Party notes: Secularism is no 'shibboleth' either

Jack Conrad stands by defence of secularism, women's rights and homosexual equality

The National Union of Teachers is taking legal action against government regulations implementing a European Union directive on the basis that they violate EU law and the human rights act. Apparently the EU permits employers with a “religious ethos” to discriminate on grounds of religion or sexual orientation if there is a “genuine and determining occupational requirement, provided that the objective is legitimate and the requirement is proportionate”. An obvious example being the faith schools - Church of England, catholic, jewish and muslim - so admired and encouraged by Tony Blair.

Doug McAvoy, NUT general secretary, is quoted, saying: “We cannot accept that committed teachers should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. Governing bodies should not be given dispensation to sack good teachers simply on the grounds of their sexual orientation” (The Guardian July 22).

Quite right. There can be no truck with sexism and homophobia. But communists go further. Faith schools should have no right to discriminate against anyone because there should be no faith schools. The draft programme of the CPGB insists: “No religious schools, no private schools”.

A short aside. Unlike the SWP the CPGB regards programme as a matter of the greatest importance. That is why our carefully crafted programme has been exhaustively debated, democratically agreed and is militantly defended against any attempt to compromise or water it down. Of course, the SWP has an informal, eclectic, orderless and thoroughly bureaucratic programme - Tony Cliff’s insubstantial and pulverised dogma of the Soviet Union as “bureaucratic state capitalism” plus the latest central committee zig or zag.

The SWP’s programme is the result of convenience, not democratic process. Hence the leadership can perform complete summersaults without fearing that critical minorities will get the membership to assess the latest about-turn in light of the programme. Principles can therefore be picked up and abandoned at will. They are nothing; building the SWP everything. From Cliff to post-Cliff that is the advantage of ‘programmelessness’.

Back to the main subject. Unfortunately one often encounters - including, amazingly, on the left - the ignorant notion that secularism is anti-religious. An elementary mistake.

Be it Britain, Ireland, the USA, Israel, Iran or Saudi Arabia - yes, we communists favour the complete separation of religion from the state. There should neither be the domination of religion by the state nor the domination of the state by religion. Necessarily it follows that the privileged position of one particular cult - in schools, state institutions and the legal system - be ended. So the suggestion that Britain’s arcane blasphemy laws be extended to include islam is for us a complete anathema. There must be no censorship in order to safeguard religion.

Not that we in any way excuse or seek to emulate the anti-religious nightmare perpetrated in the name of communism by the Stalinite states. At the most extreme Albania under Enver Hoxha declared itself to be officially atheist. In practice that meant a vicious persecution of believers in a manner eerily reminiscent of Thomás de Torquemada’s notorious inquisition in 15th century Spain.

Naturally parents ought to be able to take their children to religious ceremonies and celebrations. The same goes for Sunday schools and their various equivalents. Such matters are a private concern and the state is obliged not to interfere. What is objectionable is using the state’s education system as a means to promulgate and normalise religious superstitions and customs amongst children. There should be no prayers, no hymns, no sermons, no nativity plays - and no multiculturalist equal-signs between Easter, Diwali, Passover and Ramadan. In other words, keep all religions out of schools.

Religion, like art and music, should be studied in schools as an academic subject. World history has after all been visibly shaped and coloured by religious ideas and billions still believe. A rounded materialist analysis of religion reveals many profound truths about present and past social realities, movements and contradictions. God did not make humanity. On the contrary gods are fashioned in the image of humanity. The earthly ideal is symbolically projected upwards into the heavens by scribes and redactors.

We say people should be allowed to worship whatever god, spirit or demon they wish and practise their religion as they see fit - with the sole proviso that it does not harm others. Equally people should have the right to deviate from orthodox doctrines and established practices without any legal sanctions being incurred. So, from the biggest and most prominent church to the smallest and most obscure sect, there must be freedom of religious observance. By the same measure there must be freedom for the likes of ourselves to deny the existence of all gods and propagate atheism.

Those secular principles of the separation of religion and state and mutual toleration are nowadays considered perfectly acceptable by most religious people. Nevertheless, despite that, secularism and faith schools are surprisingly controversial issues amongst revolutionary socialists and communists in the United Kingdom. Suffice to say, opportunism - and that is what it is - increasingly considers such principles inconvenient “shibboleths”. Just like women’s and gay rights, it seems.

The last Scottish Socialist Party conference voted down an unexceptional motion demanding the abolition of all faith schools. Alan McCombes - Scottish Socialist Voice editor and the brains behind Tommy Sheridan - argued that such a commitment would unleash a reactionary storm. He might be right. Scotland, including its working class, is blighted by an oft denied and frequently overlooked religious fault line.

The catholic church, in particular, would almost certainly urge its flock to join a fanatical crusade against secularism, as it does over abortion. In this case, though, confrontation with reactionary priests has to be avoided at all costs. So comrade McCombes urged an alternative strategy. The soft course of multiculturalist compromise. Instead of secularism he proffered religious equality. In effect every religion should be allowed to do their own thing  ... no challenge here to the existence of faith schools and in effect condoning the pollution of life in state schools with all manner of religious festivals and overtones. Comrade McCombes’s rotten backsliding won the day with the help of the Socialist Worker platform. Particular concern was expressed by SW platform speakers for the sensibilities of the imagined ‘muslim community’.

Now there is Birmingham. John Rees - the primus inter pares of the Socialist Workers Party - has been promoting the idea of ‘Peace and Justice’ candidates, run in cooperation with Birmingham’s central mosque. Salma Yaqoob - a practising muslim and chair of the local Stop the War Coalition - has been floated as a possible ‘star’ candidate. Shamefully Alan Thornett of the International Socialist Group has alibied the SWP’s popular front line and purge of Birmingham SA’s awkward squad, including the removal of victimised firefighter Steve Godward.

The Socialist Alliance has been bluntly informed by representatives of the SWP majority that Peace and Justice candidates could not stand on a programme which includes a women’s right to choose an abortion and homosexual equality. Such “shibboleths” are totally unacceptable to the mosque and therefore must go. Suffice to say, the SA’s 2001 general election manifesto explicitly ruled out any “compromise” in our fight against sexism and homophobia. There has to be “equal rights” for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals in all legal matters. Women must have equal pay and the “right to choose” (People before profit London 2000, p16).

One must expect that secularism and the demand for an accompanying secular education system will be treated in the same cavalier fashion. Opportunism has a poisonous logic.

People before profit committed the SA to the disestablishment of the Church of England and the “complete separation of church and state, not least to ensure that we all enjoy the freedom to worship, or not, as we choose” (ibid p17). Obviously in this context ‘church’ and ‘mosque’ mean exactly the same thing. Our manifesto also contained a demand for ending the “charitable status and tax privileges” for all private schools (ibid p9). Note - most muslim schools are private and financed by exploiting the charity laws.

Let the SWP opportunists follow their easy road of compromise and abandoning principle for the sake of short-term advantage - it is a well-trodden road to disaster. Meanwhile communists will intransigently defend our movement’s principles - not least secularism, women’s rights and homosexual equality.