Is it OK to wear a religious symbol (e.g., a cross necklace or Thor’s hammer) in a secular, western society? I guess most people, including myself) would answer yes to that question.
The reason I ask is that I’m curious to know why the same people are having vague feelings regarding Muslims wearing veils? One answer would be because a veil is not a religious symbol per se, but rather a cultural one. Then again, we allow a lot of weird stuff in public based on cultural identity, i.e., Mohawk haircuts, army clothes, and saggy pants.
A follow-up question to the one above would be: Do you consider our inclusive, secular (and to a considerable extent culturally Christian) countries to be better than the theocratic ones? My answer comes without a doubt: Yes! Some cultures are better than others. Our societies allow us to debate these cultural and religious questions without threats of oppression. Let’s keep it that way. I guess my question delves deep into the core of our freedom. Do I want to know how much we can tolerate until we threaten the foundations for our democracy? Is it OK to condone homophobia, racism, jihadism or other fundamentalists who want less open, less inclusive and less free nations? Some may claim that if you don’t threaten other people’s lives and liberties, you’re allowed to believe and do whatever you’d like. That is a reasonable assumption, even though it leaves a lot of ethical dilemmas unanswered, for how can you tolerate intolerance?
I think we can live peacefully together in secular nations. However, secularism is to a considerable extent a result of Christianity, and some even argue that Christianity was – and still is – a prerequisite for the separation of the two entities religion and state.
The Age of Enlightenment has not yet occurred in Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism, but I think they too will follow the same path. (Judaism has a long history of internal criticism when it comes to matters of faith. Being a Jew is, in fact, more about cultural identity than religious belief, even though Judaism also has a small minority of ultra-orthodox followers.)
Making Islam more secular will take time, but it’s already happening to some degree to Muslims living in Western nations. They too evolve and adjust their faith.
To give you an example: Muslim Feminist movements have started to pop up in several countries, fighting for gender equality and women’s rights. They’re far behind us, but my point (if there even is one) is that it’s impossible to live in a different majority culture without being influenced by it.
Some try hard to avoid being integrated, but sooner or later things will change for all living in the diaspora. If not now, then their children or grandchildren will live different lives (culturally and religiously) compared to their parents and grandparents.
Whether we like it or not, we live in global communities with multiculturalism and diverse religious practices. We must be decisive about how we approach our cultural differences when it comes to legislation etc. We legislate by the rule of the majority, but does that also include the right to criminalize certain minority customs? We raise taxes on tobacco and alcohol, and no one finds that discriminatory. Would banning certain religious traditions be any different?