Giles Fraser is an idiot -or a shyster

January 22, 2011 at 10:06 pm (Christianity, Guardian, Islam, Jim D, Racism, relativism, religion, secularism)

The Graun – always keen to promote religion – has today given space to Giles Fraser to back Lady Warsi’s recent comments,  under the headline “Islamophobia is the moral blind spot of modern Britain.”  Once again a religious figure is, in effect, demanding special rights for religion, and implying that those who criticise it are the same as racists. Fraser is either an idiot or a shyster.

I have refrained from commenting upon Lady Wasi’s comments because I’ve not had the time or inclination to read them properly. But Fraser’s thoughts are there in print for all to see. Fraser, I should point out, is canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and a regular purveyor of woolly religious banality on BBC Radio 4.

His piece for the Graun is so full of waffle, evasion and self-contradictory platitudes that it’s difficult to know where to start in dismembering it. Fraser’s own starting (and finishing) point is the same as Lady Warsi’s: that “Islamophobia” has become an acceptable form of racism at the dinner tables of the liberal middle class. I have to say that I am no stranger to the dinner tables of the liberal middle class, but have not noticed this: what I have noticed in such company is anti-semitism masquerading as anti-zionism.

Anyway, let’s start with some specific points in Fraser’s piece:

*”The conversation then moves on to sharia law or jihad or the burqua, not all of it entirely well-informed“: so what, Canon Fraser, do we need to be “informed” about before expressing opinions on those matters? And what makes you so sure that you’re better informed on these subjects than the rest of us? Are we not allowed to hold opinions on these subjects?

* “Someone inevitably mentions 9/11”: and what, exactly, is your objection to that, Giles?

* “I cannot think of a single other group in our society about whom such vile remarks would be in any way socially acceptable“: what about Jews who refuse to disavow zionism, Giles? After all, you are writing in the Guardian.

* “The worst sort of dinner party bigot may talk about islam as a faith but – nod nod, wink, wink -we all know what they mean“: well no, Giles, I for one do not know what they mean.”  If  people are discussing a religion –any religion – then I assume that is, indeed, what they’re discussing. I think I’m sussed enough to know when (“nod nod, wink wink”) they’re actually discussing something else.

* “None of which is to silence any sort of attack upon religious faith per se“: are you sure, Canon? It sounds to me  very much as though your argument is an attempt to do just that. Like so many other religious leaders and apologists (led by Muslims and closely followed by Christians and others), you are vigorously promoting the idea that criticism of religion is comparable to racism. Unfortunately that intellectual folly and falsehood was given legislative credence when the Labour government introduced the ill-conceived Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 in an an attempt to appease Muslim community leaders.

* “One of the tests for flushing out prejudice from robust but legitimate critique is the extent to which complexity is allowed to enter the picture. The dinner party bigot may never have been to a Mosque or read the Qur’an“: and when, Giles, did you last attend a BNP meeting or read Mein Kampf?

* “The other difference…has to do with power relations between those involved…The Muslim community in this country is generally more socially disadvantaged and  has less access to the levers of power“: true, but what about Pakistan, the Arab world and the Middle East? What about the victims of Islamist terrorism, and women, gays and non-conformists within the Muslim “community” even in Britain? Where does the power lie in these situations, Canon?

It’s clear that Fraser’s miserable little article is yet another attempt by the religious to make out that criticism of religion is a form of bigotry. He complains (as does, I understand, Lady Warsi) of “slippage”: “What can begin as a perfectly legitimate conversation about, say, religious belief and human rights, can drift into a licence for observations that in any other circumstance would be regarded as tantamount to racism”, he says. Oh yes? Giles: any conversation about anything can “drift” into a conversation about something else. Most most us on the left are capable of recognising when that happens and quite prepared to (in your patronising words) “disturb the cosy rules of the dinner party” (or any other situation) when it does. What you’re really asking for is yet more deference towards religion. I for one refuse to give it.

PS: Rumy Hasan’s article on “Islamophobia” is well worth reading in this context.

23 Comments

  1. Arthur Seaton said,

    No attempt to engage whatsoever with Fraser’s central argument – that justified criticism can segue into, feed, and justify racism? Ever heard of the EDL? And equating Muslims with BNP members?

    I used to like this blog and have found its critique of follies elsewhere on the left interesting and valuable. But here you have moved well and truly into the rank path long since trod by Harry’s Place. You have jumped the shark.

  2. jim denham said,

    Arthur compains that there’s “No attempt to engage whatsoever with Fraser’s central argument – that justified criticism can segue into, feed, and justify racism? ”

    I wrote (above):

    “He complains (as does, I understand, Lady Warsi) of “slippage”: “What can begin as a perfectly legitimate conversation about, say, religious belief and human rights, can drift into a licence for observations that in any other circumstance would be regarded as tantamount to racism”, he says. Oh yes? Giles: any conversation about anything can “drift” into a conversation about something else. Most most us on the left are capable of recognising when that happens and quite prepared to (in your patronising words) “disturb the cosy rules of the dinner party” (or anything else) when it does. What you’re really asking for is yet more deference towards religion. I for one refuse to give it.”

    Now, Arthur, you may not agree with what I say there, but it most certainly *is* “an…attempt to engage with Fraser’s central argument.”

    The point about the BNP (and ‘Mein Kampf) is not to equate “Muslims” with fascists (I don’t), but to take up Fraser’s argument that in order to criticise an ideology you have to have experienced it first-hand, and read its central text, otherwise you’re a bigot. I thought my point was obvious, but perhaps it needs spelling out.

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  4. Mike Killingworth said,

    Wearily, I have to say I agree with Arthur.

    The clue is in JD’s approach to Zioinsm. I suppose all the anti-Zionist secular Jews I know are either mentally defective or closet Nazis, eh, JD?

    As far as Muslims are concerned, globally they overwhelmingly live in countries which at some point in the past were conquered by a Muslim army (Mohammed being unique in having both founded a world religion and been a competent general). Although of course it has no scriptural base, being descended from a conqueror does give people a rosy glow, no matter whether theyre subcontinental (or Arab) Muslims or white English. Muslims in the UK are of course denied this cultural consolation. And that is before we consider the marginalisation of the immigrant.

    What Baroness Warsi does display, of course, is self-pity: and there are plenty of Muslims both within and beyond this country who recognise that as a besetting sin in their culture – the equivalent of American arrogance, for example.

  5. jim denham said,

    ” I suppose all the anti-Zionist secular Jews I know are either mentally defective or closet Nazis, eh, JD?”:

    Mike I have absolutely no idea where you get the idea that I think (or have ever written) anything of the sort or anything that could possibly give rise to such a preposterous idea.

    To go back to the main post: the crucial line of divide is between criticising / attacking *ideas* and criticing / attacking *people* on grounds of their ethnicity – a distinction that is usually quite easy to make, but that religious campaigners (like Fraser, and it would seem, Baroness Warsi) cannot – or choose not to – understand.

  6. Sarah AB said,

    I suppose I hover somewhere between you and Giles Fraser, Jim. I thought the speech invoked so many different kinds of points, legitimate ones about anti-muslim bigotry, and more dubious and ambiguous ones too. One result, if not intention, might well be to make people think they couldn’t criticise some belief in Islam, or some oppressive practice, without being classed as a bigot. Yet it is quite hard to police the boundary between genuine and legitimate criticism of a particular hate preacher or extremist group on the one hand and antimuslim bigotry – and where on that spectrum do you place someone who disowns prejudice against Muslims as individuals, yet has a fluent grip on every single hadith which is, er, ‘challenging’ – who seems to know much more about the Quran than the Bible. Some people seem obsessed with Islam and want to scrutinise every Muslim against the benchmark of the most rigid interpretation of Islam, just as some people are obsessed with Israel and want Jews to distance themselves from Israel before they are considered acceptable.

  7. SteveH said,

    Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip!

  8. maxdunbar said,

    Great post, and also worth mentioning that Warsi praised idiot pro-jihadi Seumus Milne in her speech.

    http://hurryupharry.org/2011/01/21/warsi-attacks-polly-toynbee-praises-milne/

  9. Dr Paul said,

    Jim D: ‘”I cannot think of a single other group in our society about whom such vile remarks would be in any way socially acceptable”: what about Jews who refuse to disavow zionism, Giles?’

    What about Jews who do disavow Zionism? Have you ever seen the abuse directed at them by pro-Israel types? It’s some of the most vile abuse I have ever read, easily as bad as that from barking Nazis and head-banging Islamists.

  10. SteveH said,

    Are you Littlejohn in disguise, are you Littlejohn on disguise!!

  11. Andrew Coates said,

    The problem with all this talk of ‘Islamophobia’ by Lady Warsi and Fraser is that it reduces a complex decentred and richly different range of practices and beliefs to a single menacing essence.

    At Guardian and religious dinner parties people think nothing of holding forth about ‘Islamophobia’. They say things – that anyone who criticised Islam or Islamisim is a racist neonazi – that a few years back would have not been acceptable in polite society.

    Prejudices about the Enligtenement – claims that it was a major cause of imperialism and racialism – are spouted after a a few glasses of tepid white wine.

    Allegations that link secularists to the BNP come out without a moment’s thought.

    Opponents of the Iranian regime as answered by citations from George Galloway’s programme on Press TV.

    Sniggers at the plight of Arab Christians follow, justified by pointing to their US-funded Islamophobia.

    It really is a disgrace.

  12. sackcloth and ashes said,

    SteveH, come back to this site when you’ve reached puberty, and you’ve got something intelligent to say.

    The point about Warsi – which Fraser overlooks – is that Warsi picked on the wrong target. If she wanted to make a serious point about Islamophobia, she could have drawn attention to the tendency of certain tabloids (e.g. ‘Star’, ‘Express’, ‘Mail’ and ‘Sun’) to print inflammatory headlines, and also to deliberately focus on marginal cretins like Choudary in order to whip up hysteria and sell newspapers.

    Prime example – a couple of fruitcakes shout abuse from the public gallery after Stephen Timm’s would-be assassin is sentenced, the ‘Express’ prints a front-page story with the headline ‘Muslims tell Britain: Go to Hell’.

    Now if Baroness Warsi had focused her speech on this rabble-rousing, she would have had a point, but she chose not to. I presume that had nothing to do with the fact that the guilty parties were newpapers that backed the Tories.

    Instead, she set up a straw man, claiming that anyone concerned with standing up for secularism and democracy against theocracy is a bigot. Pardon me for not applauding her.

  13. Dr Paul said,

    I thought that Fraser’s article actually raised something important: just at what point does criticism of religion — either in general or in respect of a particular one — move from being a valid critique to something that aids persecution. I don’t think that he really answered it, but his raising of it deserves better than writing his piece off as ‘yet another attempt by the religious to make out that criticism of religion is a form of bigotry’.

    I think that as Europe reels in the throes of a deep economic and social crisis, hostility to Muslims will become a defining factor of political and broader discourse. When I viewed the widespread comments made on many websites about the recent convictions of Muslim men on prostitution charges, I was struck by the similarities between the flood of vicious anti-Muslim statements and the anti-Jewish comments in Mosley’s Action of the 1930s, in which every crime, especially the lurid ones, committed by Jews, and especially Jewish refugees, was emphasised.

    Anti-Muslim sentiments are becoming a major factor in European society. In Britain, only the fascist right have actively mobilised around anti-Muslim hostility; however, some daily newspapers carry on a ‘drip-drip’ kind of anti-Muslim propaganda campaign. In some other countries this has gone a lot further, and outright anti-Muslim parties have garnered quite respectable (if that’s the right word) votes. It is not impossible that anti-Muslim sentiments may become as pervasive as anti-communism was during the Cold War, or as anti-Semitism was in places during the 1930s.

    The Marxist left is in a difficult spot here. What Fraser alludes to is that suspicion of religious obscurantism is part of a modern viewpoint. I remember when I was young, Roman Catholics were viewed with some suspicion as they let the priest and church into their lives a lot more than Anglicans, they had big families, they had this weird fixation with the Virgin Mary, and so on. Many people today find the fervour of many Muslims a bit peculiar, and see the central role of religion in their lives as old-fashioned and alien to a modern world. In today’s atmosphere of social insecurity, when scapegoats are sought, a modernistic suspicion of religious obscurantism can easily become incorporated in a campaign against a religion that has many obscurantist and old-fashioned views.

    So, how do we Marxists on the one hand oppose discrimination against and persecution of a religious group, whilst on the other uphold the basic tenets of modernity that cut across the teachings and practices that the group may promote? How does one prevent suspicion of religious obscurantism become hostility to adherents of this or that religious group? How does one handle the contradiction between the defence of religious freedom and opposition to obscurantist ideas about, say, women or gays promoted by a particular group? This is made all the more difficult today when right-wingers are mobilising anti-Muslim sentiments around the defence of modern norms.

    Fraser is neither an idiot nor a shyster. He deserves better than that. He is trying to articulate a key problem facing not only radical religious types like himself, but also, and more importantly, secular people like ourselves who are faced with both growing religious obscurantism and growing reactionary sentiments that key into and are mobilised around the defence of modern ideas and practices.

  14. sackcloth and ashes said,

    Re: my last post, I know I misspelt ‘Timms’. But I stand by the rest.

  15. SteveH said,

    Sackcloth, my critical comments get replaced by purile yip yap. Talk about puberty!

    Ironic how champions of liberty turn to censorship! An irony as old as liberty!

    But to be honest your articles deserve nothing but contempt.

    To the modern day racist, Muslims are the number 1 target. To deny this would be to place yourself firmly in the racist camp. This article by raising the ani semitic card, attempted to play down Islamophobia in the most vile way, a al Richard Littlejohn.

    Pathetic, really pathetic.

    Anyway, look forward to your analysis of this (NOT!)

    http://www.socialistunity.com/?p=7593

  16. SteveH said,

    Another good angle on the topic here:

    http://leninology.blogspot.com/2011/01/end-of-palestinian-authority.html#

    Cue sackcloth in full puerile infantile mode:

    “Let’s all go and read some blog containing the online diarrhoea of a swuppie dickhead.”

    You are giant Sackcloth, a real giant!

  17. sackcloth and ashes said,

    ‘Sackcloth, my critical comments get replaced by purile yip yap. Talk about puberty!’

    That’s probably because it makes more sense. I mean, you do link to Seymour’s crypt and Cardinal Newman’s website, which just goes to show what a stupid little twat you are.

    Now fuck off and leave this site to the adults.

  18. jim denham said,

    Dr Paul: you raise some interesting points, and I intend to return to them on this blog. But in the meanwhile, I note your comment that:

    ” I remember when I was young, Roman Catholics were viewed with some suspicion as they let the priest and church into their lives a lot more than Anglicans, they had big families, they had this weird fixation with the Virgin Mary, and so on. ”

    I would comment that while hostility against individual Catholics is clearly unaccepatble, all that stuff about priests, big families (ie lack of birth control), and the Virgin Mary, strikes me as perfectly reasonable objections to Catholicism that socialists would hold.

    Please note that I wrote “catholicism” and not “Catholics”: the crucial distinction that also applies to my comments about Giles Fraser and Islam (above); also please note that there is a history of dodgy groups latching on to “anti-racism” to justify their dodgy practices: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian-American_Civil_Rights_League

  19. sackcloth and ashes said,

    ‘please note that there is a history of dodgy groups latching on to “anti-racism” to justify their dodgy practices’.

    The SWP (although in their case ‘dodgy’ is a compliment) being another.

  20. Dr Paul said,

    There is a problem when dealing with religion from a secular viewpoint, one which Fraser tried to address: when does a critique of (say) Roman Catholicism become part of the victimisation of Roman Catholics?

    Were Roman Catholicism to come under attack, in a similar way as during the anti-Catholic riots in England or Bismarck’s ‘Kulturkampf’, with a popular upsurge against the church and its adherents, even becoming an official policy, how would we deal with backward attitudes towards gays and women, etc, without becoming associated with right-wing chauvinist elements who used such examples to attack the church and its adherents? Would not our critiques of backward ideas be merely seen by Catholics as another part of the overall persecution?

    I am certain that intolerance towards Muslims is becoming part of the quest of the right wing to concoct some sort of ‘European’ identity, and what I wrote above about the problem of socialists defending modern norms against religious obscurantism applies here, only in a concrete rather than hypothetical form. The left must be able to defend and promote — indeed, it must champion — modern practices and ideas without members of a religion under attack feeling that we are part of that assault.

    I feel that with anti-Muslim sentiments the left must try to offer a clear alternative to both religious obscurantism and chauvinism that uses a secularist image, one that shows that, on the one hand, we have no truck with obscurantism, and, on the other, aren’t howling along with the chauvinist wolves. Can we draw lessons from the Cold War when we were faced with both anti-communism and Stalinism, when Marxists condemned Stalinism without giving credence to capitalist ideology?

  21. Mike Killingworth said,

    I’m not sure that’s a very happy analogy, Dr Paul. After all, when “actually existing Communism” collapsed at the end of the 1980s, most Western labour or social democratic parties couldn’t get rid of socialism (and their socialist members) quickly enough… and wasn’t there also a Trot groupuscule that turned into a dubious bunch of libertarian capitalists too?

  22. Dr Paul said,

    Analogies are by their very nature sometimes unhappy, and Stalinism as an ideology was predicated upon the existence of a specific socio-economic formation that is now defunct except for a couple of largely irrelevant backwaters. Religions are based upon a far less specific but much broader material base and, as Roman Catholicism shows well, can adapt quite nicely to fundamental socio-economic transformations (in its case from feudalism to capitalism).

    Why I raised the question of an alternative to both bourgeois ideology and Stalinism as a model for the left to oppose anti-Muslim sentiments was to raise the matter of political or ideological independence: one could not oppose Stalinism from a socialist direction without distinguishing oneself from capitalism, and vice versa.

    What is different about today’s anti-Muslim sentiments is that we have an ideological phenomenon that is concerned with a religion. Stalinism was overtly a political phenomenon (notwithstanding the religious attitude of some Stalinists), and anti-Semitism over the last 100 or so years has been aimed at Jews as an ethnic/national phenomenon, with the Jewish religion as a secondary factor.

    Fraser’s article raises the question of whether anti-Muslim sentiments are an alibi for racism, and I agree with him that they are. Certainly, some EDL types can’t distinguish between an Asian Muslim and an Asian of some other religious belief, especially after a few pints. And as I wrote earlier, the growth of anti-Muslim sentiments is a central part of forging a right-wing ‘European’ identity. Hence, what lurks behind the rise of such sentiments is a solidly racist agenda: Muslims, who are largely not of any European ethnicity, don’t ‘belong’ in Europe.

    The struggle against Stalinism was essentially political, the fight against anti-Semitism was part of the fight for racial equality. Although anti-Muslim sentiments are part of a racist agenda, they can’t be fought simply as we would with anti-black or anti-Jewish sentiments.

    How — and this is the basic question — do we oppose the victimisation of a religious group without making any concessions either to the tenets and conduct of members of that group when they transgress the modernist norms which we uphold, whilst at the same time dissociating ourselves from the use of modernist norms by the various anti-Muslim forces?

    After Hitler’s victory in 1933, Trotsky made the point that the working class had to defend democratic rights, including those of a bourgeois nature, against fascism, but could not rely upon the liberals and social democrats, who had by their conduct discredited the ideas of democracy, and thus played into the Nazis’ hands. An independent campaign was required. I feel that a secular approach can only be effective — that is, will not be seen by, in today’s case, Muslims — as an attack upon them as believers if we have a consistent policy in respect of religion and society.

    This involves cutting all official links between churches and the state: no legal privileges for any religion; no religious schools (no more new ones, and existing ones to be stripped of religious affiliations, religious education to be comparative and non-favouring). Religion should be a private, personal matter, and should not intrude upon official functions and practices. Religious beliefs are reinforced by social inequality and insecurity; a secular approach must involve a commitment to social equality and the eradication of exploitation.

  23. Paddy Chadderton said,

    I heard Fraser on The Moral Maze today (iPlayer), the subject was “Religious Othodoxy vs Liberal Values”. It was very disturbing and led me to search “Giles Fraser Dickhead”, which returned your blog.
    Thanks.

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