Militant Secularism: Front-Line Reports

August 8, 2008 at 6:08 am (Andrew C, reaction, religion, secularism)

Secularism is one of the major political issues of our time. In the UK the rise of politicised religions, and the growing importance of religious lobbies, has entered the heart of public life. Demands of believers for special consideration, the increasingly important role of faith organisations in making and implementing state policy, have been met by a renewed interest in freeing public institutions from the dead-hand of holiness. As a militant secularist I can only welcome the latter, but there are deep problems emerging.

The increased visibility, and presence, of religion in the public sphere has divided the left. There are some who consider that religions may play a progressive role (as a voice of the oppressed) if attached to the right causes. Some parties (the SWP, Respect-Renewal) have worked with Islamist groups, and back violent religiously-inspired movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Seumas Milne (Guardian 27.3.08) asserts that militant secularists who criticise this stand are apologists for capitalism and war, bearers of a ‘liberal rage’ that ignores religions’ social context. Casting the net as widely Islamophobia Watch responds with bile to any criticism of Islamist politics. 

Secularists and atheists respond, rightly, that religion’s social context is that it is built into a system of power, funded by others’ labour, and, when institutionalised, is part of the class structure holding people down. Furthermore it is not only false (which a majority of the left concedes) but also carries the seeds of intolerance and, is patently weighted toward irrationality. It gives power to faith-leaders to control their flock, by-pass democracy and enforce discriminatory prejudices. Anyone looking at the Bible, the Qu’ran and other such Books, or theocracies, from Saudi Arabia to Iran, can see the point of such criticisms. They are not inevitable consequences of religion, but they address a bulky part of its reality.

The last few years have seen a flourishing industry in books about religion, attacking and defending it. The traditional left approach, which centres on explaining the causes of individual faith, movements of, say, millennialist protest, or enduring institutions such as Churches, in different historical periods (up to capitalism), have been side-stepped. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Michel Onfray, have made much more radical assaults on the credibility of faith itself. In response there have been sophisticated defences, not of the Holy texts, but of something intangible, the religious experience of the ‘beyond’ (Charles Taylor), or the mystery of the Cross (Terry Eagleton). Eagleton in particular finds efforts to demolish the credibility of the Bible uncouth, and others (in the Church of England) decry the vulgar opposition between science and religious truths. Yet this continues to exist. Dawkins, in his television programme on Darwin (Monday 4th August), found school students sufficiently brainwashed by scripture to deny Evolution. This demonstrates that rational argument against faith is still a very urgent task. Not least as the government has, through confessional schools, let creationist ideas slip into the education system.

Both Blair and Brown are believers. Their Cabinets have been, not surprisingly, more than willing to listen to the demands of religious pressure groups. While they have ignored the well-organised Catholic-Protestant Fundamentalist lobby on Abortion and stem-cell research, they generally consult ‘faith-leaders’ and treat them with great respect. Recently they have engaged public funds in campaigns to promote ‘moderate’ versions of Islam. This dangerous move takes sides in what should be a private matter, and promotes some extremely dubious figures at taxpayers expense – as Harry’s Place ( has continually exposed. This weakening of the independence of the state towards religious affairs is paralleled in the so-called bastion of secularism, France. President Nicholas Sarkozy has repeatedly tried to influence the development of an Islam à la française. He has intervened to make the Conseil français du culte musulman (CFCM) a significant interlocutor, despite the presence of Muslim Brotherhood supporters (in the Union des organisations islamiques) on this body. In effect both governments have encouraged one version of Islamism (authoritarian and right-wing but not violent) against another (explicitly violent). Subsidies (for training Imams) are proposed in both countries. Sarkozy is even in favour of subventions for Mosques. One wonders if they will extend such practices more widely, favouring one variety of a religion over another. Certainly the UK leads the way in promoting the role of religious groups, even getting them to deliver universal welfare provision (the YMCA is a major player in the New Deal for the unemployed) and Church bodies are said to be involved in future transfers of the delivery of public welfare services to private religious groups.

A further disturbing development is the role of multi-culturalism, or as it now known ‘diversity policies’. Nick Cohen comments on demands for religious people to get “special treatment” in place of equality. The recent Court decision to uphold the right of Sarika Watkins-Singh to wear a bracelet affirming her Sikh identity opens the way to further demands on public institutions to accommodate religious dress and behaviour. The potential, given the elaborate rules governing all aspects of daily-life of some religions, for this to wreak havoc, is plain.

Cohen observes that special rights for religious people are at the expense of equality. One could add that the rules of Islamic purity which demand women to cover themselves are considered by liberals to be a private matter. But when they are promoted in places such as Schools and public services they divide people into the ‘pure;’ and ‘impure’ the saved and the dammed. Since these are state institutions it is only changes in state practice (minimum democratic demands) that can prevent such communalist division taking hold. All ostentatious signs of religious belief are inherently divisive, asserting superiority at the deepest level over non-believers. The growing trend for the registration of people’s religious convictions by employers is a step towards a fragmented society where each will be under the authority of those who leads these religions.

Secularism is the policy that public institutions should not take sides for or against religion, or for any particular religion. As such there are many religious people who are secularists, particularly from minority religions, who watch with horror the impact of state creeds, state Churches, or such monstrosities as Sharia Law. It is equally a political stand that actively campaigns not to prohibit religious-political expression, but to combat the idea that these should be the basis of government policy. Atheism, in which we militants usually believe, says of religion how dare you assert that there is a god?


  1. chjh said,

    And some who claim to be militant secularists actively support the existence of a violent religiously-defined state – Israel. An odd omission.

    The controversy over Sarika Watkins-Singh reminds me of the first anti-racist campaign I took part in Leeds, back in 1975. As part of new uniform regulations, Leeds buses allowed Sikhs to wear turbans instead of the regulation caps. A racist minority struck over this, and the majority of busworkers (including the Sikhs) wouldn’t cross the picket lines. The union branch effectively went AWOL.

    We went door-to-door petitioning for the rights of the Sikh workers to wear their turbans, arguing that the bus company shouldn’t give in to the racist minority. Presumably on this analysis we were wrong, and the strikers were right?

  2. Andrew Coates said,

    Good point Chjh. However you will have noted that I didn’t take sides on particular cases, only making a general point about secularism being religion-neutral in education and public services and that rules should be equal. I did recognise Cohen’s argument that the judgement on the bangle opened the way to anyone asserting their right to wear whwat they want, which it may or may not do. I would criticise allwoing religious authority (over dress codes) into education: as it says in the early Soviet period ABC of Communism, education should not let in such influences by any means.

    They say that hard cases make bad law. Sikhs’ Turbans and the other ‘K’s’ are a pretty difficult issue to deal with in terms of abstract rules. The main division that could be drawn here is between self-regarding, self-oppressing, and other-regarding behaviour. No-one is threatened by a turban. It is not designed to cover up unspeakably tempting objects, and is common head-gear amongst non-Sikhs in the sub-continent and elsewhere. It is different with the veil, which is a declaration of purity, self-oppression enforced by the regard of those claiming religious authority. This can be purely a matter of self-concern, but in two cases, when that person is in a position of power over other people (in education or other state or business functions) this (as would say, a massive cross of star of David) enforces the presence of the religion of the wearer onto those under the person’s authority.

    As a general rule secularists should, it can be tolerant about any *individual* form of religious expression – private sphere/civil society – unless it intrudes on the rights of others – public sphere (see Veil, above).

    Enough theory…. Common sense, not to say the bleeding obvious, would suggest that any anti-racist would have supported the Sikhs’ right to wear Turbans.

    I leave Israel to others, just to say my views on this are based on Hannah Arendt’s criticisms of the religious basis of the state.

  3. chjh said,

    I wouldn’t entirely agree about the Sikh turban – certainly the ones worn by Sikhs in this country are quite distinct from other forms of turban. I don’t know enough about the religion to know whether that’s just a local particularity, or whether the religion enjoins that particular style.

    And I certainly don’t agree about the veil. Muslim women wear it for all sorts of reasons, and for many of them it is their choice (sometimes against their parents’ wishes, as in the case in France where the Lutte Ouvriere teachers shamefully backed the state against their pupils). Where I live in Hackney, more Muslim women started wearing the veil after 9/11, because veiled women had been attacked in the street. Part of their adoption of the veil is a “fuck-you” to racists. But it’s still quite normal to see groups of young women walking down the street, some of whom are veiled and some of whom aren’t. The local social mores on this appear to be more liberal that for Catholic women of my mother’s generation, for whom leaving the house without a headscarf would have been socially unacceptable.

    And of course it’s bleedin’ obvious that we should have backed the Sikhs in Leeds. For my money, it’s equally bleedin’ obvious that when a religious minority is under attack from the state and street racists, we start by defending them, not by talking about how much we hate religion. But not all militant secularists agree…

  4. BobFromBrockley said,

    “And some who claim to be militant secularists actively support the existence of a violent religiously-defined state – Israel. ”

    A small footnote. Israel is not a religiously-defined state. It takes Jews to be a nation rather than a religion. It is more or less a secular state – although it gives too much power to the cleresy in a number of matters.

    Presumably, chjh, militant secularists should support the existence of a Hamas-run Palestine?

  5. modernityblog said,

    Chjh wrote:

    “For my money, it’s equally bleedin’ obvious that when a religious minority is under attack from the state and street racists, “

    as it could be either, attacks from a State or Street racists, so I hope that you still apply that criteria ?

    that being the case, chjh

    why did Socialist Worker firstly spend reams attacking the Parliamentary report on Antisemitism? and then only belatedly acknowledge that racist attacks on Jews were occurring?

    the SW approach directly contradicts your own comments

  6. chjh said,

    BfB – israel is in part a religiously defined state, as much as (say) the Republic of Ireland . The ‘right of return’ applies to people born to Jewish parents, and to converts to the religion. There is no civil marriage; the rabbinate have the same sort of social and political power as the bishops in Ireland. Eretz Israel (increasingly the dominant ideology of the state) is an explicitly religious doctine -‘ God gave the land to his people’. I could go on, but you know this stuff too.

    And as for Hamas, they won an election, remember? Are you against the right of Palestinians to vote, or just against the right of those who got elected to form an administration.

    modernity – SW never denied that there are street attacks on Jews. We questioned (as did others) the methodology of the report. Now how about replying to what I actually said?

  7. facts said,

    Wasn’t that the report that spent one page talking about antisemitism from the right and twenty pages talking about antisemitism from the left?

  8. entdinglichung said,

    btw … as a remnant of the Ottoman Millet system there is no real possibility for a civil marriage in many states of the Middle East and also no unified civil law but only different religious personal laws … couples from Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt who want to/must have a civil marriage (e.g. interreligious couples) and who can afford it often travel for a few day to Cyprus to marry there …

  9. Sue R said,

    CHJD: Whatever the local priesthood may have said about your mother going out in the street without a headscarf (or do you just mean in Church, or was your mother alive in the thirteenth century?) I don’t think Catholics in the British Isles (I discount the wilder reaches of Italy) ever regarded it as a killing matter ie honour killings. I could be wrong. Just saying like.

  10. Andrew Coates said,

    Chjd, there points you completely miss. The French ban on the veil, part of a ban on all ostentatious religious symbols, was due to two factors.

    Firstly, a clarification of the rules concerning the presence of religious symbols in public education. They are not permitted. These are regulations apply to all – precisely the point I was making regarding Cohen’s article.

    Secondly, the result of systematic Islamicist bullying by the ‘grands freres’ (big brothers) of a Msulim background. It was considered – a very widely shared view which extends to a very large (nearly a majority) of French inhabitants of Islamic origin) that allowing ‘battles of the veil’ would lead to similar conditions which preceeded the 1990s Algerian Civil War and the enforced Islamisation of part of the population (in fact, initially encouraged by the State to destory the left). Ni Putes ni Soumises supplied ample evidence of this. Not only Lutte Ouvriere but many others on the far-left backed their position. I add that the Lambertist Trotskyists ahve over 20 deputies in the Algerian Parliament as a result of their own hard-line secular stand on such issues (something the UK left is strangely silent on).

    In any case as Sue mentions, this is not an issue of freedom when the veil si enforced by extremely violent acts by the ‘brothers’ and there is evidence that this takes place in the UK, though you may choose to ignore it in your rambles around Hackney.

    I hope that you are not of the same kidney as the SWP and Respect-Renewal who seem to instinctively side with bullies. Islamicism is a violent pious wing of the bourgeoise, oppressors not the oppressed.

    If they were such tribunes of the downtrodden masses then (a central theme of the Post) why is the British state actively backing and funding the, supposedly non-violent, wing of the (diverse) Islamicist movement. Some oppression!

  11. Sue R said,

    Actually, I don’t think going bare-headed in public was EVER a capital crime in Britain. You might be socially ostracised, and possibly denounced from the pulpit, but I don’t think you would be killed. (See ‘The Book Of Margery Kempe’ for more on the lives of middle-class women in the thirteenth century.)

  12. chjh said,

    Sue R – name one victim of ‘honour killings’ in the UK who was killed because she refused to veil.

    My point was about social pressure from those you regard as your peers. My mother felt a particular social pressure (in the 1950s and 1960s) which is visibly less strict among Moslem women in my neck of the woods – nothing to do with the law.

  13. Sue R said,

    So, you want to apply the concept of ‘honour’ killings very strictly. Sort of strict liability. Taking refusal to veil as being a synedoche for refusal to obey parental authority, there are plenty, more than enough. Shefetalia Ahmed, Banaz Mahmoud, the girl in Cricklewood whose dying screams were heard in the street etc etc. I’m sorry your mother felt a social pressure to do something she didn’t want to do, and isn’t that just one of the problems with religion. Isn’t that why it’s best to leave it well allow and allow it to wither away?

  14. modernityblog said,

    chjh wrote:

    “modernity – SW never denied that there are street attacks on Jews. We questioned (as did others) the methodology of the report. Now how about replying to what I actually said?”

    Chjh, please, you’re a smart enough bloke, and we could read the SW article line by line together, but you know that already

    I never stated that SW denied them, just that in the article it was not seen as terribly important

    and remember what I wrote:

    why did Socialist Worker firstly spend reams attacking the Parliamentary report on Antisemitism? and then only belatedly acknowledge that racist attacks on Jews were occurring?”

    dual standards? wrong type of religion?

    remember your previous comment (which I agree with) of ” For my money, it’s equally bleedin’ obvious that when a religious minority is under attack from the state and street racists, we start by defending them,

    so leaving aside SWPers making a few trips to desecrated Jewish graveyards, when will the “we start by defending them” begin?

    [and please don’t start with the history lessons of Cliff, ANL, etc, we all know that’s what happened, I am more concerned with the here and now]

  15. Sue R said,

    I’ve just realised that chjd could respond that he knows girls who wear the veil despite their parents, and this is an exercise of their free choice. Sure it is, and at the end of the day you can’t save people from themselves. If some one wants to jump in the river; you can’t stop them, that’s their free choice. However, as a socialist or even a progressive, hodw can one support the progmulation of philosophies that argue that women are only half a man? And that the Word of God is unquestionable. Do you believe in God, chjd? If not, why not?

  16. chjh said,

    Sue, if you think that the right to express one’s religious faith is automatically self-harming, then there isn’t much common ground here, is there?

    But’s it worth noting the bad faith evident in your quoting the victims of honour killings. My specific challenge to you was to name a victim of honour killing who had been killed for refusing to veil. You replied by naming two women who were killed because they refused arranged marriages (one of whom was Kurdish, a culture where most women don’t wear the veil). You couldn’t answer the questionm, so you just reached for a smear.

    Which illustrates the problem with Islamophobia is that otherwise sensible, rational lefties feel able to dispense with any evidence in making abusive and stereotyping comments about Islam and Muslims, and then wonder why they are seen as part of the racist backlash against Muslims. And that’s why so many of us on the left are necessarily suspicious of ‘militant secularism’ – that’s it’s actually just a cover for being abusive of Islam and Muslims.

    oh, and modernity, try reading what you write: leaving aside SWPers making a few trips to desecrated Jewish graveyards, when will the “we start by defending them” begin? When will we start doing what we’ve started doing? Think about it.

  17. modernity said,

    chjh wrote:

    “When will we start doing what we’ve started doing? Think about it.”

    It is a shame that you’re taking the approach “my party right or wrong” and not engaging with the issues

    A real shame, I had always rated your writings on China and Tibet for their intellectual honesty

    More’s the pity you can’t bring that approach to this issue

    I remember once when IS/SWP members were critical, could argue lucidly and would acknowledge the bleeding obvious, sadly now, it’s as if SWPers are working from a script and a rather poorly written one at that.

    I wasn’t incidentally accusing you of bad faith, just suggesting that the facts don’t bear out your assertions.

    Please, by all means, investigate yourself, make your own mind up, I’ll give you a few reminders of the SWP pandering to anti-Jewish racism:

    1) Gilad Atzmon

    2) Narsallah

    3) Tamimi

    1. Despite being warned by Jewish socialists that Atzmon was espousing anti-Jewish racism, the SWP leadership, year after year, decided to invite him to their premier event, Marxism xxxx.

    Despite the fact that Jewish socialists picketed bookmarks when the SWP hosted Atzmon, instead of rejecting Atzmon, the Jewish socialists were attacked for demonstrating antiracism that the SWP 20 years ago would have taken for granted.

    2. Nasrallah, if people want to support his organisation that is their choice, it is a grim and dodgy option but that’s their own political choice for whatever reasons they choose.

    But, and this is a big but what they can’t do is to exonerate Nasrallah’s open genocidal racism, which was documented in a Pluto press book anf other places.

    SWPers were often found on Lenin’s Tomb, etc doing intellectual cartwheels to explain away Nasrallah’s racism.

    3. Dr. Tamimi, is Hamas’ London rep and was often to be found lionised at SWP-controlled events despite the very obvious racist nature of Hamas, this form of ingrained racism was demonstrated by Tamimi’s attack on an Israeli born Jew telling him to “go back to Germany”

    Chjh, I’m sure that you can come up with any number of excuses for these, but those excuses have been used so many times they are threadbare

    the question that you have to ask yourself, despite your own pronouncements, is why is anti-Jewish racism often seen by the SWP as a “lesser” racism, something that can be tolerated, ignored or just put up with, if it comes from certain types of people.

    You either oppose anti-Jewish racism wholeheartedly or you don’t.

    and if you don’t you don’t really have the option of calling yourself an antiracist, maybe just an antiracist as long as Jews ain’t being attacked?

    Chjh, please, think on these issues

    do your own research and make up your own mind, if you want I can post reams and reams of links on these points.

  18. johng said,

    “Chjh, I’m sure that you can come up with any number of excuses for these, but those excuses have been used so many times they are threadbare”

    Or on the other hand you simply couldn’t answer them. And once and for all suggesting that German’s should take responsibility for their crimes not Palestinians is not anti-semitic, whatever else was said. The very existence of Palestinian nationalism becomes an instance of anti-semitism according to your method of argument.

    It is extremely amusing to hear you demand honesty from other people and for you to believe that any of us, in any way, think what we are saying is illogical or contradictory. Its entirely in your own mind.

    Chjh watch out Modernity thinks your lucid. Its a bad sign. I’m going to report you. (you have no idea modernity the totalitarian horror that is about to occur).

  19. Sue R said,

    I don’t think bringing up the issue of (dis)honour killings is bad faith. I admit that Islam is not the only religion that sanctions such killings, as for as I know all the Indian ones do, so it is not just an Islamic practice, it is a Middle Eastern/Indian one. Having said that., a lot of the criticisms of women’s treatment under Islam could apply to the other Eastern religions ie arranged marriages, women not possessing agency, being domestic chattels etc. No they are not purely Islamic, but who is the largest group in Britain today that is practising these brutal customs? Most Hindus in this country are well educated and in professional jobs, the Sikhs, I think there was an instance of an honour killing in Newham a few years ago although it was not prosecuted as such, I don’t think the Bhuddists go in for violence in that way but I could be wrong. I said I was taking the veil as representative of a whole schema for how women should be treated and there is no way that in my opinion, anyone either a socialist or a liberal should support it. i asked you about your odwn religious belief because it seems to me that you are quite willing for some groups in society to believe in sky pixies when you wouldn’t yourself. Obviously the question of building tactical alliances with such groups is a different question but to pretend it is anti-capitalist or pro-socialist is bullshit. If you do believe in god etc, accept my apologies.

  20. modernity said,

    I think that when someone tells others to

    “GO back to Germany” and has expressed support for this:

    “Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious. It needs all sincere efforts. It is a step that inevitably should be followed by other steps.”

    then, conscious political activists should be able to see Tamimi’s racism for what it is

    it is the SWP’s choice whether or not they acknowledge it

    or you could decide to defend Tamimi’s racist outpourings, JohnG prefers to do the latter

    as with Atzmon, you won’t admit the racism inherent here

    surely all of this is obvious? it is ABC of politics, chjh?

  21. modernity said,

    does the SWP agree with Tamimi’s sentiments?

    “Azzam Al-Tamimi: Justice? You go back to Germany. That’s justice. You turn Germany into your state, not Palestine. Why should Palestine be a Jewish state? Why?” – watch the clip, see his expressions

    can’t SWPer’s see the embedded racism in telling a Jew, born in Tel Aviv to “You go back to Germany. That’s justice.”??

  22. johng said,

    How on earth does such a statement translate into anti-semitism for you modernity? Only by pretending that Palestinians have not been thrown off their land and their descendents forced to live under a brutal military dictatorship. Only then can you present this decontextualised quote and dress it up as if its a white bigot complaining about immigration.

    Have you no idea, quite aside from Tamimi’s particular brand of politics, how viciously racist what you are doing here is, and how viciously offensive to any Palestinian this method is? The moral emptiness of your rhetoric is the most striking thing here. Perhaps at bottom its guilt for supporting a political ideology which justifies all of these things.

  23. modernity said,


    chjh, that question was directed at you.

    I have long given up on JohnG.

  24. johng said,

    Watch out chjh. He’ll start stalking you.

  25. Jim Denham said,

    “You turn Germany into your state, not Palestine.” Ie: “Go home, immigrant” (btw: where *is* the “home” of a refugee from the holocaust?)…

    And this is *not* racist??? This should be… “contextualised”, Mr “academic”. “intellectual” John-fucking-“G”?

    You really are scum, aren’t you, Mr John “let’s have some fun with anti-semitism” ‘G’?

  26. modernity said,

    I think chjh has given up the ghost

    shame, he seems like a smart bloke, a distinct improvement on the usual intellectual flotsam and jetsam of JohnG and Richard Seymour

  27. johng said,

    Hey Dr Strangelove, when your done with racist diatribes about palestinian nationalism, any plans to nuke tehran before dinner?

  28. Jim Denham said,

    Ah! It’s Father “John ****Boy” Coughlin, that well known man of God, peace and reconciliation.

  29. Sue R said,

    Question for Johng. I believe his thesis is in Indian history. Does he support the reintroduction of suti (widow-burning), a venerable Hindu practice?

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