From the archive: Rumy Hasan’s 2003 article arguing against electoral pacts with ‘Muslim groups’ (he plainly means ‘Islamist groups’) and the left’s use of the word “Islamophobia.’ At the time he wrote it, Rumy was a member of the SWP and active in the Socialist Alliance. We don’t agree with every last detail of the piece (eg Rumy’s enthusiasm for the Scottish Socialist Party), but its main thrust, in my opinion, remains sound: the prospect of the left making further electoral pacts with Islamist groups has receded since the demise of ‘Respect’, but Rumy’s central point about the the left’s approach to Islamist groups, and use of the word ‘Islamophobia’ still needs to be repeated and argued for amongst the left and anti-racist campaigners.
‘Islamophobia’ and Electoral Pacts with Muslim Groups
Above: Rees, Murray and Galloway: prime movers in promoting Islamism on the “left”
By Rumy Hasan
SINCE 11 SEPTEMBER 2001, the epithet “Islamophobia” has increasingly become in vogue in Britain – not only from Muslims but also, surprisingly, from wide layers of the left, yet the term is seldom elaborated upon or placed in a proper context. Invariably, it is used unwisely and irresponsibly and my argument is that the left should refrain from using it.
Shockingly, some on the left have, on occasion, even resorted to using it as a term of rebuke against left, secular, critics of reactionary aspects of Muslim involvement in the anti-war movement. So what does the term mean? Literally, “fear of Islam” but, more accurately, a dislike or hatred of Muslims, analogous to “anti-Semitism”. Since September 11, there has undoubtedly been an increasing resentment and hostility by some sections of the media towards Muslims in Britain and more generally in the West that, in turn, has also given rise to some popular hostility. But this is rarely made explicitly – rather it is coded as an attack on asylum seekers, refugees, and potential “terrorists”, above all, on Arabs from North Africa and the Middle East. This has been most intense in America, where there has been systematic harassment of Arabs for almost two years.
Surprisingly, however, all sections of the media, including the gutter press, have largely refrained from open attacks on British Muslims. In terms of physical attacks, including fatalities, to my knowledge these have been relatively few. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, it was a Sikh man who was murdered in the US because he wore a turban in the manner of Bin Laden. But there were certainly attacks – both on individuals and on mosques – in Britain, especially in Northern towns, probably by BNP thugs; and other notorious acts such as leaving a pig’s head outside a mosque. But these largely abated soon after, though such incidents still periodically occur. Hence there is certainly no room for complacency. But does all this amount to Islamophobia? Clearly not: we are not dealing with a situation comparable to the Jews under the Nazis in the 1930s, nor even of Muslims in Gujarat, India, that is currently run by a de facto Hindu fascist regime. Arguably, the situation in the 1970s, when the National Front was becoming a real menace in Britain, was more dangerous for Muslims and non-Muslim ethnic minorities alike.
Moreover, perhaps as a counter-balance, the more responsible TV and press media have, in fact, been portraying a number of, if anything, over-positive images of Islam and Muslims (examples include the BBC’s series on Islam – which was a whitewash; a highly sympathetic week-long account of Birmingham Central Mosque; and a 2-week long daily slot on the Hajj by Channel 4 that downplayed the appalling death toll which occurs there every year). An establishment paper such as the Financial Times has had front-page photos of the Hajj and of anti-war placards of the Muslim Association of Britain. Soon after September 11, both political leaders and the media – out of concern for the backlash this was likely to generate, dropped the term “Islamic fundamentalist” from usage. In the same vein, Bush invited an imam to the special religious service held soon after S11 in Washington; and Blair met Muslim leaders in Britain. This was a symbolism that went down well with Muslim leaders in these countries.
Nonetheless, many Muslims still believe that the US-led “war on terror” is in fact a war against Islam and therefore is the clearest expression of Islamophobia. But such reasoning overlooks some uncomfortable realities. The country at the forefront of this “war” is of course the US. Let us, therefore, summarise briefly its relations with the “Islamic” world:
i. The US has long propped up the Saudi regime, a crucial ally in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has the most sacred sites of Islam. But there has never been a squeak of protest by the US government against the brutality and oppressiveness of this barbaric society – rather, the US has gone out of its way not to criticise it out of “respect for Islamic values and culture”. This, of course, is humbug, but the fact remains;
ii. The second largest recipient of US aid (after Israel) is Egypt – a Muslim country;
iii. In 1991, the US-led coalition “liberated” Kuwait, a Muslim country – with the help of practically all the Muslim Gulf states;
iv. In 1999, the US and its NATO allies “liberated” Kosovo – a predominantly Muslim province, from “Christian” Serbia. The ex-Serb President Milosevic is undergoing a show-trial in The Hague for “crimes against humanity” (specifically, against Kosovar Muslims);
v. The US armed, trained, and funded the Islamic fundamentalists of the Afghan Mujahideen in the fight against the Russians. This included nurturing one Osama Bin Laden.
vi. The US had no problems of the takeover of Afghanistan in 1996 by the Taliban – the creation largely of Pakistan, a strong ally of the US and an avowedly “Islamic Republic”.
vii. The US has been strongly pushing for Turkey’s membership of the EU – though Turkey is a secular state, most Turks are, nominally at least, Muslims.
The list could go on. One might, therefore, wonder where is the “war on Islam” or “Islamophobia” of US foreign policy? It is not for nothing that leaders of Muslim countries rarely talk about “Islamophobia”. Moreover, it is a rarely stated fact that Muslims say from the Indian sub-continent or East Asia are likely to experience much harsher treatment and discrimination at the hands of “fellow Muslims” in Arab (especially Gulf) countries than they are in the West. So, woe betide those who parrot the Islamophobic argument against the Western right – for those foolish enough to do so will surely be in for a serious hammering. Moreover, by so doing, they will let the imperialists off the hook. In reality, US imperialism does not give a damn about the religion of a country as long as its economic and strategic interests are served. It has long supported the most reactionary, dictatorial regimes in the Muslim world – as long as they do its bidding. If they fall out of line, as with Iraq, then they are subjected to the full imperial onslaught. At most, we could say that there has been a degree of Anti-Arab hostility that has spilled over into anti-Muslim sentiment as one of the justifications for this. But this does not alter that fact that, both domestically and internationally, there is simply no material basis to “Islamophobia”. Read the rest of this entry »
Above: the explanation?
All too predicatably, the usual suspects have rushed to explain the Woolwich killing by means of the so-called ‘blowback‘ argument (utilised with varying degrees of obvious gloating). Comrade Clive dealt with this back in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 7/7 bombings. Obviously, the 7/7 attacks were somewhat different to what happened in Woolwich (though it seems likely that the Woolwich perpetrators intended to commit ‘suicide by police’), but I think Clive’s essential case remains incontrovertible – JD:
‘Blowback’: a banal non-explanation
Just a note on the ‘blowback’ argument, which is put a bit less crudely in today’s Guardian by Gary Younge. Whereas the SWP/Galloway version of this just ritually nods at condemnation of the bombings, Younge seems more sincere, ‘to explain is not to condone’, etc. And, of course, presented with a ‘war on terror’ which is supposed to reduce terrorist attacks against us, it is not unreasonable to point out that, so far, this has not succeeded (I think, logically, this argument only runs so far, since nobody has suggested that the ‘war on terror’ will prevent terrorism until it is actually won; but there is some rhetorical force to this point).
And of course, if you think of the Beslan massacre, for example: you simply cannot account for the background to these events without explaining about Russian action in Chechnya. Clearly, Chechen Islamists did not materialise from nowhere, and there is a context to their existence. The same is true of Islamists elsewhere. Or to put this another way: of course if there were no real grievances to which Islamists could point, they would not be able to recruit anybody. Hamas would not be able to recruit young people and tell them to tie explosives to their chests and climb aboard buses, if the Palestinians were not actually oppressed and suffering grave injustices at the hands of the Israeli state.
But if this is all that is being said, surely it is banal. I suppose there may be some right wing crazies who think Hamas has grown among Palestinians purely because Arabs are bloodthirsty masochists or somesuch nonsense. But obviously, Hamas refers to real things in the real world to build its base, or it wouldn’t have one.
And the observation that there are actual grievances to which Islamists point as a way to recruit (or even, conceivably, that it is these grievances which motivate particular individuals to carry out atrocities) tells you absolutely nothing about the political character of the movement to which they are being recruited.
Of course it’s true, up to a point, that that the London bombs are connected to the British presence in Iraq. But this in itself is not an explanation for them. So if the ambition is to ‘explain but not condone’, you need to explain why people are recruited to these organisations – ones that want to blow up ordinary people on their way to work – rather than other ones. That bombs have dropped on Iraq and Afghanistan (or Jenin, or wherever) simply is not an explanation.
It would not be an explanation even if the organisations in question were identifiably nationalist, as opposed to salafi-jihadist. There have been plenty of colonial situations in the past which have produced armed struggle but not bombings of this kind.
But in any case they are not nationalist in the old sense, but something different – something whose political programme is not concerned with this or that grievance (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc) but with restoring the Caliphate, instituting sharia law, punishing apostates, and so on. Moreover – and this seems to me very important indeed – as far as the most extreme of these groups go, like the one presumably responsible for 7/7 – they are what can reasonably be called death cults. If the aim is explanation, then you need to tell us why this backward-looking death cult has prevailed over the old-style nationalists (not to mention more leftist movements – just to type the words tells you the fall of Stalinism has something to do with it), and so on.
And once you have identified the political character of these movements – what do you propose to do about it? We can withdraw from Iraq. But if you think withdrawal from Iraq will mean the jihadists will disappear from the Iraqi political landscape, I think you are deceiving yourself. There are much deeper social grievances which animate the militant Islamist movements, to do with the exclusion of the middle class from economic and political power, the decline of the old social classes, etc. Those social questions need to be addressed. And they need to be addressed by radical, democratic movements in those societies.
And, of course, Islamists – of all types – are the militant enemies of democratic movements and of democracy itself. Either you recognise the need to fight alongside democratic movements against the militant Islamists, in Iraq and elsewhere (including within Muslim communities here, of course) or…what? Even the more sophisticated blowback argument of the Gary Younge variety gives no sense of identifying the militant Islamists as our enemy – the enemy of socialists, of democrats, of feminists, of women in general, of lesbians and gay men, of trade unionists, and so on, both in the ‘Muslim world’ and on our doorstep. It criticises the method of fighting terror adopted by our governments, but as though there was simply no need to fight it at all. Read the rest of this entry »
”As the church develops it faces new challenges and new questions but to say you have to change everything – I don’t agree … I prefer the word ‘repentence’ to [the word] ‘reform’” – Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor on Radio 4′s ‘Today’ Programme, 4 Mar 2013 08:25
O’Connor and C of E chum: ecumenical bigotry
Anyone who heard O’Connor’s semi-coherent, stumbling but strangely confident and supremely complacent performance on the ‘Today’ programme (BBC Radio 4) this morning, will realise that the Roman Catholic hierarchy, of which he is Britain’s leading representative, is quite simply incapable of reform when it comes to matters of sexuality. This is only of concern to atheists like myself insofar as it will perpetuate the misery being inflicted by the Church upon people round the world, and dash the hopes of many decent Catholics who are presently in despair. The immediate issue behind the interview was the de facto admission of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, an outspoken opponent of gay relationships, that he had himself engaged in gay sexual conduct.
But the hypocrisy and self-delusion of this sad man is really the least of it. The Catholic Church’s record on paedophilia, AIDS, womens’ rights and (of course) gay rights are the real issue: as interviewer John Humphrys put it to the wretched O’Connor this morning, “If the abuse that went on in the Catholic Church had gone on in a lay organisation, it would be shut down.”
The AWL’s Sean Matgamna (as ‘John O’Mahony’) wrote this open letter to O’Connor back in 2007, when O’Connor together with the C of E’s Rowan Williams, was trying to interfere in the implementation of Britiain’s sexual orientation equality legislation in order to exempt religious believers:
Dear Mr Murphy O’Connor,
Courage in “Defence of the Faith” is, I suppose, a requirement of your office. Even so, I find it hard not to admire your courage — or bare-faced cheek — in attempting to “lay down the law” to the British government and the people it governs on what legal rights gay people in the UK should have and what legal rights granted to others should be denied them.
You are joined in this by your “brothers in Christ” Rowan Williams and John Sentamu, Archbishops of Canterbury and York respectively.
What you and your Anglican brethren demand here is that in the way it treats gay people, Britain should be ruled by the laws and prejudices of your churches and by men like yourself, who are, to put things plainly, either lifelong celibates or thoroughgoing hypocrites.
You want the state to back you in forcing those who reject your religion, including gay Catholics who reject your teaching on this point, to live by your religious rules. You claim it as a right of conscience for Catholics to be legally empowered to act punitively against those who reject your rules.
In what way is what you demand anything other than a demand for Catholic religious tyranny over gay people, including gay Catholics?
In what way is it not a demand to be given the right to impose your views on others who reject them?
In what way is your demand anything other than an assertion that the rights of gay citizens are less important than the “conscientious” right of Catholics’ to deny them those rights?
The blunt truth is that here you are demanding the right to inflict on others ethical concerns and rules of behaviour which are not theirs but yours! The rights of your religious consciences must, you insist, be elevated above other people’s civil rights!
You attempt to use blackmail, threatening to close down Catholic orphanages if you don’t get your way. That, Mr. Murphy O’Connor, shows how much you really care about the children you present yourself as being so keen to protect from the contamination of love and care by gay foster parents. Doesn’t it? If you are not allowed to inflict your own narrow mindedness on others, then, as far as you are concerned, the orphan children can, so to speak, go to Hell !
It does take courage – or a well-founded brass neck! – for a leader of a minority church to claim in the name of his religious conscience the right of his own co-religionists to determine how society treats others, here gay people. You want the religious tail to wag the large, de-facto secularist dog, Mr Murphy O’Connor!
Your “courage” here is, however, not the courage I have in mind.
For a couple of decades now, your church has repeatedly been shaken by the revelations that in Catholic care homes and schools all across the Western world, children have been subjected to systematic sexual abuse by clerics.
Such scandals have broken out all across the world, from the USA to our own Pope’s Green Ireland.
In Ireland, behind the façade of a bourgeois democracy, your church ruled for most of the 20th century over what was in effect a theocracy. So much so that Ireland was — as a 1950s writer could truly say in the Maynooth seminary’s magazine — like one great monastery, where people’s lives were in every respect governed by religion. That is by priests and bishops!
There, Mr Murphy O’Connor, where people like you ruled over a country to a degree unequalled, probably, since the Middle Ages, you made life a hell for children in the schools which, with minimal “interference” from governments, you ran, and in the orphanages and reformatories where children were at the mercy of priests and nuns.
Former child victims of such sexual mistreatment by Catholic priests and nuns, in Ireland and in many other countries, have brought a vast number of court cases and won large amounts of compensation from your church for its treatment of them when they were helpless small defenceless children.
These victims of sexual abuse have had serious psychological damage done to them. They have gone and still go through adult life blighted by their mistreatment by your priests and, typically by way of saavage violence, nuns.
By priests and nuns who themselves were victims, most of them from early childhood, of religious indoctrination, which induced them to accept a way of religious living built on the repression and condemnation of some of their own most-powerful, and most volcanic, instincts.
One does not have to think their abuse of children anything other than damnable — in your sense and mine! — to feel some sympathy for such people.
The children in that vast, world-wide archipelago of Catholic orphanages and schools had their childhoods and, many of them, their entire lives, blighted by priests and nuns whose own lives were blighted by trying to live within a rule of life-long celebacy, that was both inhuman and, for large numbers of them, untenable. The children were the victims of that system.
And you Mr Murphy O’Connor, in the name of an international organisation which, in the 20th century, functioned as a sort of International Paedophiles Anonymous — in which priests sought not cure, but licence and abundant supplies of victims – you, instead of questioning in the light of such experience your own beliefs, and the fitness of your church, and of men like yourself, to lay down rules for anyone, you claim the right to penalise gay people for not accepting the rules imposed by the clergy — the rules which so many, so very many, of your clerical brethren honoured in the breach rather than in the compliance!
As Jesus said: First remove the mote from your own eye!
Mr Murphy O’Connor, you cloak your religious prejudices in hypocritical concern for the children. What exactly is it that you fear?
Of course, any properly run adoption or fostering agency will check out the suitability of all potential foster parents, be they hetero or homosexual. It will be on guard, watching for possibilities of abuse, for predatory paedophiles, for potential violence, and so on.
For sure, the record of non-Catholic as well as Catholic foster homes, in Britain and elsewhere, as places where vast number of children were abused in various ways over many decades, does not suggest complacency about such things.
Nor do such terrible incidents as social service workers in deference to “cultural pluralism”, allowing little Victoria Climbie to be murdered by a religious maniac Christian aunt. Decent people can not be satisfied with the state of things in these institutions.
But that is an entirely different issue to the one we are discussing: whether Catholics should be allowed to discriminate against gay would-be foster parents.
Apply your approach to adoption by gay people to other matters of conscience Mr Murphy O’Connor and you will get very strange results.
After all there are still people who think witches with Diabolical power exist, and that they work their malign practices on good Christian people. There are people who believe that Jews, or some Jews, do similar things and that they drink the blood of “Christian children”.
Isn’t it a violation of their religious rights and of their conscience to deny them the right to persecute and kill witches and Jews by burning them alive or by driving stakes into their hearts? The right to act in relation to such obnoxious and sinful people according to their own morals and consciences?
The religion-crazed Christian aunt of the little girl Victoria Climbie did just that with a child her religious beliefs and state of mind led her to brand as a witch possessed by demons. There are, apparently, many small, Africa-rooted Christian churches whose members commonly hold beliefs like this. Why don’t they have the right to act according to their consciences? Why are the consciences of such people less important than the consciences of Catholics like yourself?
Shouldn’t you campaign for Marie Therese Kouao (Victoria’s aunt) to be released from jail?
Why is it right to treat sinful gay people as you want and not right to treat witches in the good old witch-burning time-honoured way? Who decides where the line is drawn?
Vast numbers of women were burned as witches in Europe some hundreds of years ago. Witch-burning was, as I understand it, much more a phenomenon in early Reformation Protestant states than of Catholic Europe. (After all, episcopal urbanity has to be of some use!) But it did happen in Catholic countries too.
And, of course, notoriously, the Catholic Church burned heretics, whenever and wherever it was strong enough to do it. The Catholic church backed or helped initiate the systematic coercion by Louis XIV, after 1685, of French Protestants that almost wiped out Protestantism in France.
Rowan Williams’ and John Sentamu’s church inspired, backed and administered the savage coercion of Irish Catholics, under which your ancestors and mine were condemned to social and legal outlawry for over two hundred years.
For a certainty there are individual lunatics lurking in your Church and in that of Rowan Williams whose consciences would dictate to them that they should now do things like that. Quite apart from the fact that Rowan Williams and yourself would not agree on exactly who should be persecuted, you would not, would you, advocate as a matter of conscientious right, that Catholic (or Protestant) lunatics should be allowed to burn those they thought were witches, kill obnoxious Jews, persecute Protestant, Catholic or Jew or Muslim? Why not? Because you know better?
Because you live in more enlightened times — times in which the desire to continue behaving as your’s and Rowan William’s churches behaved in the past would brand such “traditionalists” as out and out lunatics?
Because you accept that the law that forbids, and would punish severely, such behaviour towards “witches”, Jews, “heretics”, Papists, etc, is a more enlightened law than the laws under which such things were done in the past?
The point, Mr Murphy O’Connor, is that so, too, is the law that now — since very recently, and very belatedly — forbids and would punish violence and discrimination again gay people.
It is a law to regulate citizens’ behaviour according to standards that are, I submit, greatly superior to your own prejudiced, Dark-Ages-rooted, mind and conscience on the rights of gay people.
Nor is your own Catholic morality immutable, as the things of the past which I have mentioned demonstrate.
Older Catholics and ex-Catholics will know very well that articles of faith in which they were educated, and trained to obey, on pain of the threat of damnation, ceased in the 60s and 70s to be Catholic law. Your attitude to gays is part of a complex of teachings on sexuality and procreation of which your attitude to contraception is also part. Such things as your churchs prohibition of contraception will, almost certainly, eventually be jettisoned, like so much in the past.
There are, perhaps, signs of that already.
You make the point, Mr Murphy O’Connor, obviously with Ruth Kelly in mind:
“It would be deeply regrettable if in seeking, quite properly, better to defend the rights of a particular group not to be discriminated against, a climate were to be created in which, for example, some feel free that members of the government are not free to hold public office on the grounds of their faith affiliation.”
The point here, though, is that no one has the right to be a minister, and impose their own faith-derived beliefs on those who reject them.
Let us, indeed, take the case of Ruth Kelly.
One could make a strong case in favour of Ruth Kelly. In contrast to most of the Blair Government’s ministers, Kelly, Minister for Women and Equality, and former Education Secretary, comes across as a proper and possibly likeable human being, a bright young woman who has managed to combine having a sizeable brood of kids, still young, with a high flying political career.
On one level, even Kelly’s Catholicism might be taken to recommend her. In contrast with most ministers and most MPs, her affiliations suggest that she believes in something other than her career and getting on in the world. She is a fervent, old-fashioned, practicising Catholic.
Though she approaches things differently, she probably believes, more than most Labour ministers, in some of the values socialists believe in. Catholic Popes have sometimes criticised capitalism for its predatory, cancerous cultural commercialism and its idolatry of the market.
Here too Ruth Kelly stands in favourable contrast with most of her government colleagues and New Labour MPs, whose capacity for belief and care is exhausted by their over-fervent belief in and care for their own careers.
But Ruth Kelly is a member of the militant Catholic cult, Opus Dei (the Work of God) — or as near to membership as a miserable, weak, sinful, inferior woman can get with this organisation. A member of an ultra-Catholic, semi-secret cult that originated in fascist Spain (and the dictatorship of Generalissimo Franco was very much a Catholic dictatorship, just as the civil war through which that dictatorship was established, was on that side very much a Catholic crusade).
Therefore, despite all the things one might say for Ruth Kelly, it is nothing less than an outrage that Kelly should have been Minister for Education, and is now, Minister for Women and Equality, in charge of deciding how the rights accorded to gay people by the British Parliament will be implemented in particular cases such as adoption policy.
Her support for the proposal that Catholic orphanages arranging adoptions and fosterings should be exempt from the legal obligation to treat gay the same as heterosexual couples, is evidence that Kelly is unfitted by her faith to hold such positions.
And of course it isn’t just a question of Kelly’s views. The Prime Minister is a crypto-Catholic, who, like Charles the Second, will formally convert to Catholicism at the end of his career. He, most likely, shares Kelly’s doctrinal guidelines on matters like this. He, after all, appointed her.
Kelly’s successor as Secretary of State for Education, Alan Johnson, is not a member of Opus Dei or even a Catholic. Yet Johnson bowed to Catholic objections to imposing on Catholic and other religious schools an obligation to take in a percentage of non-believers as pupils.
Under pressure, Johnson buckled and settled for vague assurances from yourself, Mr Murphy O’Connor, and others who run the big network of Catholic schools in England.
Believing Muslims do not, as far as I know, dominate the present British government. Yet this wretched government has legislated to outlaw “incitement to religious hatred” — the freedom to criticise, denounce and mock religion — in a desire to placate Muslim leaders, for whom any sharp criticism of Islam is an insult and an outrage. (You, of course, also wanted such legislation. )
Blair and his colleagues thereby showed themselves to be as far from serious liberal thought in their approach to these matters as you yourself are.
Ruth Kelly is important not only because she is a member of Opus Dei in charge of ministries in which her own strong religious beliefs come into conflict with the liberal norms of the society presided over by the New Labour government, but because she dramatises the conflict between liberal social arrangements and serious, believing, Christians, Muslims and others.
She demonstrates how preposterous it is to have Ruth Kelly, or Tony Blair the crypto-Catholic, in government positions where conflict arises between the personal beliefs of the minister and the norms and expectations (and, here, laws!) of an advanced liberal bourgeois democracy such as that in which you and I, Mr Murphy O’Conno, live.
Yet the root problem is not the religious beliefs of individual ministers, or even the Prime Minister. The root problem is the framework of institutions, laws, norms and expectations within which British governments work.
You, Mr Murphy O’Connor, and Ruth Kelly and Tony Blair, can only play the role you are playing in this discussion because British institutions so far lag behind those of France and, even, the USA, in putting organised religion in its proper, subordinate, place — in constitutionally ruling out attempts by the religious to decree how non-believers will live in a common society with them.
Both France and the USA have experienced radical bourgeois-democratic revolutions. Britain, whose bourgeois revolution was made much earlier, in the 17th century, when social and class interests were cloaked in religious garb and expressed in terms of religious dogmas and disputations, is here, simply backward.
Ignorant, bigoted, backwards religion — which is often very anti-Catholic, to be sure — is a great force in the USA. It has given to the world the Magi gift of President George W Bush. They are busily attacking the secularist political traditions of US public life. Even so, the separation of church and state, established in America at the end of the 18th century, remains a great force for public good, despite such antics as Donald Rumsfeld, when he was secretary for defence, holding daily prayer meetings in his office.
By contrast, Britain has a State Church, the Anglican Church, whose titular head is the monarch, the British head of state.
Arguably the worst thing which the Blair government has done in its decade in office has been to encourage the growth of “faith schools”. A later generation, and maybe the present one, will be faced with the consequences of the religious segregation of children — religious segregation which in some cases coincides heavily with ethnic segregation. A terrible price may have to be paid for that.
Even so, put the case against Blair at its strongest, and it is still true that Blair has only built on and expanded existing traditions. Blair has sowed his poisoning crop in a garden that was laid out long before his time.
It is now almost forgotten — you won’t have forgotten it! — what an uproar greeted the proposal at the beginning of the 20th century for the British state to endow Catholic schools. Catholic schools which mainly catered for the children of immigrant (Irish) workers, much as Muslim schools do now.
Paradoxically, then as now, the argument for faith schools, for an intrinsically-divisive, religious-run system of education, for extending support to Catholic, and now to Muslim, schools, rested on the high ground of egalitarianism: the right of Catholics, as now of Muslims, to equal treatment.
Anglican schools were then already endowed, as now, when we discuss Muslim faith schools, thousands of Anglican, Catholic and Jewish state-funded schools already exist. For you, Mr Murphy O’Connor, that is how it should be.
It is a terrible judgement on the backwardness of Britain in such matters – a backwardness which your own involvement in this discussion loudly proclaims – that the separation of church and state was realised in the USA over two hundred years ago and is still unrealised in the UK!
For those of us who reject the idea that the obscurantist doctrines of archaic religions should have any influence in shaping the social laws through which we regulate our lives, a different conclusion follows.
The whole framework needs to be changed!
• The very possibility of any sort of privileging of the viewpoint or the representatives of any religion, the privilege you are now demanding for Catholics when you demand that they should have the right to discriminate against gay people — that possibility should, as far as possible, be eliminated.
• Religion must be made into a private matter in relation to society.
• Religious men and women like yourself must be, in your capacity of religious leaders, excluded from any role in the state system of education greater than that to which you are entitled as an individual citizen having a citizen’s rights.
• Catholic and other religious-run orphanages must become the property of society, rather than what they are now, receptacles in which young and vulnerable children are held at the mercy of religious indoctrinatiors.
• In every area of society, I repeat, the church should be separated from the state.
• The Anglican church should be disestablished, and disendowed, its property must be made public property.
• As part of the separation of church and state, all faith schools should be taken over and turned into secular state schools — schools in which no religion is taught and religion is studied only as comparative religion.
Paradoxically, this would have as one of its effects the strengthening of freedom of religion, which is and must be an inalienable right of the citizen.
Right now, the sniping and speculation about Ruth Kelly’s religion and its possible relationship to her judgements as a minister, is inevitably intrusive. It probes and prods at her and her religion. That is because, under the existing system, her private believes are a legitimate concern of people who know that Kelly’s religion – and yours, and Tony Blair’s — will play a part in the resolution of the current crisis.
Kelly does not have to have a placard around her neck proclaiming that homosexuals are evil and deservedly damned, etc, for people to know very plainly that she has such views and that her views cannot but influence her attitudes.
There will always be some areas in which the practices associated with or forbidden by some religion will, in the interests of others, place some limitations on the practitioner’s role in society.
The idea that a woman with her face veiled should teach was absurd, and the woman concerned was rightly sacked. Even though she had the right as a citizen to wear the veil, she had no right to teach while veiled.
You too, Mr Murphy O’Connor. You have and should retain the right to believe any absurdity you like. And the right to lay down any absurd rules you like for people who voluntarily accept what you, or your Pope, decree, as rules for themselves. You have no right to inflict your own opinions, to cramp and curtail the lives of others by the bigoted imposition on them of rules of living which they reject.
The absurdity of a compulsorily celibate man, part of a large world wide caste of compulsorily celibate men and women, championing the “traditional family”, and demanding sanctions against those who take a different view, is not only a crying, but also a vicious, absurdity!
So too is the whole British system of relationships between the state and the churches.
To adapt a slogan from the women’s movement:
Keep your hands off our bodies, Mr Murphy O’Connor! And our minds!