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 assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.