The separation of church (or religion) & state


I’m glad that Pauline Hanson was on Q&A last night.  I’ve never heard her make any sense (to me) but being as though she is now a Senator and that her Pauline Hanson One Nation party picked up enough votes to secure at least another two senate positions she is in a position of great power.  Great?   Bad choice of words…..

I’m also extremely glad that a good proportion of the audience members asking questions were muslim, all of which spoke respectfully, articulating exactly what it must feel like to be living in these ‘most exciting times’.  Again, bad choice of words….

So I guess the question remains,  does Pauline have anything legitimate to add to the conversation?


I feel that she does represent something legitimate but that she articulates it in such a way as to cause more problems than she solves.  I found it hard to listen to Q and A last night because it was like looking through a crystal ball and seeing an angry, scared and divided future where no matter how many good, kind Australian born or migrant muslims one encounters on a given day there will always be that ‘but you can never be too sure of their motives luve, they want to build mosques, halal our shopping trolley funding terrorism as they go and make us all wear the burqa’.  The reality of that point of view lies heavily on my mind.

So if she has something legitimate to say what exactly is it?

I believe it is to do with church and state and I believed that even before Q and A last night but now I’m a bit more convinced after what she started to say.

I believe that the religion | state conversation  a good one to have and is something that we here in Australia at least have taken for granted for ever. However,  after seeing this conversation raised (badly) and dropped (without much further comment) is telling.  We mock this small detail at our peril.

The question that brought this up is listed on the website here under ‘Islam royal commission’ 

After hearing the question Pauline goes on to make the claim that Islam doesn’t believe in democracy.  Tony Jones pulls her up on that citing Indonesia as an example to which she says that she feels the Indonesian government controls the people and their beliefs.

She then goes on to say:

‘we are a christian country and I don’t believe that Islam is compatible with our culture and our way of life and that’s why we have problems in Australia and on the streets. A lot of people are opposing the mosques that are built here’

To which the questioner interjects with:

‘I think that muslims in Australia have constantly been telling people like you and who support you that is not what Islam is about and I think you have very selective hearing and what you are creating is not one nation but a divided nation.  You have a very one track mind and it is very dangerous’.

There is so much in this,  more than I’m qualified to intellectually break down but from my position as interested layman, wanting to know more but trying to squeeze in the time to get the reading done I’d say that this issue is THE BIG ISSUE.

First – are we a Christian Country?

NO. We are a secular country although secularism has many definitions as outlined here.   We have a separation between church and state as do many other countries as I’ll show below:

I know enough to say that England, where I’m from has a lusty Henry VII to thank for our early Church/ State separation back in the 1500’s.  We’ve had over 600 years to get used to secularism and for the most part we’ve not done too badly at it……Brexit campaign anyone?

But what about everywhere else?

This is where my lack of depth of reading shows. I’ve read more than just Wikipedia which is why I’m happy enough to share these as examples in order to start a conversation rather than make a solid and un-movable point.

Australia (Copied from Wikipedia which is something that Pauline Hanson will (allegedly) know lots about)

The Constitution of Australia prevents the Commonwealth from establishing any religion or requiring a religious test for any office:

Ch 5 § 116 The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.


The current Constitution of Brazil, in force since 1988, ensures the right to religious freedom, bans the establishment of state churches and any relationship of “dependence or alliance” of officials with religious leaders, except for “collaboration in the public interest, defined by law”.


[…] No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. […] No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.

France (laïcité)

French secularity (French: laïcité, pronounced [laisite]) is the absence of religious involvement in government affairs, especially the prohibition of religious influence in the determination of state policies; it is also the absence of government involvement in religious affairs, especially the prohibition of government influence in the determination of religion. [1][2] French secularism has a long history but the current regime is based on the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State.[3

And so to the example raised by Tony Jones,  Indonesia.

Here is a very interesting discussion on the issue which quickly unveils the constant pressure placed on the Indonesian government since independence (1945) for religious law to be re-instated into the constitution.   While Indonesia still has a separation between religion and state it falls short of being a fully secular society as irreligion (atheism?) and many minor religious beliefs are not supported though not outright punished.  Having travelled around Indonesia a couple of times myself I have to say that I feel Indonesia to be a tense example of a successful muslim majority secular country which begs the question, what would be a better one?


I was going to suggest that Malaysia be a better example of a truly secular muslim majority country and indeed it is on some counts but according to Wikipedia again (sorry, there is so much reading to do to really get to the bottom of this)  this is debatable:

“Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Malaysian Constitution. First, Article 11 provides that every person has the right to profess and to practice his or her religion and (subject to applicable laws restricting the propagation of other religions to Muslims) to propagate it. Second, the Constitution also provides that Islam is the religion of the country but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony (Article 3).

The status of freedom of religion in Malaysia is a controversial issue. Questions including whether Malaysia is an Islamic state or secular state remains unresolved. In recent times, there has been a number of contentious issues and incidents which has tested the relationship between the different religious groups in Malaysia.”

Reading between the lines in a couple of web articles and having been to Malaysia a few times I would say it correct that there has been and continues to be a lively debate in Malaysia as to the role and reach of Islam over daily life in Malaysia.


OK so this interested me not least because one thinks of Nordic countries as excellent examples of all things modern and progressive but in this regard Norway is less so.  Like Malaysia and Indonesia, Norway is not seen as a fully secular country.

To form a government, the Norwegian PM must have more than half the members of Cabinet be members of the Church of Norway. Currently, this means at least ten out of the 19 ministries. The issue of separation of church and state in Norway has been increasingly controversial, as many people believe it is time to change this, to reflect the growing diversity in the population.

So what do we take from that?  

Is the take-home message that Islam can never be the majority religion in a truly secular state in the same way that christianity can?

Or is it that Islam can exist and even be the dominant religion  in the right secular environment.

Or is it that

Religion should be as far away from secular society as possible.

I guess that’s all part of the conversation we need to have keeping in mind that secularism is something that the ‘west’ has practiced for many more hundreds of years than the east. Maybe time is the missing link here. Maybe we could reflect on that.


Second: So what is Pauline saying when she says “I don’t believe that Islam is compatible with our culture and way of life.”

I feel this is exactly where Pauline’s way of expressing her ideas gets in the way of the idea and that the gap between these two things is relevant and important.

It is absolutely imperative that we, the Australian people understand what secularism means for our country, how that brings us strength, unity and harmony.  How it is good for muslims and non-muslims alike.   I am not sure we are completely getting that yet.

If Australia values its secularism it should view the ever-encroaching march of the far rights christianity as almost as challenging as it finds the perceived threat from Australia’s growing muslim population.  If Australia doesn’t understand secularity we run the risk of going backwards from here in a big way.


Our collective lack of literacy on this issue is serving none.

Pauline was visibly distressed at the idea of sharing a meal with one of the muslim audience members on Q and A last night.  The funny thing was, the distress wasn’t so much about eating with a muslim, it was more the fact that knowing of her distrust of Halal food he offered her a Haram meal.   She had no idea what Haram meant.

And that is the symptomatic of the problem.

We do need to discuss secularism in Australia.  We need to discuss the role of religion in what it means to be Australian. To discuss what level religion (any religion) should be supported by government – is it right to fund religious chaplains in primary schools?  Is it better to fund Christian chaplains than ethics classes?  We need to discuss our culture and way of life.  What does Christmas mean to Australia?  Is it right that we get paid more for working on a Sunday than a Saturday when almost nobody goes to church any more?  When did Australian culture start?  Do we include Aboriginal Australia in Australian culture and if not why not?  Is a love of cricket an essential part of being an Australian?

Secularism is only one part of a huge conversation centering around our national identity that needs to be had.  As a new citizen (just coming up to one year) while I still (vaguely) remember what the citizenship test and ceremony stood for and symbolised I can’t say that it taught me too much about what BEING and FEELING Australian actually means.

But back to secularism. 

Without a well-defined framework of what Australian secularism means to all its citizens we become fearful of what the future might hold because we can’t put any changing demographic or influence into context.  Whether we like it or not we are ALL living in challenging (not exciting) times.  The number of displaced people in the world in 2016 is humongous and muslims are a significant part of that.  We need to be able to have a conversation about compassion and have that compassion measured by what it means to be a secular Australia and not measured by fear.

I found an interesting discussion around the separation of religion and state as it applies to Muslims here.Notwithstanding the ambiguity of the question the commentary in this article is interesting and does indeed highlight just how important of an issue this is in the world today. Which leads me to my third and final point to address and that is:

Is Islam to be feared?

Again I’m going to show myself up for the ignorant individual I am on this but weren’t the bloody crusades between 1095-1291 battles between Islam and Christianity?

Is it that people have a funny feeling in their ancestral bones about how an Islamic/ Christian integration might transpire?   Possibly but possibly not.   Should history shape our future? Maybe but maybe not.

Given that these battles happened albeit a long time ago (before the internet and cheap flights)  I think it is only fair that once again this fear (power struggle) be discussed openly and honestly.   Is Islam nothing more than a political ideology?  I don’t personally feel that to be the case but can we not at least debate that sensibly, respectfully and in the context of a secular Australia?

But the crusades were not the only thing to have happened.  Lots has happened within my living memory, within the last few weeks even.  When I was a kid growing up in England if you had asked me to describe terrorism I would have most likely talked about the troubles in Ireland – Protestant vs Catholic.  I grew up with a nagging worry about being bombed by the IRA.  However, by the time I was 14 if I was asked that question I would have talked about the Pan Am Flight 103 disaster and maybe attributed that to tension in the middle east without really having much of an idea what that meant or if that were true.   But in the recent past for a growing minority terrorism has become synonymous with Islam and while one can easily make sense of the logic behind that it isn’t helpful.

So when the respondent (Who is called Cindy)  to the original question I posted answers with ‘I think that muslims in Australia have constantly been telling people like you and who support you that that is not what Islam is about’  meaning that Islam is not a religion to be feared or a religion that is somehow incompatible with the Australian way of life those words are drowned out by a collective blind panic that has set in and been perpetuated by the state of the world right now.  I’ve seen numerous conversations online discussing terror attacks and mocking the line ‘Islam is a religion of peace’.  Indeed, that phrase has become so much part of the current narrative that a google search on the term brings up 22.5 million results including a fair proportion stating why Islam is NOT a peaceful religion – Interesting as the word Islam comes from the Arabic root word ‘Salema’ which means peace, purity, submission and obedience. So what does that tell us?  It tells us that we are in one almighty mess, that’s what.

So what next?


Having seen Hanson on Q and A last night I hold little hope of her adding much more than bile to this argument but I remain convinced that we cannot dismiss her or what she stands for because of that.  As the incredibly articulate and composed Muslim questioners last night demonstrated, those of us who can do better, should do and be better. Yes that places an unfair burden on the innocent but what is the alternative?  Are we really in a position to sit back and either ignore or belittle this?

We, that’s all of us, have a duty to participate in our democratic system on a daily basis and not just once every so many years.  We all have the opportunity to stand up and un-pick what is being said and string it together in a way that inspires intelligent and thoughtful debate.  Perhaps we should all acknowledge that while we may not share these sentiments there is much fear around immigration (muslim immigration especially but not exclusively), much fear around Islamic State and Terrorism and much uncertainty around what it means to be Australian today and how Islam fits into that vision.

No amount of wishing it would just go away will make it do so (it being ignorance and bigotry) and so the only choice I feel I have left is how I respond to it and let me make this perfectly clear right now.  I will respond by reading, talking, listening and participating more deeply in what is essentially a fascinating and potentially transformative time in history.








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