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Facing many directions in the struggle for secular democracy

Closing Keynote by Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters
International Conference on Sharia, Segregation and Secularism- 25 November 2018

Thank you. It is such an honour for me to make some closing remarks to end today’s conference.

At a recent event in London, the renowned author John Le Carre said of our times:

“Something truly, seriously bad is happening and… we have to be awake to that,” “These stages that Trump is going through in the United States and the stirring of racial hatred … a kind of burning of the books as he attacks, as he declares real news as fake news, the law becomes fake news, everything becomes fake news…I think of all things that were happening across Europe in the 1930s, in Spain, in Japan, obviously in Germany. To me, these are absolutely comparable signs of the rise of fascism and it’s contagious, it’s infectious. Fascism is up and running in Poland and Hungary.”

I cannot help but agree. People who have spoken here have borne witness to these and other appalling events and atrocities brought about by the neoliberal political order, the erosion of democratic institutions including the rule of law, and the rise of religious and Far Right authoritarianism.

I am not alone in feeling that we are on the brink of a new era of fascism not only in Europe but also around the world. Events across Europe, India, Turkey, Pakistan, the US, Brazil and elsewhere show that there is a darker, more sinister politics of hatred, intolerance and violence at play. Violence aimed at silencing dissent is in danger of becoming the dominant mode of communication. Such violence is driven by ‘fear of the other’ and holds sway as governments themselves become complicit in, if not drivers of this new regressive and chilling politics of terror and censorship. We are witness to a worldwide onslaught on citizenship rights and human rights, a rejection of secular, democratic values that were established in the aftermath of the Second World War when, as Gita outlined in her opening address, a new world order arose out of the wreckage of the old decrepit systems of governance. That new order was underpinned by secular values that were integral to struggles against colonialism and for democracy and until more recently, to anti-racist and anti-imperlialist struggles across the world.

Religious fundamentalism and ultra-conservatism, that together I refer to as the Religious Right, as well as anti-immigration, xenophobic and racist discourses and practices are becoming normalised. What they have in common is an anti-elite, anti-cosmopolitan, anti-intellectual, and a regressive nationalist thrust. These developments have elements of classic fascism but there are new forms too, especially with the advent of social media and technological advances in communication. They are accompanied by the triumph of austerity, unbridled free market capitalism and neo-liberalism and the destruction of the environment. All of which, when combined, create lethal spaces in which patriarchal and racial violence, ethnic and religious cleansing, inequality, intolerance, hatred, and bigotry flourish.

So what do I take away from today? I have seen and learnt that each person here is engaged in a political struggle for secular democracy. Some have battled courageously to uphold key principles of democracy, constitutionalism and the universality of human rights. They have maintained the utmost dignity in the face of horror and brutality. Others have attempted to carve out alternative democratic social structures and ways of being in the face of fear, intimidation and the threat to life itself.

What this tells me is that the very idea of dissent is vital to a secular democracy. Protecting the right to dissent without fear of intimidation, violence and retribution is central to the democratic process and governance. The absence of disagreement, difference and dissent is totalitarianism, despotism and tyranny.

I am no stranger to the concept of dissent. SBS’ very inception was an act of dissent because we set ourselves against not only traditionalists and conservatives who sought to suppress women in our communities but also against anti-racist and feminist orthodoxies of the day that lapsed into a narrow and essentialist identity politics. By dissenting we were not only breaking the silence on so many fronts but also laying the foundations of a politics of resistance that involved facing many directions at once.

Next year is the 30th anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. 30 years ago, in response to the unprecedented frenzy surrounding the publication of the Satanic Verses, Women Against Fundamentalism was founded by SBS and others. Our first act was an act of defiance against Muslim fundamentalists who called for the death of Salman Rushdie as a blasphemer. The significance of what is now an iconic WAF moment of protest in Parliament Square is that along with other feminists we drew connections between Rushdie’s right to dissent and the feminist tradition of dissenting. Doubting and dissenting lies at the heart of the feminist movement; it most certainly lies at the heart of SBS’s brand of feminism which sees dissent as a necessary means of achieving gender equality and the progressive transformation of society more generally.

Dissent is vital if we are to create a strong and vibrant democracy but we have to distinguish between those who dissent in order to improve democracy, participation and governance – in other words, that which has an ethical content, and those who seek to undermine the very basis of the democratic process. Is this distinction understood well enough?

At the time of writing this, I could not help but think about the contents of a wonderful letter that Salman Rushdie wrote at the time of the fatwa, to the now deceased black MP Bernie Grant whose view on the whole affair was emblematic of all that was wrong with many on the anti-racist left. Many had remained silent or defended fundamentalist demands that included extending blasphemy laws and for the greater accommodation of religion in the state apparatus on the grounds that the so called Muslim community needed protection from demonization and racism. In the course of his reply, Rushdie made what I consider to be one of the finest arguments in defence of the centrality of dissent to democratic secular values:

‘Dear Bernie Grant, Burning books,’ you said in the House of Commons exactly one day after the fatwa, ‘is not a big issue for blacks. You represent, sir, the unacceptable face of multiculturalism, its deformation into an ideology of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the death of ethical thought, supporting the right of tyrannical priests to tyrannize, of despotic parents to mutilate their daughters, of bigoted individuals to hate homosexuals and Jews, because it is part of their “culture” to do so. Bigotry, prejudice and violence or the threat of violence are not human “values.” They are proof of the absence of such values. They are not the manifestations of a person’s “culture.” They are indications of a person’s lack of culture. In such crucial matters, sir, to quote the great monochrome philosopher Michael Jackson, it don’t matter if you’re black or white.’

Undoubtedly, there are parallels between religious fundamentalism and fascism. Both are authoritarian political ideologies and movements that cash in on disaffection and mobilise racist or religious discourses to gain or consolidate power over people and resources.

The fascist leaders of Far Right movements in Europe denounce multiculturalism, immigrants, and Muslims, whilst religious fundamentalists denounce so called ‘western’ values, feminism, religious minorities and dissenters. Both reject modernity (whilst themselves using very modern technologies) and both seek a return to an imaginary utopian religious or nationalist past based on a perceived crisis of morality. Both rely on violence, fear and hatred as key weapons of control and annihilation. Both are communalising forces that deny and deride our shared common humanity and values of diversity, pluralism, tolerance, compassion and individual freedom and instead pursue a politics of division, ethnic or religious cleansing and, at times, genocide.

Fascism is problematic in whatever guise it appears. So, we cannot afford to create a hierarchy of fascisms. We cannot subscribe to the idea that the Far Right is more dangerous than the Religious Right or for instance that US nationalism is more sinister than Turkish nationalism. The danger is self evident since all forms of fascism seek to retreat from democratic and human rights law, principles and standards.

Disturbingly, these authoritarian tendencies have moved into the public space where they have either been incorporated into mainstream politics or have become part of social movements where they have given fascism an anti-imperialist, anti-racist and even a feminist face.

What results is the creation of a regressive form of resistance and identity politics tied to cultural relativism, neo-patriarchy and racism, in which the non-existent right ‘not to be offended’ by dissenting voices, particularly minority secular voices, is elevated into a sacrosanct principle. The consequential assault on free speech mobilised around the dubious politics of ‘causing offence’ by the Left as much as the Right has become (and I quote) ‘the cutting edge of tyranny’ and it is being played out in a range of local, national and international contexts.

It is time to challenge the fallacy that the Left automatically means progressive. If the Left cannot defend secular histories, spaces and principles including the right to free speech and to dissent and subvert – all of which is the lifeblood of any meaningful democracy – then does it even deserve to be called the Left?

So what is to be done? Well, this room is full of examples of what is to be done, what can be done and what must be done. In this era of post truth and pre-fascism, I am once again drawn to Gandhi’s teachings. The historian Faisal Devji has said that he, Gandhi, spoke of protecting truth at the cost of life and, made its sacrifice the very essence of non-violence. In this hall today, we have seen some truly courageous examples of struggles based exactly on the principle of the sanctity of truth and the importance of speaking truth to power.

But we need to be aware that fundamentalism is not the only threat to secular, plural democracy. The use of majoritarianism to promote a vision of secularism that is imbued with racist, nationalist and far right imperatives is as problematic as is the rise of the Religious fundamentalism or the Religious Right. We also need to address the relationship between rise of authoritarianism and the neo-liberal economic order and its attack on the rights of citizens to employment, housing, health, education, welfare support, protection and justice. I have seen the havoc that this has wrought in my own work at SBS. The collapse of the welfare state and the privatisation of public education and the law, have encouraged the spread of religious fundamentalism and the de-politicisation of NGOs.

Drawing inspiration from the thousands of ordinary people standing up to authoritarian and fundamentalist forces and for secular principles around the globe, we must utilise all the cultural, social, legal and political spaces at our disposal, as we have done in the UK with varying degrees of success. Our work in SBS, One Law for All, WAF and Feminist Dissent are examples of how we are challenging religious fundamentalism in the UK in an interrelated and multidimensional way whilst facing many directions at the same time.

We need to renew our commitment to rejecting the politics of fear, hatred, and violence and to safeguard secular democratic spaces; spaces that protect the ideas of unity and diversity based on our common humanity and the principles of the universality and non-divisibility of human rights. We must do so without abdicating moral responsibility and in solidarity with those who dare to speak up for the ideals of secular democracy and all that goes with it.

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