This is a guest post from long-standing activist and left-wing blogosphere regular, Andrew Coates. May it be the first of many! VP
An “alliance against oppression” between progressive Muslims and the left is threatened by a “new generation of renegades” who have veered from socialism and liberalism to neo-conservatism. Over-generalising polemicist, Nick Cohen, second-rate novelist, Martin Amis, the author of elegant critiques of religion and half-baked backer of intervention in Iraq, Christopher Hitchens, former Caliphate admirer, Ed Husain, and the transparently genuine Andrew Anthony, are amongst those bundled into this group of outcasts. They have abandoned an “impoverished, beleaguered and demonised community”. Under the mask of secularism, and attacks on Islamist “fascism” they have retreated to “hierarchic and traditionalist thinking”. In plain language, Conservatism without the ‘neo’. Thus David Edgar (Guardian Review. 19.04.08). Seumas Milne has gone even further, Militant secularists are, “apologists for capitalism and war”. These traitors use “atheism as a banner of the global liberal capitalist order and the wars fought since 2001” (Guardian 27.3.08).
So the secular left is lumped together with backers of the American-led military interventions and globalising capitalism. A variety of charges are made. Christologist Terry Eagleton regards atheism as a vulgar intrusion into the mysteries of the Cross; John Gray welcomes the waning strength of loathsome ‘Secular fundamentalists’, Tobias Jones talks of secular ‘totalitarianism’. Christopher Brook. (New Left Review No 44. Mar/April 2007), states that militant secularists, those defending Enlightenment values, are “broadly sympathetic to the hawkish foreign policy of the ‘global war on terror’”. The Chair of the Stop the War Coalition (StWC), Andrew Murray, declared some time back that there was, “A serious political engagement by the left with the Muslim communities, united in opposition to war and support of civil liberties” (Guardian. 26.8.06). Milne could but concur: progressive religious forces are a central ally in the left’s struggle for justice.
There are two main answers to those who hold that religion can, at present, be positive political force in general and that Islamicism in particular is can be an ally of the left. And to their criticisms of secularism.
The first is that anyone who believes in the ‘religions of the book’ stands for documents that are less reliable than Heather Mills. We can leave the riddles of Being aside and point to the simple fact that the ‘divine’ they consider real, is not. This is the atheist argument. The secularist one is different. It is not the individual’s imagination, or claims to know that deities exist, that secularists criticise. It is religion as an institution, with public power, and privilege, and the dragooning of people into herds led by ‘community leaders’ (not elected, but with god’s authority). A neutral public space, in which religious politics are fought and removed, is the basis for secular freedom.
The second is that Islamism is not a cry of pain in the heartless capitalist world. It is part of the pain itself. The record stands for itself, from Indonesia, Iran to Algeria Islamists are right-wing, pro-capitalist adepts of violence. They reject human political rule and human rights for Divine Sovereignty and the revealed word of god. In brief, they are oppressors. As Peter Thatchell says, the left should stand with those who are the victims of these bullies, in the countries under the yoke of Political Islam. The planet is ever closer-knit: there are no Berlin Walls separating us from these lands and their politics. We ought never to ally ourselves with the off-shoots of global Islamicism in the UK, from the relatively moderate Muslim Initiative (who still believe in the rule of god), to the far-right Jamaat-i-Islami, passing through a kaleidoscope of other Islamicst formations. Edgar claims that some Muslims now think that human rights trump godly ones. This, it is true, is part of the noticeable evolution of former Islamists away from their former ideology. That is to break with Islamism. This process is not helped by coddling the Muslim religious right, as Murray, and Milne, the StWC, the SWP and Respect Renewal do: it is encouraged by frank democratic dialogue and criticism.
Instead of communalist appeals to religious ‘communities’ the left will only begin to rise again through a common identity against capitalist exploitation and oppression. That is called the class struggle, and ties not waged through Churches, Mosques and Temples and Synagogues. The existing liberal-warfare state has encouraged religious assertiveness, in education and a multitude of advisory bodies, and is privatising welfare to faith-groups. An alliance of religious leaders and the left (in reality one section of the left), is one of the greatest barriers to class unity and social justice. It splits, it mangles and it ruins the left’s democratic credentials.
Edgar is a hundred per cent right to criticise those who have dropped the left’s equalitarian principles for liberal economics. He cannot be answered by a ‘decent left’ which is mired in indecency by supporting the invasion and occupation of Iraq: an act of horror that has left tens of thousands dead, and millions of mutilated and crushed lives. Against the Friends of Religion and these ambiguous secularists could stand a new alliance: the Human Rights Left. This would be for the dignity of all human beings, rights (historical and which we try to make real), simply by virtue of being humans. No human right is derived from god.
This hostility to secularists is not new. Someone once said that, “Atheism is aristocratic. The conception of a great being who watches over oppressed innocence, and punishes successful crime, is democratic through and through.” Page 266 – 267. Fatal Purity. Robespierre and the French Revolution, Ruth Scurr 2006.)
That was Robespierre. Perhaps a good example of where religion can lead you