Secularism, Politics and Race
Dan Bye responds to ‘Some Uncomfortable Truths‘ by Diesel Balaam.
In the December 2007 Freethinker, Diesel Balaam argued for a sort of “middle path” of “non-racism” between what he saw as the twin irrational ideologies of racism (on the Right) and “anti-racism” (on the Left). “Anti-racism” is poorly defined by Balaam, but it would appear that he thinks it grows out of a socialist movement he sees as defeated and frustrated, and consists mainly of opposition to an open discussion of race and immigration issues, an extension of the concept of racism to anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic sentiment, and a denial of the personal responsibility of people from ethnic minority communities for any anti-social behaviour they may display.
There is much to agree with in Balaam’s article. He clearly states that he opposes racism, and I too deplore racial prejudice and hatred. He insists that discussion must proceed on the basis of reason and evidence, and what Freethinker reader could disagree? I agree with him, too, that the turn to communalist “identity” politics and “multiculturalism” (which treats communities which are diverse as though they were monolithic) on the part of some on the Left has been a mistake. And it is hard to disagree that immigration has been badly managed.
But there is also a great deal that I want to dispute. Balaam presents us with an array of “facts”, but “facts” only mean something in context. In a letter published in the February Freethinker, Ian Andrews questioned the purpose of Balaam’s article. Balaam’s response (published in March) accused Andrews of wanting “watertight answers”, and asserted his right merely to “pose questions” and “disrupt the cosy shibboleths” of “ideologues”. Point taken, but the Freethinker would become very dry and boring if articles merely recited statistics, with no attempt to construct from them an argument of any kind, even if only an argument to the effect that certain facts are significant and important and disruptive of dogma.
I have read and re-read Balaam’s article several times, and I am still unclear what questions of significance Balaam is posing.
I was tripped up by one key point, buried in the final paragraphs of the article, where Balaam says, “pointing out the links between immigration and the upsurge in religious extremism causes the bearded white Catweazles of the atheist Left to go into a tailspin of hysterical denial”. But Balaam doesn’t, anywhere, demonstrate any such links.
It is obviously true, but also somewhat banal, to say that some of the jihadists responsible for recent terrorist attacks in Britain are immigrants.
But so what? Is that the “link” we’re looking for?
Balaam’s position on “hate” also appears to be ambiguous. He says “Describing asylum seekers as ‘cockroaches’ is dehumanising and hateful, but unless a particular racial group is identified, it cannot be racist.” This legalistic approach is ethically unconvincing, even if it would stand up in court. I don’t think we should be referring to any innocent group of people in “dehumanising and hateful” terms, whether doing so is technically racist or not.
Balaam defines racial prejudice as “to treat someone differently purely on the basis of where they were born, their skin colour, nationality or ethnicity”, but (legal technicalities apart) if attacking asylum seekers isn’t an example of precisely that I don’t know what is.
It’s surprising that Balaam fails to clarify his position on this, given that he is crystal clear on other matters.
For freethinkers, the ethical line should not be difficult to draw. It is one thing to describe Islam as “stupid and barbarous”, as the Freethinker editor does, but quite another to abuse all Muslims as “stupid and barbarous”.
The Catholic Church’s policy on AIDS and condom use is deadly, but that doesn’t make individual Catholics murderers. It’s not that describing Muslims or Catholics in such terms would be racist, but that it would be hateful and therefore morally wrong (as well as inaccurate).
The usual defence of robust anti-religious criticism is that attacking an ideology, however cruelly, is not the same as attacking an individual in similar terms. This is true, but it is not an argument for cruelty in atheist polemic.
The murdered film director Theo Van Gogh notoriously described Muslims as “goat-fuckers”, which I think crosses the line between acceptable and unacceptable criticism regardless of whether or not it would be illegal.
Sometimes Balaam gets carried away and says things that are plainly absurd. The Celebrity Big Brother “racism” row was unpleasant for all concerned, but to say that Jade Goody was “treated like a Nazi war criminal” is nonsense. In fact, there seemed to be some pressure put on Shilpa Shetty to say that Goody’s comments were not racist.
Terry Eagleton’s attack on Martin Amis was silly (like Amis’ original comments), but hardly a “Spanish Inquisition”.
But what of Balaam’s facts? Balaam’s critics have concentrated on his political comments, and his use of statistics has gone largely unexamined.
Balaam refers to the BBC Crimewatch website which, when he looked, listed 78 white people (11 with “foreign names”) and 47 “people of colour”, including 19 with Muslim names. He concludes that “less than 10 per cent of the population provides over 37 per cent of the “most wanted” felons in the UK.”
Balaam’s methodology is extremely dubious. When I attempted the same exercise, the calculations proved extremely difficult, even though there were fewer people listed. The name or ethnic identity of some of those listed was unknown, and guessing would have been open to bias. Even where names were given, I often found it difficult to decide whether a particular name was “foreign” or not (what would your average citizen think of a name like “Diesel Balaam”?).
If we are looking for facts, as Balaam says, this seems a singularly unscientific means to arrive at them!
For more enlightenment, I went to the fullest set of data I could find: the Home Office Offender management statistics for
England and Wales, 2005. The total number of prisoners back then was 75,980. Among those whose ethnic identity was known, 25 percent were non-White. The largest ethnic group was Black or Black British. Among British nationals, 18 percent were non-White. Curiously, the largest group of prisoners in 2005 were those with no religious affiliation (33 percent of the prison population).
32 percent were Anglicans, 17 per cent Roman Catholic and 10 percent Muslims.
The fastest growing religious group represented in prison from 1995-2005 were Buddhists.
So there are some facts. But how should we interpret them?
If particular groups are disproportionately represented, how do we account for that?
Balaam doubts that it can be put down entirely to racism, and suggests “complex cultural factors”, which is probably true but uninformative.
What about the impact of poverty, which Balaam doesn’t mention? We know that the “socially excluded” are more likely to end up in prison than the relatively well-off. And we also know that minority ethnic groups are more likely to be “socially excluded”, according to standard measures. The 2001 Census found that Muslims had the youngest demographic profile (age being a key factor in criminal propensity), the worst levels of health, and the highest levels of unemployment. A third of Muslims had no qualifications. I merely pose the question!
Balaam cites Home Office statistics, which show that between 2001-2004, 12 out of 22 racially-motivated murders had White victims.
The Home Office data also notes that 92 percent of White murder victims were killed by suspects from the same ethnic group. In comparison, this was true for 66 per cent of Asian victims, and 56 per cent of Black victims. But there is a question about the figures. A list of victims on the Institute of Race Relations site lists 22 murder cases, of whom two involve White victims: Ross Parker and Kriss Donald. Why the discrepancy? One answer is given in an Observer article on the issue , where it is explained that “White” included Jewish victims, “darkskinned” Europeans (such as Kosovan refugees, for example), and gypsies.
White people formed the largest group of attackers in these cases. What does it all mean?
So much for the race statistics. Yet issues of race, nationality and religion have combined in recent times to change the political landscape.
Even among some atheists, an attachment to “cultural Christianity” tends to mean that Muslim immigration is increasingly framed as a particular threat.
The front cover of the February/March 2007 issue of the American secular humanist magazine Free Inquiry carries the headline, “Post-
Christian Europe: will it stay secular?”
Traditional xenophobia has given way to anxiety over the survival of values that are taken as emblematic of the traditions of “the West”.
It’s a theme that far-right organisations like the British National Party have been quick to seize upon.
Most secularists would probably once have broadly identified with the Left, but recent realignments have brought old commitments into question. Some on the Left have begun to attack secularism , fearing that it puts further pressure on already embattled Muslim communities.
George Galloway’s RESPECT party, in a now terminated alliance with the Socialist Workers Party, appealed directly to Muslim voters’ feelings about American foreign policy.
Anti-war secularists, faced with a choice between neoconservatism and communalism, could be forgiven for giving it all up as a bad job. Richard Dawkins opposed the Iraq war, while Christopher Hitchens supported it, but secularists have always disagreed about wars, and the present crisis cannot be attributed to such divisions.
There are alternatives. There is the Euston Manifesto group supported by such secularists as Christopher Hitchens, Francis Wheen and Nick Cohen. Many of its key figures either supported the Iraq war, or argue that once the invasion had happened the left should have united clearly behind Iraqi progressives rather than clinging to what is seen as knee-jerk anti-Americanism.
Further left, there is the firmly anti-war “Third Camp Against US Militarism and Islamic Terrorism”. A key figure in this group is Iranian communist Maryam Namazie, who was 2005 Secularist of the Year and is an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society.
What is new is a strain of populism that draws on both liberalism and traditional right-wing suspicions of immigration. The obvious example is the late Pim Fortuyn, the maverick Netherlands politician who tapped into fears of a supposed immigrant Muslim threat to Dutch liberal values. But look, also, at what happened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian who obtained political asylum in the Netherlands.
At first associated with the Dutch centre-left, her renunciation of Islam and her vocal criticism of Islam and Islamic culture left her unpopular and isolated. She found allies, instead, on the right, and has worked for American conservative think-tanks. What choice does she have, when she is shown no solidarity by progressives?
So must secularists look to the conservative or populist right to defend our values?
My background is anarchist and therefore highly critical of much of the rest of socialist politics. In the twenty years that I have been involved in the secularist and humanist milieu, I have found much to despair of in the traditional leftist analyses of religion and politics. It was ever thus, of course. George Orwell was not the only critic of the Left’s attitudes to regimes like that of the Soviet Union.
However, I have also found kindred spirits. Admirable critiques of “multiculturalism” can be found in the work of small but committed groups like Women Against Fundamentalism (1989-1997), Southall Black Sisters (founded in 1979), Anti-Fascist Action (1985-2001), and the Independent Working Class Association (formed in 1995. Anarchist groups have usually managed to maintain a principled rejection of both gods and masters, avoiding being seen to support Islamism against imperialism.
Class War have marched under banners attacking Bin Laden AND George Bush.
Diesel Balaam’s attack on “the Left” takes no account of those who have sought to develop clear, consistent, interesting and distinctive strategies for steering a course through the stormy waters of race and politics. He probably thinks that these groups are too small to bother with. Perhaps they are, and yet their ideas are crucial to those of us who want to continue to identify with “the Left”, or part of it, and to promote secularism.
The danger we all face is that secularism becomes a politically polarised position. It happened before, in the 1890s, when the close association of Charles Bradlaugh with radical liberalism split the movement. Debates between Bradlaugh and the likes of H M Hyndman heightened perceptions that secularism was necessarily opposed to socialism, and helped detach the atheist left from religious questions.
Balaam is entitled to attack the Left as much as he likes, and the left is entitled to ignore him, but the urgent need is for writers and commentators to argue for secularism across the political spectrum.
If Balaam is right, and socialism is obsolete, does that mean we should stop arguing for socialists to be secularists?
Unproductive squabbles in the Freethinker between socialists and anti-socialists may or may not make for entertaining reading, but they don’t progress our cause one jot.
• This op-ed first appeared in the April, 2008, edition of the Freethinker.