Selective Secularism and Islamophobia

I really didn’t want to return to this subject. However, sadly in the light of recent developments, most notably yet another arson attack on a mosque – this time in Harlow, Essex – I feel that it’s necessary. Islamophobia continues to be a stain on our society.

In the last few days we have had Rupert Murdoch claiming that ‘multiculturalism has failed’ and ‘Muslims find it hardest to integrate’. As someone better known not for his sociological insights but rather his inability to abide by British law (phone hacking scandal anyone?), you’d like to think Mr Murdoch (who after all is himself an immigrant) would have a bit more humility. Bigotry from the proprietor of the Sun is not at all surprising. But what was shocking to me was when Stephen Fry took to Twitter to declare the following about Muslims (not Islamists or Jihadists or Islamic extremists, but Muslims): ‘Have a look around the world and see them slaughtering each other let alone others. So charming to women too’. This really is worrying; after all, Fry is a liberal and one of the most well-known ‘public intellectuals’ in Britain. So, you’d expect a bit more nuance than labeling 1.5bn people as inherently murderous and misogynistic. (And before I’m accused of inconsistency – if someone were to make sweeping negative generalizations about Christians or Jews, saying they were violent, homophobic or misogynistic, based upon a few quotations from the Bible or the Torah it would be unacceptable to me and I would challenge it. Such a claim would be unreasonable and simply false).

We have also seen a British judge rule that a Muslim woman must remove her burqa if she wanted to enter a plea. (Fair play to Judge Peter Murphy though I suppose; telling others what they should and shouldn’t wear when you’re a bearded bloke in robes with a 18th century-style wig on your head certainly takes some nerve). This news delighted our friends over at the Daily Mail, whose readers heralded it as a victory for ‘common sense’. But surely the real common sense solution would have been for a female staff member to have gone into a private room with the woman in question, verified that she was indeed who she claimed to be and then continue with the proceedings?

No doubt this will embolden those who want the UK to follow France’s example and ban the burqa. My view is this: while the burqa or niqab is not compulsory in Islam if an individual Muslim woman decides to interpret a Quranic verse in such a way that leads her to wear this piece of clothing, then in a free country that is her right. Let’s also remember that the full veil is not exclusive to Islam and is also worn by some Orthodox Jewish women. If there is any suspicion that a woman is being coerced into wearing it then of course legal authorities should intervene. Equally, in a free society, no-one should be coerced to do anything against their will.

But saying that something is offensive to you and therefore should be banned isn’t good enough. The problem is that people can find lots of things offensive, ranging from expletives on a T-Shirt or tattoos, to public displays of affection and Mumford & Sons. We have to live and let live. I understand why some see the burqa as a symbol of the oppression of women and this is the most likely explanation of its historical origins. However, some people maintain that women wearing make-up is a product of patriarchy, yet no British court is going to start demanding that women remove their make-up before they can enter a plea, and if someone went around telling women not to wear make-up, they would rightly be told to mind their own business. To reiterate, if a Muslim or Jewish woman chooses to wear a piece of clothing which after all, does no harm to anyone, who are you or I or the British state to tell them what’s actually ‘good’ for them?

What is quite discernible is that there are now a number of high-profile ‘liberal secularist’ media commentators such as Richard Dawkins, Nick Cohen, Douglas Murray and Anne Marie Waters whose particular focus is on Islam and Muslims. On the other side, the Independent’s Owen Jones and the New Statesman’s Mehdi Hasan are seemingly the only mainstream voices offering any serious and consistent defence of Muslims in Britain.

For example, in the aftermath of the sickening murder of Lee Rigby, Douglas Murray’s piece ‘Nothing to do with Islam?’ had this to say:

‘Anybody can pick up a Quran and read a verse such as ‘the verse of the sword’ (‘slay the infidels wherever you find them’)… They will also notice that (Muhammad) had some very unpleasant things to say about those who are ‘enemies’ of Islam. He did not, to draw one obvious comparison, always advocate turning the other cheek’.

Murray had to reduce this cherry-picked quotation to just seven words because if he gave any more context or background it might reveal that this verse refers to a very specific case where in the 7th century, Muslims were being repeatedly attacked during pilgrimage by a group of polytheistic Arabs. Mainstream Islam interprets this passage as meaning that killing someone in self-defense was permitted, even if the conflict took place on holy ground. Only in the imagination of both Douglas Murray and the crazed followers of Bin Laden does this mean that the Quran states that it is okay for Muslims to murder non-Muslims in the 21st century.

Moreover, Murray’s final sentence demonstrates that underlying the argument of these secularists is the decidedly anti-secular idea that Christianity is superior to Islam. In other words, ‘All religions are bad but Islam is the worst of all’. Yet, Murray is obviously unaware that the New Testament contains its own ‘sword verse’ in which Jesus, far from turning the other cheek declares, ‘Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword’. (Matthew 10:34). Will Douglas Murray follow this up with an article entitled ‘Nothing to do with Christianity?’ discussing the crimes perpetrated by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army or the terrorism of Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik – who is after all a self-professed ‘Christian Crusader’? And if not, why not?

I think Islamophobia is particularly apt term because there is an undeniable hysteria around all things Muslim. The mere mention of Sharia law immediately results in references to the repugnant beheadings, stonings, lashings and amputations that are carried out in Saudi Arabia and Iran. But as Mehdi Hasan has pointed out, ‘there is no book of Sharia law’. Just because these vicious, repressive, anti-democratic regimes engage in cruelty and injustice and call it ‘Islamic law’, doesn’t necessarily make it so – just as the Democratic Republic of Congo or the Democratic Unionist Party shouldn’t be held up as the embodiment of democracy.

The issue at hand is the function of Sharia courts in Britain, which bear no relation to the obscene punishments perpetrated in Riyadh. As that notorious Islamist Dr Rowan Williams, during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury explained, Sharia law in the UK plays a role in ‘aspects of marital law, the regulation of financial transactions and authorised structures of mediation and conflict resolution’. Likewise, another obvious Jihadist sympathizer, this time Baron Phillips of Worth Matravers, during his spell as Lord Chief Justice of England made clear that:

‘The key issues are family law, finance and business. In practice many Muslims do turn to Sharia guidance for many of these day-to-day matters, particularly family disputes… Muslims are increasingly looking to the example of Jewish communities which have long-established religious community courts… the Treasury has approved Sharia-compliant financial products such as mortgages and investments’.

The comparison to Jewish Beth Din courts is an important one. Again, self-appointed ‘anti-Sharia campaigner’ Anne Marie Waters, (who thankfully failed in a recent bid to become a Labour parliamentary candidate), claims to speak from a secular standpoint, yet curiously I cannot find a single word written by her against Jewish Beth Din courts. Why the double standard? When purported secularism is so blatantly selective, one could be forgiven for thinking that there is another agenda at work.

The reality is that religious courts whether Jewish or Muslim simply cannot under any circumstances override British law and can only deal with civil and never criminal matters. Many people might well be opposed in principle to the existence of any religious para-legal systems based upon the very legitimate concern that both Sharia and Beth Din courts are dominated by male judges, but let’s at least have this important discussion with reference to the reality of the situation and not indulge in alarmist misrepresentation and fear-mongering.

I feel that one of the problems on the left is that we sometimes don’t do enough to directly take on the arguments that are circulated by Islamophobes. Our perspective is that all forms of racism and prejudice serve only to divide and weaken the working class movement – and I agree wholeheartedly with this – but I often wonder how effective this is when we articulate it to people who do not share our class-based analysis. Again, for the sake of clarity, I am in no way suggesting that we should debate with fascists such as the BNP and the EDL, only our proud tradition of ‘no platform’ and mobilization on the streets is an adequate response to fascism. I am instead referring to people who are by no means knuckle-dragging racists but may have picked up a few of the widespread misconceptions about Muslims. In my opinion, it is incumbent upon all of us to get ourselves informed and challenge specific myths about Muslims.

One often-repeated lie is that Muslims don’t condemn terrorism. Personally, I don’t think that Muslims should have to condemn terrorism, just as I, as someone of Irish Catholic heritage don’t need to apologise for the bomb attacks carried out by the IRA. But leaving that aside, the reality is that the British Muslim community does condemn terrorism. Just two years ago, over 12 thousand Muslims gathered in London to reassert that terrorism has no basis in Islam. The conference declared “Islam has nothing to do with any act of terrorism. We reject every act of extremism and terrorism unconditionally.” It’s pretty difficult to get more unequivocal than that.

Another line is that mosques shouldn’t be allowed to be built here because so the argument goes, ‘you couldn’t build a church in a Muslim country’. Again, this is entirely untrue; there are Christian churches in majority Muslim countries like Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Qatar and Kuwait.

Furthermore, we often hear that halal slaughter is barbaric and must be banned. But listen to what Dr Harold Hillman founder member of Amnesty International and former reader in Physiology at the University of Surrey, has had to say:

‘There is plenty of evidence, direct and indirect, that an electrically stunned animal suffers more pain than a ritually slaughtered one. “Shechita” and “dhabihah” may be “centuries-old religious practices”, but it does not necessarily follow that we should oppose their use today without first thoroughly reviewing the evidence’. 

Above all, let’s resist the appalling generalizations made about Muslim people. The Muslim community in Britain is, shock horror, made up of complex individuals. I’ve met individuals who wear the hijab and listen to Linkin Park, individuals who are the only person in the office who’ll wish you a happy Xmas, individuals who’ll share their food with you on an overnight bus to London, individuals who pray five times a day and also subscribe to Grazia magazine.

What needs to be recognized is that the real impediment to integration is not Muslim self-segregation but the ever-increasing hostility towards Muslims in British society. It would be an absolute tragedy if well-meaning socialists who are secularists and atheists either failed to challenge, or worse, even joined in with the shameful chorus of anti-Muslim bigotry.


9 thoughts on “Selective Secularism and Islamophobia

  1. Don Quixote87 says:

    Very interesting piece Paul, but I think your classification of both Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry as anti-Muslim is inaccurate. They are both atheist/ anti-theists. Just off the top of my head I remember Dawkins describing being brought up Catholic as similar to child abuse and there is a very interesting debate on youtube between Stephen Fry, Christopher Hitchens, Anne Widdecombe and the Bishop of Lagos on the Catholic church.

    You are absolutely correct about the appalling generalizations made about the Muslim community, but many other groups deal with similar issues (black, LGBT etc.) and in many instances around the world religious doctrine (Christianity as much as anything else) are used, or have been used, to justify their treatment.

    Even if you don’t agree with their methods the stance of figures like Dawkins or Sam Harris is progressive and the suggestion that they are islamophobic comes to close to conflating their cause with that of the EDL et al.

  2. Graeme Routledge says:

    I fully agree with the views expressed in this article, and disagree that Dawkins and Fry’s thoughts are somehow progressive. Dawkins seems to have become obsessed with Islam, despite never having read the Koran. Intolerance, and sweeping generalisations that mislead large swathes of the population, can never be labelled progressive. No one is suggesting that Dawkins et al are the same as the EDL, just that their comments do not help the public debate around Islam, and gaining an accurate understanding of it. Lets pursue an inclusive and tolerant socialism.

    • Don Quixote87 says:

      It would be basic intellectual hypocrisy on the part of Dawkins, who identifies himself as a crusader against religion, to ignore the public debate around Islam. I would also point out that from the point of view of a secularist the thing which has ‘mislead large swathes of the population,’ would be religion itself.

      I actually disagree with a great deal of what Dawkins says and find the prospect of banning the burqa to be a gross infringement of our freedom of expression but engaging in ‘the public debate around Islam’ (or for that matter Christianity, Judaism or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) requires us to ask questions about the existence of God, the viability of the moral frameworks which these religions set out and their position in a contemporary context.

      Have these debates in a frank and open manner if you want to foster something ‘inclusive and tolerant,’ rather than classifying these figures as bigots.

  3. Sorry, but you are the one robbing Islam of it’s context by pretending the violent content of the Koran and Hadith can be contextualised as self-defence. Do you not realise the absurdity of recognising the violent, misogynist origins of Judaism and Christianity, and then making an (extremely desperate claim) that Islam is fine as it is and is, in fact, a peaceful religion? Sorry, but this patriarchal fairytale is just as violent and appalling, and one cannot remove from context Surah 4:34, an-Nisa` 4:24 or the Hadith, wherein Mohammed endorses genocide of Jews and the practise of raping female prisoners of war, among other atrocities corroborated well by historical evidence.

    You’re very desperate to believe Islam, which is not a peaceful religion, will be good for the world. We don’t need another Dark Ages.

  4. S. Carter says:

    The left has found itself on the wrong side of the argument. As a traditionally anti fascsist movement, it is simply unable to even contemplate the notion of Islamo- fascism and so continues to deliberately equate opposition to Islamism with racism. “No platform for fascism” was a worthy rallying cry against the NF, BNP and today, the EDL and yet the left, in its desperation to support minorities (even minorities who hate everything the left stands for) coupled with it’s hatred of and antagonism towards Israel simply cannot bring itself to recognise that there IS a problem with Islam. One wonders what it would take to persuade the left that its got the argument wrong… perhaps only tragedy on a personal level would do this. Whatever, it seems that in its opposition to Western Imperialism the left has taken the approach that my my enemy’s enemy is my friend even if they’re blood thirsty Islamic fascists (and yes, such people DO exist).

    It’s blindingly obvious that most Muslims are not terrorists but to compare The Lord’s Resistance Army with Boko Haram, Al Queda etc is utter nonsense. As representations of a given religion, I’m afraid the latter have far more backing in scripture than the former. Personally, I loathe all religion and I support radical aetheism …. and that has always been the backbone of socialism yet we now find ourselves bending over backward to defend a medieval radical movement that would if it could, deny us all the freedoms we enjoy and which our grandfathers and great grand fathers paid such a high price to defend. I dont hate Muslims, Jews or Christians but I sure as hell resent fanatics who enjoy murder, hate women, hate gays and have beards… Hippies included! Islam needs a damn good reformation but even Muslim voices who cry out for such change are villified by the guilt ridden, hand wringing (usually white) lefties. This from an EX SWP member btw.

  5. mynamesdan says:

    There are some fine points made in the article, but for me the chief problem in the structure of the arguments is that the author only makes concession to the existence of contrary points, rather than discussing the issue as a whole. To make an oversimplified example:

    A judge wouldn’t allow a woman to enter a plea without removing her veil. The Judge is a costumed hypocrite. Right wing people would have applauded the judge. Allowances should have been made for the woman.
    People want to be like the French and ban the burka. I think women should be free to wear a veil. Jewish women also do it. It’s the Police’s job to stop people being forced to cover themselves. No-one should have to do anything they don’t want to do.

    It’s not a strong discussion of the subject, it’s incredibly one-sided. Perhaps if the author had wanted to discuss the topic more evenly they could have discussed the attitudes towards women who refuse a veil by their peers and by strangers in their community. Women who cover themselves often do so because it’s less bother than being spat at and called a whore, being beaten by their husbands or being excluded.

    Pointing out that nobody should be forced to cover their hair or face is not good enough. The author fails to address the fact that there are women being forced to cover themselves. It is as much a part of the problem as is the western intolerance of people disguising themselves. Young men are asked not to wear their hoods in shopping centres, People wearing balaclavas and motorcycle helmets are not permitted to enter some stores or banks. It is not counter-feminist or islamophobic to expect people to remove their veils under certain circumstances. No sensible person could deny that movements exist to combat feminist progress and to belittle Muslims, but questioning the worth of a Burka or Niqab is possible without crossing those lines.

    It would be simpler to air this much needed discussion without name-calling and ill conceived comparisons. The reason this article wouldn’t be published by the Guardian or a similar paper is that it has little rigour or journalistic worth. It is an opinion piece which contains no debate, just one side of an argument.

    There’s nothing wrong with the opinions expressed in this piece, but in a style typical of the anti-fa there is no room left for any other type of opinion or deviation from the absolutist posture. Just my two cents worth. No offense intended.

  6. bq45 says:

    Dear Paul Simpson
    Thank you ever so much for such an amazing analysis and to the point writing of an issue that has been demonised in the west-day and night, namely Islam.
    It is one of the best articles on the issue of Islamophobia that I have read in a long time.
    People with little or no knowledge of the topic could learn a lot from it. The condition is open-mindedness and an inquisitive spirit.

    Bashy Quraishy
    Secretary General – EMISCO -European Muslim Initiative for Social Cohesion – Strasbourg
    Member – Advisory Board – Migration Research Centre – Hacettepe University – Ankara.Turkey
    Chair-Advisory Council-ENAR – Brussels

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