Defending secular spaces

In the rush to be tolerant or sensitive to religious difference, the space is created for the most r

On 18th July 2008 at the High Court, Southall Black Sisters (SBS) won an important legal challenge affirming its right to exist and continue its work. At stake was a decision by Ealing Council to withdraw funding from SBS – the only specialist provider of domestic violence services to black and minority women in Ealing – under the guise of developing a single generic service for all women in the borough.

The council sought to justify its decision on the grounds of ‘equality’, ‘cohesion’ and ‘diversity’. It argued that the very existence of groups like SBS - the name and constitution – was unlawful under the Race Relations Act because it excluded white women and was therefore discriminatory and divisive!

The challenge succeeded in revealing that the council had deliberately misconstrued and failed to have proper regard to its duties under the Race Relations Act in reaching its decision, and it was forced to concede that it would have to reconsider its position afresh.

Ealing Council’s cynical use of the government’s confused and contradictory ‘cohesion’ agenda to cut our funding has profound implications for the human rights of black and minority women in particular.

Specialist services like ours are needed not only for reasons to do with language difficulties and cultural and religious pressures on women.

Women turn to us because of our considerable experience in providing advice and advocacy in complex circumstances: where racism and religious fundamentalism (the political use of religion to seek control over people, territories and resources) is on the rise in the UK and worldwide; where legal aid is no longer easily available; where privatisation of what were once important state welfare functions is accelerating; and where draconian immigration and asylum measures are piling up.

These developments threaten our very right to organise and challenge abuses of power by state and community leaders. Secular spaces are literally being squeezed out of minority communities.

The SBS challenge to Ealing Council represents a key moment for black and minority groups that have organised politically to counter racism and other forms of inequality based on gender, caste and ethnic divisions between and within communities in the UK.

While successful in forcing the council to withdraw its decision and to re-think its policy on domestic violence services in Ealing, our experience has also sounded a warning bell to secular progressive groups in particular.

The current drive towards ‘cohesion’ represents the softer side of the ‘war on terror’. At its heart lies the promotion of a notion of integration based on the assumption that organising around race and ethnicity encourages segregation.

At the same time, in the quest for allies, it seeks to reach out to a male religious (largely Muslim) leadership, and it thereby encourages a ‘faith’ based approach to social relations and social issues.

This approach rejects the need for grassroots self organisation on the basis of race and gender inequality but institutionalises the undemocratic power of so called ‘moderate’ (authoritarian if not fundamentalist) religious leaders at all levels of society.

The result is a shift from a ‘multicultural’ to a ‘multi-faith’ society: one in which civil society is actively encouraged to organise around exclusive religious identities, and religious bodies are encouraged to take over spaces once occupied by progressive secular groups and, indeed, by a secular welfare state.

In the process, a complex web of social, political and cultural processes are reduced by both state and community leaders into purely religious values, while concepts of human rights, equality and discrimination are turned on their head.

The problem with the state accommodation of religion – even so called moderate religious leaderships – is that they work against and not for equality and justice.

Since 9/11, we have witnessed the rise of religious intolerance in all religions, which has in turn fostered a culture of fear and censorship.

The failure of the British state to de-link the state from the Christian church – coupled with its anti-civil liberties agenda and disastrous foreign policies – has fuelled a faith based politics of resistance amongst Muslims.

In the event, many have become ever more vigilant in the protection of their religious identity, as borne out by increasingly loud demands from religious and even fundamentalist leaders within black and minority communities. Such demands – for blasphemy laws, for state funding for separate religious schools, for female dress codes, and for customary laws for family affairs to name but a few – have nothing to do with challenging racism or poverty, but everything to do with ensuring that all state institutions accommodate ‘authentic’ religious identity: an identity which depends on the control of female sexuality.

Such demands, by their very nature, deny the numerous progressive religious and even secular or feminist traditions that exist within minority communities.

In this context, the sentiments recently expressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chief Justice concerning sharia law are very telling: in the rush to be tolerant or sensitive to religious difference, they create the space for the most reactionary and even fundamentalist religious leaders to take control of minority communities, and they enable a climate which allows religion to define our roles in both private and public spaces.

Their sentiments appear contingent on the false assumption that black and minority cultures are intrinsically opposed to universal human rights principles, and that they do not contribute to the body of law based on such principles that now inform the English legal system. In doing so, they allow religious and cultural contexts to become the overriding framework within which those from ethnic and religious minorities are perceived, inevitably drawing on very narrow assumptions about religion and the role of women.

It is these political developments that have compelled groups like SBS to defend ever more vigorously the secular black anti-racist and feminist spaces that we created in the late 70s and which, until the 90s, we were able to take for granted.

This is now our most important struggle in addressing gender-based violence, in the face of attempts by the state and religious leaders to corral us into specific reactionary religious identities in the name of ‘coehsion’, on the assumption that we live in a post racist, post feminist and classless society.

This is the significance of our successful challenge to Ealing Council: it highlighted the urgent need to develop a politics of solidarity within and between communities which recognises that what is at stake is no less than the fight for secular, progressive, feminist and anti-racist values – a fight which is embodied in our name.

Pragna Patel is chair of Southall Black Sisters and a member of Women Against Fundamentalism

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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