Rowan Williams and SWP lies

In Respect, Chris Bambery lied again and again. Secularism 'justifies' islamophobia, advocating secularism plays into the hands of those 'deliberately stoking up' islamophobia, etc. Yet now his Socialist Worker demands separation of church and state, writes James Turley

Rowan Williams’s speech advocating some concessions to ‘liberal’ variants of sharia law attracted a wide range of responses, mostly negative. Hard-line Conservatives and islamophobes suffered apoplectic fits; liberal secularists worried about slippery slopes.

What, however, about the left’s very own anti-secularist Trojan horse, the Socialist Workers Party? Indeed, this is the first real test of secular mettle the SWP has faced since its acrimonious separation from George Galloway and his allies in last autumn’s Respect split. Many on the left will have been watching its reaction closely, not least disgruntled members and ex-members of the SWP.

That reaction, at first glance, appears to be ‘business as usual’. A typically single-tracked piece in this week’s Socialist Worker by editor Chris Bambery takes as its main angle the fulsome and wide-ranging islamophobia in media and establishment reactions to the speech. The Sun’s witless “bash the bishop” campaign is renamed “bash the muslims” by Bambery. David Blunkett’s reference to accommodating something “external to this country” is “chilling”, and only a breath away from “there ain’t no black in the union jack” (February 16).

In fact, this article implies that - if anything - the pro-islam stance of the SWP has hardened since the break with Galloway and his dubious allies. We are treated to the old canard that, in spite of talk of muslim ‘backwardness’, many of the foundations of modern science were commonplace in islamic culture by the late middle ages. This is, of course, very true - modern science would certainly not be doing very well without the mathematical concept of zero, for instance. However, it buys into the very logic of the poisonous and wholly spurious ‘clash of civilisations’ nonsense that it purports to criticise. The idea of religions competing in some great cosmic dog-show for the prize of ‘most progressive’ is ridiculous enough in itself without Chris Bambery on the judges’ panel.

It was comrade Bambery who, at the first annual conference of Respect in October 2004, led the SWP in voting down a CPGB-backed motion calling for Respect to declare for secularism both in relation to the state and its own practice. The motion called for the equal treatment of believers and non-believers - no-one should either suffer discrimination or be accorded privileges as a result of their religion or lack of it.

The response of the SWP’s Chris Bambery was to express his “concern with Respect calling itself secular”. After all, secularism was used in France to justify the islamophobic ban on the hijab in state schools. In all comrade Bambery’s long years of experience of the labour movement in the west of Scotland, where, of course, religious sectarianism has been a running sore, he had never known “a resolution being put saying we are secular”. He asked: “Do we have a problem here with people with extreme religious views?” No, the real religious extremists were Bush and Blair, who were deliberately stoking up islamophobia. Those calling for secularity should “think very carefully” about whose game they were playing (see Weekly Worker November 4 2004).

It was a disgraceful speech, marking the junking of a basic democratic principle in order to curry favour with the mosque and muslim establishment and win muslim votes for SWP Respect candidates in east London and elsewhere. And his latest anti-islamophobia article is hardly out of step with his 2004 speech.

Alien law

However, the web reader of Socialist Worker finds at the very end of the piece a note: “The following should be read alongside this article” - with a link to a rather more sober editorial headlined ‘Living under an alien law’.

Written by Richard Seymour, better known as ‘Lenin’ of SWP hack blog Lenin’s Tomb (leninology.blog-spot.com), the first part of this article simply restates in less apocalyptic prose the gist of the comrade Bambery’s piece - the furore has little to do with the rather modest proposals of Rowan Williams, and everything do with “the islamophobia that has been cultivated in the west as an obnoxious cultural counterpart to the ‘war on terror’”.

There is then a sharp change in subject matter. “Britain,” we are told, “already has a system of alien laws.” These are the laws of the ruling class, who have an “alien culture - and values most of us don’t share”. Further paragraphs hammer home the point - the courts are their courts, and the laws are their laws.

This is something we don’t hear every day out of the SWP. Certainly, when it is supporting the introduction of religious hatred legislation, the laws do not appear to be so rigidly class-demarcated for the comrades; nor when Unite Against Fascism conference delegates demand that the “BNP be sent to HMP”. Seymour’s formulation, furthermore, is certainly quite a snappy way of putting the problem, but is thoroughly populist in its appeal to the values of ‘the people’ against the aloof rulers. As welcome as articles such as this are, it is clear that the SWP’s political method of more or less successful quasi-populist rabble-rousing leads it into hopeless contradictions.

SWP members have complained at not always being sure which ‘hat’ they were to be wearing at this or that conference - SWP, Respect, UAF ... it would not be an issue if the hats did not often require such vastly different statements. Safely ensconced in his Socialist Worker hat, Seymour can find it in himself to reject the judicial state apparatus. Come the next BNP scandal, no doubt the story will be somewhat different.

Back to secularism?

But this is not all. Seymour continues: “… the trouble with the archbishop of Canterbury is not that he ‘went too far’, but that he didn’t go far enough. He rightly challenges the state’s monopoly on public identity, but does so primarily in order to carve out a larger space for religious power.” This really is a strange thing from a party which, not long ago, was demanding the National Union of Teachers support the introduction of more islamic faith schools (See Weekly Worker April 13 2006). What is that apart from the educational equivalent of localised sharia courts?

There is more. Williams is taken to task for defending the “homophobic” catholic proscriptions on adoption by gay couples, and for calling on the state to discriminate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sorts of islam. Seymour’s conclusion is startlingly agreeable: “… it is quite right that muslims should have the same rights that any other religious group has - but the best way to ensure that is for the state to keep out of our moral lives. And a good first move in that direction would be to divest the Church of England of its peculiar privileges and authority.”

Separation of church and state is, of course, the opening shot of secularism, and in its modern incarnation goes back to the arguments of pioneer liberal John Locke. And although Seymour (and, of course, Bambery) still find it impossible to use the ‘s’ word itself after their record of opposing it in Respect (rather like that other ‘s’ word, ‘socialism’), we have in the second article the beginnings of a return to secularism for the SWP - if, that is, the odious party leadership will allow it. (Such a return, if Seymour’s piece is not an exception and it does indeed come, will, of course, be entirely skin-deep and consistent with the general pattern of sudden political lurches that has characterised the organisation since at least the 1970s.)

And it is worth reminding ourselves of the depths to which the SWP has sunk on this question, with Bambery’s 2004 speech marking the low point. Even if Respect had been, as billed, an alliance of “secular socialists and muslim activists”, secularism would have provided the perfect framework for relations between the two parts. It is not enforced atheism, after all. Secularism had to go, rather, because the “secular socialists” were in alliance with petty and medium bourgeois muslims who were certainly not “activists” (instead working cynically, through networks of patronage). These layers could only be enticed on board by scattering almost all political commitments to the four winds.

A principled policy

It may seem somewhat excessive to expend so many column inches on an exegesis of two rather run-of-the-mill Socialist Worker articles - but it certainly does symptomatically give us an idea of where the SWP is at right now, in the wake of the Respect split and with further complications surrounding the GLA lists starting to flare up. The picture is not a pretty one: half in its recent practice and half out of it, the frenzied exchange of front ‘hats’ becoming an ever more complicated ritual.

What neither of the articles give us is a comprehensive and principled line on this question. And secularism is, for socialists, a question of principle. We have no desire, plainly, for either a fully theocratic state or even a ‘moderate’ state church, like the C of E - but a regime of enforced atheism would be a horror, and has been seen to be a horror in countries such as Enver Hoxha’s Albania. The religion question is not magicked away by unprincipled alliances with clerics or wholesale state repression.

Communists must do better than Seymour’s correct (as far as they go) conclusions. Yes, the state really must keep out of religious affairs. But what about the corollary? It must treat all its citizens equally - believers and non-believers alike. That means there can be no privileges for a given religion or its followers - which means not only the disestablishment of the C of E, but the rejection of any special place for sharia in terms of legal recognition.

Of course, religious practitioners must be free to follow on a voluntary basis whatever guidelines they like, provided they do not cause harm to others. They must be free to accept (or reject) the judgement of a priest or imam on questions of religious morality. But religious bodies can have no legal right to impose a particular practice on the unwilling.

A good deal of bright and creative thinking will be required in order to negotiate the tricky terrain of the politics of religion. The SWP, unfortunately, seems no better equipped to provide this than when it was busy flushing all these principles away three years ago.