Britain - Religious hypocrisy, "multiculturalism" and women's oppression

Jul/Aug 2004

The 15 June High Court ruling on Shabina Begum's case has opened up a can of worms. The resulting reactions have been heavily loaded with hypocrisy and political demagogy.

Not that there should have been much ground for controversy in this ruling, which merely upholds the decision of Denbigh High comprehensive, in Luton, to ban the 15-year old pupil from attending classes in ankle-length Islamic jilbab. By declaring that acting otherwise would generate undue pressure on female Muslim pupils to follow Shabina Begum's example, both from inside the school and from outside, the High Court judge only stated the obvious.

The jilbab is not just any Muslim garment. It is designed to protect men from temptation by hiding women's bodies which, according to the Muslim religion, are considered "impure". In that sense, the jilbab is a symbol of women's inferior status in the Muslim religion as well as an instrument of their oppression.

For once that the legal system recognises, although only by implication, the role that schools should really have - i.e. to protect pupils from any particular form of social oppression, religious or otherwise, and to provide them with the knowledge they need in order to make their own choices - surely, this ruling should have been welcome.

However, the court's decision sparked off heated reactions. So-called "moderate" Islamic institutions and fundamentalist groups spoke of yet another case of "Islamophobia". The arch-reactionary Daily Telegraph denounced it as an attack on "personal freedom" while some commentators came close to arguing that Shabina Begum's "religious rights" had been infringed for racist reasons. Significantly, however, while all papers devoted a significant amount of space to the High Court ruling, unusually only a few ventured to make a stand for or against it - as if they felt this was far too hot a potato for them to touch.

Both these reactions and the cautious attitude displayed by most of the media only reflect the fact that in this case, beyond the issue of the Islamic dress code, lie the contradictions and potential conflicts created by some of the reactionary policies of the state. So, for instance, the hypocritical promotion of all religions, in the name of "cultural diversity" and "social responsibility" clashes regularly with the huge privileges granted to disaffected Christian institutions, which exist as parasites on the state, particularly in the field of education. Just as the paternalistic policy of institutional "multiculturalism", which is aimed at isolating and controlling entire sections of the population under liberal pretence, comes into conflict with the xenophobic demagogy used by governments against immigrants from poor countries in the name of "Britishness" and "integration" and the deeply entrenched racism of the state machinery.

These policies all have in common the effect of atomising a large section of the population into small entities, under the control of reactionary - and often religious - forces, which are pitted against one another by the illusion of having specific rival interests to defend. It is on such divide to rule policies that fundamentalisms of all creeds thrive. The case of Shabina Begum is just one among many other manifestations of this religion-driven reactionary shift, which do not usually generate any interest from the media.

From Empire to "multiculturalism"

The use of the most reactionary forces available to control populations is an old ploy of British capital. The former British Empire is littered with the bloody traces left by such tactics: from the partition of India and the subsequent Indo-Pakistan wars, to the carving up of the Middle-East and, of course, the deep wounds which are still bleeding in Northern Ireland, due to the British occupation of the province.

With the large numbers of Commonwealth immigrants who were brought in to work in Britain's factories after World War II, such tactics did not prove too successful. They were no longer tied by the social hierarchies which had existed back home. Their collective integration into the economic machinery of British capital tended to dissolve the artificial divisions linked to their different origins, especially as they were all subjected to the same racism in British society and the same capitalist exploitation. The radical nationalist ferment of the post-war anti-colonial explosion inspired many of these new immigrant workers. But within a decade, from the early 1960s, precisely because they were predominantly workers, this ferment took the form of militant strikes and struggles in which British-born workers were sometimes pulled into action by their immigrant brothers. From this wave of struggles emerged a blossoming of self-help and militant organisations, many of whom were influenced by communist ideas. The activists of these groups described themselves as part of a "black movement", as a tribute to the black movement which was gathering momentum in the USA, but also as a way of asserting their unity - regardless of whether they were born in the Caribbean, Asia or Africa - against racist attacks and capitalist exploitation.

By the end of the 1960s, Harold Wilson's then Labour government sought to curtail this "black" militancy. As A. Sivanandan, one of the spokesmen of this black movement, recalled in a speech, in 1983: "Ethnicity was a tool to blunt the edge of black struggle, to return 'black' to its constituent parts of Afro-Caribbean, Asian, African, Irish - and also, at the same time, to allow the nascent black bourgeoisie, petty-bourgeoisie really, to move up in the system. (..) Black was finally broken down when government moneys were used to fund community projects, destroying thereby the self-reliance and community cohesion that we had built up in the 1960s. (..) Ethnicity began life as a pluralist philosophy of integration - 'equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance' - floated by the then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, in 1967 (..) and transformed into ethnic policies and programmes by the pundits of the Community Relations Commission, the Race Relations Board and the Runnymede Trust, aided by bourgeois sociologists and educationalists and funded by the Home Office's Urban Aid Programme. Government moneys for pluralist boys - the development of a parallel power structure for black people, separate development, bantustans - a strategy to keep race issues from contaminating class issues".

Such were the origins of what is known today as "multiculturalism". This was a determined tactic of divide-and-rule aimed at splitting the ranks of the immigrant working class, taking the edge off their militant traditions and developing a new social hierarchy among black workers, which would be dependent on the state for its existence - all this in the name of a benevolent and paternalistic "cultural diversity" and "mutual tolerance".

When Thatcher came to power, in 1979, the official line of her government was summed up by her famous pronouncement that her "this country might be rather swamped by people from a different culture." Repressive measures against black people were stepped up in the form of the infamous "sus" laws. But within two years, the inner-city explosions, which brought together not only the black youth but also a layer of the white youth, forced a dramatic U-turn. The enquiry appointed by Thatcher under Lord Scarman proceeded to rescue "multiculturalism" for the Tory party and, as A. Sivanandan recalls, to "create another tranche of the ethnic petty-bourgeoisie, this time in the media and the police consultancy business - chiefs for the bantustans".

So-called "Community Consultative Committees" mushroomed to help the police control the poor neighbourhoods and promote selected individuals to the status of "community leaders". Needless to say, these individuals were not selected on the basis of their radical views, quite the opposite. And to secure their loyalty to the authorities, funds were duly provided. Says Sivanandan, "the Urban Aid Programme which, under the Tories, had fallen into disfavour, now received a dramatic re-awakening of interest as a vehicle for social measures in multi-racial areas, and the Commission for Racial Equality, which the Tories had threatened to close down, was open for business again - the business of channelling funds to black 'self-help' groups." So, despite the on-going drastic cuts in social expenditure, funding for the Urban Programme was dramatically increased, to £270m in 1982, including a 200% boost for specifically ethnic projects. The result, according to Sivanandan, was that "the ensuing scramble for government favours and grants (channelled through local authorities) on the basis of specific ethnic needs and problems served, on the one hand, to deepen ethnic differences and foster ethnic rivalry and, on the other, to widen the definition of ethnicity to include a variety of national and religious groups, till the term became meaningless (except as a means of getting funds)."

Thus the black working class was increasingly broken up into so-called "communities", on the basis of religion, nationality of birth or origin, sometimes even on a regionalist basis, with "community leaders" helping to police this atomisation in exchange for the crumbs of social status they were offered by the state. By the early 1990s, Women against Fundamentalism (WAF), a coalition of mostly Asian women's organisations, described the situation in the following terms: "(the) view of minority communities as homogeneous and united comes from the self-appointed community leaders (..). They are not democratically elected; indeed the multicultural model bypasses the question of their accountability to all sections of the community they claim to represent. They usually come from religious or conservative/orthodox backgrounds or from the business classes; with few exceptions they are male, traditional and patriarchal in outlook. They very rarely reflect the views of those in their communities who challenge their legitimacy. The British state often expects these leaders to help control rebellious elements within the communities which might challenge the power structures of society as a whole. In return, those leaders are allowed some degree of autonomy within the community - usually over family and religious matters - so long as such autonomy does not affect the wider society. In this way, community leaders, who are often also religious leaders, dictate an agenda which maintains their own power within the community."

It should be added that these conservative "community leaders" have come to play an important role in the system of political patronage on which the three main parties rely in many large towns to maintain their control over certain council wards or parliamentary constituencies - in particular where they are in control of local councils, since this is the main channel for "community funding". As a result, whatever the failings - if not overt corruption - of these "community leaders", mainstream politicians are unlikely to do anything that may upset them.

The rise of fundamentalism

By and large, WAF's description of "multiculturalism", would apply just as well to Blair's own version of it. With one difference, however. In the meantime, the world has moved, inside and outside Britain. The rise of poverty and unemployment has affected the black population more than any other section of the population. And so has too the general right-wing shift in society. The militant generation of the 1960s became demoralised in the 1980s or, in the case of a minority, was co-opted by the state, trade-union or Labour party machineries. In some of the "communities" created by the "multiculturalism" of the British state, the political and social vacuum was filled, almost seamlessly, by religious fundamentalism.

Of course, religious fundamentalism did not come out the blue. There again, the British state was instrumental in preserving its existence, as an alternative instrument to serve the interests of British capital. If the USA is now famous for its role in populating Afghanistan and Pakistan with Islamic fundamentalist warlords, the British Empire did the same long before and on a much larger scale. In India, for instance, the British colonial authorities aided and abetted the Hindu revivalists as a weapon against the Congress party before and during World War II, and in the Middle-East, particularly in Egypt, they used the Muslim Brotherhood in their attempts to crush the fledgling working class movement of the 1930s and the post-war nationalist movement.

Since then, Britain has been a well-known safe haven for exiled fundamentalist groups from all over the world. This has nothing to do with Britain's "liberal" policy towards political refugees. Rather it is part of British imperialism's strategy to keep all its options open, in case the opportunity of a regime change presents itself somewhere in the poor countries. Then, having good connections with reactionary exile forces can be a way of killing two birds with one stone: by gaining a privileged position for British capital while ensuring that the poor masses will be crushed into submission.

An example of this policy was provided when, just after the fall of Saddam Hussein, an imam was rushed by MI6 from his exile in London to Baghdad in an attempt to establish himself as the new Shiite spiritual leader. In the event, this attempt ended in disaster when this imam was murdered, apparently by a rival fundamentalist. But MI6 probably still has a few cards up its sleeves, in the form, for instance, of dignitaries of the Islamic al-Dawaa party whose only representation outside Iran, until the invasion of Iraq, was in London.

But there are many other such examples. For instance, London was, until very recently, the semi-official headquarters of the Algerian fundamentalists who were responsible for the indiscriminate massacre of tens of thousands of villagers in the 1990s. So much for Blair's commitment to the "war on terrorism". The fact is that in the view of Western governments, British or otherwise, such terrorist groups can be used in future moves on the world chessboard of imperialism.

The benevolence of British imperialism towards foreign fundamentalists is obviously one way in which the British state has facilitated the rise of similar domestic forces in Britain. But this is not the only way by far.

So, the vocal support given by British governments to US imperialism in the Middle-East, their active involvement in the US military ventures against Afghanistan and Iraq since 1990 and the unreserved support given by Blair to the fantasies of Bush's "war on terrorism", have both created frustration among a section of the British-Asian population and, at the same time, encouraged the manifestation of racist prejudices against the same population.

The fact that, in addition, Home Secretary David Blunkett resorted to xenophobic demagogy with the help of the media, in order to justify his attacks against immigrants, by implicitly branding all new immigrants as potential terrorists, has further alienated British-Asians. All the more so because, at the same time, the police were carrying out a long series of spectacular arrests of alleged "terrorists" among them, with so little evidence that virtually all those arrested had to be released - thereby showing that the purpose for these arrests, and the importance given to them in the media, was probably just to give some credibility to Blair's scare- mongering.

These policies provided the basis for the fundamentalists to launch their campaign against "Islamophobia", with the aim of getting all those who wanted to oppose these developments to rally behind the banner of Islam, which was supposedly under attack. As if run-of-the-mill racists ever bothered to differentiate between Muslims, Hindus or atheists among British-Asians, or in fact between any "non-whites"! As if British capital set its eye on getting a share of Iraqi oil in order to undermine Islam rather than to boost British shareholders' profits!

But why should Islamic fundamentalists pay the slightest attention to the credibility of their campaign, when the government itself gives it credit by agreeing to play ball with them? So, for instance, the House of Lords commissioned a "Report against Islamophobia" with the government's backing, which was presented to the House at the beginning of June by Labour peer, baroness Uddin. Among its findings, the report notes the "institutionalised racism against Islam". As an example, Labour peer Lord Ahmed who is apparently a devout Muslim, complained about being singled out five times by immigration police in airport queues. But does he know how often British-Afro-Caribbeans (as well as British-Asians for that matter) get stopped in the street or in their cars in the poor working class areas of the capital? No, he would not know. These are areas into which he probably never goes or, in any case, never without an expensive chauffeur-driven car. But this does not prevent the "moderate" Muslim Lord Ahmed from giving credit to the "Islamophobia" campaign, thereby giving a helping hand to the Islamic fundamentalists' campaign.

But then, Lord Ahmed is not the only Labour party big gun who is willing to play along with political Islam. Was it not one of Blair's ministers, Mike O'Brien, who was quoted as promising at the conference of a Muslim organisation that "efforts will be made to expedite action for the application of Muslim Family Law to the Muslim community in the UK"? Each "community" with its own "community leaders", "culture", "religion" and "laws"? This would be a perfect world for the fundamentalists whose dream is precisely to subject British-Asians to their rule and speak in their names.

The parasitic survival of religious institutions

Of course, there is a logic in the government's indulgence towards the "Islamophobia" campaign. Blair wants to be seen as a pillar of religion, whether it be Islam or any other. Isn't religion a corner stone both of his "multiculturalism" with regard to ethnic minorities and of his advocacy of "our moral values" addressed at Middle England?

But isn't it ludicrous that the Church of England, with only an estimated 830,000 churchgoers on Sundays, should have 26 bishops sitting in the House of Lords and make the headlines whenever one of its grandees has anything to say? It may still be the religion of the state, but it is definitely not the religion of the population. As to the other religions, they have an even smaller following.

And yet, this has not prevented Blair's government from producing a 110-page document this March, outlining a code of practice for all government departments to consult faith groups in decision-making and implementation processes. So, Fiona MacTaggart, Home Office junior minister, explained that "conversations with faith groups will now become a much more normal part of doing business in Britain, just as normal as consultation with business and trade unions." This document cites as an example of good practice the "Faith Communities Toolkit" designed by private consultant "Faith in London Ltd" in order to provide Jobcentre Plus staff with faith awareness training!

These sanctimonious lunacies aside, if it were not for the status and funding they get from the state in various shapes or forms, would religious institutions have any real relevance today? Probably not, except maybe as property developers. And even then, if the Church of England remains the largest property owner in Britain, it is only as an integral part of the state, not as an independent body.

The school system, through which the two main churches exercise most of their social influence, illustrate most graphically their dependence on the state.

The 1944 Education Act, which introduced compulsory education up to the age of 15, required that a daily act of worship should be carried out in all state schools and that religious education should be provided (although the option of an opt-out was provided to parents). It also catered for state-funded religious schools, but it limited the share of capital costs paid by the state to 50% of the total.

That a religion based on 2000 year-old superstitions should be part of the standard curriculum of an education system which was supposedly meant to provide children with 20th century scientific knowledge was already bad enough. But at least, with the erosion of religious belief over the following decades, one could have expected the role of the churches to be reduced by subsequent legislation.

In fact, it was quite the reverse. The 1988 Education Reform Act established religious education (RE) as one of the 11 subjects of the "basic curriculum", and insisted that both the daily act of worship and RE should be "predominantly Christian". By the same token, while paying lip service to the right for schools to adapt RE to the various religions represented among their pupils, it provided a pretext for racists to promote segregated schools on the grounds that they had a right to a completely Christian education. The subsequent reforms introduced under the Tories reinforced this orientation, while the introduction of grant-maintained schools gave religious independent schools an opportunity to enter the state system, with 85% of their capital cost paid by the state, but without being subject to any real state control or having to give up entirely their selection system. This meant that in practice, the right to opt-out from RE in these schools was fictitious, since they could refuse to select a pupil who chose to opt-out.

Far from changing direction, Blair's 1998 Schools Standards and Framework Bill narrowed down the scope of RE in the former independent religious schools to the strict letter of their trust deed, so that RE became cast in stone in these schools - mostly Anglican - regardless of any change in the composition of their populations. Three years later, Blair made another gesture in favour of religious state-funded schools by increasing the share of capital costs funded by the state to 90%.

The results of these reforms is that in the state sector today, 1/3 of primary schools and 17% of secondary schools are religious. Two-thirds of these schools are allowed to have their own criteria to select pupils. The overwhelming majority are Church of England schools (4,716), followed by Roman Catholic (2,110), Jewish (32), Methodist (27), Muslim (5), Sikh (2), Seventh Day Adventist and Greek Orthodox (1). Not to mention the 3 new PFI-style City Academies run by the Vardy Foundation - a venture of the creationist millionaire Sir Peter Vardy.

But, in fact, even when they remain independent, religious schools receive state funding, since independent schools receive what amounts to a total £100m/yr subsidy thanks to their tax-free charity status - and this despite the fact that they receive 3 times as much per pupil on average than state schools and educate only 7% of the country's children!

Power struggle in education

Predictably, given this situation which gives such generous privileges to the Church of England and (to a lesser extent) to the Roman Catholic church, the other religions have been lobbying hard to get a larger share of the education funding cake - particularly after the government endorsed Lord Dearing's 2001 report, which called for the building of 100 more Church of England secondary schools.

This report has led to extensive recriminations on the part of all creeds, and particularly Muslim institutions. So, for instance, the House of Lords "Report against Islamophobia" already mentioned recommends the creation of more Islamic schools in the state sector, compulsory RE for all 14-16 year-olds, a new A level in Islamic studies, tax breaks for parents who wish to educate their children at home, the provision of prayer rooms in all schools, religion-segregated RE, non-communal changing facilities and the reduction in mixed-sex schools.

Whether the government will dare to follow these reactionary recommendations is doubtful. It is unlikely that Blair will take the political risk of allowing Muslim schools to be created in the state sector for the time being - although he may choose to allow existing independent Muslim schools to be brought into the state system or to use the City Academy system, because it is more opaque.

But the fundamentalist groups have other methods of imposing the sort of education and rules they want on schools. A women's rights activist from Southall described how they began to raise their profile in the area: "In the mid-1990s, students began demanding separate religious or prayer rooms in FE colleges. Ealing Tertiary College was one such college: the Islamic society made demands for a separate prayer room; it also monitored women's dress as well as attendance of Muslim students at prayer. As a concession the authorities allocated different rooms for prayer on a daily basis."

The separation of sexes, the monitoring of women's dress by men, but also the control over the content of lectures and the banning of certain subjects - these are some of the pressures and humiliations which, in the name of religion, are imposed on Muslim women at home by their families, and in the streets in predominantly Muslim areas. And these are the pressures and humiliations that fundamentalists would like to introduce, bit by bit, into all the schools and colleges where they exist.

The problem is that, just as at Ealing Tertiary, far too many schools have conceded to the fundamentalists' demands. Probably because there was no stomach for opposition inside these schools among the teachers and students who disagreed, but primarily because there was no political will on the part of the authorities to resist these demands and back up those who wanted to oppose them. Besides, the possibility for small but well-organised religious groups to take control of a school's board of governors makes it possible for them to get their way without being accountable to anyone.

In the case of Denbigh High in Luton, the school had a uniform policy. Such a policy is traditionally designed to break the social and cultural barriers which might otherwise create divisions among the pupils. But even before Shabina Begum's elder brother tried to march his 13-year old sister into the school in full jilbab, this uniform policy (and its rationale) had already been turned on its head by the introduction of an alternative uniform for Muslim pupils, duly vetted by the British Council of Mosques. Having made this gain, it was logical for the fundamentalists to push their advantage further, but this time they failed. However, for one such failure, how many times have they succeeded in similar attempts? Judging from the increasing number of schoolgirls in hijab or jilbab, many times indeed!

Those who prefer to think that the case of Shabina Begum is just a matter of personal choice, religious belief, or abstract freedom, are burying their heads in the sand. Beyond her personal case is the very real oppression experienced by a whole layer of women of all ages in society, under the cover of religion - all religions, for that matter, albeit in various forms. Islamic fundamentalism is the most visible example of a religious current justifying openly women's oppression, but it is only one among others which can be found in all creeds.

Anyone who doubts the reality of this oppression should read the book recently published by the women's group "Southall Black Sisters", under the title "From homebreakers to jailbreakers", in which these activists give an account of their experience in dealing with the cases of Asian women subjected to arranged or forced marriages (the line between one and the other is often tenuous), kidnapping, domestic violence, including rape or attempted murder by their husbands or relatives, provides a shocking picture of what this oppression is really about. And in all these cases, the moral justification for the horrendous treatment of women, is their inferior status as defined by both religion and cultural tradition, which gives them no rights whatsoever against their male relatives.

So, yes, the very minimum that the education system should be able to do is to provide a temporary haven for pupils against this oppressive world, no more, but no less. Of course, opposing one religious or cultural oppression cannot be done without opposing all of them, including the hypocrisy which lies behind the "Christian values" that Blair keeps preaching to us about - and this means ejecting religion, of all brands, from education and all institutions, and returning it to where it really belongs, in the antiquities section of museums and libraries.