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The Peter March Concordia Lecture

Islam and Democracy<br>The Urgency of Reforming State Faith
March with students.jpg

Prof. Peter March / Institute Conference

27 November 2006


Dear Colleagues,

George Bernard Shaw wrote that “Liberty demands responsibility. That’s why so many dread it.” Peter March doesn’t dread it. He embraces it. When political, media and academic leaders were falling over themselves pandering to radical Islamists over the Mohammed cartoon affair, Peter March stood firm, acted boldly and spoke truth to power. He made clear that freedom of expression is indivisible. That it is the shield of the free and the staff of the just. And that no attempt at compromising this most sacred of our public trusts for the sake of appeasing the violent enemies of liberty can ever be justified.

A Professor of logic at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, March posted copies of the Mohammed cartoons on his office door as both a statement of academic freedom and a protest against those seeking to stifle even any debate on campuses on the egregiously violent Islamist reactions to their original publication. Though told by administrative officials to take them down, March persisted and all complaints against him have been dropped. March said at the time "I feel threatened by the crowds around the world shaking fists, shaking sticks, burning things down," he says. "I wish to make my stand, that here in Canada that won't wash." And just as he took a stand then, we should stand with him now.

Prof. March argues that without an immediate reformation within Islam from its current statist faith, it will forever be incompatible with liberal democratic societies and continually in conflict with them as Islamic societies will always fall prey to the manipulations and control of the leaders and forces of theocratic tyranny. He presents his case from the evidence  of history; ethics; religious development; Islam’s own moral precepts and teachings; the current friction between Canada’s secular universal multiculturalism and Islamic values; and his vision of the possibilities for a reformation of Islam in Canada.

Prof. March’s Concordia talk was just one stop on a national speaking tour. He raised the resources himself and this is a completely independent initiative. ~ BPW

(Photos courtesy of Robert J. Galbraith www.robertgalbraith.com)

Prof. March with BPW


Islam: Honor and Insult

This is the fifth lecture on Islam and Democracy. I've called this lecture "Islam: Honor and Insult". Distinguish first between Islamic culture and the religion of Islam: Not everyone who's culture is Islamic believes in Allah and follows the Koran. Similarly, the culture within which I live is recognizably Christian but I am not a Christian. A Jew living in Canada lives in a typically Christian culture but may have also adopted more or less compatible parts of the Jewish culture. When I talk of Islamic culture I am therefore not committed to talking about someone who is committed to Allah, or any particular view of Islam the religion.

In an Islamic culture the males of the family enjoy a status higher than that of females. This status is part of the characteristic code of honor functioning inside such cultures. Very often this code of honor is appealed to in justifying the punishment of female members of the family with punishments ranging from verbal discipline to death. Every Moslem woman knows that if she violated the male code she may be punished severely. There is no strong guarantee of a woman's safety other than obedience to the male code of honor: a woman obeys or fears for her life. This condition reduces women to the condition of slaves.

More particularly, the honor code requires that women dress modestly even to the point of covering themselves completely. This requirement works deeply against the interest of women in finding a suitable partner who respects them, respects their children and who encourages equality in the partnership. If a woman can not show herself publicly, show her sexual attractions, her intelligence, her personality then she can not compete for the best partners in an open market. Unable to compete she has no opportunity to escape from the control of a single male no matter how badly he behaves, and certainly has no opportunity to express her sexual preferences. A woman who is kept from society as she is in Islamic cultures is denied the means to her freedom and personal development and, in particular, denied the opportunity to select a mate according to her changing needs and preferences.

I will add that many traditional Islamic cultures allow men take many wives thus having the crucial right to select mates during marriage. They can, in some cultures, rent a wife for a specified period. Such men can, if they wish, be on the constant 'look out' for a partner they would like to have by contrast to the women who can not - given the honor code. This gender inequality is often justified by the claim that it is women who seduce men and hence must be covered up to minimize the predations of the men. There is no justice in this claim, of course, women are just as likely to be affected by men as men are by women. The truth is that women in Islam are caged. They never have an opportunity to develop the skills which will allow them to find a suitable partner on their own.

Another major consideration arguing against the continuation of the honor code is that young males are being taught that men should dominate women and this is clearly undesirable in a free and equal society. Children need to be brought up with the example of fathers and mothers who are equal in every way feasible.

It is worth saying that nothing in the Koran actually says that women are slaves. Some passages suggest clearly that the woman must allow her husband to have sex with her whenever he wishes, others that she should obey her husband and these passages could easily be used to justify the cultural norms. Some clearly suggest the use of violence against women, including scourging. Considering the matter from a modern European or American feminist perspective, woman in Islamic culture is a sexual and domestic slave.

The objections to this view of Islamic culture are not supported by evidence:

1) Please read the testimony of the many women who have written on this topic having been brought up and lived in the I.C.. Ayaan Hirsi Ali's The Caged Virgin is a good start. Irshad Manji's The Problem with Islam Today, Souad's Burned Alive

2) Further evidence lies in the fact that almost all the honor killings happening in various parts of the world are of women, not men. These killings and forced suicides are now appearing in Europe and will soon appear more and more in North America. My colleague Malin Enstrom makes it her duty to uncover these cases as part of her research.

See the recent (Nov 10) response of the Canadian Supreme Court. National Post:

The Supreme Court of Canada declined an invitation on Thursday to consider whether Muslim cultural and religious beliefs in ''family honour'' should be taken into account as justification for receiving a lighter sentence for killing an unfaithful wife. The court refused to hear the appeal of Adi Abdul Humaid, a devout Muslim from the United Arab Emirates, who admitted to stabbing Aysar Abbas to death with a steak knife on a visit to Ottawa in 1999.

In an application filed in the Supreme Court, Humaid's lawyer, Richard Bosada, argued Humaid was provoked by his wife's claim she cheated on him, an insult so severe in the Muslim faith it deprived him of self-control. The concept of ''family honour'' in the Muslim culture means a man is disgraced if his wife has an affair, said the application. ...Humaid contends his Muslim beliefs should be a factor because he killed his wife after she hinted she was having an affair with a business associate. Abbas was 46 years old when she died of 23 stab wounds to the throat in the fall of 1999, while she and her husband were visiting their son at the University of Ottawa.

Under these circumstances, men in Islamic culture come to view themselves as above the law of the nation in which they reside and to owe allegiance first to the word of Allah - as set out in the Koran and the Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, and to the familiar practices of Islamic culture which they were taught as children.. These texts, let us note, are considered contradictory or paradoxical by many who read them. Despite this, the texts are seen to justify disobedience of the local law. Islam, in Islamic culture, is generally taken to be the highest law available and the law which even law-makers must obey.

This role played by Islam in Islamic culture means that democracy is not viable inside such a culture. As in the case of Christianity, Islam has to Reformed if it is to become compatible with democratic values. To a considerable extent this reform has already been proven possible by the example of Turkey and while there is a long way to go, there are grounds for hoping that the process can be completed to the extent that an adequate democracy becomes possible inside an Islamic culture. Turkey is an example worth studying.

Now, leaving honor for the moment, I want to briefly consider the role of insults inside such cultures. A typical view of Moslems is that they are charged, by their religion, with the defense of the faith. They must fight those who call the faith into question either by word or deed. Posting certain cartoons is a recent example of alleged insults - or the case of a person wishing to leave the faith in Afghanistan, the case of Abhdul Rahman. Rahman was questioned, by a judge, in court this way:

"Do you confess that you have apostatized from Islam?"
He responded, "No, I am not an apostate, I believe in God."
Question: "Do you believe in the Koran?"
Response: "I believe in the Injil (New Testament) and love Jesus Christ. "

And there are more obvious incidents such as making disparaging remarks about Muhammad, Allah, or cases in which an actual copy of the Koran was treated disrespectfully in as in instances in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib.

This responsibility to defend the faith, particularly from insult, becomes a yet greater responsibility when it is accepted as meaning that any military attack on a geographical area having predominantly Islamic culture, whether the attack is provoked or not, is an attack on the faith and one which demands that Muslim believers must join in the defense. This second commitment to the avoidance of 'insult' thus enslaves the Moslem man restricting his freedom of action and speech with overwhelming implications. Despite any Canadian interest or any other humanitarian interest, a Muslim man may be called upon to defend the faith even in far off places - at least by making suitable financial contributions.

Just as women in Islamic Culture are generally sexual and domestic slaves to the men, so too the men are slaves to the perceived commands of Allah through their Imam - to defend the faith with violence, if necessary. Of course the faithful need guidance in these matters - given the difficulties involved in interpreting the Koran, so the control rests ultimately on the Imams of each community. Now, the imams are said to be chosen by the community, of course, but they must be chosen according to their faithfulness to the Koranic teachings. Such faithfulness is a matter of checking their views against those accepted historically inside the enormous corpus of Islamic theology. This means that Moslem men are, practically speaking, slaves to the Imams throughout large areas of their lives.

I take this as enough to justify thinking of Islamic culture today is usefully thought of as a slave culture. Such a culture can not have its way in a culture which considers women equal to men and it is the responsibility particularly of Canadian women to work actively to change the lives of Moslem women in Canada.


BPW, Prof. March, Edmond Silber


The reformation of Islam as it enters Canada may well follow that of the Christian except that the process will be accelerated - seven hundred years will be compressed into a few years - a generation at most, I expect.

I say seven hundred years because the Christian reformation took that long. Christians were at their height by the 14th century. By that time they had garnered control of governments, of the courts, the education and the science of the time. From that point on, for seven hundred years we see Christianity slowly being pushed out of all these vital institution of Christendom. I should say, of course, that if you control government, the courts, the education and the science of a culture then you have virtually complete control of that culture. In Islamic culture, Islam is certainly expects to control the first three, and science, the last, has fallen into disrepute in the wider Islamic culture.

How was the Christian reformation beginning in the fifteenth century achieved. Certain events are more important than others. First, the monasteries became interested in knowledge generally and the church slowly allowed others to come and study at these monasteries. These centers became the proto-universities and knowledge, critical skills, rational thought came to be valued in the culture generally. It was an extremely slow process which only ended at my university in the last thirty years.

A second deep influence which allowed for reform was the fact that the Christian text, the Bible, particularly the New Testament, says virtually nothing of a practical nature in specifying forms of worship, patterns of living, diet etc.. The Testament's assigned duties of Christians to fight are minimal to non-existent, and the rights of women seem to be generally respected in the New Testament. Many have thought of Christ as a pacifist. The Koran, by contrast is notoriously rigorous in everything from diets to death settlements.

Accordingly, while the Christian reformation, though it did certainly produce an enormous amount of violence in the process, this violence was not easily justified in the key text. Mohammed can not be mistaken for a pacifist.

So, in some ways the Reformation of Islam is going to be a good deal more challenging - though perfectly feasible - if one considers the present realities of Islamic cultures. And the suppression of Islam to match the complete suppression of Christianity is something which we will see in North America certainly within two generations.

To understand how this will happen we need to force a distinction between what we can call religious freedom and its mere shadow freedom of worship. Freedom of worship is what is available in the West, that is, citizens are free to go to a place of worship and perform certain ceremonies - as they wish - consistent with local law about intoxicants, etc.. The worship can include wearing religious symbols although even that is obviously under attack. The right to be religious is not thus protected except in so far as one can go to a Church, Mosque, Synagogue, and Temple. But laws now restrict any religious ceremonies in the area of education and have been restricted in places associated with government and have been removed from the legal system almost entirely. Thus in the vital social institutions including all the functions of government including the army and police, religion is banned, or all religions are treated equally, this too is the case in publicly supported schools and universities, and it has been banished from science. This freedom of worship is a mere shadow of true religious freedom. This is the result of the Christian Reformation seen not as a religious event but as a change in social mores.

True religious freedom would be quite another matter and it is not on offer in Canada. True religious freedom would consist in the right to follow one's religious texts either as interpreted by the individual citizen, or as interpreted by suitable authorities. In the case of Islam this would involve that the citizen would fight (perhaps with violence) for the dominance of government by straight forward theocrats, it would involve that education public and private have the responsibility to produce children as good believers in Allah and His precepts. It could well involve the imposition of an Islamic morality, and much else. Suffice to say such freedom to dominate government, courts, education and possibly science itself is not going to wash in Canada.

So what we have in Canada is freedom of worship only, not, as it suggests in our constitution, freedom of religion. The slow but unstoppable history of Western society involves the suppression of all religion to the extent that religion is now excluded from all the key institutions of society.

This reality means that as Islamic culture moves into the West she too will be suppressed. How this will happen is not far to seek. Begin with the fact that we do not control access to universities and that they are generally affordable. Predictably we will see that the education of Muslim women in a a Western cultural milieu would soon involve that many will get job training, acquire job skills, an independent income, and will choose not to become slaves to any man. They will free themselves from the yoke of the honor code as imposed by Muslim men. Remember that in the Koran the dominance of men is predicated on the fact that men support the women materially. This justification will disappear when women are properly educated and trained. Once men no longer can conceptualize themselves as the guardians of the virginity and purity of Moslem women they will be severely affected by a deep loss of personal identity. Their central role in the family as guardians will be decimated. This may sound brutal but one should not mourn the passing of slavery even if it leaves the slavers with an identity crisis.

Once the Muslim man is sheared of his power in the family he too will have to find new identity and purpose either in yet more devout efforts in the mosque, or else by changing to become one of the millions of Canadians who see their career and hobbies as the main business of life with their role in the family reduced to only a part support and sharing divided authority with a partner who may have little sympathy for the more aggressive values of Islamic culture. It may be a hard sell to convince a well educated wife that some of the family money should go towards tomorrow's jihad.

The education of Canadian Muslim women will quickly result in the Reformation of Islam in Canada. It will be up to the Canadian institutions - governments, courts, well-fare support system, women's shelters and all the rest to get Moslem women into schools, universities and job training as one of the highest priorities. With respect to immigration policy, preference should therefore be given to women with small children when they comes from geographical areas dominated by Islamic cultures. Male immigration from such areas should be seen as a much higher risk activity. Every effort has to be made to offer these women the chance to recover from their condition as domestic and sexual slaves.

The only good methods for promoting the required reform of Islamic culture are those of the free and democratic society, yet there is every reason to believe that this effort will not present a great challenge. In Iran itself the majority of students in the universities are now women. Could there be a more significant fact? These women will soon have their own income and demand the freedom to spend that which is rightfully theirs - among the most important freedoms available in a modern economy.


Gabrielle Brenner, Georgette Bensimon, Farouk Melek, BPW


Turning now to the deeper issues of what is involved in our democratic form of life, it should go without saying that one can't achieve a democratic form of life simply by introducing the formal institutions of democracy like voting, the rule of the majority, representative government. One has to form citizens with certain characteristic conceptions of themselves as persons, certain ideas of the meaning of their existence, of the legitimate basis for a healthy self-concept. These can vary across the democracies no less than Islam varies across the Islamic world but certain elements are uniformly present.

1) One requires the conception that all persons are equal as to their rights. This is not just a legal requirement; it is a deep conception that both men and women should be accommodated by the social arrangements so as to be able to pursue their own personal goals where these goals are not defined in a sexist fashion. Honor codes are out of the question. And all this has to be granted absolutely independently of the person's religious preference.

2) Deference to authority has to be severely restricted. An obvious example is that we don't want citizens to accept being told by anyone how they should vote. Less obviously, professors and teachers can not be allowed to teach on the basis of authority and the minds of children must not be developed in such a way to leave them unable to think critically about religion - otherwise a religion like the old Christianity, or some forms of modern day Islam, will be able to swamp our democracy.

3) (Begin with a talk about how our country must look to someone coming from an Islamic Culture) Most important of all is the question of morality. When someone comes to a Western democracy, stepping out of an Islamic culture and confronted within hours by the secular society, the shock is enormous. My own father was completely shocked by Canada as he found it in the late fifties so much so that he literally seemed to despise Canada and its people for fully ten years. So, anger, a terrible sense of loss and perhaps a disgust at local culture is fairly common among Canadian immigrants from significantly different cultures - though it is not proper to say so.

The immigrant must feel that a culture like ours is apparently devoid of religion and therefore devoid of all morality. This is natural if the immigrant has come from a culture where it is assumed that morality comes from a religion, their one True religion. It is a huge leap for such a person to see that morality does not require a religious or spiritual basis. Therefore the predictable intuition, the natural intuition is that local Canadians, klacking in all signs of serious religion, are a bunch of reprobates seeking the almighty dollar, sex and drunkenness. The women will seem like whores - dressed for sex - the men as superficial, unprincipled (presumably - do they ever pray?). The children are seen to be growing up untended by proper parents, largely unguided and undisciplined.

Indeed, not only the immigrant will feel this way. Someone peering at Canada from inside a tightly knit Islamic culture even if they are a long term resident of Canada, may continue to feel this way.

Yet in a democracy, a democracy which allows freedom of worship, but not freedom of religion, it is essential that some consensus be reached as to how ethical issues are settled and how morality is discovered and evolves. In Islamic cultures the presumption, of course, is that the Koran and the Sayings of Mohammed are the proper source of morality. Many Christian fundamentalist have similar beliefs about Christ and the Bible.

one thing is clear, in a democracy it has to be accepted first that one's morality, while it is a guide of the deepest kind in the life of an individual, still it does not trump the law. A Christian fundamentalist may not kill the abortionist even if the abortionist is a murderer. And one may not kill one's wife or daughter for exercising their right to sexual freedom. Adultery is not a crime in Canada and is, arguably an important part of women's rights.

This, however, does not begin to answer the question how public morality is to be discovered and modified. In the democracies this has to be settled by a discussion of the consequences of various competing courses of action. That is, since there is no general agreement as to what is right, citizens are forced to become consequentialists, that is, they a restricted to persuading the other person to go along with or resist a proposed moral standard only by appeal to the consequences of our adopting that standard - the actual or likely consequences. But, it is the individual which must judge which consequence is a pro and which a con. This judgment is made in the privacy of a person's conscience and is best left secret. If the matter is very important, it can be offered as proposed law and settled by voting for parties or individuals who support or do not support the proposed standard. In this way, a secular society grows independently of the ambient religions. The key is that one's conscience is left secret just as one's vote is secret.

This simple solution to the origin of morality is very hard to accept even for mature secular thinkers. It seems like a hollow system which leaves the whole project of human life to an uncertain fate. Why, after all, should the collective intuitions of ordinary people be allowed to form the rules whereby we all are pressured to live? What is the guarantee of virtue in such an arrangement?

But the fact remains that in a democracy arguments about what is right must be converted into arguments about consequences and the individual has to be left the ultimate judge, judging in the secrecy of his or her own conscience, how the pros and cons stack up. In this way each individual helps shape public morality by expressing his or her preference - and the expressing it either by their behavior, by their words, or by their vote.

The possibility of this activity is at the heart of the democratic dialogue. It means that a strict protective boundary must be drawn around the individual so that his/her conscience can operate freely and independently. It is not appropriate in a democracy to hound the individual in an ethical discussion, hounding them to reveal the deep springs of their moral judgments. Be it religion, political principles, upbringing, or whatever may be the origins of the individuals moral intuition, still the individual's conscience must be able to take part in the ethical discussion of the day while yet retaining its Privacy. This is an essential element in the development of personal values and it is an essential condition for the free development of one's moral conscience. It is not too much to say that any system in which individuals are pressed to reveal the basis of their conscience can not be a deeply democratic system. Freedom, ultimately involves freedom from of conscience, freedom from being pressed too hard about one's values, freedom to make up one's mind in peace.

The democratic dialogue on which everything depends thus requires a form of quiet, patient, discussion - no matter what the other discussant says. The skill involved in managing and taking part in such a discussion is not bought cheaply and is not, at the moment, a notable feature of Islamic culture - though it was at one time, it is said. One might say that anger is certainly more obvious there as one would expect of an authoritarian culture: anger is simply the threat of hurt, an imposition of power and it is a learned strategy - and it can be unlearned. (Note about the marchers against me at SMU)

Of course, it is primarily the business of schools and universities to teach this complex form of speech, a form of speech which requires tactful restraint on both sides, particularly when the question is painful or controversial and it is what we must teach to Moslem women and children as a first priority - the key being that one does not intrude into the sanctum of another person's moral conscience: you make your points and then you back off leaving the individual free to decide the issue at their leisure and then to vote and to act as they see fit.

This then is the answer to the riddle of morality in a secular society and provides the reason for not seeing Canadians as evil, unprincipled, sexually insane, etc.. There is morality in Canada but it's not, or not necessarily a religious matter. Today it is probably not generally a religious matter.

Where is the guarantee that this process will provide a desirable outcome? Well, what happens in Canada is that parents and teachers teach and stimulate each student's ability to care for the other person, an ability which is indistinguishable from the raw fact that homo sapiens is a social animal. Each student, each child, shares a necessity to have others around, finds that he/she has to live with others, to have some support from others. This instinct and its development in the hands of good parents and skilled teachers is then the source of human morality. We can be encouraged to search for a way to live peacefully together, and we can be affected by such efforts. We learn to live, in this way, without hurting and harming each other. Our moral discussions must then have to do with trying to minimize the pain of others and we appeal to each individual's social nature to help us find ways of living together with a minimum of pain.

That, in practice, is the source of morality in a secular society. It does not exclude religion, far from it, but neither does it need religion.



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