A Very British Wedge Strategy

I meant to blog about this article yesterday but hey, don’t you know there’s a war on?

As a summary of the various arguments currently raging between what is often oversimplified as faith groups and secularists, it isn’t too bad. But unfortunately, it is also guilty of a moral relativism and lazy journalistic notions about ‘two sides to every story’.

To be fair, it does recover slightly from a disastrous second paragraph, but this does rather brilliantly sum up the problem with the whole:

“We are witnessing a social phenomenon that is about fundamentalism,” says Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark. “Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube, the hardline settlers on the West Bank and the anti-gay bigots of the Church of England. Most of them would regard each other as destined to fry in hell.

Excuse me? Richard Dawkins is equivalent to nutjob suicide bombers? Let’s think about this for a second. A senior member of the Church of England is suggesting that Dawkins is every bit as contemptible as someone who murders dozens of people in cold blood, purely because he got a book published. I got my head bitten off last week for suggesting that nationalism and xenophobia make uncomfortable bedfellows, yet this man is allowed to make such an astonishing claim in a national newspaper with the journalist not only not questioning it, but making it the theme of his whole article.

(I should also point out the theological nonsensity that is calling a secularist a fundamentalist. You simply cannot accuse someone of fundamentalism for believing that there are no fundamentals. How a man got to be so senior in the CofE without knowing that is beyond me).

I’m afraid this sort of nonsense pervades the whole article. There is no denying that both ‘sides’ of the debate have their own extremists, but let’s have a bit of perspective here. An extremist person of faith goes around strapping bombs on him/herself (or preferably strapping them on helpful morons) and exterminating as many people as possible. Secularists, at their most extreme, think that burkas shouldn’t be worn in public. You simply cannot get away with the claim that they’re both as bad as each other.

As I’ve said before, I haven’t yet read Dawkins’ latest, although I have read virtually every sentence he wrote between 1975 and 1997. My own view is that he has a weakness for straw men, attacking creationists and other loons while failing to engage moderate religion in meaningful debate. But the man isn’t evil in the same way that any rational human being would regard any religious extremist.

Perhaps someone who has read his latest book can enlighten me: has he actually called for what Rowan Williams defines in the article as ‘private secularism’, where everyone is compelled to “silence their fundamental convictions and debate in a value-free atmosphere of public neutrality”? My reading of his earlier work suggests that while he may hate religion, he defends freedom of expression. Yet Yahya Birt of The Islamic Foundation insists that he does. If so, the man’s a fool.

But I have a suspicion that Rowan Williams’ distinction between private and “procedural” secularism, where “different groups could at least converse with each other in public discussions over sensitive questions of value and policy,” is a canard. No one rational surely disagrees with that definition of secularism. Equally, no-one rational could argue that as a result of such secularism, religious organisations seeking to provide a public service (often at the expense of the taxpayer) should be free to ignore anti-discrimination legislation, or should be allowed to run their own (again, taxpayer funded) faith schools. This isn’t secularism Rowan: this is exceptionalism. Yet again, Stuart Jeffries does not question the notions being put to him.

If I was in any doubt that there is a cynical – some would say ungodly – agenda by faith groups to shift public opinion against secularism, this article has scotched such notions. Throughout this article there is evidence of religious people using moderate language to justify extremist notions, while caricaturing “the enemy” (which is ostensibly “extremists” like Dawkins but in fact looks rather like secularism in general). As an exercise in muddying the waters, I have to give it to them: they’ve done a terrific job.

Sounds like the makings of a wedge strategy to me. Let’s take another example, that of the delightful, not at all stupid-of-face, Nadia Eweida. Much has been made of British Airways’ attempts to discipline her for insisting on wearing a cross over her uniform. What seems to constantly get forgotten in this debate is that her uniform involves wearing a cravat: in other words she was balancing her cross OVER a fucking necktie.

Seriously for a second, why shouldn’t a company that has a uniform policy, discipline a member of staff for such daft behaviour? She was clearly going out of her way to start a row. If she was a wiccan, do you think various faith groups would line up behind her right to wear a pentacle in such a way? What about a Yoda badge? More to the point, if a man had fought for the right to wear a crucifix over his tie (or worn a tie with a cross rather than his uniform issue one), would it have got the same interest?

I can’t help but suspect that the whole row was stage managed from the start. She and her lawyers must have known that her claim wouldn’t stand up in court, but her platform wasn’t really an industrial tribunal, but the media which could be relied upon to distort the real issue. The main faith groups helpfully laid in on her behalf.

Ditto the recent case over Exeter University ‘banning’ a Christian Union. Ditto the manufactured row earlier this year about gay adoption. Ditto the ridiculous stories in December about evil people trying to ban Christmas. These are all stage managed rows that make good Daily Mail headlines, but which only stand up if the public is deprived of the full facts.

The faith groups which are conspiring in this media onslaught don’t want an open debate: they want a punch up. Some individuals even go as far as suggesting this in Stuart Jeffries’ article:

Azzim Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought:

The problem is that these people [secularists] believe that they have the absolute truth. That means you have no room to talk to others so you end up having a physical fight. They want to close the door and ignore religion, but this will provoke a violent religiosity. If someone seeks to deny my existence, I will fight to assert it.

Richard Chartres, Bishop of London:

If you exile religious communities to the margins, then they will start to speak the words of fire among consenting adults, and the threat to public order and the public arena, I think, will grow and grow.

Whatever happened to turning the other cheek? These people, from mainstream faith groups, are actually suggesting that if you stand up to them, you are responsible for provoking a violent reaction?

You would have thought that the religious prohibition on violence would be stronger than a couple of harsh words written by Richard Dawkins in a book that very few people of faith will actually read, but clearly this is not the case. And again, I would remind you that these are not the words of loony nutjobs like Abu Qatada, but the mainstream. The fact that these men can come so close to inciting religiously inspired violence and yet keep their jobs tells you all you need to know.

I’m not anti-religion. I’d be much more comfortable breaking bread with a (genuine) religious secularist than a Humanist who thinks H is a quasi-religious icon. But we need to be alert to the fact that softly spoken beardy weirdies are softly, softly doing the very thing that the more harshly spoken beardy weirdies currently hiding out in Pakistani caves would do by force.


  1. The Grauniad failed to mention that Mr “anti-fundamentalist-secularism” Tamimi, is the representative in Britain, of Hamas. You know: HAMAS: those peace-loving, pro-dialogue people who respect Israel’s right to exist behind pre-1967 borders…NOT!

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