Socialists debate religion and secularism
3rd June 2005
In recent months there has been an ongoing debate on the left about the relation between religion and politics. In Ireland religion has obviously played a major role in the country’s political history, and an appreciation of Marxism’s approach to religion is essential for any socialists who seek to develop a strategy of opposition to the forces of sectarianism and clericalism.
Recently many socialists on an international level have been concerned with the question of Islam – the participation of many Muslims in the movements against US aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in solidarity with the Palestinians, has prompted sections of the left to reconsider their approach to religious believers and their analysis of political Islam. This has been a complicated and controversial issue, as can be seen in France, where the government’s law against the display of ostentatious religious symbols in state schools has found different sections of the left on opposite sides of the debate, and in the debate over the Respect coalition in Britain.
Socialist Democracy is therefore reproducing
three articles by supporters of the Fourth International dealing with this
question. The first is a significant article by Gilbert Achcar of the French
LCR, which gives a broad overview of this question. We are also carrying
two responses from members of the British ISG, which focus more specifically
on the British situation. We hope to produce our own contribution to this
discussion in the near future.
Marxists and Religion - yesterday and today - Gilbert Achcar - 15/10/04
Alliances and Coalitions in Britain: ‘Stop the War’ and ‘Respect’ - Jane Kelly, Karen O’Toole (ISG) - April 2005
we should defend Secularism - Alex Cowper -
15th October 2004
1. Classical Marxism’s theoretical (‘philosophical’) attitude towards religion combines three complementary elements, the germ of which can be already found in the young Marx’s Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Law (1843-44):
First a critique of religion, as a factor of alienation. The human being attributes to the divinity responsibility for a fate which owes nothing to the latter (‘Man makes religion, religion does not make man’); he/she compels him/herself to respect obligations and prohibitions which often hamper his/her full development; he/she submits voluntarily to religious authorities whose legitimacy is founded either on the fantasy of their privileged relationship to the divinity, or on their specialisation in the body of religious knowledge.
Then a critique of religious social and political doctrines. Religions are ideological survivals of epochs long gone: religion is a ‘false consciousness of the world’ - even more so as the world changes. Born in pre-capitalist societies, religions have been able to undergo - like the Protestant Reformation in the history of Christianity - renewals, which necessarily remain partial and limited so long as a religion venerates ‘holy scriptures’. But also an ‘understanding’ (in the Weberian sense) of the psychological role which religious belief can play for the wretched of the earth.
"Religious misery is, at one and the same time, the expression of real misery and a protest against real misery. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."
From these three considerations emerges in the view of classical Marxism, one sole conclusion set forth by the young Marx:
"The overcoming (Aufhebung) of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo."
2. Nevertheless, Classical Marxism did not pose the suppression of religion as a necessary precondition of social emancipation (the remarks of the young Marx could be read thus: in order to overcome illusions, it is necessary first to put an end to the ‘condition that requires illusions’). In any case - as with the State, one might say - the point is not abolishing religion, but creating the conditions for its extinction. It is not a question of prohibiting ‘the opium of the people’, and still less of repressing its addicts. It is only about putting an end to the privileged relationships that those who trade in it maintain with the powers that be, in order to reduce its grip on minds.
Three levels of attitude should be considered here: Classical Marxism, i.e. the Marxism of the Founders, did not require the inscription of atheism in the programme of social movements. On the contrary, in his critique of the Blanquist émigrés from the Commune (1874), Engels mocked their pretensions to abolish religion by decree. His clear-sightedness has been completely confirmed by the experiences of the 20th Century, as when he asserted that "persecutions are the best means of promoting disliked convictions" and that "the only service, which may still be rendered to God today, is that of declaring atheism an article of faith to be enforced."
Republican secularism, i.e. the separation of Church and state, is on the other hand a necessary and irreducible objective, which was already part of the programme of radical bourgeois democracy. But here also, it is important not to confuse separation with prohibition, even as far as education is concerned. In his critical commentaries on the Erfurt Programme of German Social Democracy (1891), Engels proposed the following formulation:
"Complete separation of the Church from the state. All religious communities without exception are to be treated by the state as private associations. They are to be deprived of any support from public funds and of all influence on public schools." Then he added in brackets this comment, "They cannot be prohibited from forming their own schools out of their own funds and from teaching their own nonsense in them!"
The workers’ party should at the same time fight ideologically the influence of religion. In the 1873 text, Engels celebrated the fact that the majority of German socialist worker militants had been won to atheism, and suggested the distribution of eighteenth century French materialist literature in order to convince the greatest number.
In his critique of the Gotha programme of the German workers’ party (1875), Marx explained that private freedom in matters of belief and religious practice should be defined only in terms of rejection of state interference. He stated the principle in this way: "Everyone should be able to attend his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in." He added however:
"But the workers’ party ought, at any rate in this connection, to have expressed its awareness of the fact that bourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, whereas it [the party] strives much more to free the consciences from the witchery of religion."
3. Classical Marxism only envisaged religion from the viewpoint of relationships of European societies to their own traditional religions. It took into consideration neither the persecution of religious minorities, nor above all, the persecution of the religions of oppressed peoples by oppressive states belonging to another religion. In our epoch, marked by the survival of colonial heritage and by its transposition into the imperial metropolises themselves - in the form of an ‘internal colonialism’ whose original feature is that the colonised themselves are expatriates, i.e. ‘immigrants’ - this aspect acquires a major importance.
In a context dominated by racism, a natural corollary of the colonial heritage, persecutions of the religions of the oppressed, the ex-colonised, should not be rejected only because they are the ‘best means of promoting disliked convictions’. They should be rejected also and above all, because they are a dimension of ethnic or racial oppression, as intolerable as political, legal, and economic persecutions and discriminations.
To be sure, the religious practices of colonised peoples can appear as very retrograde in the eyes of the metropolitan populations, whose material and scientific superiority was in line with the very fact of colonisation. Nevertheless, it is not by imposing their way of life on the colonised populations, against their will, that the cause of the latter’s emancipation will be served. The road to the hell of racist oppression is paved with good ‘civilising’ intentions, and we know how much the workers’ movement itself was contaminated by charitable pretensions and philanthropic illusions in the colonial era.
Engels however had indeed warned against this colonial syndrome. In a letter to Kautsky, dated 12 September 1882, he formulated an emancipatory policy of the proletariat in power, wholly marked with the caution necessary so as not to transform a presumed liberation into a disguised oppression:
"The countries inhabited by a native population, which are simply subjugated, India, Algiers, the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish possessions, must be taken over for the time being by the proletariat and led as rapidly as possible towards independence. How this process will develop is difficult to say. India will perhaps, indeed very probably, produce a revolution, and as the proletariat emancipating itself cannot conduct any colonial wars, this would have to be given full scope; it would not pass off without all sorts of destruction, of course, but that sort of thing is inseparable from all revolutions. The same might also take place elsewhere, e.g., in Algiers and Egypt, and would certainly be the best thing for us.
"We shall have enough to do at home. Once Europe is reorganised, and North America, that will furnish such colossal power and such an example that the semi-civilised countries will follow in their wake of their own accord. Economic needs alone will be responsible for this. But as to what social and political phases these countries will then have to pass through before they likewise arrive at socialist organisation, we to-day can only advance rather idle hypotheses, I think. One thing alone is certain: the victorious proletariat can force no blessings of any kind upon any foreign nation without undermining its own victory by so doing."
An elementary truth but still so often ignored: any ‘blessings’ imposed by force equal oppression, and could not be perceived otherwise by those who are subjected to them.
4. The question of the Islamic scarf (hijab) condenses all the problems posed above. It allows us to outline the Marxist attitude in all its aspects.
In most countries where Islam is the religion of the majority, religion is still the dominant form of ideology. Retrograde, more or less literal, interpretations of Islam serve to maintain whole populations in submission and cultural backwardness. Women especially and intensively undergo a secular oppression, draped in religious legitimisation.
In such a context, the ideological struggle against the use of religion as a means of submission is key in the fight for emancipation. The separation of religion and the state should be a demand prioritised by the movement for social progress. Democrats and progressives must fight for the freedom of every man and woman in matters of unbelief, of belief and of religious practice. At the same time, the fight for women’s liberation remains the very criterion of any emancipatory identity, the touchstone of any progressive claim.
One of the most elementary aspects of women’s freedom is their individual freedom to dress as they like. When the Islamic scarf and, a fortiori, more enveloping versions of this type of garment, are imposed on women, they are one of the numerous forms of everyday sexual oppression - a form all the more visible as it serves to make women invisible. The struggle against the requirement to wear the scarf or other veils is inseparable from the struggle against other aspects of female servitude.
However, the emancipatory struggle would be gravely compromised if it sought to ‘free’ women by force, by resorting to coercion, not with regard to their oppressors but with regard to women themselves. Tearing off religious garb by force - even if it is judged that wearing it denotes voluntary servitude - is an oppressive action and not an action of real emancipation. It is moreover an action doomed to failure, as Engels predicted: the fate of Islam in the ex-Soviet Union as well as the evolution of Turkey eloquently illustrate the inanity of any attempt to eradicate religion or religious practices by coercion.
‘Everyone should be able to attend his/her religious as well as his/her bodily needs’ - women wearing the hijab or men wearing beards - ‘without the police sticking their noses’.
Defending this elementary individual freedom is the indispensable condition of an effective fight against religious diktats. The prohibition of the hijab paradoxically legitimises the act of imposing it in the eyes of those who consider it an article of faith. Only the principles of freedom of conscience and of strictly individual religious practice, whether in relation to clothing or anything else, and the respect for these principles by secular governments, allow legitimate and successful opposition to religious coercion. The Koran itself proclaims ‘No coercion in religion’!
Moreover and at the risk of challenging freedom of education, the prohibition of the Islamic scarf or other religious signs in state schools in the name of secularism is an eminently self-defeating position, since it results in promoting religious schools.
5. In France, Islam has been for a very long time the majority religion of the ‘indigenous’ people in the colonies and it has been for decades the religion of the great majority of immigrants, the ‘colonised’ of the interior. In such a case, every form of persecution of the Islamic religion - numerically the second religion of France, though it is very inferior to the others in status - should be fought.
Compared with religions present on French soil for centuries, Islam is underprivileged. It is victim to glaring discrimination, for example concerning its places of worship or the domineering supervision that the French state, saturated with colonial mentality, imposes on it. Islam is a religion vilified daily in the French media, in a manner that is fortunately no longer possible against the previous prime target of racism, Judaism, after the Nazi genocide and the Vichy complicity. A great amount of confusion laced with ignorance and racism filtered through the media, maintains an image of an Islamic religion intrinsically unfit for modernity, as well as the amalgam of Islam and terrorism, facilitated by the inappropriate use of the term ‘Islamism’ as a synonym for Islamic fundamentalism.
Of course, the official and dominant discourse is not overtly hostile; it even makes itself out to be benevolent, its eyes fixed on the considerable interests of big French capital - oil, arms, construction etc., in the Islamic lands. However, colonial condescension toward Muslim men and women and their religion is just as insufferable for them as open racist hostility. The colonial spirit is not confined to the right in France; it has long been rooted in the French left, constantly torn in its history between a colonialism blended with an essentially racist condescension expressed as paternalism, and a tradition of militant anti-colonialism.
Even at the beginning of the split of the French workers’ movement between social democrats and communists, a right wing emerged among the communists of the metropolis themselves (without mentioning the French communists in Algeria), particularly distinguishing itself by its position on the colonial question. The communist right betrayed its anti-colonialist duty when the insurrection of the Moroccan Rif, under the leadership of the tribal and religious chief Abd el-Krim, confronted French troops in 1925.
The statement of Jules Humbert-Droz about this to the Executive Committee of the Communist International retains certain relevance:
"The right has protested against the watchword of fraternisation with the insurgent army in the Rif, by invoking the fact that they do not have the same degree of civilisation as the French armies, and that semi-barbarian tribes cannot be fraternised with. It has gone even further, writing that Abd el-Krim has religious and social prejudices that must be fought. Doubtless we must fight the pan-Islamism and the feudalism of colonial peoples, but when French imperialism seizes the throat of the colonial peoples, the role of the CP is not to combat the prejudices of the colonial chiefs, but to fight unfailingly the rapacity of French imperialism."
6. The duty of Marxists in France is to fight unfailingly racist and religious oppression conducted by the imperial bourgeoisie and its state, before fighting religious prejudice in the midst of the immigrant populations.
When the French state concerns itself with regulating the way in which young Muslim women dress themselves and exclude from school those who persist in wearing the Islamic scarf; when the latter are taken as targets of a media and political campaign whose scale is out of proportion with the extent of the phenomenon concerned and thus reveals its oppressive character, perceived as Islamophobic or racist, whatever the intentions expressed; when the same state favours the well-known expansion of religious communal education through increasing subsidies to private education, thus aggravating the divisions between the exploited layers of the French population - the duty of Marxists, in the light of everything explained above, is to be resolutely opposed.
This has not been the case for a good part of those who call themselves Marxists in France. On the question of the Islamic scarf, the position of the Ligue de l’Enseignement (the League for Education), whose secularist commitment is above all suspicion, is much closer to genuine Marxism than that of numerous bodies that claim it as their source of inspiration. Thus, one can read the following in the declaration adopted by the Ligue, at its June 2003 general meeting at Troyes:
"The Ligue de l’Enseignement, whose whole history is marked by constant activity in support of secularism, considers that to legislate on the wearing of religious symbols is inopportune. Any law would be useless or impossible.
"The risk is obvious. Whatever precautions are taken, there is no doubt that the effect obtained will be a prohibition, which will in fact stigmatise Muslims....
"For those who would wish to make the wearing of a religious symbol a tool for a political fight, exclusion from state schools will not prevent them from studying elsewhere, in institutions in which they will have every opportunity to find themselves justified and strengthened in their attitude....
"Integration of all citizens, independent of their origins and convictions, passes through the recognition of a cultural diversity, which should express itself in the framework of the equality of treatment that the Republic should guarantee to everyone. On these grounds Muslims as with other believers, should benefit from freedom of religion in the respect for the rules that a pluralist and deeply secular society imposes. The struggle for the emancipation of young women in particular goes primarily through their schooling and respect for their freedom of conscience and their autonomy: let us not make them hostages to an otherwise necessary ideological debate. In order to struggle against an enclosed identity, secularist pedagogy, the struggle against discrimination, the fight for social justice and equality are more effective than prohibition."
In its report of 4 November 2003, submitted to the Commission on the application of the principle of secularism in the Republic, the Ligue de L’Enseignement deals admirably with Islam and its representations in France, of which only some excerpts are quoted here:
"The resistance and discrimination encountered by the ‘Muslim populations’ in French society are not essentially due, as is too often said, to the lack of integration of these populations but to majority representations and attitudes which stem in large part from an old historic heritage.
"The first is the refusal to recognise the contribution of Arab-Muslim civilisation to world culture and to our own western culture....
"To this concealment and rejection is added the colonial heritage ... bearer of a deep and long-lasting tradition of violence, inequality and racism, which the difficulties of de-colonisation, and then the rifts of the Algerian war amplified and reinforced. The ethnic, social, cultural, and religious oppression of the indigenous Muslim populations of the French colonies was a constant practice, to the point that it is echoed in limitations to its legal status. It is thus that Islam was considered as an element of the personal statute and not as a religion coming under the 1905 Law of Separation (of Church and State - trans).
"For the whole duration of colonisation, the principle of secularism never applied to the indigenous populations and to their religion because of the opposition of the colonial lobby, and in spite of the requests of the ulema (Muslim scholars - trans) who had understood that the secular regime would give them freedom of religion. Why should we be surprised then that for a very long time secularism for Muslims was synonymous with a colonial mind-police! How should we expect that it would not leave deep traces, as much on the previously colonised as on the colonizing country? If many Muslims today still consider that Islam should regulate public and private civil behaviour, and tend sometimes to adopt such a profile, without demanding the status of law for this, it is because France and the secular Republic have ordered them to do it for several generations.
"If many French people, sometimes even amongst the best educated who occupy prominent positions, allow themselves to make pejorative appraisals of Islam, whose ignorance vies with their stupidity, it is because they subscribe, most often unconsciously while denying it, to this tradition of colonial contempt."
A third aspect gets in the way of the consideration of Islam on a footing of equality: it is that Islam as a transplanted religion is also a religion of the poor. Unlike the Judeo-Christian religions whose followers in France are spread across the whole social chessboard, and in particular unlike Catholicism, historically integrated into the dominant class, Muslims, whether French citizens or immigrants living in France, are situated for the moment in their great majority at the bottom of the social ladder.
There the colonial tradition still continues, since the cultural oppression of the indigenous populations was added to economic exploitation, and since the latter has for a long time weighed very heavily on the first immigrant generations, while today their heirs are the first victims of unemployment and urban neglect. The social contempt and injustice that strike these social categories affect every aspect of their existence, including the religious dimension. No one is offended by the scarves on the heads of cleaners or catering staff in offices: they only become the object of scandal when worn with pride by girls engaged in studies or women with managerial status.
The lack of understanding shown by the main organisations of the extra-parliamentary Marxist left in France of the identity and cultural problems of the populations concerned, is revealed by the composition of their electoral slates in the European elections: both in 1999 and 2004 citizens originating from populations previously colonized - from the Maghreb or from sub-Saharan Africa in particular - have been outstanding by their absence at the tops of the LCR-LO slates, by contrast with the French Communist Party slates, a party so many times stigmatized for its failures in the antiracist struggle by these two organizations. In so doing they are at the same time depriving themselves of an electoral potential amongst the most oppressed layers in France, a potential which the results obtained in 2004 by an improvised slate such as Euro-Palestine demonstrated in a spectacular fashion.
7. In mentioning "those who would wish
to make of the wearing of a religious symbol a tool for a political fight",
the Ligue de l’Enseignement was alluding, of course, to Islamic fundamentalism.
The expansion of this political phenomenon in the West amongst people originating
from Muslim immigration, after its strong expansion for the last thirty
years in Islamic countries, has been in France the preferred argument of
those whishing to prohibit the Islamic scarf.
That cannot however constitute an argument in favour of a public prohibition of the Islamic scarf: the Ligue de l’Enseignement has explained this in a convincing fashion. More generally, Islamophobia is the best objective ally of Islamic fundamentalism: their growth goes together. The more the left gives the impression of joining the dominant Islamophobia, the more they will alienate the Muslim populations, and the more they will facilitate the task of the Islamic fundamentalists, who will appear as the only people able to express the protests of the populations concerned against "real misery".
Islamic fundamentalism is, however, heterogeneous and different tactics should be adopted according to concrete situations. When this type of social programme is administered by an oppressive power and by its allies in order to legitimate the existing oppression, as in the case of numerous despotisms with an Islamic face; or when it becomes a political weapon of reaction struggling against a progressive power, as was the case in the Arab world, in the 1950-1970 period, when Islamic fundamentalism was the spearhead of the reactionary opposition to Egyptian Nasserism and its emulators - the only appropriate stance is that of an implacable hostility to the fundamentalists.
It is different when Islamic fundamentalism plays the role of a politico-ideological channel for a cause that is objectively progressive, a deforming channel, certainly, but filling the void left by the failure or absence of movements of the left. This is the case in situations where Islamic fundamentalists are fighting a foreign occupation (Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, etc.) or an ethnic or racial oppression as in those situations where they incarnate a popular hatred of a politically reactionary and repressive regime. It is also the case of Islamic fundamentalism in the West, where its rise is generally the expression of a rebellion against the fate reserved for immigrant populations.
Indeed as with religion in general, Islamic fundamentalism can be "at one and the same time, the expression of real misery and a protest against real misery", with the difference that in this case the protest is active: it is not "the opium" of the people, but rather "the heroin" of one part of the people, derived from ‘the opium’ and substituting its ecstatic effect for the narcotic effect of the latter.
In all these types of situation, it is necessary to adopt tactics appropriate to the circumstances of the struggle against the oppressor, the common enemy. While never renouncing the ideological combat against the fatal influence of Islamic fundamentalism, it can be necessary or inevitable to converge with Islamic fundamentalists in common battles - from simple street demonstrations to armed resistance, depending on the case.
8. Islamic fundamentalists can be objective and contingent allies in a fight waged by Marxists. However it is an unnatural alliance, forced by circumstances. The rules that apply to much more natural alliances such as those practised in the struggle against Tsarism in Russia, are here to be respected a fortiori, and even more strictly.
These rules were clearly defined by the Russian Marxists at the beginning of the 20th Century. In his preface of January 1905 to Trotsky’s pamphlet Before the Ninth of January, Parvus summarised them thus:
"To simplify, in the case of a common struggle with casual allies, the following points can be applied:
1) Do not merge organisations. March separately
but strike together.
"Parvus is profoundly right" wrote Lenin in an article in April 1905, published in the newspaper Vperiod, underlining the definite understanding, however (very appropriately brought to mind), that the organisations are not to be merged, that we march separately but strike together, that we do not conceal the diversity of interests, that we watch our ally as we would our enemy, etc.
The Bolshevik leader would enumerate many times these conditions over the years.
Trotsky tirelessly defended the same principles. In The Third International After Lenin (1928), in his polemic about alliances with the Chinese Kuomintang, he wrote the following lines particularly apt for the subject under discussion here:
"As was said long ago, purely practical agreements, such as do not bind us in the least and do not oblige us to anything politically, can be concluded with the devil himself, if that is advantageous at a given moment. But it would be absurd in such a case to demand that the devil should generally become converted to Christianity, and that he use his horns.... for pious deeds. In presenting such conditions, we act in reality as the devil’s advocates, and beg him to let us become his godfathers."
A number of Trotskyists do exactly the opposite of what Trotsky advocated, in their relationship with Islamic fundamentalist organisations. Not in France, where Trotskyists, in their majority, rather bend the stick the other way, as has already been explained, but on the other side of the Channel, in Britain.
The British far-left has the merit of having displayed a greater openness to the Muslim populations than the French far-left. It has organised impressive mobilisations with the massive participation of people originating from Muslim immigration against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in which the government of its country participated. In the anti-war movement, it even went as far as allying itself with a Muslim organisation of fundamentalist inspiration, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), the British arm of the main ‘moderate’ Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood (represented in the parliaments of some countries).
There is nothing reprehensible in principle in such an alliance for well-defined objectives so long as the rules laid out above are strictly respected. The problem begins however with treating this particular organisation, which is far from representative of the great mass of Muslims in Britain, as a privileged ally. More generally, British Trotskyists have tended, during their alliance with the MAB in the anti-war movement, to do the opposite of what was stated above, i.e. 1) mixing banners and placards, in the literal as well as figurative sense; 2) minimising the importance of the elements of their political identity likely to embarrass their fundamentalist allies of the day; and finally 3) treating these temporary allies as if they were strategic allies, in renaming ‘anti-imperialists’ those whose vision of the world corresponds much more to the clash of civilisations than to the class struggle.
9. This tendency was made worse by the passage from an alliance in the context of an anti-war mobilisation to an alliance in the electoral field. The MAB as such did not, to be sure, join the electoral coalition Respect, led by the British Trotskyists, its fundamentalist principles preventing it from subscribing to a left programme. However, the alliance between the MAB and Respect translated for example into the candidacy on the Respect slate of a very prominent leader of the MAB, the ex-president and spokesperson of the Association.
In doing this the alliance passed de facto to a qualitatively superior level, unacceptable from a Marxist point of view: While it can be legitimate indeed to enter into ‘purely practical agreements’ that ‘do not oblige us to anything politically’ other than the action for common objectives - as it happens, to express opposition to the war conducted by the British government together with the United States and to denounce the fate inflicted on the Palestinian people - with groups and/or individuals who adhere otherwise to a fundamentally reactionary conception of society, it is utterly unacceptable for Marxists to conclude an electoral alliance - a type of alliance which presupposes a common conception of political and social change - with these sorts of partners.
In the nature of things, participating in the same electoral slate as a religious fundamentalist is to give the mistaken impression that he has been converted to social progressiveness and to the cause of workers’ emancipation both male...and female! The very logic of this type of alliance pushes those who are engaged in it, in the face of the inevitable criticism of their political competitors, to defend their allies of the day and to minimise, even to hide, the deep differences that divide them. They become their advocates, even their godfathers and godmothers within the progressive social movement.
Lindsey German, a central leader of the British Socialist Workers Party and of the Respect Coalition, signed an article in The Guardian described as "wonderful" on the MAB website. Under the title "A badge of honour", the author energetically defended the alliance with the MAB, explaining that it is an honour for her and her comrades to see the victims of Islamophobia turning towards them, with a surprising justification for the alliance. Let us summarise the argument: the Muslim fundamentalists are not the only people to be anti-women and homophobic, Christian fundamentalists are equally so. Moreover, women speak more and more for the MAB in anti-war meetings (as they do in meetings organised by the mullahs in Iran, it could be added). The fascists of the BNP (British National Party) are much worse than the MAB.
Of course, continued Lindsey German, some Muslims - and non-Muslims - hold views on some social issues that are more conservative than those of the socialist and liberal left. But that should not be a barrier to collaboration over common concerns. Would a campaign for gay rights, for example, insist that all those who took part share the same view of the war in Iraq?
This last argument is perfectly admissible if it only concerns the anti-war campaign. But if used to justify an electoral alliance, with a much more global programme than a campaign for lesbian and gay rights, it becomes altogether specious.
10. Electoralism is a very short-sighted policy. In order to achieve an electoral breakthrough, the British Trotskyists are playing, in this case, a game that risks undermining the construction of a radical left in their country.
What decided them, is firstly and above all an electoral calculation: attempting to capture the votes of the considerable masses of people of immigrant origin who reject the wars conducted by London and Washington (let us note in passing that the alliance with the MAB, was made around the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and not around the Kosovo war - and for a good reason!). The objective in itself, is legitimate, when it is translated - as has been the case - into the concern to recruit amongst men and women workers and young people of immigrant origin, through a particular attention paid to the specific oppression that they experience, and through the promotion to this end of left men and women militants belonging to these communities, notably by placing them in a good position on electoral slates - everything in short which the French far left has not done.
But in choosing to ally electorally - even though in a limited way - with an Islamic fundamentalist organisation like the MAB, the British far left is serving as a stepping stone for the former organisation’s own expansion in the communities of immigrant origin, whereas it should be considered as a rival to be ideologically fought and restricted from an organisational point of view. Sooner or later this unnatural alliance will hit a stumbling block and will fly to pieces. Trotskyists will then have to confront those whom they have helped to grow for the mess of pottage of an electoral result, and it is far from sure that the results owe much to their fundamentalist partners anyhow.
All we need to do is look at the arguments used by the fundamentalists in calling for a vote for Respect (and for others, such as the Mayor of London, the left Labourite Ken Livingstone, much more opportunist than the Trotskyists in his relations with the Islamic association). Let us read the fatwa of Sheikh Haitham Al-Haddad, dated 5 June 2004 and published on the MAB website.
The venerable sheikh explains that it is obligatory for those Muslims living under the shadow of man-made law to take all the necessary steps and means to make the law of Allah, the Creator and the Sustainer, supreme and manifest in all aspects of life. If they are unable to do so, then it becomes obligatory for them to strive to minimise the evil and maximise the good.
The sheikh then underlines the difference between a vote for one of a number of systems, and voting to select the best individual amongst a number of candidates within an already-established system imposed upon them and which they are unable to change within the immediate future.
"There is no doubt", he continues, "that the first type is an act of Kufr [impious], as Allah says, ’Legislation is for none but Allah’, while voting for a candidate or party who rules according to man-made law does not necessitate approval or acceptance for his method." Therefore "we should participate in voting, believing that we are doing so in an attempt to minimise the evil, while at the same time maintaining that the best system is the Shariah, which is the law of Allah.
"Voting being lawful, the question is then posed for whom to vote.
"The answer to such a question requires a deep and meticulous understanding of the political arena. Consequently, I believe that individuals should avoid involving themselves in this process and rather should entrust this responsibility to the prominent Muslim organisations.... It is upon the remainder of the Muslims therefore to accept and follow the decisions of these organisations."
In conclusion, the venerable Sheikh calls on the Muslims of Great Britain, to follow the electoral instructions of the MAB and ends with this prayer: "We ask Allah to guide us to the right path and to grant victory for law of our Lord, Allah in the UK and in other parts of the world."
This fatwa needs no comment. The deep incompatibility between the intentions of the Sheikh consulted by the MAB and the task that Marxists set for themselves or should set for themselves, in their activity in relation to the Muslim populations, is blatant. Marxists should not seek to harvest votes at any price, as opportunist politicians who stop at nothing to get elected do. Support like that of Sheikh Al-Haddad is a poisoned gift. It should be harshly criticised: the battle for ideological influence within populations originating from immigration is much more fundamental than an electoral result, however exhilarating.
The radical left, on one or another side of the Channel, should return to an attitude consistent with Marxism, which it proclaims. Otherwise, the hold of the fundamentalists over the Muslim populations risks reaching a level which will be extremely difficult to overcome. The gulf between these populations and the rest of the men and women workers in Europe will find itself widened, while the task of bridging it is one of the essential conditions for replacing the clash of barbarisms with a common fight of the workers and the oppressed against capitalism.
Gilbert Achcar is a leading member of the LCR in France.
Jane Kelly, Karen O’Toole
Gilbert Achcar’s article on Marxism and Religion makes an important contribution to this debate for there is no doubt that religion, especially but not exclusively in its fundamentalist forms, is increasingly playing a powerful ideological role in society today including in the metropolitan centres, particularly as a result of 9/11. However, the last part of the text is flawed because he is misinformed about some important facts of the situation in Britain.
We have no differences with the main body of Achcar’s argument; it expresses well the important distinction between the need for Marxists to fight for a militant secularism while at the same time defending the right of individuals to have and to express their own religious beliefs. Thus we support the right of Muslim women to wear or not wear the hijab as, when and where they choose, as we defend the right of Sikh men to wear their turban.
We oppose the right of any authority, whether secular or religious, to determine how an individual may dress or behave, as long as it does not hurt anyone else. Our immediate response to the French debate on the hijab and our critique of the Sikh Temple’s response to the play Behzti in Birmingham, along with other articles published in Socialist Outlook and Socialist Resistance show that we defend the democratic rights of Muslim women and also that we are not afraid to condemn censorship imposed by religious dogma.
It is the last section of Achcar’s article that is controversial. This involves the links that have been built with Muslim communities, first through the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) and then with Respect. In both cases these were unique developments in British politics and major political gains and achievements for the British left. The SWP were central to these developments both within the anti-war movement and then Respect. As Socialist Resistance, we also played an active part in developing and defending this orientation in the StWC and in Respect. Had the radical left refused to work with the Muslim groups, including the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), the anti-war movement would never have had the breadth or diversity to mobilise such huge numbers. Achcar acknowledges this important development and compares it with the lack of such a development in France.
We agree with Achcar that a united front on a single issue, in this case opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, can be made ‘with the devil’. In fact the Liberal Democrats spoke from Stop the War platforms. It was certainly right to welcome MAB into the StWC around the demands of ‘Stop the War’ and ‘Defend Palestine’. MAB were not only loyal to these slogans but were a part of the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of Muslims on the massive February 2003 demonstration. The Birmingham Mosques alone brought over a hundred coaches on that day.
But Achcar conflates the role of an organisation like MAB in the StWC and Respect - they are very different things. Its participation is legitimate in the case of the StWC but not in Respect. At present Respect is somewhere between a coalition and a political party, with Marxists within it, but MAB is not a part of Respect: it took a policy decision that it could not join given the political basis of Respect. Achcar elides over this crucial fact. It is true that there have been Muslim candidates standing for Respect, including Anas Al-tikriti, who stood as a Respect candidate in the European elections, 2004. But he stood as an individual, resigning as MAB’s President in order to do so. Surely that is his contradiction not Respect’s, for in standing he accepted Respect’s manifesto and its programme. There are also of course individual members of Respect who are in MAB, as well as individual Muslims who are not, but MAB as an organisation calls for a vote for different candidates in different parts of the country - including Liberal Democrats and Greens as well as Respect.
We do not think all this amounts, as Achcar argues, to Respect ‘choosing to ally electorally with an Islamic fundamentalist organisation like the MAB’. Nor would we oppose someone from a Christian background standing as a candidate. The central anti-war candidate in the up-coming general election in Britain, George Galloway, is himself a Catholic and is personally opposed to a woman’s right to choose. This latter is a problem, but since Respect has a woman’s right to choose in its programme and its manifesto, it is a different kind of problem to one which would exist if a Catholic organisation was allowed to affiliate.
As Achcar says, ‘The British far-left has the merit of having displayed a greater openness to the Muslim populations than the French far-left. It has organised impressive mobilisations with the massive participation of people originating from Muslim immigration against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in which the government of its country participated.’ How Marxists should relate to individuals and their religious organisations only becomes a real issue when, as in Britain, it ceases to be abstract and the left starts to engage with them. Of course socialist and religious organisations are competitors in trying to win people to their ideas. And the SWP, in their desire to keep the coalition (including the Respect Coalition) together, plays down the differences socialists have with religion. At the last Respect Conference Chris Bambery, a leading member of the SWP, correctly argued against a sectarian resolution attempting to commit Respect to secularism. But then, he wrongly went on to insist that religion was not an important issue in his practical experience, nor politically in a general sense. Clearly the situation is changing today and Marxists have to be wary that we do not hide our secular traditions and that we engage in the ideological and political debates generated by this new and challenging situation.
We cannot prejudge how an individual’s political beliefs may develop in the process of struggle. As people radicalise over specific issues (in this case responding to the new situation after 9/11 and then the war against Iraq) their consciousness is uneven - but in this process a positive engagement by socialists can allow a debate around other issues, such as democratic rights, or economic imperialism and globalisation, which is capable of deepening their radicalisation over many issues, including other types of oppression. It is not materialist to suggest that Muslim workers will blindly follow the mosques: their growing militancy and preparedness to work with the left means that their ideas will start to change too, if we are able to respond to their everyday experience. Will an offensive against religion be the main way to change their ideas? No, although discussion of the contradictory role of religion is necessary - and here the SWP is probably at fault as they do not do this systematically.
One of the reasons for the growth of religion in general and Muslim organisations in particular is precisely the failure of the left, the labour movement and the trade unions in Britain to defend and support oppressed communities. But while ethnic minorities have traditionally voted Labour, this was in the past based on clientelism: with a new generation of Muslims, many of them born in Britain, this type of relationship is being rejected and things are starting to change. Nor is this solely a radicalisation due to the war. Despite the failure of the trade union movement to respond adequately to the privatisations and attacks over the past period, there has been a process of younger, working class Muslims joining trade unions. In some of the more radical sections of the trades union movement Muslims are having a big input into organisation and activity. A deeper radicalisation leading to the development of second-generation Muslim leaders has been taking place, which has been politically consolidated by opposition to the War and a preparedness to make alliances with the left. For example Oliur Rahman, a Respect local councillor and parliamentary candidate in East London, is both a trade unionist and a Muslim.
The Muslim communities are heterogeneous, divided like any other by generational, gender and nationality differences. The same point can be made about the base of MAB. While the Association itself may be ‘Islamic fundamentalist’, as Achcar characterises it, those who identify with it, or carry their placards on demonstrations are not politically homogenous. There is a delicate balance to be struck between engaging with and capitulating to forces organised by religious groups. The left does not always get it right - but the achievements so far have been quite new in Britain.
In areas such as East London and Birmingham, with large black and minority communities, Respect is now seen not only as the anti-war party but also a left party, and is winning support. Part of this support comes from the mosque, some of it from individual Muslims and other ethnic minorities, but either way the majority of the support is working class.
At a recent 700 strong Respect rally five out of the nine speakers were from ethnic minorities (three of them Respect candidates). The left in Britain has never achieved such collaboration before and while there is always danger in making new alliances, the issue is how to break the hold of religious bigotry. Some of the leaders of the MAB will never agree with the radical left, but that doesn’t necessarily mean all Muslims organised by them now will agree with them in the future.
Written on behalf of the ISG Political Committee April 2005
In recent debates on the British left, comrades of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) have downplayed the importance of the fight for secularism today. They argue that because of the war on terror, the overriding need is to combat Islamophobia and build alliances with Muslim communities under attack. In this context secularism becomes a weapon of the right, not the left. Alex Cowper argues that on the contrary socialists can only fight effectively against Islamophobia if we are also prepared to put forward a left secularism, although this does not imply that we should impose secular ideas on all broad movements. Moreover, a greater danger to the world than Islamic fundamentalism is the influence of Christian fundamentalism, not only in the United States, but also in the UK - as was shown recently by the orchestrated outrage against the TV screening of ‘Jerry Springer - The Opera’. Only a thoroughgoing secularism can ultimately defeat this kind of reactionary movement.
Secularism was a key demand of the leaders of the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries in the West, in France, America and elsewhere. They thought that human beings (or at least a minority of them) could arrive at truth through reason and construct rational social institutions. They wanted to reduce the role of religion and expand the role of the non-religious - secular - sphere in public life, with the aim of separating the functions of Church and State.
This has rarely been attained in practice, but to this day, for example, there are no religious services or assemblies in US public schools. At the same time, bourgeois reformers argued for the right of the individual to freedom of thought and expression in both religious and political spheres.
Recently these secular traditions have been invoked against Muslims in the war on terror. The West, it is argued, stands for freedom and tolerance, against Islamic traditions of repressiveness and intolerance. But this stark binary opposition is called into question by the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the US and by the Blair government’s emphasis on conservative Christian values in the UK.
Christian fundamentalism is consciously being used as a political tool by the US ruling class to divide and confuse the working class. It is facilitating the moves to the right in American domestic politics - for example in its opposition to abortion and gay marriage and support for creationist teaching in schools - as well as providing an ideological justification for the imperialist war drive.
The most progressive aspects of the 18th century Enlightenment - secularism, universalist ideas of human rights, rationality as against blind faith - are under threat by these forces. In this respect, incidentally, it is clear that postmodernism’s attack on secular universalism in the 1980s and 90s played a part in softening up intellectuals for the current assault by religious pre-modernists.
Religion is an excellent ideological binding agent in this period, which is why it appeals to both Bush and Blair. Prior to the rise of neo-liberalism in the 1980s, nationalism/patriotism was quite an effective ideology for powerful imperialisms based on secular nation states. But as the global economy became increasingly integrated, patriotism had to be supplemented by a worldview - religion - which transcended national boundaries and conditioned people to be more accepting of authority while offering consolation to them as individuals in an unstable and insecure world.
Islam functions in the same way in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The more desperate the ruling class to maintain its position, threatened as it is on all sides by a new phase of capitalist integration of the world economy, the more pious and ultra-orthodox it has to become. These besieged rulers are trying to renegotiate their relationship with imperialism but remain fearful of their own working classes.
Islamophobia and secularism
In some ways, then, similar processes are at work in the West and in the Islamic world. But in the West the ruling classes still like to pose as the champions of the Enlightenment when this suits their political agenda, for example when they wish to whip up Islamophobia. Educational authorities in Britain and France have suddenly become heroic defenders of secularism, despite the existence of religious schools in both countries, and the Anglican church’s status as the established church in the UK.
Many on the left in France have embraced this version of secularism. For example Lutte Ouvriere (Workers’ Struggle) has supported the recent law against the wearing of the Islamic headscarf (hijab) in schools. The other big far left organisation in France, the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire, is against this law. But the LCR has previously supported teachers who have excluded students from school for wearing the hijab.
Both argue that the hijab is a symbol of women’s oppression. But a symbol can mean more than one thing. It can be, for instance, also be a statement of cultural identity against racism. As Jane Kelly argued in the last issue of Socialist Outlook, the oppressed have to decide for themselves what constitutes oppression and wage their own struggle against it. Marxists reserve the right to criticise religion, but we should be in favour of individuals’ right to religious expression.
The left in Britain has, if anything, bent the stick the other way. The SWP, the leading force in Respect, has on the one hand rightly sought to make alliances with Muslims radicalising as a result of the war. On the other hand, they have had a tendency to bend to political pressure on certain issues.
At the October Respect conference, the SWP correctly opposed a resolution that wished to make Respect, which is a broad-based organisation, into an explicitly secular movement. The problem was that they used arguments that questioned the importance of secularism in general. For Marxists and militant materialists secularism should remain a fundamental principle even if we do not necessarily foreground the issue in our tactics.
The duty to be critical
The same tendency to bend to political pressure has sometimes informed the SWP’s leadership of the Stop the War Coalition. They are correct to point out that the first duty of socialists in the imperialist countries in context of the Iraq war is to support the Iraqi people’s resistance against occupation by organising political opposition at home. But up to now it has been left to smaller affiliated organisations like Iraq Occupation Focus to begin the process of building links with secular, anti-imperialist, civil society organisations in Iraq. These efforts should surely be taken up more broadly within the anti-war movement.
It is also part of the ABC of revolutionary Marxism that within a framework of unconditional solidarity with any struggle against oppression, one has the right and duty to be critical. Thus it is not wrong for socialists to argue that the struggles in Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Palestine will stand more chance of success with a left and secular leadership.
Marxists, for example, have always made a distinction between the methods of people’s war, and individual terrorism as methods of struggle. The fundamentalist tendency to separate the world into absolute good and absolute evil leads to the notion that any method adopted by the faithful is justified, and that the infidel, and the stray sheep from one’s own faith, only need to be shocked and terrified into doing the right thing.
Hence the sectarian bombings of Shias in Iraq. Hence also the beheadings of hostages, which of course represent only a tiny fraction of all deaths in the conflict, but have had a disproportionate political impact. Such methods leave the resistance vulnerable to manipulation by imperialist agents provocateurs. They also make it easier for the occupiers to ‘divide and rule’. The resistance needs urgently to develop a political programme that can unite the majority of Iraqis, whether Sunni, Shia or Kurd.
Religion has two sides
To clarify our ideas on religion it is necessary to go back to basics. In classical Marxism, religion is a form of alienation. The human power to change the world, and human qualities such as love and solidarity, are alienated from human beings and deposited with imaginary supernatural entities.
Religious and other social institutions that promote religious values make this alienation worse by denying the masses the chance to develop and question their own religious ideas. Instead, these ideas are used to reinforce prevailing systems of domination based on class, gender, race and sexuality.
But religion is not simply an expression of alienation, it is a protest against it. Religion is not just ‘the opium of the people’, according to Marx, it is ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world.’ Thus, as I said, Islam has become a badge of identity against oppression, whether for a young woman in London or Paris wearing the hijab, or for those fighting US and British imperialism in Iraq.
Therefore to fight religious alienation by using the powers of the oppressor (the school system, laws, bombs) is itself alienating and will be self-defeating, because it will provoke resistance. In any case, the power of religion over people’s minds will not disappear before the social conditions that give rise to this form of alienation also disappear.
That is why socialists cannot demand that people should be atheists. Many Marxists are also religious believers - such as senator Heloisa Helena of the Fourth International in Brazil, or some comrades of the Labour Party Pakistan who say Muslim prayers before their meetings.
Left secularists should therefore be the best defenders of individual rights of religious thought and expression, including in situations where one confessional group seeks to dominate another. However, that does not mean they should not argue against the influence of religious ideas.
No compromise on women’s or gay rights
Furthermore, if it is a question of defence of rights, that means all rights, including in cases where the rights of women, gays and young people, for example, conflict with religious dogma.
Let us be clear: within a group suffering racist oppression, those experiencing double or triple oppression as women and/or gays, have an absolute right to fight on all these fronts, as in the case of Women Against Fundamentalism in Britain in the early 1990s, or the Southall Black Sisters from the late 1970s until today, or black LGBT groups.
They should not be told they have to suppress the struggle for their rights in the interests of greater unity. In fact, the fight against inequalities of power within a particular group creates the conditions for a more effective unity in the longer term.
A good recent example of this sort of conflict is the violent attempt by the conservative wing of the Sikh community in Birmingham to ban a play by a Sikh woman that raises the issue of sexual abuse within the religious community.
In this the Sikh religious hierarchy were supported by the Catholic Church and of course by Blair’s New Labour. We defend the right to free expression on such issues, even though the Sikhs are an oppressed community.
Religion and state education
Socialists have traditionally resisted any attempt by religious institutions to meddle in state education. Frederick Engels, Marx’s collaborator, proposed the following to be adopted by Marxists in Germany in 1891:
‘Complete separation of Church and State. All religious communities without exception will be treated by the State as private societies. They will lose all subsidies from public funds and all influence in the public schools.’
Thus it is important for socialists in the US to oppose creationist teaching in the high schools. It is also vitally necessary, for instance, that Pakistani socialists should oppose sharia law - which entails the Islamicisation of the state, including education - without heeding the siren cries of those who would counterpose this struggle to the equally necessary fight against US imperialism.
And in Europe the fight for real secularism in education (not the Islamophobic ‘secularism of fools’) has to intensify. Blair has allowed religious foundations to set up schools in which classes on religion will be taught in addition to classes based on the national curriculum. At Emmanuel College in Gateshead, creationism - the doctrine that human and other life was divinely created, rather than arising through evolution - is being taught in biology lessons.
A socialist government would have to say that religion is a private affair and ought to be taught separately, in the way that many Muslim children, for example, have separate lessons now. The curriculum would have to have a definite humanist bent, challenging people to think critically about religion.
If Blair were smarter and less racist he would allow more Islamic schools. By doing so he would tie British Muslims more effectively to their own conservative leadership in this country while at the same time boosting all religions, which would serve his ideological and political aims: to divide and weaken the working class and line sections of them up behind reaction.
The proposed law against religious hatred
But Blair is not stupid: the government’s proposed law against incitement to religious hatred is designed to achieve precisely these aims. The apparent multiculturalism of the proposal is merely cosmetic. It is intended to split Muslims and also the left and progressives generally. In its attempt to co-opt conservative religious forces in ethnic communities, it will be both a carrot with which to encourage ‘moderate’ Muslims to accept the dominant political agenda and a stick with which to beat ‘extremists’ - Muslim and secular - who step outside the consensus.
As Pragna Patel from Southall Black Sisters argues, this law ‘would be used as a weapon to suppress dissent within our communities, particularly those who are more vulnerable and powerless... we can no more rely on religious leaders than we can on the state that often appeases them in the name of multiculturalism.’
The proposed law will also be used against progressives who oppose the creeping Christianisation of the education sector. We should remember the State has previously legislated against the extreme right on the basis that these groups incite racial hatred, but these laws can also be used against the left. It is therefore up to the movement, not the state, to mobilise to stop racism, including when it takes the form of inciting hatred against religious groups.
Against Islamophobia, against fundamentalisms
In conclusion, secularism cannot be defended by a bourgeoisie that proclaims its liberal values while practicing racist oppression against Muslims and other communities. Neither can political Islamists fight anti-Muslim bigotry or Christian fundamentalism effectively. In fact, as the French Teachers’ League has pointed out, ‘Islamophobia is the best objective ally of Islamic fundamentalism’ - they need each other. The only force that can simultaneously develop the fight against Islamophobia and against the various fundamentalisms is the secular left.
This means that we must be firm in our defence of individual rights of religious expression. It needs to be demonstrated to members of oppressed communities that left secularists are the most consistent fighters for equality and civil rights. This will then make it easier to develop the struggle against integration of religion and state.
(This article first appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Socialist Outlook, the journal of the ISG, British section of the FI.)
 French Section of the Fourth International (LCR).
 See, however, the LCR public statement, 21 October 2004: ‘It is obvious that the law on religious symbols has settled nothing. This is confirmed by the outrageous manner in which it has been implemented, without any spirit of compromise, against young Sikhs or high-school students who had abandoned the veil/scarf for the bandana. In these circumstances the LCR, which has always fought against the wearing of the veil/scarf as a symbol of the oppression of women, condemns these exclusions. These exclusions are even more scandalous as in Alsace the Concordat allows the presence in schools of the Church, priests and religious symbols.
 Jane Kelly, ‘Only the Oppressed Can Decide’, Socialist Outlook, No.4, Autumn 2004.
 Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender.
 In his comments on the Erfurt Programme of the German Social Democrats.
 Letter to the Guardian, 27 December 2004.