On 15 November, Wandsworth Stop the War Coalition, in South West London, held a public meeting on civil liberties in Tooting Islamic Centre. An email advertising the meeting made the following request:
“We have been asked to dress modestly and that women cover their heads. Also, we are asked to respect the men/women seating arrangements... Considerable discussion took place within the Muslim community before agreement was reached that a political meeting could take place in a holy building.”
The meeting went ahead as planned, with segregated seating and head coverings passed out to women on the door. And this at a civil liberties meeting! What price civil liberties for women?
The Tooting meeting was not an isolated incident. Just in the time since then, there have been numerous incidents in which socialists and secularists have been told it is illegitimate to criticise religious reaction within Muslim communities because to do so will boost racism.
AWLers in unions affiliated to Stop the War have been told that the Tooting meeting was no worse than one organised in a pub and therefore uncongenial to strict Muslims.
The United Left caucus of the public services union Unison, meeting on 26 November, voted down a very mild motion which advocated the gradual phasing-out of faith schools — again, because it was supposedly “anti-Muslim” to advocate that.
When an AWL student proposed to her women’s group a motion of solidarity with the new women’s movement in Iraq, she found that her student union’s women officer had invited the Islamic Society to the meeting in order to stop her.
And when Daniel Randall, an AWL member who sits on the National Union of Students executive, debated with SWPer Suzie Wylie at a recent student environment conference, she said that in 1930s East London his approach would have meant abandoning Jews to the fascists (because those Jews were religious).
Imagine if, when we criticise the Pope — for instance for his recent tirade against gay people — we were told to curb our tongues for fear of stoking up anti-Catholic bigotry or instructed that we should keep quiet out of deference to oppressed Catholics in Northern Ireland or Latin America; or if, before passing a pro-choice resolution on abortion, student unions first had to consult with student Catholics!
These days, Muslim religious authorities are particularly assertive, and so, many of the religious right-wingers we attack are Muslims. That is not because we are “against Muslims”. It is because Marxists should not treat Islam differently from any other religion.
No differently, for example, from the way Marxists treated Jewish religion when defending Jews against fascists in the 1930s.
Left-wingers like the Trotskyists and the Independent Labour Party organised for Cable Street by mobilising Jewish workers for direct action as part of a united, fighting labour movement, not by pandering to rabbis and conservative Jewish community leaders. Many of the leftists were of Jewish origin themselves, and fierce in their opposition to the rabbis.
With the rise of rabidly right-wing Islamism today, to trim our politics to what conservative Muslim religious authorities find acceptable is political suicide and outright betrayal of women and others fighting for their rights within Muslim communities and across the mainly-Muslim world.
Soft-pedalling on secularism, out of deference to real or supposed Muslim sentiment, sometimes leaves the left deferring to Blair, too.
We have a Labour prime minister who suggests that teaching creationism alongside evolution will ensure better results by creating a “more diverse” school system, and has appointed a supporter of the ultra-Catholic sect Opus Dei as education minister. The labour movement should be up in arms in defence of secularism – the insistence that the state must not subsidise, help, or protect any religion. Yet some of the left backs the Government’s Bill against “incitement to religious hatred”, which if it passes will extend Britain’s Christian blasphemy laws to protect all religion from rational critics.
Socialists do not think religion determines the shape of our society and causes all its ills. We do not believe that religion can or should be abolished by administrative means. We do not become fixated on arguing against religion in a way that disrupts labour-movement unity in action between non-religious and religious workers, because we know that religion cannot be dispelled by rational argument alone. Only through a victorious struggle for a free society, in which humanity acquires conscious control of our collective affairs, will religion and superstition gradually disappear.
But if we are going to build a workers’ movement capable of smashing capitalism, socialists must oppose all oppression and all superstition. Defending Muslims against racism, and fighting the oppression of women and gay people from a Muslim background, must go together.
Solidarity December 4 2006