[Marxism] Religion and the left

Marvin Gandall marvgandall at rogers.com
Sun Dec 26 06:59:26 MST 2004

The struggle is no longer against religion, but within it

For the left not to have stood with Muslims would have been a real betrayal

Seumas Milne
The Guardian
December 16, 2004

For more than two centuries, since its emergence from the French revolution,
the political left has been in conflict with religion. From the epic 19th
century struggle of republicans against clericalism to the militant atheism
of 20th century communism, leftwing movements regarded organised religion as
a pivotal prop of the established order, an ally of the powers that be from
tsarist Russia to Tibet. And as children of the enlightenment, the bulk of
the left saw religious belief itself as little more than a superstitious
hangover from the pre-scientific age, preaching social deference - the rich
man in his castle, the poor man at his gate - while diverting the oppressed
from collective action in the here and now to the hope of justice in the
afterlife. This was the background against which Spanish priests were
targeted as cheerleaders of Francoite fascism in the 30s, while Soviet
churches were turned into museums of atheism and Enver Hoxha decreed the
outright abolition of religion in Maoist Albania in the 60s.

But many of the conditions that gave rise to earlier leftwing hostility to
religion have eroded, as religion itself has declined in Europe and
elsewhere. The bonds between religious institutions and ruling elites have
been weakened, while the radical strands within religion - which were always
present, not least in the core religious texts themselves - have grown
stronger, typified by the egalitarian Christian liberation theology
movement. Even the most established religious authorities have become
sharply critical of the global system, challenging inequality and western
military aggression. During the 1990s the Pope, who played such a central
role in the rollback of communism, was one of the few international figures
who could be heard speaking out against the new capitalist order. Religion
cannot but find itself in conflict with the demands of an ever more
voracious capitalism to dominate social and personal life, which religion
has traditionally seen as its own sphere of influence.

Of course, shifts within religion have not only been in one direction: from
Vatican opposition to contraception in Aids-blighted Africa, the rise of
Hindu nationalism or the advance of rightwing US evangelicals, there have
also been negative trends. But the loosening of the link between religion
and state and economic power has allowed the secular left to work with the
religious in a way that was far more difficult in the past.

It is the insurgent spirit of political Islam, however, that has brought the
issue of how progressive movements should relate to religion to a head.
Modern Islamism has flourished on the back of the failures of the left and
secular nationalists in the Muslim world and has increasingly drawn its
support from the poor and marginalised. That has had an impact on the
outlook of Islamist groups that not long ago were backed by the west as
conservative ballast for its client states in the Middle East. Meanwhile,
Muslims find themselves at the sharpest end of conflict with the new
imperial world order, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Chechnya, central Asia
and Saudi Arabia - subject to invasion, occupation and western-backed
tyranny unparalleled in any other part of the globe. Across western Europe,
Muslims are the target of an unprecedented level of hostility and attacks,
while segregated at the bottom of the social hierarchy - now forming, for
example, the majority of the prison population in France.

But for showing solidarity and working with Muslim organisations - whether
in the anti-war movement or in campaigns against Islamophobia - leftwing
groups and politicians such as the London mayor, Ken Livingstone, are now
routinely damned by liberal secularists (many of whom have been keen
supporters of the war in Iraq) for "betraying the enlightenment" and making
common cause with "Islamofascists", homophobes and misogynists. The pitch of
these denunciations has been heightened further by the government's plan to
introduce a new criminal offence of incitement to religious hatred. This
measure would extend to the most vulnerable community in the country the
very modest protection already offered by race hate legislation to black
people, Jews, Sikhs and all religious communities in Northern Ireland. It is
not a new blasphemy law; it would not lead to a ban on Monty Python's Life
of Brian film; or rule out jokes about Ayatollah Khomeini's contact lenses;
or cover ridicule or attacks on any religion (unlike the broader Australian
legislation) - but would only outlaw incitement of hatred against people
because of their faith.

Many arguments now deployed against this proposal by an unholy alliance of
evangelical Christians, xenophobes, the British National Party, secular
literalists and libertarians were also used against anti-racist legislation
in the 60s and 70s. And none of the public opposition seems to have included
the consequent logical demand that protection for Jews, Sikhs and religious
people in Northern Ireland be repealed, which only underlines the noxious
nature of debate about Islam in Britain.

At its most rational, opposition to protection for Muslims and other
religious groups is based on the argument that whereas race is about
biology, religion is a set of ideas which can be adopted or discarded at
will. But in reality, just as ethnicity isn't mainly an issue of genetics,
religion isn't only a question of beliefs: both are also about culture and
identity. In Britain, religion has increasingly become a proxy for race. It
hasn't escaped the attention of racists that many people in Britain who a
generation ago would have regarded themselves as Pakistani or Bangladeshi
now see themselves primarily as Muslims - nor that targeting Muslims is a
way round existing race hate legislation, as well as drawing on the most
poisonous prejudices and conflict of our era.

By the same token, for the secular left - which is about social justice and
solidarity if it is about anything - not to have stood with British Muslims
over Islamophobia or the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq would have been
the real betrayal. It is not, and has not been, in any way necessary to
compromise with social conservatism over women's or gay rights, say, to have
such an engagement; on the contrary, dialogue can change both sides in
positive ways. But it is a chronic flaw of liberalism to fail to recognise
power inequalities in social relations - and the attitude of some liberals
to contemporary Islam reflects that blindness in spades.

Outright opposition to religion was important in its time. But to fetishise
traditional secularism in our time is to fail to understand its changing
social meaning. Like nationalism, religion can face either way, playing a
progressive or reactionary role. The crucial struggle is now within religion
rather than against it.

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