Romney attacks Obama's "secular agenda"

Has "secular" become a dirty word in US politics?

American presidential elections always produce their bizarre surprises, but few could have predicted that a row over the funding of birth control should be overshadowing the state of the economy as the focus of a heated national debate about religious freedom. Or to accusations that President Obama is engaged in an all-out "war on religion".

Yesterday Mitt Romney, looking ever more vulnerable to the socially conservative Rick Santorum, was answering audience questions in Michigan ahead of next week's primary -- one of those contests invariably described as "crucial". He took the opportunity to burnish his "pro-life" credentials, pledging for example to cut off federal funding for the abortion provider Planned Parenthood and promising to choose a pro-lifer as his running mate. He also spoke, not for the first time, of the need to protect "religious freedom". Criticising Obama's record, he put much of the blame on "the people the president hangs around with and their agenda, their secular agenda". They were people who "fought against religion".

This is, of course, code for the administration's policy, since watered down (largely under pressure from the Catholic Church) to force even religious employers to provide contraceptive coverage as part of their workers' health insurance. The ultimate problem might lie in the concept that healthcare provision should form part of the employer-employee relationship at all. There's no doubt, though, that an ad hoc alliance of Catholic bishops, Protestant evangelicals and Republican politicians has managed to turn this from an issue of equal access to healthcare into one of "religious freedom", at least in terms of the public debate.

Even though the freedom under discussion is not the freedom of citizens to worship freely but rather the freedom of powerful religious organisations to deprive ordinary Americans of provision that most of them have for decades taken for granted. Even though most ordinary Catholic voters disagree with their church leadership on the issue.

When Romney speaks of a "secular agenda" what he is actually talking about is the rights of women to have control over their own bodies and their own fertility. The vast majority of American women, including Catholics, have long used contraception in their own lives, whatever the official position of the church hierarchy. Romney himself, when he was governor of Massachusetts, took a far more nuanced position on abortion than the one he now advocates. It's fair to say, though, that his current pro-life stance long predates the emergence of Rick Santorum as a serious contender. He has been accused of flip-flopping, but it would probably be truer to observe that his shift mirrors the reorientation of the Republican party as a whole in recent decades.

As Ann Gerhart noted the other day in the Washington Post, there was a time when a Republican congressman from Texas (by the name of George Bush Sr) could argue that "if family planning is anything, it is a public health matter." That was the 1970s.

For all the heightened talk of a "war on religion", it's hard to see how the the Obama administration represents an atheistic lurch. As both candidate and president, Barack Obama has "done God" with the best of them. The US constitutional tradition, embodied in the First Amendment, has always stressed freedom of religion rather than (like French secularism) freedom from religion, but from the days of the Founding Fathers until well into the second half of the twentieth century, politics and religion were seen as largely separate spheres of activity. John F Kennedy's opponents tried to discredit him by hinting darkly that, as a Catholic, he might be taking orders from Rome. Today's Republican hopefuls, even the Mormon, seem almost to want to present themselves as instruments of Vatican policy. All very strange.

It's actually the Obama administration, insofar as it is pursuing a "secular agenda" at all, that stands in the mainstream of US political and legal history. A secular agenda is not the same thing as an anti-religious one, a fact that would have been obvious to every previous American generation. What is historically novel is the attempt on the part of the religious right to recast political questions as spiritual ones. They are trying to use the hallowed constitutional right to freedom of worship to restrict the freedoms of ordinary Americans, religious and otherwise. And, at least in the limited area of the race for the Republican nomination, they would seem to be making most of the running.

George Bush Sr, in the speech quoted above, could refer to opponents of state funding for birth control as "militants" who sought to use the issue as "a political stepping stone." Forty years later, it seems, the militants have taken over the Republican asylum.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.