The challenge of September 11

December 1, 2001 — Interview

Written by CARF

The events of September 11 and their aftermath, in terms of government policy, have thrown up a series of contradictions for anti-racists about freedom of expression, human rights, religion and Islam, in particular.

CARF asked veteran campaigner and anti-imperialist writer A Sivanandan for some pointers.

CARF: You have, for a long time, warned us against the growing anti-Muslim racism in this country. We remember a meeting in Camden town hall against the Gulf War when you ended your speech with ‘We are all Muslims now’. Are you in favour of the new legislation in the UK to outlaw incitement to religious hatred?

A Sivanandan: No and Yes. First, we have to distinguish between our long-term goal – which is the creation of a broad-based secular society – and tackling the immediate problem – which is how to protect people on the ground who are being attacked because they are Muslims. Hence, at the same time as fighting fascism and racism in the specific (which means not opposing the incitement to religious hatred law in principle), we have to balance it with a wider recognition that, in the global age, the state has to become more secular, not less. State religion is an anachronism in a globalised society, and rights, not religion, should determine social conduct. So that any piecemeal reform we undertake now should not undermine the more wholesale reform to come.

Besides, laws such as this are a two-edged sword. Don’t forget that the first prosecutions under the incitement to racial hatred provisions were of blacks, although the law was supposed to protect them.

CARF: What about the fact that here in the UK, far from secularising society, the government is actually planning to expand the role of religion with an extension to the number of religious schools?

A Sivanandan: Once again, we have to look at this in a two-fold way. A democracy should not apportion rights on the basis of religion; it should, instead, de-institutionalise religion altogether, make it a private matter, not a matter for the state. Our problem is that ethnic race pundits have been pushing the government for equity within the given set-up, without wanting to change it altogether. Their argument goes: if you have Christian church schools and Jewish schools, then it is only fair to have Muslim schools. At that level, of course, it appears to be a reasonable request. But, at another level, it is saying that the answer to discrimination (allowing only certain children into a school) is more discrimination (allowing more groups to have exclusive schools). I believe that no school should be allowed to discriminate in its selection process on the basis of religion. In fact, we should do away with denominational schools altogether.

Take religion out of state structures and institutions. Complete the Reformation by disestablishing the Church of England. Take religion out of the public domain, out of education, work, politics and parliament. That, however, is the long-term goal. In the short term, we have to temper the ideal with the real. We should help communities which have been disadvantaged educationally (even if defined in religious terms) to improve standards of schooling irrespective of their religion. In that sense, we have to support the creation of more religious schools if that is the demand from those communities. But, perhaps, certain new conditions should be attached. Jewish, Catholic, Muslim schools should be told that they have to open their doors to everyone (as some Anglican schools do); that they have to teach the National Curriculum; that their primary purpose is not a religious one. In other words, Muslim schools, like Anglican schools, should be able to teach Muslim values but not enforce the observance of religious ritual in school time.

CARF: But isn’t that a form of discrimination – when you don’t allow people space or time off to perform rituals which, after all, are part of their religion?

A Sivanandan: No, not if it discriminates against others in the process. Of course, everyone should be guaranteed his or her civil rights, including the right to freedom of religious expression. But each person’s civil rights need to be weighed against the civil rights of others. Your freedom ends where mine begins. Hence, the freedom to express your religion ends at the point that it becomes anti-social or interferes with your work or puts others at risk.

In the final analysis, we have to make a distinction between the right to a belief (a civil right) and the ritual of religion (which can affect the civil rights of others). Where rights clash with rites, rights must prevail. Else, we move the axis of religion itself from tolerance to intolerance, from an open system of thought to a closed circuit of dogma.

CARF: Are you going along, then, with Huntington’s argument that there is a ‘clash of civilisations’ between the West and Islam?

A Sivanandan: No. That’s bullshit. It’s ahistorical and superficial. What we are witnessing is not a clash of civilisations but the imposition of one civilisation on another, and the resistance that follows from that. The clash of civilisations theory also implies that the clash is between a superior civilisation and an inferior one. But it was Islamic civilis-ation that, through its achievements in mathematics, geography, medicine, literature, art and architecture, helped to advance European civilisation. Centuries of colonial oppression and imperialist exploitation, however, have forced certain sections of Islam to retreat into the safety of fundamentalist beliefs. And this has been further heightened by the mass poverty inflicted on Islamic countries by puppet dictatorships installed and/or maintained by western powers for their own interests – principally oil.

Where then can the oppressed find succour, except in religion, ‘the sigh of the oppressed’? But what begins as the sigh of the oppressed is transformed, in the hands of the religionists, into the ‘opiate of the masses’ and gives fundamentalism its impetus. And the West, in turn, has tried to counter nationalist aspirations and communist influence by financing and promoting fundamentalist movements and reactionary regimes. Is it any wonder that, as Malcolm X said in another context, the chickens have come home to roost?

To get back to Huntington, the clash of civilisations theory distracts us from locating the epicentre of the conflict: Israel, which is not only a vivid example of the West’s double standards and the humbug of western ‘democracy’, but also a constant, in-your-face reminder that terror can work if it is properly organised in the guise of a state, under the pretext of survival.

CARF: Moving on to the war, Blair is trying to sell it to us as some kind of humanitarian-bearing, democracy-building initiative. Do you see any truth in that?

A Sivanandan: Blair, unlike Bush, has been quick to realise that global capitalism has to be reformed to be acceptable. But you don’t do that with a bomb in one hand and bread in the other. Certainly what September 11 signalled to me was the fact that unless global capitalism – which is in effect a new mode of production – begins to embrace the poor and corrects the injustices that it breeds, it cannot work. The immediate assault may have been upon ‘western civilisation’, whatever that means, but the long-term assault is on the global economy.

So first we need an economic solution to poverty (till such time as we abolish capitalism and therefore poverty altogether) and, second, we need to find an international political organisation (the UN has a built-in American bias) which can represent all countries and give weightage to the poorer countries over the more powerful ones.

Nation states, which are subject to the imperatives of multinational corporations, cannot look after their poor. We need a world government that redresses the imbalances of globalisation, which acts as a countervailing force to multinationals, which upholds the universal values of the enlightenment and allows them to develop in poorer countries and not be destroyed by dictatorships.

The Third World is facing economic genocide in which its own governments are collaborators. Debt has forced these countries into a cycle of ever-increasing poverty. What they produce is barely sufficient to pay back the interest on their debt, let alone feed themselves; so the people are starved yet further. Debt kills off the present generation and the imposition of structural adjustment programmes, that accompany IMF loans, kills off the future generation. It’s a choice between starving to death in the short term or in the long term – economic genocide by stealth.

CARF: But why the rise of fundamentalism?.

A Sivanandan: Since the communist parties died, since the post-independence nationalist projects of autonomous develop-ment foundered, people have had no alternative value system to turn to, no political agency to organise them. Against the ideology of global capitalism is only the ideology of religion – Mammon versus Mohammed.

But religion comes with a price tag: ritual. And when ritual begins to define religion, it corrupts it. Ritual is based on customs and habit, religion is based on rights and values. Rites separate; rights unify. Rites contribute to superstition and ceremony; rights contribute to universal values. There are no essential differences in the value systems of religions, only in their rituals, social habits and customs.

And that is why, for me, the most significant thing about September 11 is the challenge it poses to Islam itself: to live up to its own values and principles of universality, which are not only the values and principles of all religions, but also of modernity.

What I am saying, in effect, is that the modernist revolution is not over, only re-charged. It is post-modernism that is dead – at birth.

CARF: You almost sound optimistic!

A Sivanandan: If we are not to wallow in the sadness of that terrible day and the miseries of its aftermath, we’ve got to learn to turn defeat into victory. A number of ‘hopeful’ things came out of it. Most importantly, it dealt a blow to the arrogance of power and showed how the technology produced by global capitalism is also the technology that can strike at its heart. It therefore made it objectively necessary to see that globalisation benefits all the people of the world and not just the West.

And America and the rest of the West, that had been so smug and conceited, can now feel the pains of the Third World. For so long it was America’s standard of living, America’s morality, America’s culture that dominated the world. All this has been challenged; the western world is in shock. People have been woken from the deep sleep of individualism and are taking conscience of society, their society and others’. We have had a whole generation that was rendered so apolitical that it didn’t even bother to vote; it thought helping the Third World was wearing a comic nose for one day in the year. Now the Third World is every day. Now the Third World is on the breakfast table every morning.

Related links

Campaign Against Racism and Fascism

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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