Opinion | Fri, 10 Oct 2014
Alistair McBay argues that a growing political alliance between the leadership of the Catholic Church in Scotland and SNP has implications which stretch far beyond the Referendum campaign and threaten to revive religious identity politics.
"Most people still paid lip service to religion, but Catholicism was beyond the pale. Its extravagant statues with bleeding hearts and crowns of thorns, its Latinate ritual, its Irish Priests and its orientation to Rome made it highly unBritish, and therefore suspect. Catholics lived in self-imposed 'ghettoes': we socialised together, went to separate schools, did not attend Protestant services and were taught to hold aloof from the non-Catholic mainstream."
So said one-time Carmelite nun Karen Armstrong about growing up a Catholic in post-war Britain, in her autobiography The Spiral Staircase.
Armstrong was raised in the West Midlands, but could have been talking about 21st century West Scotland with its own Catholic 'ghettoes' and 'separate schools' throughout the land and enduring sectarianism problem. I always recall Armstrong's words when the Catholic Church in Scotland makes its regular claims of prejudice when statistics on unemployment or poverty are published. While no doubt bigotry lingers (beyond Old Firm fans serenading each other at the Ibrox and Parkhead) Armstrong's remarks remind us that the Catholic leadership has been part of the problem too, and the solution requires a change in its attitude.
This question of attitude was recently in the spotlight thanks to the Scottish independence referendum, along with the question of the Catholic vote, assuming such a thing exists, and whether it would be a vote for independence or for union.
The changing attitude to politics amongst the Scottish Catholic hierarchy first reared its head in the Diocese of Motherwell exactly eight years before the date of the Referendum. Then the Scottish media was reporting on an intra-Catholic spat between Michael MacMahon, a Labour MSP, and the now retired Bishop of Motherwell, Joseph Devine. The Catholic MSP complained that Devine's new media adviser Gerald O'Brien, a former Tory spin doctor, was running a politically motivated and virulently anti-Labour campaign from the bishop's office.
This was followed by Bishop Devine's declaration in March 2007 for the Holyrood elections that he expected his congregation to vote "according to their conscience" but added that for the first time he would be indicating the party for which he was going to vote. Devine stated the Labour party had a "morality devoid of any Christian principles" and said he would be voting for the Christian People's Alliance, a "pro-family" and "pro-life" party, which was opposed to gay adoption, the burning issue at the time. The CPA polled just 0.7% of the vote, with just over 14,000 voting, 10,000 fewer than the BNP polled and 6,000 more than UKIP, for those interested in the detail.
Devine's declaration was a barometer for a much bigger issue, that Catholics felt they and their support at the ballot box had been taken for granted for a generation by Scotland's Labour administration, for which Devine warned that Labour would pay dearly.
The arch political opportunist Alex Salmond was quick to spot the chance to swing this seemingly floating Catholic vote behind the SNP and so embarked on a sustained and very public wooing of a Catholic hierarchy and flock traditionally wary of Scottish nationalism. With some Catholics believing SNP would continue to stand for 'Still No Pope' if independence was achieved. In Cardinal Keith O'Brien Mr Salmond found a man open and susceptible to such fawning attention and every bit a political opportunist in a similar mould. As historian Professor Tom Gallagher says, O'Brien "acted more as a cheerleader for the SNP than as a dedicated pastor keen to strengthen his church in an increasingly irreligious age."
Salmond's paeans to Cardinal O'Brien and the faithful are the stuff of legend – " Without the Catholic Church there would be no Scotland" was reinforced by the regular championing of Catholic schools as beacons of success to be aspired to by the apparently underperforming non-denominational sector, and by the Scottish Government's positioning of the Church as one of its key strategic partners. The SNP also argued that, had it had any say in the Westminster imposed gay adoption legislation, Catholic adoption agencies in Scotland would have been allowed to continue to discriminate against same-sex couples seeking to adopt.
There was of course a setback in this festival of mutual admiration when it came to the same-sex marriage legislation. Although as all the main parties supported it, the Catholic hierarchy was left devoid of choice. As it happened, all Catholic opposition imploded mightily with the O'Brien affair, all the more potent for this implosion being free of external input.
It has long been feared by the Catholic community that an independent Scotland would agree with Bishop Devine that Catholic schools were divisive and a contributor to sectarianism, and so 'their' taxpayer-funded schools would be consigned to history. Salmond had firmly established his credentials as a man Catholics could trust, committed to championing 'their' schools and their rights to discriminate in employment and admissions. Such was his success at courting Catholic favour that early in 2014 some commentators began suggesting that Catholics might hold the decisive Referendum vote. Prominent among them was historian Professor Tom Devine who claimed that Scots of an Irish-Catholic background were the religious group most likely to vote for independence, citing evidence from the 2012 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey. He talked of a "silent revolution" since the 70s in a community once fearful that an independent Scotland might turn out to be "a replication of Ulster." Historically, Catholics feared that devolution would lead to Presbyterian domination but the 2012 Scottish Social Attitudes survey showed 36% of Catholics and only 16% Presbyterians favoured independence.
However, Professor Devine's analysis drew criticism from a member of the Scottish Government's anti-sectarianism expert group, Dr Michael Rosie, who argued that rather than a shift in the Catholic vote, the evidence more accurately pointed to its disappearance. Dr Rosie believed that once other factors had been taken into account, such as gender, class and age, the notion of a Catholic vote disappeared and that Catholics "were not reducible to just their Catholicism, or their Irish heritage". The move to independence, he said, was better explained "by experiences of secularisation rather than through hackneyed religious truisms."
Other academics prominent in this debate included Professor Tom Gallagher from Bradford University who immediately after the vote accused the Scottish Catholic hierarchy of covertly supporting the Yes campaign. Gallagher had drawn much ire from an earlier Telegraph blog in which, in spite of his Catholicism, he declared his support for the Orange Order march in Edinburgh in defence of the union a few days before the Referendum. Gallagher's description of the Orange Order in Scotland as "a force for moderation' which had gradually discarded a sectarian agenda and now offered a Protestantism that was "pragmatic rather than confrontational" won him few friends among his own.
He suggested that the Catholic Church, mired in its own scandals of child abuse, sexually incontinent clergy and the O'Brien affair, had "splintered" and accused it of maintaining "a foolish silence" in the independence drive. This he said threatened to impoverish many ordinary Catholics and would probably result in the abolition of their schools, in spite of Salmond's glowing praise for them. He wrote this however before SNP Minister Roseanna Cunningham jumped the Referendum gun late in the game by promising that an independent Scotland would give Catholic schools "constitutional protection".
Another name that loomed large in the SNP Referendum campaign was that of Peter Kearney from the Scottish Catholic Media Office. It is no surprise that there is a strong connection between the Catholic hierarchy and the SNP. Kearney, a man famously disinclined to do the Hokey Cokey, was the SNP's one-timepolitical education and training officer, parliamentary candidate and deputy leadership candidate in 2000. Kearney enjoys a high profile at the SCMO, but not always for the right reasons. Aside from not putting his left foot in with the Hokey Cokey, he has been accused of too often raising the temperature of sectarianism in Scotland, and priests and laity have even written to the Scottish newspapers suggesting Catholic interests would be better served by Mr Kearney keeping his left foot out at all times.
Kearney's name appeared in the run-up to the Referendum as a contact for further information on a press release issued by former SNP leader Jim Sillars. This threatened pro-Union big business (BP, Standard Life, RBS) with a day of reckoning, including nationalisation, in the event of a Yes vote. As the Telegraph's Catholic journalist Damian Thompson put it, what was Kearney doing, apparently acting as press officer for Sillar's "menacing rant" while simultaneously working in a similar capacity for the Catholic Bishops of Scotland?
Professor Tom Gallagher followed his controversial Orange Order blog with another proclaiming his shock at the Church's failure to stay out of politics, while its media officer appeared to be doing a political Hokey-Cokey, directly supporting a former SNP leader's campaign while simultaneously stating that the Church for whom he worked "does not have a position on Constitutional settlement, which is an entirely civic matter". That seems at odds with the stated aim of the Catholic Church's Parliamentary Office "to aid the Church in contributing to the work of the Parliament in accordance with the principles of the Church's Social Teaching" and "to encourage Catholics to be aware of important political issues and to participate where they can in creating a Parliament which truly serves the common good." The well-known Catholic composer James MacMillan went public, too, with his disappointment that the bishops "had turned a blind eye to priests and officers of the Church who campaigned openly from one side in the referendum and said nothing about the disgracefully bullying tactics operated by thuggish nationalists who hounded down Catholic MP Jim Murphy in the streets."
Damian Thompson also wondered if Archbishop Tartaglia's "gruesomely sycophantic" letter to Alex Salmond on the latter's resignation had been penned by former SNP apparatchik Kearney, adding that he had "never seen a senior cleric suck up to a politician so shamelessly" as had Tartaglia to Salmond. James MacMillan was equally horrified by the "oleaginous" letter: "Cardinal O'Brien damaged the Church in sucking up to the SNP, who must regard some Catholics here as their useful idiots. There is no advantage to the church in being close to the guileful, ruthless politicians of our age, of any stripe. In the light of its disappointing Referendum behaviour, our Church will have to re-learn this again. From scratch."
It seems that the Catholic Church in Scotland has got itself mired in yet another controversy, damned if it does get involved in politics and damned if it doesn't, and with its laity at odds once again with the bishops and their staffers.
There are several lessons to be learned. One is that religious belief may not be the only benchmark by which an individual will caste his or her vote at election time, such that appeals to a bloc-vote may not reap the desired reward. Second, mutual admiration societies between political and religious leaders may not deliver as expected and can always backfire. Third, to paraphrase Shakespeare's Dromio of Syracuse in the Comedy of Errors, it should be remembered that those who sup with the devil should use a long spoon. But finally, it remains to be seen how Salmond's successors approach the Catholic Church and whether it will be business as usual. The Catholic Professor John Haldane, a consulter to the Pontifical Council for Culture, thinks not. "Whatever Salmond's true feelings," he says, "his successors are more of a mind with the progressive commentariat, which reviles Catholicism, than they are with the bishops whose role it is to protect and promote it".
We shall see.
Opinion | Thu, 09 Oct 2014
Ahead of this weekend's conference on the Religious-Right, Secularism and Civil Rights, Gita Sahgal highlights the importance and bravery of secular activism in the Global South.
The issue of secularism is a controversial one in international human rights organisations. That, perhaps is why they do not always fully uphold universal values, the bedrock of their work.
Embedding secular values as fundamental to democracy is the work of activists, not the 'international community', the UN, international development or human rights organisations. As with women's rights, it is feminist activists and progressives who will force these issues on to the table. That is why the Secularism Conference 2014, is so important.
There are few other places where you can challenge the dominant narratives of the 'War on Terror' as a war for western values and democracy on the one hand, or a war on Islam and Muslims worldwide on the other. Yet this is a moment where no thinking person can limit their understanding to either of these views. In the brutal murder of Alan Henning, the British public have acquired a new 'British hero' and al-Quaeda supporters who argued for his release have their first non-jihadi martyr.
Post 9/11, the British state cosied up to the 'non-violent extremists', their term for the Jamaat e Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood. Now it seems that al-Queda might be the new cuddly. How to understand this turn of events is the theme of the conference: to hear about global secular struggles, old and new, and to learn from an enormous wealth of experience from people who have challenged governments, mobilised communities, and forced the recognition of forgotten genocides.
It is particularly important for human rights professionals and activists to take note of these points. In 2007, Amnesty International organized a public meeting at New York University, examining the issue of terrorism; and asking whether it should be treated as a human rights violation. I spoke at the meeting of the ways in which women across the world had experienced and challenged armed violence. I challenged the ennui that afflicts so many post-modernist and post-colonial theorists in their discussions of universality and human rights. For them, secularism is 'over', as Jacques Berlinerblau discussed in his piece on the crisis in secular studies.
I recalled the World Conference of Human Rights at Vienna in 1993, at which a panel consisting of groups such as Women Living Under Muslim Laws, Catholics for Free Choice and Women Against Fundamentalism had warned of the impact on women of the rise of violent religious fundamentalist movements across the world. We had criticised identity politics - often arising in oppressed minorities - and discussed the ways in which identity politics opened the way to the legitimisation of fundamentalism. States were often complicit or directly involved in this process. This panel was not abandoning the principle of universality. It was a foundational challenge to the way in which universality is constructed.
I asked my student audience: "Many of you will have engaged with academic and other debates about whether human rights are a western concept. Do they really apply across the world? If you had been present at those discussions at UN conferences fifteen long years ago, the answer would have been obvious to you. Women intervened in Vienna to influence the deliberations of states. But they didn't simply speak of their experiences - they fundamentally challenged both the theory and practice of the human rights movement as it was then understood in the west."
Amnesty International's public meeting in New York was based on a brilliant paper that Karima Bennoune had written at the direction of the Secretary General to improve their work on non-state violence. She argued that terrorism should be understood as an absolute prohibition by human rights movements, just as they regarded torture as an absolute prohibition under international human rights law. Her paper referenced the proposed definition in the UN Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, "A more secure world: Our shared responsibility," 2004. Paragraph 164 (d) of the report suggests that terrorism should be understood as, "any action, in addition to actions already specified by the existing conventions on aspects of terrorism, the Geneva Conventions and Security Council resolution 1566 (2004), that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act."
The public meeting in New York was followed by a private round table on terrorism and human rights addressed by prominent human rights lawyers and feminist advocates, among them the Algerian sociologist, Marieme Hélie-Lucas. But you will look in vain among Amnesty International's documents for any mention of the meeting. Not a single page of recommendations emerged from the private round table. Amnesty International could have used the meeting to improve its work on terrorism, fundamentalism and armed groups, but it chose not to.
In an open letter in the New York Review of Books, several speakers at the forthcoming Secularism Conference in London, among them, Sultana Kamal, Fatow Sow, Fazun Zackarayia, along with my colleague, Meredith Tax, challenged Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch for his article embracing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in various states in the Middle East. In reply, Roth and his colleagues informed women with decades of human rights experience that, :Promoting tolerance of women and gays by way of intolerance for Islam, an approach epitomized by Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party, does not seem a productive approach." This kind of comment is depressingly familiar to activists who are speaking at the Conference. They are used to having their concerns loftily brushed aside, and to being lectured about the different kinds of Muslim fundamentalisms - which they face daily in their working lives.
In the early 1980s, Bandung File - a current affairs programme on Channel 4 TV, had exposed the funding given to organisations of the Hindu right by Labour Councils in Britain. The complaint was made by Asian councillors, and Ken Livingstone, then Leader of the Greater London Council, said that he would not have done it had he known they were fascists. Years later, he appeared to have forgotten this lesson, and Peter Tatchell was attacked for criticizing Livingstone for his - quite literal, embrace of Yusuf Qaradawi. Human Rights Watch was among those who attacked him (and later apologised).
Another concern Human Rights Watch dismissed, was the involvement of western security services in various forms of Muslim fundamentalism in the west, although the prominent position of so called 'non-violent extremists' in Britain has been well documented. One of them, Choudhury Muenuddin, was convicted in absentia by a Tribunal in Bangladesh for being part of a death squad in 1971. He had enjoyed huge state patronage in Britain, and has been called a friend by Prince Charles. As I argued in the Hecklers programme on BBC Radio 4, the policy of working with the nasty to catch the nastier, is likely to be ineffective. This form of 'soft' counter-terrorism, is a threat to civil liberties and human rights, just as torture and renditions are.
Human rights organisations have looked at some violations of human rights by the security services, but given their own views, they simply cannot afford to investigate the links between western states and fundamentalist and jihadi movements. Nor are they able to reflect on how their positions mirror those of Government officials. Jonathon Powell, advisor to Tony Blair and Elizabeth Manning Buller, former head of MI 5, have argued that governments must talk to terrorists. What they appear to mean is that the security of Britain can be managed by exporting the problem elsewhere. A combination of deportations and assurances from jihadis in the UK that they will not attack Britain under what they call the "covenant of security", does not keep millions in the rest of the world safe. I will be addressing these issues, which have become headline news with the collapse of the case against Moazzam Begg, at the Secularism conference.
Horia Mossadiq, a human rights defender from Afghanistan, can explain why there is no such thing as 'moderate ' Taliban, while the well-known Professor and anti-nuclear campaigner from Pakistan, Pervez Hoodbhoy, will explore the roots of the idea of the Islamic state. As the news media concentrates on Syria and Iraq, it is important not to forget the roots of the war on terror in the backing of terrorist violence by Pakistan and its security service, the ISI.
Few people are as qualified to explain the peculiar combination of extreme idealism and attraction to violence that we see in young European jihadis as former Naxalite, Dilip Simeon. In his wonderful novel, Revolution Highway, he describes how Maoists, while unsuccessfully trying to foment a mass revolt in India, missed giving support to the liberation struggle for Bangladesh taking place next door. Their Chinese masters, like Kissinger and Nixon, were on the side of Pakistan in its genocidal war against Bengalis. But the roots of Left's complicity with right wing Muslim conservatives go even further back. In his review essay on Meredith Tax's book, Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo American Left, and Universal Human Rights, for the influential Indian, left journal the Economic and Political Weekly, Sumanta Banerjee, also a former Naxalite, points out that the debate goes back as far as the 1920s, when Indian Marxist, MN Roy, "warned his Bolshevik comrades that the feudal landlords and priests who shaped the pan-Islamic ideology were basically counter-revolutionary in their beliefs and could never be trusted as allies of a socialist revolution". Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch disregarded this essential point when he told us "there is no internationally recognized right to separate religion from the state".
Speakers at the Secularism conference are on a journey to counter this idea, so common in human rights work, just as we have fought the London School of Economics on free speech, Universities UK on gender segregation, and the Law Society on gender equality. Some people have complained that attending this weekend's conference is very expensive, but funding has been hard to raise, with the result that tickets have to cover the costs. The conference will be worth the price of the ticket.
This is not simply an academic discussion or a policy review. This is history being made. Be part of it.
Gita Sahgal is an honorary associate of the NSS and a founder of the Centre for Secular Space, which opposes fundamentalism, amplifies secular voices and promotes universality in human rights.
This article first appeared on Open Democracy and is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessary represent those of the NSS.