading thinkers fought back in the name of a secular state, but the Queen, the Pope and Britain's right-wing newspapers all spoke up in support of the Muslim party leader's campaign.
This was because the leader in question is Baroness Warsi, chairman of the Conservative Party and a senior minister in David Cameron's government. She's a popular figure among Tories and an entertaining personality who frequently appears on British TV. She's also a devout Muslim, a faith-based cultural conservative and a staunch defender of religion's role in public life.
Her campaign began Monday, after Britain's High Court ruled that the practice of holding prayers during municipal council meetings is unconstitutional (as, by extension, may be those held during sittings of the House of Commons). Prayer, the judge ruled, is a private matter that has no place in the formal proceedings of a legal assembly.
The Baroness shot back, saying her country is falling prey to "militant secularization" and arguing that religious belief should be "a voice in the public sphere." She went to Rome and met the Pope, who appeared to give her arguments his blessing. Religion, she said, should be a basis of public life: "To create a more just society, Britons must feel stronger in their religious identities."
Right-leaning newspapers laid on the two-inch headlines known by insiders as "Jesus type" and backed her: "Britain being taken over by 'militant secularists,' " screamed The Daily Telegraph. The Daily Mail and The Times used their front pages to charge that religion was "under attack" and "on the rack." Then the Queen joined in, using a meeting with representatives of nine major religions to make the case: "We should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our nation's life."
Only months before, many of those newspapers (and some Tory MPs) were expressing equally loud alarm at the prospect of Muslim prayer rooms in universities or the existence of sharia divorce tribunals. Now, in the face of secularism, they're taking the opposite position. In the fast-moving heart of the religion wars, you can feel the ground shifting beneath your feet.
In truth, no one is calling for a religious state or attacking faith. Rather, we are witnessing a showdown, across the West, between two competing definitions of "freedom of religion." In one definition, the public sphere is a wide-open space: Citizens are free to try to impose religion, to invoke their gods in legislation, to wear whatever symbols they like. It's a marketplace of beliefs, and may the strongest prevail.
In the other definition, that sphere is a neutral space: Religion is private and public places are unencumbered by competitions for divine supremacy. This definition recognizes that freedom of religion depends on a strongly defended freedom from religion. And freedom from religion is just as important for non-believers, who don't want public life to be corrupted with spiritualism, as it is for devout believers, who don't want their sacred beliefs to be sullied by the vicissitudes of politics.
Baroness Warsi's intervention is a positive development for both sides. On the religious free-for-all side, she has shown that Muslims can join the other two Abrahamic religions in pressing for privileges without being accused of engaging in a "clash of civilizations." At the same time, she helps people realize that the problem in public life isn't Islam but religion itself.
Britain might follow the lead of Ontario, where public outcry over proposed Muslim sharia tribunals led the government to realize that Christians and Jews had been allowed similar religious-based tribunals, and that the whole thing was a bad idea. By putting an end to the practice of religious law, Ontario relegated religion to the place it works best, as a philosophy of private enlightenment (if only the same could be done for schools).
We're entering an age when Muslims are no longer seen as alien outsiders but as ordinary participants in public life. If earlier public hysteria over their beliefs had a benefit, though, it was in making us all realize the value of a neutral, secular public life.