Dishonest and harmful attacks on ‘extreme secularism’
After taking on “militant atheists” in their last publication, London School of Economics Director Craig Calhoun, above left, and University of Bristol Sociology Professor Tariq Modood have now found a new target for their quest against what they call the problem of “lack of religion in the public sphere”. This time, it is “extreme secularism”.
Hyperbolic claims about “extreme secularism”, “radical secularism” or “secular extremism” have long been a defining feature of both the religious and non-religious far-right, from UKIP, Fox News, Islamists to Christian fundamentalists. As more intellectual, but no less vociferous multifaithists, Calhoun and Modood have joined the chorus of those who see religious fundamentalism and “secular extremism” as essential equivalents. Undeterred by the failures of state multiculturalism, they advocate the expansion of religion as a dimension of identity politics.
For Calhoun and Modood, there are two kinds of secularists. The first ones are:
Moderates [who] have learned lessons from efforts to suppress particular religions in the past and apply them now both to religions that are newly prominent in Europe and proposals to suppress religion in general.
The others are “extreme secularists”. Here, Calhoun and Modood make specific reference to the National Secular Society – the organisation that states in their very charter that “individuals and groups are neither accorded privilege nor disadvantaged because of their religion, belief or non-belief”.
“Suppression of particular religions”? What kind of secularism are Calhoun and Modood talking about here? The very essence of secularism is the opposite of the “suppression of religion” – the equal treatment of religious beliefs or groups on a par with any other belief system or groups. Communists do not get special privilege, funding, or a guaranteed influence on the legislative process simply because they express certain beliefs. Neither do socialists, liberals, conservatives or fascists. The basis of secularism is that all citizens are equal in their beliefs.
As Jacques Berlinerblau rightly points out in How to be Secular:
When Calhoun and Modood are rejecting “extreme secularism”, they are not rejecting the alleged discrimination of religious believers, but the secularist ideal that citizens should not be accorded privilege or power simply because they profess certain beliefs.
So, despite Calhoun’s and Modood hyperbole, secularism does take freedom of belief very seriously. But as Stephen Evans of the National Secular Society points out, secularists take everybody’s freedom of belief seriously, not just the beliefs of the religious. For Calhoun and Modood, this is a cardinal sin. “Secularism can be a resource for dealing with diversity, [but only] if not based on [….] the refusal to accommodate”, they argue. The message is clear – either secularists accommodate Calhoun’s and Modood’s quest for the extension of religious privilege – or else they are smeared as “extreme”.
Yet, in a secular democracy, no particular belief is privileged a priori. As religious believers, Calhoun and Modood are deeply offended by the idea that their beliefs should not be accorded special consideration, status or accommodation. For example, in a secular state, simply professing to be Anglican, and or having a position of power within the Church of England, does not accord anyone the privilege to vote on laws.
Contrast that with Calhoun’s and Modood’s version of non-extreme “secularism”, where parliaments should serve as:
Public fora where the ethical wisdom of religious leaders can help to improve the quality of government and legislation.
More than that, their idea of “moderate secularism” is based on outsourcing social welfare to religious organisations, as they contend that:
Religious organisations may be better able to deliver some forms of social care and welfare to certain sections of the population than the state can.
Of course, one has to understand where Calhoun and Modood are coming from. As a practicing Christian and Muslim, they already enjoy considerable religious privilege in Britain. It is a well-known insight from child psychology that children can play quite happily without a ball. Once they are given a ball, however, taking it away again will incur a barrage of cries, tantrums, and random accusations.
For Calhoun and Modood, “extreme secularists” are out to take away what they feel entitled to. This, in part, explains Calhoun’s and Modood’s hysterical tone and boisterous claims. But as usual, explanations with reference to religious beliefs only go so far. The more uncomfortable issue for Calhoun and Modood is that their evangelism in religious affairs glosses over other, more inconvenient truths.
At the LSE, things have not been going too well for Calhoun. He was brought in after former LSE Director Howard Davies had to resign after a series of scandals. Calhoun was brought in to “raise ethical standards” – in other words, keep LSE out of the yellow press.
On both accounts, he has failed quite spectacularly. First, in 2013, two students, including the author of this article, were harassed by LSE security guards on the order of Calhoun for wearing ‘blasphemous’ ‘Jesus & Mo’ t-shirts.
This year, in the Guardian, Nick Cohen blasted Calhoun for his attacks on “militant atheists” on campus, suggesting that Calhoun appears to think that:
The real menace facing universities is not students heading to Syria to rape and behead but secularists whose calls for free speech, ‘challenge the faith and beliefs of religious students’ and disrupt ‘campus harmony’.
Is it possible that Calhoun and Modood are simply worried about extremism and radicalisation in general, whether religious or non-religious? For someone who purports to be concerned about actual extremism, Calhoun has an odd view of what constitutes religious radicalisation, an expression he customarily puts in inverted commas.
As recently as June 2015, Craig Calhoun has been promoting a report of the Islamist think tank Claystone, which he considers to be a “useful”. Claystone is renowned for its close association with hate preacher Haitham al-Haddad, who thinks that apostates from Islam “need to be killed” and that “a man should not be questioned why he hit his wife”.
Rather than tackling actual extremism, Calhoun is extending a helping hand to an Islamist organisation that spends much of its time spreading hatred. The message is clear: Calhoun is not shy to scaremonger people about so-called “extreme secularists” and “militant atheists”. At the same time he promotes an organisation associated with a man who has urged Muslims to “stand up against homosexuality and LGBTs” and thinks that “Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs”.
This is not an isolated incident. Calhoun has also shown sympathy for proposals to introduce Sharia Law in Kuwait, saying that “of course the key issue is not yes or no to Shariah but who would interpret it”, and welcomed the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood taking power in Egypt, saying that “most of these developments are positive and the MB [Muslim Brotherhood] strategy is intelligent. Extreme Salafists are another matter”.
The last comment is particularly revealing. One the one hand, only “extreme Salafists” are a concern for Calhoun. One the other hand, he does not stop short of lavishing the Muslim Brotherhood, the Godmother of all Islamist movements, with praise.
Most recently, under Calhoun’s Leadership, the London School of Economics has been promoting the seemingly innocuous “Rejoice and Operation Christmas Child” of the organisation Samaritan’s Purse.
According to the National Secular Society, the same organisation so loathed by Calhoun, the Operation Christmas Child “shoebox” appeal “is a front for a project to convert children in predominantly Muslim countries to literalist Christianity”.
Samaritan’s Purse is run by Franklin Graham, a renowned Christian fundamentalist who has claimed that homosexuals “take other people’s children” and who has suggested that “all Muslims should be barred from immigrating to America and treated like the Japanese and Germans during World War II“.
When it comes to promoting religious extremists, Calhoun is in good company. His co-author Modood is a member of the Steering group of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life. In that capacity, he has been introducing the work of Shenaz Bunglawala to the commission.
Shenaz Bunglawala is the Head of Research at Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND). MEND purports to tackle “Islamophobia” and presents itself as a regular Muslim community organisation. The real agenda of MEND has become apparent recently, when MEND Research Assistant Amar Alam boasted that:
MEND is no usual Muslim organisation, but an Islamist front group who employs extremists, and regularly features Islamist fundamentalists, homophobes and misogynists in their talks. One of the star speakers is Abu Eesa Niamatullah, who has proudly declared that:
According to the Telegraph’s Andrew Gilligan, Azad Ali, Bunglawala’s colleague and MEND’s Head of Community Development and Engagement:
Has written of his ‘love’ for Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda recruiter; said that the Mumbai attacks were ‘not terrorism’; justified the killing of British troops and stated that ‘democracy, if it means at the expense of not implementing the Sharia, of course nobody agrees with that’.
To summarise, Calhoun and Modood show what desperate state the religious anti-secular right is finding itself in. On the one hand, they smear secularists as “extreme” for challenging their religious privilege, and promoting equality and freedom of belief as opposed to the accommodation and perpetuation of unfair religious privilege. On the other hand, they themselves work with, or promote people and groups who are closely associated with actual extremists.
It would be easy to dismiss Calhoun and Modood’s ramblings as the last tragic convulsions of the anti-secular right. Yet, the religious right in Britain is alive and well. Many progressives seem to think that the abolition of religious privilege like discriminatory state-funded faith schools and Bishops in the House of Lords are part of the inevitable path towards equality and progress.
Yet, even if they are a dying breed, Calhoun’s and Modood’s penchant to anti-secular hyperbole is dishonest, harmful and dangerous. It is dishonest, because it is based on a deliberate misrepresentation of what secularism is. It is harmful, because their anti-secular activism leads them to oppose equality and freedom for all – including and especially for religious believers who do not fit into Calhoun’s and Modood’s warped religious shoebox. Most worryingly, it is dangerous, because it shows that the religious right pretends to be concerned about extremism, but ends up promoting some of the worst religious extremists in Britain.
The non-referenced quotes are taken from Calhoun’s and Modood’s recent article in the Conversation.
• Dr Chris Moos is a so-called “extreme” secularist activist. He has successfully campaigned for the right to free expression and against gender segregation at universities, as well as the accommodation of religious codes in the British legal system.