Secularism, Islamism and the Anti-Immigration Confusion

Secularism and fundamentalism are not ideas stitched into people’s DNA




Interview with Kenan Malik



Maryam Namazie: Restrictions demanded by Islamists are viewed as the demand of Muslims and immigrants who are seen to be a homogeneous group with no differences of opinion. Immigrants and Muslims are often blamed for all of Britain and Europe’s woes but particularly for the rise of Sharia courts, the burqa or 7/7. Your views?

Kenan Malik: When I was working on my book From Fatwa to Jihad, I interviewed Naser Khader, a Danish MP and one of the best known Muslims in the country. He recalled a conversation he had had at the time of the Danish cartoon controversy with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of the left-wing newspaper Politiken. ‘He said to me that the cartoons insulted all Muslims’, Khader remembers. ‘I said I was not insulted. And he said, “But you’re not a real Muslim”.’

That sums up the liberal attitude towards Muslims. You are only a ‘proper’ Muslim if you want to ban Danish cartoons, or are offended by The Satanic Verses or think that Monica Ali’s Brick Lane is demeaning to your community. Similarly, you are only a proper Sikh if you are offended by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti. Someone like Naser Khader, on the other hand, or like Salman Rushdie or Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, or Monica Ali, are seen as too liberal, too ‘Westernized’, too progressive, to be truly of their community.

The consequence has been that the most reactionary figures get to be seen as the authentic voices of those communities. And in presenting Muslim communities in this fashion, liberals do the racists’ job for them. The protests against the cartoons, as Khader put it, ‘were not about Mohammed. They were about who should represent Muslims’. And what was ‘really offensive’ to him was that ‘journalists and politicians see the fundamentalists as the real Muslims’.

It’s one of the ironies of the liberal multicultural view. Liberals argue for multicultural policies on the grounds that we live in a diverse nation. But they seem also to believe that such diversity somehow magically stops at the edges of minority communities. They wash over differences and conflicts in those communities, seeing them instead as fixed, homogenous groups with a single set of views, primarily driven by faith. And they rely on so-called community leaders to be suitable judges of what is and is not acceptable or necessary for that community. As a result, progressive voices often get silenced as ‘inauthentic’ or as not really being of that community.

Maryam Namazie: Free expression is a demand of those without power vis-a-vis the powers that be. It seems more often than not, it is those with power and influence making such demands at the expense of those who need it most. I’m thinking of Islamists using rights language to deny rights and expression. Free speech and expression have often been censored under the guise of respecting the sensibilities of Islamists (couched in terms of Muslim or minority sensibilities).

Kenan Malik: There is a strand of leftwing argument that insists on censorship as a necessary shield to protect the powerless, from the prejudices spewed by the media, for instance, or from hate speech. It is certainly necessary to combat prejudice and to confront hate speech. But censorship is no weapon through which to do so. The question to ask yourself is this: who benefits from censorship? The answer is those who have the need to censor and the power to do so. And they are not the powerless, but those who seek to protect their power.

Any kind of social change or social progress necessarily means offending some deeply held sensibilities. ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged.

The notion of ‘protecting sensibilities’ suggests that certain beliefs are so important or valuable to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. This is why free speech is essential not simply to the practice of democracy, but also to the aspirations of those groups who may have been failed by the formal democratic processes; to those whose voices may have been silenced by racism, for instance. The real value of free speech, in other words, is not to those who possess power, but to those who want to challenge them. And the real value of censorship is to those who do not wish their authority to be challenged.

Maryam Namazie: Those who scapegoat immigrants and Muslims say they bring with them “alien cultures that are incompatible with Britain or the west”.

Kenan Malik: Almost every wave of immigration has, at that time, been seen as the imposition of incompatible alien cultures. So, at the beginning of the twentieth century there was a great uproar about Jewish immigration to Britain, an uproar that led to Britain’s first immigration controls in 1905. Without such a law, the Prime Minister Arthur Balfour claimed, ‘though the Briton of the future may have the same laws, the same institutions and constitution’, nevertheless ‘nationality would not be the same and would not be the nationality we would desire to be our heirs through the ages yet to come’.

By the 1950s, the Jewish community had come to be seen as part of the British cultural landscape. The same arguments used against Jews half a century earlier were now deployed against a new wave of immigrants from South Asia and the Caribbean. Margaret Thatcher gave a notorious TV interview in which she claimed that there were in Britain ‘an awful lot’ of black and Asian immigrants and that ‘people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture’.

Just as Jews became an accepted part of the cultural landscape, so did post-war immigrants from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, though the acceptance was more grudging. Today, the same arguments that were once used against Jews, and then against South Asian and Caribbean immigrants, are now raised against Muslims and East Europeans.

What immigration often does is to crystalise existing social anxieties about identities and values. It is the uncertainty about identities and values that drive immigration panics and fuel the fear of the ‘Other’. And that’s the issue that needs tackling.

What the anti-immigration argument confuses is peoples and values. People of North African or South Asian parentage, critics of immigration claim, will inevitably cleave to a different set of values than those of European ancestry. But why should they? Being born to European parents is not a passport to Enlightenment beliefs. So why should we imagine that having Bangladeshi or Moroccan ancestry makes one automatically believe in sharia? Secularism and fundamentalism are not ideas stitched into people’s DNA. They are, like all values, absorbed, accepted, rejected. A generation ago there were strong secular movements in Muslim communities and fundamentalism was a marginal force. Today secularism is much weaker, and Islamism much stronger. This shift has been propelled not by demographic changes but by political developments – the abandonment by the left of universalist values for particularist beliefs, the rise of identity politics, the imposition of multicultural policies, the collapse of broader social movements, and so on. And political developments can also help reverse the trend.

What has eroded in recent years is faith in the idea that it is possible to win peoples of different backgrounds to a common set of secular, humanist, enlightened values. That is the real problem: not immigration, or Muslim immigration, but the lack of conviction in a progressive, secular, humanist project. Our job, it seems to me, is to restore that conviction.

Maryam Namazie: Criticism of religion has always been a cornerstone of progress in a society. Particularly today, there is an important need to criticise Islam and Islamic states and laws though here in the west it is perceived as Islamophobic and racist. It doesn’t help that there are bigoted groups like the English Defence League that criticise Islam and Islamism in order to scapegoat Muslims and immigrants. Many remain silent so as not to be accused of racism. How does one take a principled position on this whilst defending free expression?

Kenan Malik: We need to distinguish between three things: Islam, Islamism and Muslims. As a set of ideas, beliefs and values, Islam has to be as open to questioning and criticism as any other set of ideas, beliefs and values. Islamism, a politicized form of Islam, can often take highly bigoted forms, and needs always to be challenged. Similarly anti-Muslim bigotry needs to be confronted any time it asserts itself.

The challenge is to stand up to bigotry from whichever quarter such bigotry comes. To suggest that we should not criticize Islam or Islamism because racists also do so is a bit like suggesting that we should not criticize Israel because anti-Semites also do so. It is quite possible to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. It is equally possible to distinguish between criticism of Islam and Islamism, on the one hand, and anti-Muslim bigotry, on the other.

When it comes to criticizing ideas, nothing should be out of bounds. But if no criticism should be off limits, nevertheless some kinds of criticism need to be challenged. The other side of defending free speech is the necessity of confronting bigotry. The whole point of free speech is to create the conditions for robust debate. And one reason for such robust debate is to be able to challenge obnoxious views. To argue for free speech but not to utilize it to challenge obnoxious, odious and hateful views seems to me immoral. It is, in other words, morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech to also stand up to racism and bigotry.

The line between criticism and bigotry is crossed when criticism of Islam, of ideas or beliefs, become transposed into prejudice about people; or when critics demand that Muslims are denied rights, or be discriminated against, simply because they happen to be Muslims. We should oppose all discrimination against Muslims in the public sphere, from discriminatory policing and immigration laws that might specifically target Muslims, to planning regulations that make it more difficult to build mosques than other similar buildings or restrictions on the ability of Muslims to assemble or worship that apply merely because they happen to be Muslims. Whatever one’s beliefs, there should be complete freedom to express them, short of inciting violence. Whatever one’s beliefs, there should be freedom to assemble to promote them. And whatever one’s beliefs, there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as in so doing one neither physically harms another individual nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere. A Muslim should have the same rights and obligations as any other citizen.

It is not just the EDL that is the problem here. Many liberals, too, promote insidious arguments about Muslims that often fuel bigotry. Many have bought into the myth of the ‘clash of civilizations’. Others, including people like Sam Harris and Martin Amis, figures who are often lauded by humanists and atheists, argue for discriminatory policies towards Muslims. Harris has even written that ‘the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists’. I am suggesting that they are not bigots in any reasonable sense of the word. But because their arguments often so lack nuance, and are so bereft of context, they both provide intellectual ammunition for bigots and can become a means of mainstreaming bigoted arguments.

Maryam Namazie: Universities UK issued guidelines (now withdrawn) saying sex segregation at universities is permissible if “imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.” This seems to be more about a hierarchy of rights rather than free speech or personal religious beliefs.

Kenan Malik: It’s a failure to understand what freedom of religion means. Religious freedom is not a special kind of liberty. It is, rather, one expression of a broader set of freedoms of conscience, belief, assembly and action.

As a society we should tolerate as far as is possible the desire of people to live according to their conscience. But that toleration must end when someone acting upon his or her conscience causes harm to another without consent, or infringes upon another’s genuine rights in the public sphere.

In its internal affairs, religious institutions should be free to act in many ways that may be anathema to secular values. They should be free, for instance, to bar women from acting as clergy or to segregate the sexes in religious services or private meetings, however objectionable such policies or actions may seem. Enforced segregation in a public forum is, however, a different matter and should be vigorously opposed. In public settings, whether in buses or restaurants or universities, people have an expectation of, and a right to, equal treatment. No beliefs, whether religious or political, should be allowed to override such equality.

To insist on this is not, as many believers suggest, to enforce secular discrimination against religious belief. Racists, communists, Greens – many non-religious groups could claim that their beliefs enforce upon them certain actions or practices. It would illegal, however, for a racist café owner to bar black people, or for Greens to destroy a farmer’s field of legally grown GM crops, however deep-set their particular beliefs. There is a line, in other words, that cannot be crossed even if conscience requires one to. That line should be in the same place for religious believers as for non-believers.

Having said this, it is also important that we should not seek to ban groups, however odious their beliefs. The best way to tackle gender segregation in a public meeting is by ‘desegregating’ such meetings, by publicly challenging the seating arrangements, and sitting where we wish to. What we should not do is to provide greater leeway for university authorities to police meetings of whatever kind.

Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer, broadcaster and the author of “From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath”.




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