Some green shoots of recovery for secularists

Green shoots

I remember as a teenager at school how we once had to write an essay for our English homework called “My life so far”.

There were generally two forms of outraged, anarchic protest against this evidently unreasonable assignment, each of which was made with equal adolescent fervour: those who claimed that their life to date had been far too uneventful and boring to warrant such an essay, and those who claimed that their decade and a half on planet Earth had been far too eventful and exciting to be relegated to a lowly scrap of homework.

I haven’t blogged for a while and I was trying to work out why. Perhaps too much has been happening. Perhaps not enough has been happening. Perhaps I’ve just become lazy, or lazier. Whatever the reason, this post is a bit of a sweep up of odds and ends.

I’ve been called many names in my time but “optimist” is not one of them. However, I can’t help but notice a few green shoots of recovery for secularists. I’ll cover five items here to show how the tide might be turning, admittedly at oil-tanker speed, in such a way that more and more people are finally starting to recognise the importance of secularism.

Universities UK

This organisation recently published guidance giving their blessing to gender-segregated seating at universities if such seating arrangements were demanded, I mean requested, by external Muslim speakers, I mean external religious speakers.

Following a protest which was well covered by the mainstream media, and widespread public condemnation, Universities UK withdrew their guidance – although they are currently still consulting on it.

What was noticeable about the condemnation of gender segregation was that it was very high-profile (including from none other than the Prime Minister himself); that it was from across the political spectrum; and that it was unequivocal. Also, it wasn’t just “secularists” who were outraged – it was normal people too. The nation’s pulse seemed to be transmitting a loud and clear message along the lines of “Ok, this is getting silly now, please can someone make it stop”.

It was also encouraging to see high-profile Muslim women such as the journalist and commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown really come into their own and strongly condemn gender segregation. See her debate on Channel 4 News against an Islamist here. See her rage. It’s a thing of beauty.

In fact Alibhai-Brown has been speaking very strongly in favour of secularism generally. Look at her heart-warming contribution to a piece in The Guardian a few weeks ago called “Secularism: what does it mean to you?”:

“I have faith. I pray. Prayers sustain me. But my faith is personal, in my head and heart, within my home. It’s the way I connect with my mother and the past and my private conversation with God. It is not a battle cry, not my identity, not something to parade, not a demand on my nation and absolutely not a mark of segregation. Secularism to me means the separation of state and religion. I believe in that separation almost as strongly as I believe in God. We must all live under the same laws and buy into codified human rights. Those take precedence over religious obligations.”

“India, a nation with more religions and believers than almost anywhere else, is a secular state. If it was not, religious wars would tear the country apart. (Pakistan, an Islamic country, is a failed state.) Turkey was secular too and is now hurtling towards becoming an Islamic state, and fragmenting. The US holds on (just) to secularist principles. The UK is in a dreadful muddle. The established religion and the state are tightly plaited together. Which then means other religions can legitimately press the ruling elite for their bit of power, their strand of hair. So we end up as a country of separate religious schools (what did our children do to deserve that in an interconnected world?), exceptionalism in law and even human rights. The centre will not hold for ever with these arrangements. Secularism is the only way to stop collapse and chaos and to foster bonds of citizenship in our complex democracy.”

Love that.

In the past Alibhai-Brown has sometimes blown a little hot and cold for my liking, especially on free speech. For example, a piece of hers from late 2012 about the “anti-Islam internet film made by some dodgy Americans” includes this opener:

“Freedom of expression in the west is hokum, I say, and hypocrisy dressed up as high virtue. Worse still, it is now used as a missile aimed mainly at Muslims.”

See what I mean? Hot and cold. But hopefully it’s now full steam ahead for the likes of Alibhai-Brown and other liberal/secular Muslims.

Incidentally, it’s worth pointing out that the compelling cases for secularism, and against Islamism, do not need the validation of liberal/secular Muslims. The arguments work perfectly well on their own merits, and regardless of who is making them. But the more people who endorse those arguments, the better. If those people happen to be Muslim women, well that’s just grand. At the very least it gives us infidels some much-needed time to rest and recuperate.

London School of Economics

In October two LSE students ran into some pretty heavy turbulence for wearing Jesus and Mo t-shirts at their annual Freshers Fair. The LSE has now apologised to the students and in doing so it has hopefully set some kind of strong default setting for free expression in UK universities.

Whenever and wherever religious ideas have escaped scrutiny they have caused utter mayhem, and so the students’ victory against the LSE really cannot be over-emphasised.

Marks and Spencer

M&S has apologised after a Muslim member of staff refused to serve a customer wanting to purchase alcohol.

It’s not clear exactly how or whether M&S would prevent such a thing from happening in the future, but it was encouraging to see how quickly M&S responded to the public anger. Again, as with gender segregation, the mood of the public seemed to be one of complete exasperation at the never-ending – and rarely reasonable – demands made by Islam in shared, secular spaces.

Laurie Penny

At the weekend the “feminist” Laurie Penny entered the university gender segregation debate and displayed her contempt for white men who have the temerity to disapprove of gender segregation demanded by Islamists on the basis that white men are, well, white and male – and probably therefore very racist and very sexist. She was rapidly slapped down from all sides, including from the Left where she resides.

Penny likes to think of herself as a crusader against both racism and sexism. But by dismissing the views of people on the basis solely of their skin colour, and helping to contribute to a strangling climate where the appalling treatment of many women of colour tends to go unchecked (by screeching “Islamophobia” and racism at every half-opportunity and thereby silencing people), it is actually she who is being racist and helping to perpetuate some of the worst manifestations of sexism. Not a very clever thing to do if you claim to oppose racism and sexism.

Penny seemed to back-pedal very slightly when she heard that many of those leading the protest against gender segregation were Muslim women or women of colour, but in doing even that she revealed she’s not bothered about underlying harms or the merits of an argument – she is only concerned with who is making the argument and what their motivation (as determined by her, of course) might be. Heaven forbid she should end up on the same “side” as a white man in any debate. That’s surely a fate worse than death for her.

Even if the protest against gender segregation had been led by white men, so what? This may come as a shock to Penny but not all white men are goose-stepping racists with a secret stash of Nazi regalia, or rapists. Besides, what happened to the idea of displaying solidarity? Don’t the left often talk of “solidarity”? And in a predominantly white country such as the United Kingdom (I say that as a current statement of fact), and where there is presumably a roughly 50:50 population split between men and women, is it really that surprising or sinister that some or many of those speaking out against gender segregation which is taking place in the United Kingdom might be…white men?

By slightly back-pedalling when she heard about the Muslim women and women of colour protesting against gender segregation, Penny displayed a nasty, patronising tokenism towards those women. What a confused, small-minded woman she is. I think we should pray for her.

Ed West

The journalist Ed West, who is considered to be on the right and who writes for The Spectator and is also the deputy editor of The Catholic Herald, seems to have rethought his positions on secularism.

In The Telegraph a couple of years ago he covered the National Secular Society’s successful “council prayers” judicial review against Bideford Town Council, in somewhat unflattering terms. He didn’t have anything nice to say about secularism, or the NSS. He used the phrase “secular zealots” and he also remarked that:

“there’s something very un-English about the National Secular Society and the campaign against prayers, intolerant and petty-minded as it is.”

I did a response to West’s Telegraph piece here. Let’s just say it wasn’t very flattering to him.

Fast forward a couple of years, though, and it’s a bit of a different story for Edward. In a recent Spectator piece he was rather more gracious towards secularists. Look:

“the best way to protect religious freedom is through secularism, since religious freedom is most commonly threatened by other religions.”

“the Church leadership in Britain is far more reluctant to talk about serious anti-Christian violence abroad than it is to address ‘militant secularism’; much as I disagree with many of Britain’s recent discrimination laws, Stonewall and the National Secular Society do not burn down churches.”

“Britain doesn’t rule the waves, of course, but military power isn’t the only kind: the least Britain could do is to use its influence to draw up an annual report of Christianophobia, and to promote secularism, the best way of ensuring religious freedom.”

Well I never. Nice one, mate. Must be that Catholic guilt kicking in. Religion has its uses.

Also, have a read of his piece in The Catholic Herald this week called “Anti-Christian violence in the Middle East: the answer is more secularism, not multiculturalism”.


Not all of the public disapproval of, say, gender segregation on campus, LSE or M&S has been framed in terms of secularism or even by reference to the word secularism. But I don’t think that’s too important. The mood of the public seems increasingly to be that religion – and one religion in particular – needs to be shackled, and very fast.

To my mind secularism is neither a left-wing concept nor a right-wing concept, and to the extent it might be, it shouldn’t be. I always resist any attempt by anyone to portray it as one or the other because such an approach immediately alienates the “other side”, and it risks forcing people to take entrenched positions against it simply because they don’t want to agree with their “enemies” (like the Laurie Penny school of thinking, if you can call it thinking). In any case, I don’t really understand what the terms left-wing and right-wing mean these days anyway. Secularism means equality before the law for people of all faiths and none, and the removal of any form of religious privilege whether official or unofficial. Is that left-wing or right-wing? More to the point, who cares?

Secularism is an essential component of democracy, and increasingly the most essential component. Without secularism, democracy as we know it, and as we take it for granted, will continue to collapse section by section, hinge by hinge, screw by screw, under the intolerable and unsustainable strain that religion is placing on it. Eventually we will fight over a pile of rubble.

The more people who recognise the need for secularism, and the quicker they do it, the more chance we have of salvaging what we have left of our precious way of life in the West, and the more chance we have of sending the loudest possible message to the rest of the world that secular democracy is the only game in town.

Am I saying that secular democracy is superior to any alternative form of governance?

You’re goddam right I am.

Merry Christmas.

Update: a section of this post was featured as one of the “Quotes of the Week” in the National Secular Society’s Newsline of 17 January 2014