Friday, November 12, 2004


Culture wars - Moral majority politics comes to Great Britain

Cristina Odone reports via New Statesman

The schoolgirl talks eloquently about how she attends the Christian Union at her school, doesn't believe it is "right" to have sex before marriage, and regards the family unit as a sacred ideal. Is this teenager a hick who attends a creationist school in the Kansas plains? No, she is a middle-class, metropolitan student at St Paul's Girls' School in west London - for generations the top choice of the fee-paying chattering classes.

The young Muslim man sits in the canteen at work and confides that he is not going to continue voting for Labour politicians who allow the media to show sex and violence on the telly and his teenage daughter to get the morning-after pill over the counter, but won't allow her to wear a veil because it conflicts with her school uniform. This Muslim is not sitting in the backstreets of Beirut. He works for the BBC and lives in north London.

In the aftermath of the US elections, the chattering classes in Britain have portrayed the moral majority in America as the peculiar aberration of a raw, uncivilised culture. The religious right that swept George W Bush to victory is, they insist, a phenomenon that doesn't travel beyond American shores.

Wrong. It's an important presence here already, as is the Muslim conservatism that Asian and Arab communities have been slowly but surely unpacking in Europe, and in Britain in particular.

A week before Americans re-elected their God-fearing president, the president of the European Commission was forced to withdraw his entire team of commissioners when Rocco Buttiglione, a Catholic candidate, condemned homosexuality as sinful and single mothers as "a bad thing". On the same day as the US election, a Muslim with dual Moroccan/Dutch nationality killed the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh for having made a "blasphemous" film about women and Islam. And Peter Vardy, a Christian evangelical entrepreneur, last month lost a battle to take over a school in Doncaster and turn it into a city academy that would tell children that creationism - the belief that God literally created the world in six days - is a theory on a par with Darwinism (see Francis Beckett's report last week).

The politicisation of religious groups that has taken place across the Atlantic and been given impetus by the presidency of the born-again Bush may not yet find a direct parallel here; Europe offers no equivalent to the Christian right in terms of numbers of votes, or influence. Yet between conservative Catholics, the expanding Muslim community and growing numbers of evangelical Protestants, an alliance is being forged. Its aim is to protect a faith-based value system against the encroaching secularism of the west. The difficulty is that, just as the religious right believe wholeheartedly that theirs is the one true way, secularists are adamant about their beliefs and intolerant of those who do not share them. The ensuing clash of cultures will spill over into the political arena and change government policies for ever.

In a post-communist world, where the market is accepted by all, conventional political divisions over taxes, government spending and big business are giving way to more deeply felt differences on issues such as when life begins, the make-up of the family unit and the boundaries of medical science. Adrian Woolridge, US correspondent of the Economist and co-author of The Right Nation, sees Britain progressing from the class politics of the trade unions, through the managerial politics of the Blair-Brown era, "to arguments about the sort of people we are and what we value. Profound issues, in short, are coming back to the centre stage of politics."

Such issues, touching on questions of identity and allegiance, generate feverish emotions. The row over Buttiglione was furious and claimed the professional scalps of two proposed commissioners; the row over Theo van Gogh's film on Islam claimed his life. Although very few moral conservatives would sanction murder (even in America, with its killings of abortionists, such events are rare), they feel that their anger is warranted. They have witnessed what they see as the liberal elite allow abortion at 28 weeks and permit the sale of the morning-after pill over the counter; they have listened to plans to legalise gay marriage and euthanasia.

In their view, the pervasiveness of the west's secularist fervour goes beyond legislation. The moral traditionalists have watched every marketing outlet from television to billboards push their children into a precocious sexualisation; they have heard of endless books, magazines and lifestyle gurus instructing their women to go out and work and establish themselves as equal to men. And they have listened to councillors and local authorities tell them that Christmas cannot be celebrated as a holy holiday in public institutions, and that their daughters may not wear the hijab at school.

They've had enough.

They want, now, to voice their grievances and redress perceived wrongs by voting out godless politicians and voting in representatives who will draft and change policies in accordance with their traditionalist values. In this campaign, Muslims and Christians - in particular the increasing number of born-again evangelicals - have found common cause.

"There is an informal coalition between people of faith and people who are looking for some kind of value framework," agrees the Bishop of Leicester, Tim Stevens. "People of different faiths can coalesce around a number of freedoms which we believe make for human flourishing. We can coalesce around the notion of freedom from poverty, fear, injustice - and, too, from consumerism. We are looking for some way of assigning value to human beings that is more than their place in the market."

In Warwickshire, Nuala Scarisbrick, administrator of Life, the anti-abortion charity, finds "a marked sea change in the past few years. Our volunteers and paid staff, once predominantly Christian, are today members of every religious group, from Islam to Hinduism and even Buddhism. They believe, just as Christians do, that one of the fundamental principles in their ethics is the right to life, and are prepared to fight for the right of the unborn."

Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, agrees: "More devout Muslims will want to see the government take a stronger line on abortion - rather than as things are right now, which leave it to the individual MP's conscience. Similarly with gay marriages. Even mainstream Muslims draw a line at gay marriages. They want government to support the family unit."

A "pro-life" stance is a litmus test for religious conservatives; abortion is also the issue that gave them their first important victory, with the limit at which a legal abortion can be obtained being reduced from 28 weeks to 24. Indeed, following the publication this summer of photographs of a 12-week foetus, many politicians, including Lord Steel, who drafted the original abortion law, were moved to talk of further reducing the limit for a legal abortion.

Secularists, worried about such hints of religious retrenchment, are determined to hit back. They have, argues Richard Appignanesi, author of Introducing Existentialism, "found a fundamentalism of their own - political correctness". From banning religious messages on Christmas cards through talking of partners instead of spouses and then, more recently, calling for St Mary Magdalene school in Islington to change its name, which was deemed "divisive" in a multicultural society, the "thought police" have produced what Appignanesi calls "the slam-ming door of the liberal mind". Secularists, he believes, show as much of an interest in indoctrination as the religious groups they hate so much.

The liberal chattering classes find themselves at loggerheads with an ever more self-confident and vociferous constitu-ency today. Following 11 September 2001 and the introduction in the UK of anti-terrorism legislation regarded as targeting their community, British Muslims have become far more conscious of their rights and far more vocal about their demands. "The first real clash of cultures between Muslims and the liberal secular values took place with the Rushdie affair," says Ziauddin Sardar, the Muslim commentator and author of Desperately Seeking Paradise. "That saw Muslims becoming vocal. Then after 11 September they became more assertive as well. They began seeking and winning access to the corridors of power, they managed to get the proposed Religious Discrimination Act on the government agenda; and the Muslim Council of Britain sent a delegation of two to deal with Kenneth Bigley's kidnappers in Iraq."

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