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Secularism, multiculturalism and working class integration

5 February 2015

The Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris on 7 January, when two terrorists murdered 12 journalists, a worker and a police officer, shocked the world, as did the subsequent killing of Jewish shoppers two days later. Dave Stockton and Marcus Halaby analyse the events and their aftermath

In France, secularism (laicité) and biting satire against religious teachings and authorities have a long tradition rooted in the great revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, and embodied in the secular laws and constitutional provisions introduced in 1906. These were aimed at the still tremendously powerful Catholic Church, which repeatedly backed the counter-revolutionary forces opposed to the republic.

Defence of that tradition has become a central plank of the ideology of the French bourgeoisie, a fundamental part of its claim to represent modernity and civilisation. Since the time of the Popular Front in France, when the Communist Party adopted defence of the bourgeois republic, it has seeped into the traditions of the French labour movement. The British labour movement has the opposite problem, a tolerance for religion in education, etc., inherited from Labourism’s roots in the nonconformist chapels).

In Britain after the 7/7 attacks, as in France today, the discovery that the bombers had been brought up in Europe, but somehow had been “radicalised,” set off a series of agonising about Muslim communities “in our midst”. Why did some young people within these communities, who had been to “our” schools and in many cases initially assimilated “our” culture, become radicalised?

This was a challenge for both these two countries’ different traditions. French republican secularism, by declaring religion to be a purely private matter, beyond the state’s remit, sees the country’s two largest minorities (Jewish and Muslim) in religious terms. While it is willing to recognise and combat antisemitism it is wary of recognising Islamophobia as a from of racism.

Moreover its insistence on imposing a total ban on wearing the niqab in public and the hijab in all state buildings (courts, schools etc.) actually incites Islamophobia, with reports of women wearing the hijab on the street having it ripped off, etc.

British liberal multiculturalism instead patronises our minorities with a show of “tolerance”, while demanding their self-appointed “community leaders” report radicalised youth to the police and endorse “British values”. Both countries in their different ways demand assimilation from their Muslim citizens.

The media and politicians, while insisting they are not against Islam as a religion, see their minorities are a problem because of their resistance to our rulers’ supposedly universal and democratic values, and in particular for the tendency of their disaffected youth to identify with the victims of our rulers’ global aggressions instead of with their perpetrators.

On this however Western governments like to remain as silent as possible; it is not part of their propaganda that it is the invasions and occupations of their Nato allies, Israel, Russia etc. in the Muslim world of the past twenty years that make outraged young Muslims want to fight back against them.

President George W Bush posed a question to the American public shortly after 9/11: “Americans are asking, why do they hate us… they hate our freedoms, our freedom of speech, our freedom of religion.”

As if there were not more immediate and tangible things to hate for young people who for obvious cultural, national as well as religious reasons are justifiably outraged at the consequences of imperialism’s subjugation and plunder of much of the Muslim world.

Within the last half-century, Western imperialism has armed and funded vicious dictatorships and corrupt ruling dynasties across the Arab and Muslim world, and supported or turned a blind eye to Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and its invasions and occupations of Arab lands, all the while defending Israel’s “security” and its right to exist as a “Jewish state”, and stigmatising all who criticise it as antisemitic racists.

Three quarters or more of French Muslims originate from Algeria, a country that had to wage a bitter eight-year struggle for independence from France that ended in 1962. In the course of it around 1.5 million Algerians died and 2 million were displaced, out of a population of 10 million, of which 1 million were privileged European settlers lording it over the rest. Tens of thousands were tortured or imprisoned, while in Paris the police massacred 200 unarmed Algerian protesters in October 1961, meeting with little response from a labour movement dominated by the Stalinist French Communist Party (PCF), which opposed Algerian independence.

And in 1991, French imperialism supported a coup by Algeria’s “secular” generals to prevent the election of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), beginning a decade of civil war in which up to 150,000 died. These experiences are embedded into the collective memory of French Muslims, even if the wider population is often oblivious to them.

In Britain, Muslim communities of predominantly Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin have the memory of the British Empire’s rule over the Indian subcontinent, followed by Partition in 1947, and Western support for several military takeovers in Pakistan since.

Is it any wonder then that young people from these communities become radical opponents of the British or French state’s global actions or its official ideology? Add to this a daily experience of racist police harassment, politicians, journalists and neighbours, and finger-wagging in defence of a “civilisation” that relies on racism to delegitimise opponents of its wars’ at home, and is it no wonder many jutifiably reject it all as rank hypocrisy.

Of course, on its own, this does not explain why political Islamism has emerged as the main form of oppositional politics in the Arab and Muslim world – and alongside it, the phenomenon of armed religious ultra-reactionaries acting as a pole of attraction to a small minority there and amongst Muslim minorities in the West. Here, we must take into the account the failure of secular nationalist regimes that promised modernisation to provide either prosperity or democracy to their peoples.

These regimes, like Egypt’s Mubarak and the Algerian generals, often became corrupt lackeys of their former colonial masters little different to the corrupted Gulf sheikdoms to which they were once counterposed; or, like Saddam’s Iraq and Syria under the Assads, became totalitarian states visiting a level of violence on their own people that far surpassed even Israel’s against the Palestinians.

Even so, the emergence of an explicitly anti-imperialist movement against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan actually did “integrate” British Muslims into it. Its mistake was not that it made the fight against Islamophobia and racism a key component of the struggle against imperialist war, but that its leading component, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), tried to channel its political expression into a woefully inadequate electoral vehicle headed by maverick ex-Labour MP George Galloway.

By forming the Respect Coalition on a broadly anti-war but explicitly non-class and non-socialist basis, in a bid to draw the formerly pro-Labour and socially conservative Muslim “community leaders” and their followings into it, Respect’s advocates on the organised left practically handed over the layer of Muslim working-class youth radicalised by opposition to war to “leaders” with whom many of them were just as disillusioned as they were with Blair’s New Labour.

In this way, they helped to ensure that “the Muslims” and “the left” would continue to exist in their own separate spheres, and so squandered the opportunity to draw this layer of youth into a lasting engagement with the labour movement and the left, as the representatives of the only force ultimately capable of putting an end to racism and war – the organised working class.
And this is the only “integration” that we are in favour of – not the subordination of minorities or their representatives to a “national culture” or a “national identity”, but the integration of working-class people and youth from all communities into a common struggle against our real common enemies: the capitalist billionaires and their global system.

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