The recent controversy created by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams’s, speech about sharia law highlighted the challenges that a liberal society has in accommodating different and competing belief and identity systems. I want to work through a few practical examples, and also demonstrate how such theories of multiculturalism were in fact pioneered in the Marxist movement one hundred years ago, by Otto Bauer (pictured) and Karl Renner.
These issues are by no means confined to the issues of Islamic law, as Alun Michael MP, chair of the Christian Socialist Movement said: “There are big issues where there is an apparent clash between religious law and secular law. Sometimes there is a direct clash such as in relation to the place of women in Muslim society – something that Rowan dealt with very clearly in his lecture – but we should recognize that it’s not that long since the same problems existed within the Christian church. There is still tension over issues like contraception and abortion for some Christians, and last year some serious political issues arose in respect of Roman Catholic adoption agencies.”
The very relevant point made by Dr Williams is that religious faith and its entailed commitments are less negotiable than secular ones, as believers hold that they have a sacred covenant with divine law. However, progressive theologians and scholars of all faiths seek to distinguish between those aspects of their religious belief that are fundamental – or in terms of their own belief systems divinely ordained – and those aspects which are a reflection not of divine will, but of social and cultural accident.
In this sense, it is a false polarisation to see progressive politics as the promotion of secular values over religious ones. Rather ideological and political struggle is carried out within religious communities, between those who are conservative of traditions, and those who seek convergence with the prevailing liberal ethos of civil society. A very interesting example of this is the conflict within the Episcopalian or Anglican communion over the issues of ordaining gay vicars. Another example is the organisation, Catholics for Free Choice, a US based religious charity that employs 20 staff and has an annual expenditure of $3000000 that acts “to serve as a voice for Catholics who believe that the Catholic tradition supports a woman’s moral and legal right to follow her conscience in matters of sexuality and reproductive health.”
As this sort of struggle goes on within religions, it is therefore counter-productive for the state or political campaign groups to seek to force religious believers to choose between their faith and secular values. As Dr Williams explains:
“The danger arises not only when there is an assumption on the religious side that membership of the community (belonging to the umma or the Church or whatever) is the only significant category, so that participation in other kinds of socio-political arrangement is a kind of betrayal. It also occurs when secular government assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity.”
The point here being that religious and community identity is very important to many individuals, and it should not be the role of the state to polarise divided loyalties and identities. This can only force greater misunderstanding, and strengthen the hand of conservative social and political forces within religious communities and organisations, who define their faith community by its points of departure from civil society. In extreme cases it can exclude people from political and social participation – for example naive secularists who do not recogise that many Muslim women choose to wear a veil, and some prefer to be segregated from men, can place obstacles to the participation of such women, by insisting on imposing their own secularist and atheist values upon them. Exclusion of women because of their cultural and religious choices then impedes any further mutual development towards greater understanding and social convergence.
A pertinant recent example of this is the case of the nine students at the Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School in Hackney, who refused to take the SAT test for 14 year olds, because it had compulsory questions about Shakespeare, who they regard to be anti-Semitic. Interestingly, the schools Principal, Rabbi Abraham Pinter, backed the girls’ action even though it badly affected the school’s league table place.
It is an irrelevant question whether or not William Shakespeare actually was anti-Semitic, or whether the Merchant of Venice is an anti-Judaic play. What is relevant here is that the British state makes study of Shakespeare compulsory as part of a shared community of culture, and these girls, if forced to choose, consider their Jewish identity more important to them than their British, or English, identity.
The girls believe Shakespeare to be anti-Judaic, which I think is an unfounded but neither an irrational nor unsupportable position. (It is not an example of “vexatious religious scruple” to use Dr Williams’s terminology of a case where a claimed religious sensibility is too trivial to be supportable, and in any event this particular dispute seems to be over the question of identity rather than religion.) They should be able to opt out of Shakespeare, rather than be forced to choose between their community identity, and their identity as citizens of the state.
In October 2007 the Council of Europe condemned all attempts to bring creationism into Europe’s schools as it claimed that Bible-based theories and “religious dogma” threaten to undercut sound educational practices. This was in response to Harun Yahya, a prominent Muslim creationist from Turkey, who tried to place his book, “The Atlas of Creation,” in schools in France, Switzerland, Belgium and Spain. (It is interesting in terms of the current climate of islamophobia that this condemnation followed activities by a Muslim, rather than the extensive activities of Christian evangelicals, like “Truth in Science” who sent unsolicited DVDs to every secondary school in Britain arguing that mankind is the result of “intelligent design,”)
It is taken as self-evidently correct amongst most progressives that teaching creationism or intelligent design in schools is reactionary, but is this really the case? Now I am a big defender of science, and of scientific method. But the current situation in schools seems to be that GCSE students are introduced to Lamarkism, Darwinism and in some schools Creationism, and then told that Darwinism is correct, and that is the answer they have to give to get credit. Now of course Darwinian theories of evolution are correct, but there are two importnat subsidiary issues: i) is it a necessary role of the state to enforce upon all citizens that they accept evolution? ii) does simply telling students that Darwinism is correct arm them with the theoretical tools to distinguish why faith based arguments are excluded from science?
Would it matter of a faith based school opted out of the prevailing consensus, provided they also presented their pupils with information about what the scientific consensus is, and why faith based arguments are not generally accepted? In actual fact, it would be an equally valuable educational experience to be presented the competing theories, and then be judged on their ability to argue their case which is correct, which would require them understanding how scientific theories become accepted as true. Every student would be exposed to the prevailing scientific consensus, but then those whose religious faith leads them to value scriptural evidence could include that in their discussion, but they would have to demonstrate that they understood both sides of the argument, and that they understand that faith based arguments are not generally accepted as scientific.
Choice is the key argument here. Dr Williams refers to an article by the Jewish legal theorist Ayelet Shachar, in “Multicultural Jurisdictions: Cultural Differences and Women’s Rights (2001)”, he argues: “if one approaches it along the lines sketched by Shachar in the monograph quoted earlier, it might be possible to think in terms of what she calls ‘transformative accommodation’: a scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters, so that ‘power-holders are forced to compete for the loyalty of their shared constituents’
This exhibits a very nuanced understanding about how assimilationist pressure tends to promote social convergence. By ending the situation where people need to choose between wider society and their culture, we engineer a situation where individuals can choose which code to adopt. Of course any choice to use religious arbitration would have to be mutual and based on free and informed consent. This encourages the secular legal authorities to respect the plurality of our society, and recognise people’s different senses of identity; and simultaneously it puts pressure on the religious communities to evolve towards the wider norms of society.
This should of course also provide a framework for religious organisations to work within.
An example of a religious organisation acting in an unacceptable way was recently provided by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, who has pressurised the private Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth, of which he is patron, to implement a new code of ethics. This was implemented last December, and led to the resignations of at least four directors, including Lord Fitzalan Howard and a GP, Dr Martin Scurr, followed a week later by the chairman, Lord Bridgeman. It seems these resignations were after pressure from the Cardinal, because these directors opposed his demand that advice about contraception, abortion and gender reassignment should be excluded from the hospital.
The General Medical Council’s current guidance is that doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion are not required to refer patients for the operation but they are obliged to provide them with information to enable them to obtain treatment. This is a good compromise.
Cardinal Cormac O’Connor’s position is diametrically opposed to that of Dr Rowan Williams, as the Catholic church is seeking to deny patients a choice, and argue that the ethical values of their Church are the only significant ones.
Part of the reason that the debate about multi-culturalism seems so problematic is that it cannot be easily reconciled with liberal theories of the state, that can be characterised as Centralist-Atomist, where is there is no mediation between the central power of the state and private individuals – and this fails to give adequate recognition of ethnic, national and religious minorities. In fact, in modern nation states the dominant culture claims to be neutral and universal, but is of course just as particular and contingent as any sub-cultures contained within that state’s borders. The prevailing liberal theory provides no recognition of the various forms of collective and corporate identity that individuals are socially located within.
The particular problem is that the liberal theory of the nation state, (and one uncritically accepted by most Marxists following the coincident views of US President Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin), is that legislative and constitutional entities must be territorial, and therefore in any one state, only one national culture is hegemonic. This is carried on today by those who champion a universalist secularism, irrespective of the actual wishes, needs or desires of people who belong to minority communities.
The contribution of the Marxist theorists Karl Renner and Otto Bauer was to propose how multi-culturalism can work by permitting rights to intermediate corporations. This is incompatible with the procedural equality in contemporary liberal democracies, as it instead recognises differential rights for people who self-identify with religious or ethnic sub-cultures.
Bauer observed the value of community identity, or “personality” that have been shaped by shared experience by a common fate. Bauer distingusies between those who have a shared experience of fate (Schicksalgemainschaft) with those who have just a similar experience (Gleichartigkeit). This is an important distinction to refute naive socialist arguments like saying that working class people in Japan and Britain have more in common with each other than they do with the bosses who share their own national culture. To take an extreme example, German and British troops who faced each other in the trenches of the first world war had a near identical experience, and an identical political interest in ending the war. Politically therefore there was grounds for solidarity and internationalism. But culturally, there was no shared community through which they experienced this similar fate – and indeed the shared communal experience was with their own national officer class. Few British soldiers will have read Erich Maria Remarque, few Germans will have read Siegfried Sassoon or Rupert Brookes. Political internationalist solidarity must therefore start from recognising the historically contingent and specific nature of progressive politics within each community, and then reaching out to develop understanding and solidarity based upon equality of respect for the differences.
Those who belong to religious, ethnic and national communities value the distinctive features which signify to themselves and others their belonging to those communities. And of course the distinctive forms of consciousness of those communities are shared and collectively developed. (An interesting observation here is that class consciousness always develops in a specific national context, and internationalism is not an expression of collective international shared experience, but an intellectual political achievement of the socialist movement – internationalism can only prosper when it is also married with respect for national cultures and traditions. The international working class has coincident political interests, but does not constitute a shared community. (And nor do other imagined international communities, such as the Episcopalian communion, or the Islamic umma))
The argument from Bauer and Renner is that political autonomy can be granted to communities who either cannot acheive or don’t want to form a territorial nation state. The great advantage of such non territorial autonomy is that group membership is not tied to geographical location, so minorities are no longer subject to majorities – as any self-identified community however small can self regulate itself over certain defined areas, while still allowing individuals the choice of opting for the vanilla flavour rights of the general society.
An essential task of Marxism in the twenty-first century must be to produce a convincing theory of multi-culturalism, that both allows self-organisation of minorities and also promotes organic convergence around progressive values.