David Broder contributes to our ongoing debate on religion and secularism.
December marked the 100th anniversary of the separation of the French state from the Church, an event marked by a Parti Socialiste (PS)-run "debate" at the Assemblée Nationale. Various PS MPs and academics fêted secularism as a tenet of rationality in government, and as "the keystone of the republican system" - their analysis centred around a sort of bourgeois irreligion, proud of replacing Catholic values in government with those of liberal enlightenment.
Such an attitude was illustrated by the comments of Jean-Marc Ayrault, leader of the PS parliamentary group, who argued that the fundamental obstacle to secularism is a culture where people are stigmatised by their faith - the answer is apparently to "reassert the values of the Republic", in a "neutral" atmosphere, a goal partly achieved by banning religious symbols in schools. Laure Caille explained that if a Jewish kid goes into a school where everyone else is wearing the veil, it can be intimidating - so if no-one wears the veil, mutual toleration replaces religious discord! All of these ideas fundamentally revolve around the idea that toleration, co-existence and individual religious liberty can all be guaranteed by just focussing on common French "rational", "republican" values - indeed, pretending that the elephant of religion isn't in the room.
The problem with the PS line is that it has faith in the state as the angel of deliverance from religion - a crude suppression of religious expression by the bourgeois state will mean that no-one can be stigmatised. But unlike the PS, Marxists have no faith in the bourgeois state to control the boundaries of free speech or set parameters for free expression - even that which is used against straightforward reactionaries today could be used against the labour movement tomorrow.
The law on religious symbols is inherently arbitrary in that it does not put the same restrictions on all belief groups - why the assumption that outward expression of being a Muslim is necessarily more "intimidating" to ideological opponents than, say, wearing a Parti Socialiste t-shirt? Their real goal is to push their own bourgeois-republican liberalism in schools as opposed to other (admittedly somewhat more reactionary) creeds.
Moreover, the PS outlook is hypocritical because they aren't against faith schools - the indoctrination of the young by various cults is apparently fair game outside of the public sphere. After the ban on religious symbols, therefore, all they can hope for kids with particularly devout parents is that they'll be shepherded away to some faith school where they don't "intimidate" those of other creeds.
The PS are not concerned by ghettoisation, or by potential boundaries growing between different communities, merely that risks emerge when overtly religious people come into contact with one another. This is not so much the "secularism" which sees faith as a private affair as the false understanding which holds that people from different religious backgrounds are fundamentally unable to live side-by-side if their differences are too overt.
Nevertheless, it has never been the case that Marxists see religion as purely a matter of personal conscience. Engels rebuked the German Social Democrats for, Lenin writes, "substituting, for the demand of the workers' party [referring to the 1891 Erfurt programme] that the state should declare religion a private matter, the declaration that religion is a private matter for the Social Democrats themselves".
Yet just as then the demand that the "Reich" abandon persecution of religious minorities didn't mean a cessation of criticism of their creeds, the SWP and their ilk are now wrong to justify Islam itself when its followers are under attack. An example is the biblicist quotation of Marx's "religion is the sigh of the oppressed", deprived of all meaning to support their argument that Islamic values or pieces of Islamic counter-culture such as the hijab are a deliberate and rational response to capitalism. Socialist Worker last year attacked "the media" for daring to suggest that Islam is "oppressive, backward and fundamentalist".
Of course, it is essentially similar to any other religion - deeply reactionary. The tradition of women covering themselves up is not primarily a reaction to capitalist objectification, but a relic of pre-capitalist societies where women were even more under the jackboot of their husbands. To say that "Islam means peace" is grossly opportunist - while most Muslims do not of course support terrorist groups, as racists might have us believe, Qu'ranic doctrine itself is on a continuum with the belief system of the worst Islamist reactionaries. Is there really so much of a difference between the idea that we must take our personal ethics from the dogma of the Qu'ran and the idea that all social and political relations must be governed by the values therein?
The religion in its absolute form is not the same thing as its followers - we defend Muslims against racist attacks, but we give not preference or support to Islam.
Yet even if we loathe religious dogma, the answer is not simply to preach bourgeois atheism as an antidote to it - this cannot undercut its social roots, and will merely alienate the faithful. This is to ape the PS's desire to liberate women from their religious community by suppressing the veil.
Yet the effort to unite those of all faiths around core common values is partly right - all that is wrong is the values which the French establishment promulgates. Secularism in the labour movement, where workers unite around their common opposition to the capitalist system, is the real solution in this vein.
In a fight against the bourgeoisie, religious differences between workers are a distraction, merely a secondary issue, as Lenin writes "cleansed of medieval mildew, the proletariat will wage a broad and open struggle for the elimination of economic slavery, the true source of the religious humbugging of mankind". Without solidarity between workers, irrelevant of private creed, it is impossible to simply preach a scientific, materialist and atheist outlook to them - they can be better cleansed of their prejudices through attaining in struggle an understanding of class and socialism.
The way to fight against hatred between those of different religions is not to do what the PS advocate, the bourgeois state forcing people to cover up their faith. The ban on the veil, reactionary symbol and instrument as it is, can only perpetuate the idea that Muslims are a commonly oppressed group who need to unite around their doctrine and "community" against the oppressive state. The left's apologists for Islam effectively do the same, emphasising the value of the cross-class religious antidote to capitalism - "they believe in profits, we believe in the prophets", as George Galloway opportunistically put it. The only real answer to religion is a working-class secularism - the unity of workers in fighting for common economic and political goals can dispel their loyalty to their religious communities.