How sensationalist-seeking political groups hinder the necessary dialogue between civilization and religion

Sebastian Murphy-Bates
EDL 300x225 How sensationalist seeking political groups hinder the necessary dialogue between civilization and religion

EDL members demonstrate in Leicester (GETTY IMAGES)

On the 24 March 2012, the North West Infidels held demonstrations across the North West against alleged racist attacks on whites and Islamic so-called ‘grooming gangs’. Of course, these aren’t their only quarrels, and if they were few would find them as repulsive. Banners carrying the usual “ban the burka” slogans were flown by the self- confessed ‘right wing’ ‘Nationalists’, and, to me, it is clear their grievance with Islam is neither theological nor philosophical.

Rather than explore the abhorrent politics of this faction of tired bigotry, I should like to shed light on an aspect of this conflict that is deeply harmful to civilisation and is consistently overlooked. As a secularist and atheist, I and many others like me, view religion as poisonous, problematic and ethically unsound. We are increasingly concerned with the role of religion in society, from faith schools to religious institutions and the philosophical assertions therein. I believe that the vital conversation between us and the religious must continue and must not be dirtied by sensationalism induced by the right wing and their vehement opposition (e.g. Unite Against Fascism).

The problem presented by the North West Infidels and their counterparts is clear; by associating the opposition of Islam with the right wing, by confusing it with polemics against immigration, and by endorsing restrictions on religious freedom, many who criticise Islam or the actions of Muslims on sound intellectual grounds run the danger of being seen as guilty of racism and bigotry by association, simply for questioning the validity of this religion’s claims. Something similar happened with Judaism in Theological circles. When Old Testament sceptics (so- called ‘minimalists’) dared to question the validity of the Jewish texts as historically sound, they were met with predictable allegations of anti-Semitism from the William F Albright-influenced school of thought. Anti- Semitism, whilst not made explicit, was apparently implied and was a vile card to play that only served to dirty the waters of an intellectual discussion with substantial foundations.

The interesting side of this debate arises when we consider what the actions of the opponents of fascism contribute to this problem of religious dialogue. The UAF needed no encouragement to rally against the English Defence League and protests against this confused contingent of bigots were blown out of proportion beyond all recognition whilst some of us were trying to figure out what the EDL actually stood for on paper.

I do not mean to deny that there are racists in the EDL’s ranks, but there are black and Asian members too. The only thing that seems to unite them is an opposition against extreme Islam at least, and all UK Muslims at worst. Rather than dissect this information in an educated manner, the UAF heeded the call, contributed to rioting and agitated an already distorted conflict. Sensationalising matters by fly-posting pictures of an isolated EDL caricature ‘Sieg Heiling’ in Glasgow, the UAF along with the racists in the EDL once again brought race and nation to the fore.

There are intricate differences between the EDL, NWI and BNP that need to be explored in order to address these issues appropriately and sensibly. It is not racist to oppose Islam– it isn’t even racist to oppose all Muslims – and whilst I despise these groups, they must be dealt with on their specific assertions, not by broad association. Waving signs around that say “Ban the burka” is to me, ill- advised and oppressive, but, in my eyes, so is Islam and any other monotheism. I fear that in a sea of sensationalism, the necessary dialogue between civilization and religion is being hindered by the confusion between religion and race. The term ‘Islamophobia’ has grown ever more menacing in recent years, and it is all too common when debating Islam to hear phrases such as “you have offended a million Muslims!” as though this threatening exclamation provides anything intellectually useful. It serves only to intimidate.  Muslims do not constitute a race, there have been and always will be a multitude of racial types adhering to Islam.Perhaps both sides should take this into account before any rally is organised, before anybody is labelled as fascist and before we lose the ability to debate Islam altogether for fear of being labelled as such.

The fact is, it’s easier to hop on a bandwagon of youthful arrogance than it is to analyse issues. It’s more convenient to scream “fascist” in the face of bigots, without fully comprehending the nature of fascism. It’s easy too, in opposing Islam from purely bigoted motivations, to fly the flag of racism and distort this debate altogether. Meanwhile, opposing Islam remains an unjustified taboo; religion holds its authority and continues to impose itself on the innocent.

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  • Anon17564

    I am an agnostic atheist, and a humanist who would extend the definition of humanism to all intelligent life (if we ever discover intelligent aliens, for example). I was originally a Protestant, then a Christian without denomination, then a deist, and finally an agnostic atheist.

  • JD

    Mike, in a previous article, you wrote: “the vital conversation between us and the religious must continue” and mentioned the “necessary dialogue between civilization and religion.” What is your version of a dialogue? An angry one-way blog?

    The old lady (?) that put the note in your door is probably a good neighbor with a good heart. And she would’ve enjoyed a good conversation with you.

  • SebMurphyBates

    I would like to state that the main focus of this article was not the EDL as a body itself, but of individuals therein. It was more concerned with the outwardly and undisputedly right wing NWI. I didn’t choose the picture, just wrote the article and it is slightly mis-leading if we’re being pedantic. However, once reading the article it is clear what the agenda is and if a picture is enough to distort the reader’s perception, then I really would question their analytical skills. This is far from propaganda and condemns fairly both sides of the debate for their (for want of a better word) sins. I have no affiliation with etiehr the EDL, NWI, Islam4UK or UAF. I don’t even get paid for writing this blog, so I have literally no motivation to produce any sort of propaganda for The Independent. Just thought I’d clear that up.

  • SebMurphyBates

    Hello, I just stumbled across this and thought I’d indulge myself! I have always been interested in religion and wasn’t a complete atheist when I undertook my degree “Theology & Religion”. However, even if I were, as somebody who has been opposed to organized religion for some time, I think it best to cover as many bases as possible in order that I may criticise that which I oppose not only in a layman’s terms, but on its own grounds. For example, absolutely everyone is qualified to have an opinion on certain things- whether or not supernatural beings such as God or demons exist- but not everybody is able to criticise its foundational texts or its intricate religious assertions in a truly devastating manner. This, combined with the fact that I consider the dialogue between religion and civilisation of the utmost importance, was the reason that I undertook the study. I am shortly to udnertake a MA course in “Religion & Political Life” as this is the direction in which I wish to proceed so as to apply myself in a more tangible, earthly sense. I hope this answers your question.

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