2012 in review: The New Statesman on... religion

From the challenges facing the new Archbishop of Canterbury to the reaction to the "Innocence of Muslims", it's been a busy year in discussions of religion.

Welcome to the third instalment of the New Statesman's 12 Days of Blog-mas. (Yesterday's round up, of our best writing on sport, is here.)

Today we're looking back at a year in which religion has often dominated debate, whether it was the violence in reaction to the Innocence of Muslims film or the new census data revealing how Britain chooses to describe its faith. Here are a selection of our best pieces - click the headlines to open them in a new window.

Between church and state

George Pitcher, formerly head of public affairs for Rowan Williams, set out the political challenges facing the new Archbishop of Canterbury. A key decision for the new incumbent - Justin Welby - will be whether to take Westminster on, or whether to retreat into the CofE tribe.

Is Christianity essentially socialist? The new archbishop will be enthroned in Augustine’s seat in a failing economy with a hardline, Conservative-led government (and, after this month’s reshuffle, who doubts that that is what we have?). As a Church, we are drawn inexorably towards the question of where today our faith is rooted, economically and politically. In short, the new archbishop will be examined to establish whether he is Labour or Conservative.


Leader: The Church needs to change

Something else that Welby is going to have to deal with early on in his tenure is the division in his church over the consecration of women bishops. The Synod narrowly rejected proposals to allow them this year - a grave mistake, as the New Statesman wrote in a leader at the time:

The choice of that arid path is cause for more than passing regret, even to non-believers. The established Church is embedded deeply in our constitution. Its bishops are entitled to sit in the House of Lords and pass judgement on national legislation. It would be morally, socially and politically intolerable for any comparable institution to affirm a blanket refusal of women’s equal right of participation in national life. The Church is not only misguided in this matter, it has a public duty to change.


Muhammad survived Dante’s Inferno. He’ll survive a YouTube clip

Mehdi Hasan's open letter to the Muslim protesters against the film Innocence of Muslims argued that "anger is no excuse for extremism", and pointed to the Quranic evidence for peace, tolerance and freedom as being central to Islam.

He argued:

You and I have long complained of the west’s double standards in the Middle East; it is time for us to recognise that Muslims are guilty of equally egregious double standards. Egyptian state television has broadcast a series based on the infamous anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Pakistani television channels regularly air programmes demonizing the country’s Ahmadiyya community. Islamic scholars appear in online videos ridiculing the core beliefs of Judaism and Christianity. Yet you and your allies demand special protection for your religion and your prophet. Why? Is your faith so weak, so brittle? Muhammad, lest we forget, survived Dante’s Inferno. Trust me, he’ll survive a 14-minute clip on YouTube.


Atheism+: the new New Atheists

This year, a new movement developed in atheism, known as "Atheism+", in response to the so-called New Atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The "new wave" seeks to prioritise equality when discussing non-belief, and cleanse some of the reputational damage done by allegations of sexism and elitism. As NS blogger Nelson Jones explained:

Atheism+ is, at its most basic, an attempt wrap things together more formally, to create a movement that prioritises issues of equality  and does so from an explicitly non-religious perspective. Some would say that such a philosophy already exists in the form of humanism. Others prefer the label Skeptic. Atheism+, however, seeks to capitalise on the sense of identity that has grown up around the word "atheism" during the past few years. One supporter of the idea, Greta Christina, celebrates the term as "a slap in the face that wakes people up."


Is Scientology just a weird cult?

Nelson Jones again (we've had some excellent writing from him this year - check out his NS blog) responding to the news that Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise were divorcing with a nuanced look at Scientology. He discusses whether its beliefs are any stranger than other, more established, belief systems:

To its critics, Scientology looks like both pseudoscience and pseudo-religion. But then most religions require of their adherents belief in concepts or entities that strike outsiders as unlikely or even absurd: Virgin Births, the revelation of scripture by divine dictation, miracles, angels and demons. Is Xenu any more ridiculous an idea than a saviour who could walk on water, or less historical than Abraham? Scientology's credibility problem may partly be a consequence of its youth. It has yet to build up a patina of ancient wisdom, the respectability that comes from age. Nor does it have the ballast provided by a long-standing intellectual tradition.


Malala Yousafzai: The girl who played with fire


The shooting of the brave child activist Malala Yousafzai by a Taliban hitman shocked Pakistan. Reporting from the region, Samira Shackle examined politicians' reluctance to confront the state’s own role in sustaining extremists.

There is no mass support for the Taliban but it would be naive to suggest that they have no appeal at all. The extremists have successfully appropriated an anti-imperialist and anti-American discourse that resonates with the wider public mood. The Taliban were not a problem in Pakistan until the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. American drone strikes and the associated civilian deaths as well as the assault on sovereignty have further complicated public sympathies. And conspiracy theories proliferate. Over dinner, a top lawyer very seriously told me that Malala was a “puppet of the west”. A businessman said that her shooting had “obviously” been orchestrated by the government as an excuse to delay the next election, which is scheduled for early next year.


Is God an Englishman?

In an excoriating review of Roger Scruton's latest book, Our Church: a Personal History of the Church of England, Terry Eagleton lambasts the author's nostaligic fondness to High Anglicanism, and reveals the weaknesses in his assocation between religion and a version of Englishness:

Whatever his political views, this son of a socialist republican has produced, in his time, some extraordinarily perceptive work in philosophy, aesthetics and political theory. In the end, however, ideology tends to addle your brain. For many years, Scruton was far smarter than his own extravagant Romantic prejudices. Now he has succumbed to them wholesale. At least he has discovered some kind of community in the process, as he rides to hounds and plays the organ in his local church. It’s just that one suspects this maverick intellectual is as fervent as he is about belonging because he will never really be able to.


The "Muslim Schindler"

Mehdi Hasan again, writing in praise of Abdol-Hossein Sardari, who risked his life to save Iranian Jews in Paris during the Second World War, and who died, poor and alone, in Croydon in 1981.

Abdol-Hossein Sardari unexpectedly found himself in charge of Iran’s diplomatic mission in Paris during the German occupation of France. A lawyer by training, he used his negotiating skills to try to persuade the Nazis’ experts on racial purity that the 150 or so Iranian Jews living in the city in 1940 were assimilated to non-Jewish – and “Aryan” – Persians through history, culture and intermarriage. At the same time, the dapper diplomat quietly began to issue new-style Iranian passports to Jews, making it easier for them to flee France.


Who speaks for British Jews?

Writing in a special issue of the magazine on British Judaism, David Cesarani argued that British Jews are not, and never have been, "clannish", and that only an arrogant few can presume to speak "for Jews":

Today, mainstream Jewish leaders still place a premium on unity, but they know that in a voluntary community they have no power to enforce unanimity. They can only appeal to the humility of idealists and busybodies alike who arrogate the right to speak “as Jews” and “for Jews”. They can point to the harm wreaked by individuals acting without the sense of responsibility that comes from being integrated into a people, knowing its history, understanding and sharing its hopes and fears.


Devoted dissent

Marking the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer, Daniel Swift explored the political past and future of this most radical of texts:

The Church of England’s social conservatism has perhaps masked the liturgy’s potential for political or economic radicalism. Yet in this anniversary year an alternative reading of liturgy has emerged from an unlikely source. Last year, preaching his Christmas sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said: “Before we draw the easy and cynical conclusion that the prayer book is about social control by the ruling classes, we need to ponder the uncompromising way in which those same ruling classes are reminded of what their power is for, from the monarch downward,” he said, and he cited the Communion rite as a warning against an economic order that accumulates “assets of land and property in the hands of a smaller and smaller elite”.


Who needs God, when you have the Muppet Christmas Carol?


Finally, writing in the Christmas double issue of the New Statesman, Natalie Haynes makes an atheist bid to reappropriate the joys of Christmas, wondering why the qualities of generosity and thoughtfulness should be the preserve of the God-fearing:

It’s because of this that I see A Christmas Carol as a humanist text, in essence. Scrooge does go to church on Christmas Day after his night-time conversion from misanthrope to good man, but it takes up less than a sentence of the book. (And none of the film. Perhaps it’s for the best – the church might not approve of the marriage between pig and frog.)


Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.