There’s an interesting debate going on at Shiraz Socialist. A rousing defence of secularism by Andrew Coates has provoked this response by Ian Birchall – a writer perhaps best known for sending hate mail to Polly Toynbee.
As Voltaire’s Priest says, Birchall’s article is a shaky defence of the SWP’s collapsing alliance with religious reactionaries.
Coates has already replied to Birchall and does a pretty good job, particularly with Birchall’s confusions over the Enlightenment and French secularism. But there are a few points of Birchall’s I would like to take up.
Let’s begin with his Enlightenment revisionism.
1) Smearing Voltaire
At the same time the Enlightenment was predominantly bourgeois. The leading Enlightenment figures had a deep distrust of the masses. There is a story – perhaps apocryphal, but reflecting much that he wrote – that when one of Voltaire’s visitors started a conversation about atheism, Voltaire sent the servants out of the room, worried that if they lost their fear of God they would murder him in his bed. And those who are so shocked by George Galloway’s formal politeness to Saddam Hussein should look at Voltaire’s relations with Frederick the Great – or Diderot’s with Catherine the Great.
Although he says that the Enlightenment ‘must be understood in historical terms’ Birchall doesn’t seem to realise that even radical thinkers can be infected by the prejudices of their time – Marx, for example, displayed antisemitism in his writing.
What Birchall does here is to throw around insinuations against Voltaire’s character in the hope that this will invalidate his thinking. It’s the argument that historian Victor Davis Hanson defined as: ‘Because our ancestors weren’t perfect, they weren’t good.’
As for his claim that Enlightenment thinkers were ‘predominantly bourgeois’ – I suspect that if the middle class was excluded from radical movements then the SWP would have to disband.
2) More doctrinaire flip-flopping
Marx rejected as idealist the notion that the main task of revolutionaries is to attack religion. What Marx argued – in the full text of the famous ‘opium of the people’ passage (‘Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’) – is that religion is the product of social conditions, and will only disappear when those social conditions disappear.
This is the dialectical contortion we’ve seen from John Molyneux – religion cannot be blamed for any ills because it is merely the expression of suffering and not the cause. (Also like Molyneux, Birchall attempts to defend faith by suggesting that Lenin’s totalitarian killers weren’t so hard on religion after all.)
It’s a common misreading of Marx, who wrote: ‘The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.’ A shame so many professed Marxists prefer to strengthen the illusion.
3) French secularism as imperial brainwashing
Universal state primary education, based on the principles of laïcité, was introduced in France in 1882. Partly this was, as elsewhere, a response to the need for literacy in a modernising economy. But there was another reason. France was a large, and mainly rural, country. A great many peasants had only the vaguest notion that they were French citizens. Yet in every village there was a priest. The rulers of the republic were afraid that too many peasants would follow the politics of the Vatican rather than of Paris. The schools were designed to give children a sense of the nation they belonged to. (It is no coincidence that the politician most associated with universal education, Jules Ferry, was also the architect of the French colonisation of Indochina.)
The strategy succeeded. In 1914 (despite the courageous opposition of a certain number of instituteurs and institutrices) the regime succeeded in mobilising the French peasantry into the trenches to defend ‘their’ Republic against the Germans.
As I’ve said, Coates has already dealt with this ahistorical nonsense – pointing out that French nationalists such as Maurice Barrès ‘explicitly attacked secular rationalist education, in Les Déracinés (1897) blaming it for France’s military weakness.’ It only remains to shake one’s head and wonder why Birchall thinks that denying education for the working class is a progressive stance. The countries so mired in poverty, disease and starvation are those where education is left to the clerics.
4) Atheism is for ivory-tower liberals
And as any observer of French political life knows, laïcité has all too often served as an alibi for those who have been willing to make disrespectful jokes about the Virgin Mary to cover up for the fact that they aren’t prepared to fight any real social grievances. The whole history of the Radical Party is there to prove it. And I suspect that many of those shouting loudest in the current furore over the hijab are those who have no intention of leading a fight against poverty, exploitation, unemployment or racism.
Here is some choice prolier-than-thou rhetoric – come on, no one’s bothered about this airy-fairy liberal secularism stuff, not down the Dog and Duck anyway. Fine. For that matter, I know a lot of people who care more about wheelie bin fines than global capitalism or rendition flights or the war in Iraq – does this mean we shouldn’t talk about these issues? Just because something is far from everyday concerns doesn’t mean it’s not important.
It’s impossible to give his words a more detailed analysis because Birchall gives no examples – only weasel phrases like ‘I suspect’.
He continues in this vein:
I don’t think they are issues which inspire much passion among most citizens… I am so bored by the whole issue of House of Lords reforms that I can’t even remember if the bishops are still in the House of Lords. Of course they shouldn’t be. Nonetheless in practice they might be more willing to speak out against, say, the invasion of Iraq, than many of the superannuated Labour MPs and trade-union bureaucrats who are there as ‘representatives of the working class’.
This is the crux of the matter for Birchall – clerics are good because some of them were against the war. He doesn’t consider the point that if we let the bishops hold on to constitutional power than we will eventually have to deal with new bishops, who maybe don’t have a problem with wars.
5) The difference between civil rights activists and Islamists
Birchall accuses Coates of wanting to ‘ban religion, not just from the apparatus of the state, but from ‘the public sphere’.’ Coates says nothing of the sort – and I know of no serious writer who has advocated this. Instead he calls for secularists to create ‘a republic with no established religion and to free education from the influence of spiritual doctrines.’ Translation: a constitutional separation of church and state and an end to faith schools.
Not rocket science, but Birchall, wilfully or inadvertantly, misunderstands it. He claims that ‘Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were both motivated by religious belief; would Coates have excluded them from the ‘public sphere’?’
This point keeps coming up. Molyneux and Birchall both say: ‘Well, Martin Luther King wasn’t an atheist – would you refuse to work with him?’ It has already been answered by Voltaire’s Priest but I should repeat that answer here. It is that King did not argue for a faith-based politics – he wanted a society based on equality and freedom that everyone could enjoy, believer or not.
(An interesting aside: Christopher Hitchens claims that focus on King and X neglects the secularists in the civil rights movement and ties into a condescending racist myth that black people are only motivated by gospel rhythms.)
Contemporary Islamists, on the other hand, want a society based on holy scriptures in which certain people are actively discriminated against. As Voltaire’s Priest puts it:
Birchall is being slippery because he ignores the fact that neither [Luther King nor Malcolm X] left a legacy of, nor was primarily known for, religious politics. This is very different from the SWP’s co-inhabitants of the Stop the War Coalition and (prior to the split) Respect, who are the Muslim Brotherhood’s UK offshoot, the Muslim Association of Britain. This is not to mention their wackier associates such as Dr ‘Dancing Cows’ Naseem of the Birmingham Central Mosque… and the Islamic Party of Britain. The political reality here is that whereas a coalition with people who happen to have a religious faith could obviously be built around a single issue, actively forming political blocs with religious-political parties is a very different matter. Birchall, of course, brushes over this rather crucial distinction.
And it does irritate to see Birchall and others accuse atheists of being exclusionary in their activism when secularists have worked and do work with people from religious backgrounds – Sam Harris has fundraised for Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s security detail, and the March for Free Expression featured Muslim speakers: one of whom said, in response to the Danish cartoons furore, that ‘Mohammed is big enough to take a joke’.
6) Banning the veil
Now we get to the hijab ban – the issue that really animates Birchall.
Where does this leave the hijab? Coates claims it is oppressive. I have my doubts… The ‘simple fact’ is that in the customs of most societies men and women dress differently. The logic of Coates’ position – that women should not wear the hijab because men don’t – is that women should be obliged to bathe topless in public swimming pools.
Even if it were true that the hijab is oppressive, that would not justify a state ban. It has always been central to the socialist tradition (as distinct from Enlightenment elitism) that the emancipation of the oppressed is the task of the oppressed themselves. It greatly amuses me that Trotskyists who oppose state bans on fascists by reciting the appropriate quotes from Trotsky are quite willing to see the agents of the selfsame bourgeois state snatching scarves from young women’s heads.
One of my most vivid memories of the great anti-war demos was two young Asian women, marching side by side and sharing a megaphone, taking it in turn to shout anti-imperialist slogans. One wore the hijab, the other did not. Now I suspect that in private they have fierce arguments – and if my opinion were of any relevance, I would be on the side of the bare-headed one. But it is they, and they alone, who must determine whether they are oppressed and how to liberate themselves.
As we can see, Birchall’s understanding of the hijab issue is limited to experiences on antiwar demos and does not take in the point that the debate was also about the right not to wear the veil. (It’s also worth remembering that the veil has no Koranic authority.) Patrick Weil was against any proposed ban when he joined the French presidential commission on the hijab. He later changed his mind:
A large majority of Muslim girls do not want to wear the scarf; they too have the right of freedom of conscience. Principals and teachers have tried their best to bring back some order in an impossible situation where pressure, insults or violence sets pupils against one another, yet where to protest against this treatment is seen as treason to the community.
7) A defence of communalism
Birchall finishes by defending Respect’s appeal to faith communities over class by claiming that ‘the overwhelming majority of British Muslims are working class’. But the overwhelming majority of British Muslims do not vote Respect, and the party has recently and hilariously split, with councillors defecting to other parties.
So talk of communalism is irrelevant now, because the SWP never had significant support from British Muslims – working class or not.
Update: Martin comments on my use of the phrase ‘pro-faith left’:
[T]here was a time when this might have been an honourable term, used of Christian socialists and liberation theologians, rather than today’s pseudo-leftists kowtowing to fundamentalism.