17 January 2022
Liberal democracy and secularism form an unbreakable bond. While the institutional approach to religions may vary from rigid separation between “churches” and “state” (the French laïcité) to degrees of cooperation and regulation, religious tenets should never form the basis of state law, let alone affect individual rights.
Liberal democracy and secularism form an unbreakable bond. While the institutional approach to religions may vary from rigid separation between “churches” and “state” (the French laïcité) to degrees of cooperation and regulation, religious tenets should never form the basis of state law, let alone affect individual rights. This principle is especially important when it comes to liberties that constitute an acquis of liberal democracies but are still anathema to most religions. The right to live one’s sexuality and gender identity freely is a key example.
For millennia, religious arguments, either exploited by churches themselves or by states bound to their diktats, have been used to persecute LGBTI people and deprive them of their basic rights. With a various degree of intensity, depending on the cultural context and the extent to which religious orthodoxy is rooted in the society, this hostile attitude is still present among the most widespread religious denominations. Liberalism and secularism are the most powerful strongholds against any ideological prevarication, including religious ones.
While the freedom to believe or not is a fundamental individual right, like any other liberty it is ultimately subject to the golden rule: “your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” No religious or lay ideology should be allowed to threaten others’ rights.
Unfortunately, this is not the reality of the world today. As we write, gruesome news is reaching us on the horrific treatment inflicted by the self-declared “inclusive” Taliban on homosexuals on whom they manage to put their hands. Taliban are not alone: in many Muslim countries, gays and lesbians still face capital punishment.
However, even if they are far from committing monstrous acts of this scale in the name of religion, Western liberal democracies are not perfect either. For example, there are radical Christian websites that openly call for the death penalty for homosexuality. Furthermore, even in the West, religions still enjoy pre-eminence in different contexts, as if they deserved a more sacred status and greater respect than any other manifestation of human expression. This deference, whether motivated by piety, political convenience or a misplaced sense of respect for minoritarian communities, is unacceptable as it condones abuses against human beings.
For instance, several Muslim gay or transgender individuals in European countries have denounced police and state institutions for leaving them alone at the mercy of their homophobic communities. Unfortunately, their complaints have largely fallen on deaf ears, especially among those who have raised the totem of identity politics and communitarian claims above individual rights.
Another issue that European countries are confronted with is the alleged duty to respect religions and associated “feelings”, even when those are openly homophobic. The so-called “Mila scandal” that erupted in France in January 2020 proved once again that the individual right to free speech is still under attack from zealous religious fanatics and often misinterpreted even by the custodians of the rule of law. When 16-year-old Mila sharply criticized Islam on Instagram (responding to homophobic and misogynist insults coming from a Muslim individual), she received thousands of homophobic, misogynist and above all life-threatening messages that forced her to drop out of school and live in secrecy under police protection. While condemning the threats, Abdallah Zekri, chief spokesman of the Conseil français du culte musulman (CFCM) – namely, the official interlocutor of the French government representing Islam – also argued that Mila had “brought it upon herself”. Echoing the CFCM, the French Minister of Justice, Nicole Belloubet stated that “insulting a religion is clearly a violation of freedom of conscience, it’s serious”. Even feminist and LGBTI organizations did not exactly rush in to stand in solidarity with her – with the notable exception of LGBTI Liberals of Europe.
Secular states must stop giving religions – and, by extension, believers – preferential treatment. Why should religious feelings deserve more protection than any other individual sentiment? Why should celestial ideologies be trenched in well-guarded fortresses while earthly ones have to defend their merits and honour in the public arena?
Unfortunately, the images we saw in several European countries during the Covid-19 pandemic – churches open and populated vs. theatres, universities and public fora shut down, despite similar epidemiological conditions – show us that the road to equality is still long.
The state needs to remain the guarantor of individual rights, never giving a blank cheque to religious institutions and their communities to prevail over the law. In a secular, liberal democratic society, individuals must be free to criticize any religion in whatever way they see fit, even when their criticism might give potential ‘offence’ to the ‘feelings’ of a particular religious group. This “sentimental injury” has nothing to do with believers’ constitutional right to freely pray the divinity of their choice.
Contrary to sexual orientation and gender identities, which constitute value-neutral inner characteristics of individuals, religions are social, historical and moral constructs. As such, religions constitute a system of tenets and dogmata that must be constantly scrutinized and possibly criticized. The offence that some believers might perceive when their creed is called into question or even ridiculed is the price citizens of a democratic liberal society need to pay. Attacking religions is different from assaulting believers: in a secular society, criticism of transcendent faiths is comparable to criticism of other ideologies, be they political or philosophical. Religions should not be granted any special treatment.
This is the reason why words such as “Islamophobia” are often hijacked by the most conservative voices within Muslim communities to prohibit any open discussion about Islamic dogmas – they serve as a powerful weapon available to religious fundamentalists, who are at the forefront of proposing a monolithic, uncritical and anti-Enlightenment image of their faith and community. The truth is, “you cannot be racist toward a religion”, to quote Mila.
LGBTI people also enjoy the same right to non-discrimination, and this right cannot be denied by playing the trump card of “religious freedom” any more than a gay person could invoke their sexuality to hold a believer in contempt. In fact, the myth of an alleged contrast between “freedom of religion” and “LGBTI rights” has to be dispelled: on the one hand, no individual sexual preference or gender orientation is at risk of threatening any religion institution or believer; on the other hand, nobody should be able to use their “religious feelings” as a legitimate excuse to discriminate against LGBTI people and deny their rights either to their private life or to openly live out their identity in a public space. Unfortunately, the reality, even in the West, is still different, as documented by the AU Association (Americans United for Separation of Church and State), which reports on several cases of individuals and businesses that explicitly discriminate against LGBTI people based on religious beliefs about sex or gender every year.
In other words, God is not a trump card, and religions are not intangible monuments to be protected as such, but only to the extent that they belong to the individual rights framework. From this perspective, one’s right the practice the preferred creed is sacrosanct (to use an adjective on point), but not special: on a par with all other freedoms, religious freedom does not enjoy a preferential status, but is to be balanced with other fundamental rights and stop short of infringing them.
In fact, the priority of any liberal and secular society should be defending civil rights when these are violated. A liberal, democratic and secular state worthy of this title ought to always fight religious-inspired practices that violate LGBTI rights, as well as condemn without caveats and ambiguities the backward and regressive ideologies that legitimize and nurture these abuses.
 Lucas Ramón Mendos, ‘State-Sponsored Homophobia 2020: Global Legislation Overview Update’ (Geneva: International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), 2020), 31, https://ilga.org/downloads/ILGA_World_State_Sponsored_Homophobia_report_global_legislation_overview_update_December_2020.pdf.
 Tommaso Virgili, ‘Lifting the Integration Veil: Outcasts from Islam in Western Europe’ (Brussels: Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, 2020), 41, https://www.martenscentre.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/paper_lifting_the_integration_veil-v2-web_1-1.pdf. Lyes Alouane, ‘Homophobie en banlieue ou stigmatisation ? Vif échange à la Gay Pride de Saint-Denis’ https://francais.rt.com/france/62908-homophobie-banlieue-ou-stigmatistation-vif-echange-gay-pride-saint-denis.
 “The term ‘anti-Muslim hatred’ accurately describes the phenomenon which the European Commission intends to address. It consists of preventing and combating hate speech, hate crime as well as discrimination directed against groups or individual members of such groups based on their religion or ethnic origin.” https://ec.europa.eu/info/policies/justice-and-fundamental-rights/combatting-discrimination/racism-and-xenophobia/combating-anti-muslim-hatred_en
 Based on the working definition of the Holocaust International Remembrance Alliance: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” https://ec.europa.eu/info/policies/justice-and-fundamental-rights/combatting-discrimination/racism-and-xenophobia/combating-antisemitism_en.
Dr. Tommaso Virgili is a postdoctoral research fellow at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, where he works on liberal movements within Islam in response to the challenge of Islamism in Europe and the MENA region. He is author of the book Islam, Constitutional Law and Human Rights: Sexual Minorities and Freethinkers in Egypt And Tunisia, published by Routledge. Together with Matteo Gemolo, he was project leader for LGBTI Liberals of Europe’s policy paper Religions and LGBTI Rights: a Liberal Perspective.
Dr. Matteo Gemolo is a doctor in philosophy at Cardiff University and political commentator. He writes about politics, human rights, freedom of speech and secularism for European Eye on Radicalization, Gli Stati Generali and MicroMega. He was project leader for policy papers on human rights and religions (LGBTI Liberals for Europe during the ALDE Congress 2019 in Athens and Certi Diritti XIII Congresso, Radicali Italiani, Trento).
Published by the European Liberal Forum. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the European Liberal Forum.