We should not abandon secularism

We should not abandon secularism

Interview with Pragna Patel and Gita Sahgal


Maryam Namazie: The term post-secular is being used a lot recently to say that western secularism may have come to an end and that it’s irrelevant for other societies, particularly given the “religious revival.” Is there a religious revival or is it political? Is secularism western and irrelevant for other societies or the west for that matter? Your comments?

Pragna Patel: Ever since the Salman Rushdie Affair burst on to our scenes in 1989, we have witnessed a steady rise of religious fundamentalist movements in all religions. So the question is not so much about religious revivalism but about the rise of religious political power. The revival of religion and the rise of political religious power which defines religious fundamentalist movements go hand in hand.

In the UK, we have been witness to the revival of religion as the main marker of identity; a framework by which the needs of minority communities have been articulated and addressed. This has led to a greater accommodation of religion within state institutions and in the wider public culture, reflecting a number of global and national economic, political and social trends. But the groups that have tended to dominate as mediators in the development of the new social contract between state and minority communities are authoritarian and conservative if not fundamentalist. Their demands for a seat at the public table are particularly disturbing because what they seek to do is to redefine religious values and identities so that they are compatible with their own reactionary, patriarchal and anti-democratic world views. These fundamentalists often masquerade as ‘moderates’ but there is nothing moderate about their views on women and female sexuality. What they seek to do is to impose strict religious identities that encourage gender apartheid and force women to retreat into the private sphere of the home. It is no accident that in the last decade or so, internal dissent against religious fundamentalist and orthodox values have largely focused on the need to discipline women and to control female sexuality. If we look at the key flash points in the UK, from the Behzti play (involving Sikh fundamentalists who successfully opposed the staging of a play on rape in a Sikh temple) to the imposition of veiling and sharia law on women and girls, they have all been articulated in the name of the right to manifest religion but are really about the control of female sexuality.

This political use of religion has often involved the appropriation of progressive and secular language and spaces created through struggles for democracy and equality by many, including black and minority women. For instance, religious fundamentalists and ‘moderates’ alike are engaged in substituting the demand for equality with the demand for ‘religious literacy.’ That is, the demand for the State to recognise the supposedly ‘authentic’ theological values and traditions of minorities, but not the recognition of the diverse, syncretic, liberal, cultural, political, religious and secular traditions, including feminist traditions, within a community.

These other traditions are in danger of being obliterated by the shift from ‘multiculturalism’ to ‘multi-faithism’ which has of course benefited from and accelerated under successive British government agendas on ‘Cohesion’, ‘Integration’ and the ‘Big Society.’ The struggle for secularism is therefore directly linked to the struggle for gender justice and racial equality which under the shadow of neoliberal economics and politics is being severely undermined.

Secularism as a concept is not alien to minorities or to those from the ex colonies. Indeed in many parts of the world, the struggle against colonialism was also a struggle for democratic and secular societies. And in the course of such struggles, the meaning of secular values was transformed so even if the concept had its roots in western enlightenment, it has evolved through struggles against colonialism. It is vital that we do not forget this history by seeking to distance ourselves from the struggle for secularism. Why? Because what we are witness to is this process of re-definition from above (the state) and below (religious fundamentalist leaders) which is resulting in a diminishing welfare state on the one hand and on the other hand the communalisation (community groups and civil society organising solely around religious identities) of minority communities. The de-secularisation process is extremely damaging to struggles for democracy and human rights (especially women’s human rights) in our community and family institutions. It encourages the State to relate to us not as citizens but as subjects defined only by reference to religious identity which is increasingly defined by religious fundamentalists. It prevents us from uniting with others on the basis of need and weakens our struggles against racism, equality and gender justice based on universal values of human rights.

Maryam Namazie: Some will say defending secularism, and opposing religion in the state feeds into racism and imperialism; it’s colonialist and doesn’t acknowledge the positive role religion can and has played.

Pragna Patel: This is the same old diatribe that is always trotted out when dealing with issues of racism and imperialism. As black and minority women we have faced these accusations many times; whenever we have struggled against issues like domestic and sexual violence within our communities, we are told that we are being divisive and that we are playing into the hands of the forces of imperialism. At best, we are told that ‘now is not the time to deal with these issues’ or at worst we are ‘traitors to the anti-racist or anti-imperialist cause.’ There are many, including on the so called progressive left who say that in the post 9/11 climate defined by the rise in anti-Muslim racism, defending secularism is tantamount to supporting racism and imperialism. We respond to this in a number of ways:

Firstly, conceptualising secularism as anti religion is a false premise. Secularism is not about the absence of religion in people’s individual lives. Secularism is essentially about de-linking religion from political power in the family, community and in state institutions. Religion cannot be allowed to define our roles and our values because it is based on hierarchies of power and inequality. It will always limit the freedom of those who are seen as threatening such as women, sexual minorities and indeed other religious minorities. Religion can play and does play a positive role in the lives of many of the abused women that we see, for example, at Southall Black Sisters (SBS) but that does not translate into a desire on their part to have their needs met through religion. In fact, many see religion as a personal matter but not as the basis for receiving legal and welfare services which they wish to remain secular and free from religious power exercised by corrupt patriarchs.

In 2009/2010, SBS conducted a small study to shed light on whether or not the revival of religion constitutes the counter-voice of the many black and minority women who need help to secure their rights in contexts where they are vulnerable and marginalised. In-depth interviews were conducted with 21 women from different religious backgrounds. The results can be found in ‘Cohesion, Faith and Gender’ and shows that vast majority are acutely critical and even fearful of aspects of their tradition, culture and religion that perpetuate gender inequality, discrimination and violence. Although most are believers and often turn to religion for spiritual sustenance, none express any sense of belonging to a faith-based community. Women in the SBS study reveal how they negotiate and contest their identities on a daily basis. This is precisely why they all cherish the secular space provided by SBS which they experience as an empowering space that enables them to gain access to other ideas, traditions and cultures. More importantly, they values SBS as a secular space because it unlocks their access to secular State services, including the legal and welfare system, which many regard as the final safety net in their struggle to assert their fundamental human rights and freedoms. What the women’s voices tell us is that religion can have a positive role to play but if and only if it is willing to align itself to the demand for a democratic and secular state in which the rights of all are guaranteed.

Secularism is important for women’s freedom but it is also important for others who are marginalised including religious minorities because it has the potential to guarantee freedom of worship for all. However, we also recognise that the demand for secularism – essentially the demand for the separation of church and state – is not in itself a sufficient pre-condition although it is a necessary one. The demand for secularism must out of necessity, also be tied to the demand for democracy and equality to prevent the rise of authoritarianism or totalitarianism.

Secondly, if we don’t defend secular values and instead embrace religious ones then we will be guilty of developing counter resistance strategies against racism and imperialism that hides other forms of oppression. Religion cannot be embraced as a framework for articulating disaffection and alienation or to address questions of equality and rights since its very foundation is based on recognising some rights but not others. We see this most clearly played out in the clash between the right to manifest religion and the right to be free from religion. Women who want to be free from religious impositions that deny them their autonomy and sexual freedom are constantly excluded. But we need to alert to the ways in which this exclusion is actually articulated. Often demands for the right to manifest religion may seem on the surface to be progressive but in fact hide a highly reactionary agenda. A good example of this is the recent capitulation by Universities UK (UUK), a representative body of universities in the UK, to demands for gender segregation in universities. UUK has without any hesitation, accepted the right of external visiting speakers to insist on segregating their audience according to gender on the grounds of their religious beliefs. This response is a victory for Islamist groups who have been the most vociferous in making such demands. UUK has justified its position on the grounds that universities need to accommodate the genuinely held wishes or beliefs of those who are religious and states that this arrangement will not be discriminatory as long as ‘both men and women are being treated equally, as long as they are both being segregated in the same way.’ It would appear that UUK is ignorant of the history and struggles against racial discrimination based on the flawed logic of ‘separate but equal.’ Such logic legitimised racial apartheid in South Africa and now legitimises gender apartheid. There is a disturbing failure to recognise that this stance will allow the right to manifest religion (a qualified right) to trump the right to be free from gender discrimination and subjugation (an absolute right).

What we mustn’t do is capitulate to the form of lazy and expedient thinking and activism that argues that supporting demands for a secular state is fuelling western imperialism. Instead, we have to find the courage and vision to fight racism/imperialism and religious fundamentalism at the same time, which means being alert to those who seek to undermine the relevance of secularism for minorities and to those who use it to mask a language of majoritarianism and ethnocentrism. Taking this position does not make us complicit in anti-Muslim racism or in other forms of racism. Quite frankly, we can no longer afford to put up with the argument that ‘now is not the time to raise religious fundamentalism’ any longer because in the silence that ensues, we hide our own forms of fascism which we then are not willing to recognise. This is a very dangerous path to tread.

Thirdly, ironically, it is the accusation that secularism is a western concept and imposition that actually panders to colonial and racist constructions of minorities because it assumes that minorities can only be defined by reference to their religious identities. This stance denies the very real and urgent human rights struggles that are taking place around the world by ordinary people everywhere, many in the ex colonies. If anyone is in any doubt just take a look at the recent book by Karima Bennoune ‘Your fatwa does not apply here anymore.’ She documents hundreds of everyday struggles waged by individual men and women including politicians, writers, artists and activists against religious fundamentalists across the Muslim world. She argues that their struggles stand for and seek to create secular, human rights and democratic values but they have largely been ignored if not silenced including by those who see themselves as anti-imperialists, to devastating effect. She pleads for the need to bear witness to the countless forms of resistance that is taking place every day against fundamentalist violence. Nor are these struggles inherent to Muslims but can be found wherever religion seeks political power.

Maryam Namazie: There are those who say defending the strict separation of religion from the state is just another form of fundamentalism, namely secular fundamentalism. Can the two be compared?

Gita Sahgal: The people who condemn ‘secular fundamentalism’ are very often the same people who do not like to use the term correctly to refer to religious fundamentalism. They say that they don’t like to use religious fundamentalism because it is only applied to Muslims, or that it covers too broad a category. So it’s really odd that they are willing to refer to secular fundamentalism, which I think is not a sensible comparison; nor do I think it is a legitimate term.

Like Islamophobia, it is almost invariably used to silence criticism. The person using it is saying, “I am reasonable and nuanced and accommodate religious belief. The ‘secular fundamentalist’ does not accommodate religion.” Actually secularism is a view of the world which guarantees freedom to hold religious belief while limiting manifestations of religion which are harmful in some way. I have often been labelled a secular fundamentalist for arguing that religion should be excluded from special protection or promotion by the state, and that the law is made by human beings and does not come from god. Most religious minorities in South Asia are passionately secular in that they oppose a state religion. In Bangladesh, the Awami League government promised to remove Islam as the state religion and return to the original Constitution of Bangladesh. However, they did not do so but left a hotch-potch with secular principles in the preamble to the Constitution, whilst maintaining the amendments that made Islam the state religion. Muslims in India feel very threatened by Hindu fundamentalists and would oppose India becoming a Hindu state. These views are compatible with human rights; in fact they are the underpinning of human rights – since human rights are the inalienable right of all human beings and won through centuries of human struggle. They were not given by revelation or by Holy Writ.

Religious fundamentalists on the other hand represent the destruction of the most fundamental of all human rights principles – liberty and equality. In fact they threaten every part of the legal human rights framework – there is no civil and political right – such as the right to life, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the principles of equality and non-discrimination that religious fundamentalists do not seek to destroy. They also threaten other rights such as the right to the benefits of scientific progress, to health and to education. This is true of numerous movements which work within the law and not only the terrorist groups. I don’t see how you can reasonably compare someone who firmly upholds basic, recognised principles of human rights with someone who seeks to overthrow them. Certainly there are people who use the idea of secularism to promote a racist discourse about minorities. This is particularly true in Europe. In Britain, the same people tend to emphasize British values and the Christian character of the State in order to exclude and demonise. The idea of secularism can be misused but the term secular fundamentalism doesn’t capture this. In any case, the term is seldom applied to European racists who sometimes use the idea of secularism to promote dominant religious values. In India, we also see right wing Hindu organisations attack the Congress for being ‘pseudo-secular,’ and try and own the idea of secularism themselves.

We should not abandon the idea of secular space in our own movements, nor should we abandon the idea of secularism. Many people are leaving fundamentalist organisations and embracing secular space.

The point is to oppose all those who are using a critique of secularism to promote a rule by majority instead of a rule of law. But people using the term ‘secular fundamentalist’ are often not mounting any substantial critique. Instead they seek to demonise those of us who are clear and firm about separating religion from state and from public policy.

I have also been accused, generally by Christians in Britain, not only of being a ‘secular fundamentalist’ but of having blood on my hands when arguing the case for the disestablishment of the Church or for other secular policies. I think it is really odd that someone who takes their inspiration from Gandhi and Nehru should be treated like a descendent of Hitler or Stalin.

In ‘Refusing Holy Orders: Women and Fundamentalism in Britain,’ which I edited with Nira Yuval Davis, we argued that:

“Fundamentalist movements, all over the world, are basically political movements which have a religious imperative and seek in various ways, in widely differing circumstances, to harness modern state and media powers to the service of their gospel. This gospel is presented as the only valid form of religion. It can rely heavily on sacred religious texts, but it can also be more experiential and linked to specific charismatic leadership. Fundamentalism can align itself with different political trends in different countries and manifest itself in many forms. It can appear as a form of orthodoxy – a maintenance of ‘traditional values’ – or as a revivalist radical phenomenon, dismissing impure and corrupt forms of religion to ‘return to original sources’.”

Maryam Namazie: What would you say to those who assert that we should work with everyone we can in the fight against sharia or religious laws and Islamism, including the likes of the English Defence League and Tommy Robinson. They would say the differences between us and them are manufactured, divisive and intolerant and hold back our movement. They would claim our differences are a facade held up by the left in its aim to de-legitimise anyone who speaks out.

Gita Sahgal: I understand why some campaigners against religious fundamentalism, particularly against Islamism are very frustrated. We know that those who should be our allies have allied instead with the fundamentalists of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jamaat e Islami, the Islamic Human Rights Commission and Cageprisoners. That list pretty much represents a broad range of Islamists around the world: the Saudi backed groups, the pro Khomeini groups, a pro al Qaida public relations network and two of the largest Muslim fundamentalist organisations in the world. I have done extensive work on the Jamaat e Islami and Cageprisoners, who extol the virtues of people with much blood on their hands. It is beyond belief that leftists, Quakers, liberal Jews all of whom are their targets, should choose to sit with these people at inter-faith meetings, donate money to their causes and justify their political agendas. Amnesty International supported the idea of ‘defensive jihad’ and they have never explained why. Human Rights Watch welcomed the Muslim Brotherhood to power and called us racists for pointing out that they were a threat to human rights. The Stop the War Coalition has been exposed by you, Maryam in your work as well as in our book ‘Double Bind: the Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left and Universal Human Rights.’

But as your book, Enemies Not Allies, pointed out, it is no use allying with one set of extremists to oppose another. The English Defence League are a nasty rabble who want to spread terror on the streets. We don’t know if they are responsible for the attacks on mosques and Muslim schools and community centres. But they were certainly the inspiration for Andre Brevik in his murderous attack on a plural society. It is true that the European far-right have in recent times not killed nearly as many people as the Muslim far-right movements. But we should not be choosing to side with murderers or those promoting murder. You cannot build a principled movement on foundations where basic principles have become blurred.

As for Tommy Robinson: it is clever of the Quilliam Foundation run by former Islamists, to persuade him to leave the English Defence League because it creates confusion in their ranks. But he doesn’t yet really appear to have fundamentally changed his views. In fact, the presence of the EDL on the streets has mobilised the SWP and its allies and the Muslim fundamentalists as well as some genuine anti-racist who don’t have an anti-fascist movement to turn to. And that is what we need – a real anti-fascist, anti-extremist movement.

I would really urge anyone thinking of entering into any sort of alliance with the EDL to refrain from doing so. They have very little actual presence and what little short term gains they made in getting a new audience of a few angry young men, would soon be lost. Valuable work showing the damage done by Islamism – gender apartheid, sharia courts, etc. would be twisted into a fundamentally racist discourse.

It is true that many pro-fundamentalist leftists and post-modernists do seek to silence people who speak for One Law for All or the Centre for Secular Space (Southall Black Sisters are the good cops to our bad cops and I don’t know of attempts to silence them), but whereas we stand today on firm and principled ground, we would not be able to do so with far-right allies.

But I don’t want to sound too disheartened. There is an entire generation of political activists and post-modernist and post-colonial academics who I think of as a ‘lost generation.’ I think there is little use trying to wean them away from their thinking as post-feminist, post-secular and post-colonial types. They have invested too heavily in talking mumbo-jumbo and they really can’t stop. But there are older people who remember a universalist left and there are younger people who have come into politics through their challenge to religion on the one hand or fundamentalist organisations on the other. We should not only notice the rise of political religion, but also a very public rise in mass movements challenging religion and fundamentalism. The Atheist, Humanist and Secular Society – a British student movement, attracts students from all over the world. There are young people struggling against the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat e Islami in many countries. The movement of ex- Muslims is quite phenomenal. These are the people we are working with at the Centre for Secular Space. It would be a betrayal of their struggles against racism in this country and the promotion of fundamentalism by the British state to ally with racists who want to kill them.

Maryam Namazie: Some will say that people have a right to a western perspective, a right to their country, and a right to object to the changes and dangers brought to it by mass influxes of people from cultures they don’t understand or recognise. Is that really the main problem here?

Gita Sahgal: Pragna and I are first generation immigrants. We are among that mass influx and we certainly wear strange clothes, eat odd food and refer to values and beliefs that are little recognised in Britain. I remember when we issued our statement in support of Rushdie, we referred to our secular traditions, because of course we knew that Britain was a Christian state – and though it was a liberal state, it was precisely the unfairness of having an established religion that allowed fundamentalists to demand equality by having a blasphemy law that protected Islam. So we had to argue a third position – against the established Church and for abolishing the blasphemy law. We are also republicans. Does that mean we are against British values?

Pragna and I and many other progressives have had a critique of multiculturalism which is over twenty years old. It is quite different from the critiques mounted by a range of right wing commentators, who tend to blame immigrants and immigration for the problem; and whose analysis of multiculturalism really removes the state from its responsibility. They do not apply this analysis to the conduct of foreign policy either. If it were not for immigrants such as Pragna, Kenan Malik or me, there wouldn’t be the critique of multiculturalism that we have today.

A low wage economy, the destruction of the welfare state and the lack of infrastructure to absorb migration are many of the reasons that some people may become afraid. It is very wrong to blame the people who helped to build the state and create an intellectual critique of fundamentalism and racism, for the problem.

There are many people with a pride in their country and their religious traditions who are not extremists or racist in any way. Certainly the cosmopolitan left, of which I’m a part has often failed to recognise that. I’ve seen critiques of the historian and peace activist EP Thompson for being too ‘English.’ The people who said that didn’t know what they were talking about. He was the most internationalist of men and unusually defended young Indians who were fighting the Emergency (a period of dictatorship in India). Indira Gandhi had allies in the Labour party and people like Michael Foot supported the Emergency. He also worked hard to develop relationships with dissidents in Eastern Europe and not simply make alliances with the official state-sponsored peace movements which were really just Soviet fronts. That is a very good model for us to look at.

I think back to my ancestors who were jailed for years for opposing British imperialism. They were also visceral anti-fascists and utterly opposed to Nazi Germany and Japan’s brutal attacks on other Asian countries. They argued that India would join the war effort as an independent country but not as subject nation. However, they did not ally with Germany or Japan (though some Indian nationalists did on the ‘enemy’s enemy’ principle). If they could keep their faith in a progressive and plural nationalism and in universal values in that most difficult of times, so can we.

Maryam Namazie: Why is secularism so important in this day and age and particularly as a pre-condition for women’s rights? Islamic feminists would say that women’s rights can be respected under Islam too and there is no need to separate religion from the state if it is properly interpreted.

Pragna Patel: Perhaps the most urgent struggle taking place today in a variety of contexts is the struggle for women’s right in the face of religious fundamentalism. The rise of religious identity as a counter hegemonic identity has very specific consequences for all progressive struggles but especially for those waged by minority women, whose bodies have become the battleground for the control of community representation.

Some feminists from minority backgrounds talk of the need to develop a feminism that is sensitive to the growth of religious values especially in the light of anti-Muslim racism. But these ‘religious feminists’ seek to work within religious frameworks that make the demand for the recognition of religious identity paramount rather than the need for substantive gender equality. We argue that this trend towards developing a religious based feminism makes no sense in contexts like the British situation where secular spaces still exist and where there is a long, rich and vibrant tradition of secular feminism as in the UK.

Without a shadow of a doubt, over the last three decades, secular black and minority women’s projects across the UK have been the driving force behind successful campaigns and services for women who experience gender-based violence including specific cultural and religious forms of harm within black and minority communities. By establishing advice centres, counselling services and refuges, black and minority women have challenged community norms that reproduce a culture of denial and silence. In the process they have developed the analysis and the experience needed to challenge State and community practices that justify and excuse violence against women. Despite often operating in contexts of great hostility, these efforts have led to new laws, improved legal interventions and helped to create statutory guidelines on a range of issues such as domestic violence, honour related crimes, forced marriage and child abuse. It is this work and not the work of religious and community leaders or institutions that has led to increased awareness and to progress in respect of black and minority women’s human rights.

Despite this track record, ‘religious’ forms of feminism have emerged as a counter voice to so called ‘western secular feminism.’ Often our critique of such feminism and their demands for greater religious recognition in state institutions, for example the demand to wear the veil or seek a divorce through sharia courts, is met with the accusation that we are denying Muslim female agency. Yet questions of which social and political forces are at play in demands for greater accommodation of religious identity and who defines religious values and for what purpose, are rarely considered. Instead, notions of ‘community’ and ‘autonomy’ – the cornerstone of feminist analysis, embodied in campaigns for freedom, especially in the private sphere, are being used to shore up a regressive multi-faith framework.

We should for example, be extremely wary of demands for separate religious laws to govern family matters in minority communities because what they appear to do is to create the conditions for the establishment of parallel legal systems based on divine law which is profoundly anti-democratic, misogynist and homophobic. Such arbitration systems seek to uphold rather than interrogate patriarchal power. There is an assumption that women who access such religious arbitration forums are doing so voluntarily and are therefore exercising their autonomy but this is misleading, since few women, irrespective of their backgrounds, have the legal knowledge or the resources to withstand pressure to conform to custom or invoke a broader set of citizenship and human rights. It is precisely because of the lack of any internal democratic means of accountability and other difficulties in securing their safety from within their communities that many minority women, as the SBS study shows, prefer to seek protection through a range of secular state agencies.

Discussions of Muslim female agency are in any case removed from the increasingly transnational religious political and social movements that give rise to the kind of demands that are being made. The critical point that is ignored is that female agency is constrained and framed through religious forces and that what we are witness to is the unfolding of a bigger power struggle for the control of female sexuality and women’s freedoms and rights more generally – a central goal of all religious-right projects. This is the danger that religious feminists do not recognise but ordinary women engaged in struggles for greater freedom in the private sphere so readily recognise.

Ultimately, such ‘religious’ forms of so-called feminism seeks to align themselves with rather than challenge religious right movements which in the UK have increasingly dominated the ‘anti-racist’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ counter voice. Their goal is clear – to bring secularism into disrepute as a ‘western’ concept and to restrict minority women’s exit options from oppressive patriarchal family practices.

Religious fundamentalism poses a serious threat to the universality of human rights and to the secular fabric of the legal and other public institutions that are so central in gaining access to justice and protection for women and other marginalised people. This is why the struggle for secularism is so directly related to the struggle for women’s rights.

Pragna Patel is the Director of Southall Black Sisters. Gita Sahgal is the Director of Centre for Secular Space.

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