Betraying the Enlightenement

by Chris Bertram on December 14, 2004

Many across the bits of the blogosphere I read have declared themselves simply bowled-over by “the latest column from the Observer’s Nick Cohen”:,5673,1371935,00.html . Cohen is writing, _inter alia_ in opposition to David Blunkett’s deeply flawed proposal to ban incitement to religious hatred, and one passage in particular has been reproduced in full or in part on at least five blogs (“Harry’s Place”: ,
“Normblog”: , “SIAW”: , “Mick Hartley”: , “Melanie Phillips”: ) :

bq. MPs didn’t point out that when society decides that people’s religion, rather than their class or gender, is the cultural fact that matters, power inevitably passes to the priests and the devout for whom religion does indeed matter most. To their shame, many on the left have broken with the Enlightenment to perform
this manoeuvre. They have ridden the Islamic wave and agreed to convert one billion people into ‘the Muslims’. A measure of their bad faith is that they would react with horror if this trick was pulled on them, and they were turned into ‘the Christians’ whose authentic representatives were the Archbishop of Canterbury and ‘Dr’ Ian Paisley.

I hope I’m not alone in being considerably less admiring of the passage in question.

Take, for example, Cohen’s phrase “when society decides”. The obvious way to read this, in context, is as meaning “when Parliament decides”. But I know of no proposed legislation, including the legislation to which Cohen refers, that involves Parliament deciding that religion is _the_ cultural fact that matters (to the exclusion of other cultural facts).

But perhaps there’s a different way of interpreting Cohen’s words? If “society” is given a broader meaning than the obvious one, and if we replace Cohen’s hyperbolic “the” with “a”, a more sensible reading might emerge. On that more sensible reading religion is indeed a cultural fact that matters in society, and religious identity matters a great deal both to bigots (be they fans of Glasgow Rangers FC or members of the BNP) and to objects of their hatred. Moreover, religious identity, and the fact that I am liable to get my head kicked in if I display certain symbols in certain places, is to a certain extent independent of the religious beliefs of the possessor of the identity in question (“are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?”) These are cultural and social facts, which we can say that, in a certain sense, society has “decided”. Is there anything wrong, in principle, with Parliament taking account of such facts in its
deliberations. I don’t think so. Does Cohen?

“[P]ower inevitably passes to the priests….”

Well few things except death are absolutely inevitable, so again Cohen is over-egging things for polemical effect. On certain multiculturalist communal models for doing things, it is certainly the case that privileged status is given to “community leaders” at the expense of the real diversity of the communities they claim to represent. I’m guessing that that’s the sort of thing Cohen has in
mind here. If so, I’m with him. We don’t need a consociational system to manage ethnic and religious diversity in Britain. On the other hand, since such a set-up isn’t proposed in this or any other legislation, I’m not sure what the relevance of introducing a reference to it is.

But perhaps Cohen’s point is that consultation with religious groups and leaders is _never_ appropriate? That would be a view, I suppose. Yet, as I understand things, British governments regularly seek the views of the established church (the Church of England) and of other denominations and faiths such as the Roman Catholic Church, and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The Chief Rabbi sits in the House of Lords along with some bishops! And, of course, the Church of England and the Roman Catholic church have historically enjoyed taxpayer support for their educational establishments. I don’t follow Cohen’s writings closely, and he may, for all I know, have a consistent liberal secularist position on all this, but it seems peculiar to write about what is basically the status quo — or its extension to included Muslims — as a Left betrayal of the Enlightenment!

“They have ridden the Islamic wave and agreed to convert one billion people into ‘the Muslims’.” Again, the “They” here refers to “the Left”. And I find Cohen’s attribution of “conversion” to “the Left” utterly peculiar. Samuel P. Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” performs such a conversion, as do the multiple commenters on Little Green Footballs, any number of rightwing columnists, the British National Party, and, I’m sorry to say, that in unguarded moments there are some less than careful formulations on some of the pro-war blogs. When the people thus “converted” into an undifferentiated group are insulted, accused, blamed, and demonized, “the Left” ought to stand up for them. When many Dutch people blame “the Muslims” for the murder of Theo Van Gogh, “the Left” ought to stand up for them. And it is utterly perverse to think that standing up for the thus-already-converted amounts to an tacit approval of such “conversion”.

There’s a time for quibbling and a time for standing up for those who are the victims of oppression, discrimination and worse. The proper response to Nazi aggression against Jews was never to get into an argument about whether “their” definition of “Jew” was the right one. Nor, more recently, would it have been correct to say to Serb or Croat nationalist that “actually”, some of the people they wanted to murder as Muslims weren’t really Muslims because they had no particular religious beliefs. Solidarity with such groups doesn’t amount to connivance with their oppressors over definitions.

There’s also an oddly naive view about the formation of group identity built into Cohen’s “conversion” point. Cohen wants, as do others (and they’re not wrong) to stress that the group referred to as “the Muslims” aren’t really a group at all. They come from different places, they have a range of different beliefs, they are more or less orthodox (or not at all). And so on. Fine. But when people are demonized, ostracized, ridiculed, discriminated against, disrespected, as a group, then they are liable to start to identify as a group. “They” become a “we” — “Nobody likes us and we don’t care!” A sense of exclusion gives rise to paranoia, and rejection. The fox who is denied the grapes doesn’t regret the fact: they were sour anyway. There’s surely a historical parallel to modern Jewish identity here. Many assimilated Jews did not identify as Jewish in any strong sense, were hostile to militant Zionism, thought of themselves as primarily German or French or, perhaps, as socialist internationalists. But the fact of anti-semitism changed their self-perception: not being Jewish wasn’t an option any more, and Zionist rejection of assimilation became more attractive.
I can’t think of a better way to foster militant Islamism than to give all Muslims (including Muslims in the West) the feeling that they are not wanted, that they are blamed, that whatever they do they will not be accepted. If that happens then the children of those people of Muslim background who have tried to be citizens and workers on equal terms with the rest of us will tell them that they have been fools and dupes. We need to make it such that they don’t have a point.

Blunkett’s bill is, as I’ve said, deeply flawed. But it does have this in its favour, that it accepts our Muslim co-citizens as equal participants in a liberal democracy and takes seriously the danger from those extremists who want to reject that participation. I’ve yet to see much in the way of writing from the self-styled partisans of “the Enlightenment” which shows a similar recognition of that danger, and I’ve read a great deal which contributes to the demonization.