Sunday, 14 August 2011

David Starkey, immigration and the 'new atheism'

David Starkey, it turns out, has a close association with the National Secular Society, which peddles a conservative version of 'secularism'. Reuben writes:

'Most of us by now will have seen David Starkey's disgraceful, Powell-esque commentary about “black culture” in the aftermath of the riot. Currently the National Secular Society proudly dedicate a webpage to him, as one of their “honorary associates”.'

It is not the society's only connection with the issue of immigration, as this link to a seasonal message from NSS President Terry Sanderson in December 2009 indicates. The whole piece is incoherent and muddled, but this passage stands out as politically significant:

'While we know that the traditional places of worship – the Church of England and the Catholic Churches - are declining rapidly, further evidence has emerged this month showing that immigrants are importing their own brands of religion into Britain. They generally take their faith more seriously than the “I’m spiritual but not religious” brigade that makes up the majority of the population in Britain (or the “fuzzy faithful” as they’ve been called).

Muslims from Pakistan and India, Catholics from Poland and evangelical Protestants from Africa and the Caribbean are bringing with them unpleasantly conservative religious beliefs that sometimes shock and repel the majority. They often seem primitive, hysterical, fanatical and alien, full of hatred and intolerance and crazy, senseless rules. Honour killings, violent, sometimes fatal, exorcisms, denial of medical treatment to children on the assumption that prayer will be sufficient, the treatment of women as chattels and the spouting of unvarnished hatred of non-believers, gays and Jews from the pulpits of mosques.

These new religious enthusiasts are still a relatively small minority, estimated at the 4.5 million mark. Among the mainstream population the move continues from indifference to religion to outright hostility to it.'

So much prejudice packed into so few words. There is elitist and ignorant contempt for the majority of non-immigrants, but the virulent hostility is reserved for immigrants. All immigrants, it seems, are indiscriminately branded as bringing evil practices with them. While it isn't stated explicitly, the only logical conclusion is that they should be kept out of the country.

There is an underlying assumption that the problems listed don't exist other than in immigrant communities. They are entirely imported problems, as if anti-semitism and homophobia, for example, have never been an issue in this country before. But of course that doesn't mean the majority of 'us' are safe from the minority of 'them', for these immigrants are bringing their evil ways into 'our' country and shocking and repelling the majority of us.

There is no suggestion that within communities there may be differences of religious practices, social attitudes and beliefs. Instead there's a simple polarisation between 'our' religion and 'their' religion: the former is objectionable but relatively harmless Anglicanism, while the latter is 'primitive. hysterical, fanatical and alien'. If someone consciously tried to use racialised language, they couldn't do better than 'primitive, hysterical, fanatical and alien'. It echoes the old colonial discourses about 'savage' Africans, used to justify empire-building.

It's no surprise, either, that particularly strong condemnation is reserved for Muslims - notice the 'pulpits of mosques' reference at the end of that litany of appalling degradations. Different 'alien' religious traditions - Christian and Islamic alike - are lumped together, but it's the Muslims who get the most fiery denunciation.

How curious, too, that no source is given for that figure of 4.5 million. It's almost like Sanderson made it up, as it certainly has no relation to the number of socially conservative immigrants who practise religion.

It isn't a mere quirk that the NSS has Starkey as a high-profile supporter. It is a 'broad church' (pardon the pun) which attracts many liberal supporters, with its honorary associates including several people I admire such as the Marxist playwright Edward Bond and Stewart Lee, one of my favourite comedians.

But the NSS represents a strand of secularism which largely uncritically adopts the conservative assumptions of 'new atheists' like Richard Dawkins (it is perhaps, in the present context, worth recalling this intervention from Prof Dawkins). It is a politicised and racialised kind of atheism which overstates the alleged threat from Islam - and indeed overplays the influence of religion on society and politics in general - dovetailing neatly with the Islamophobia and authoritarianism which have accompanied Western imperialist wars and occupations of the last decade.

Them and us: they are a minority and we are the majority. They threaten our enlightened and rational Western ways with their backward values, characterised as both archaic and, crucially, alien. Islam is the number one target and, among Christian denominations, it is the African churches who pose the greatest threat, followed by the foreign habits of the Catholic Church (far worse than toothless Anglicanism).

It's not just time for the NSS to - as Reuben suggests - abandon David Starkey. It's time for anyone who is anti-racist - whether atheist or religious - to reject the bigoted stance of Terry Sanderson and friends. The language of secularism should not be used to bolster the kind of neo-Powellite immigrant-bashing we heard from David Starkey on Friday. We need, instead, to unite in opposition to the right-wing racist backlash which has followed the riots.

Tip: Splintered Sunrise 

Video: David Starkey echoes Enoch Powell in racist Newsnight rant



  1. This article is made of win. I agree with every word. I will stick an updat my article to tell those reading it to come over here.

    The NSS are also shit on workers rights. When it comes a worker who wants to wear or display anything religious, they invariably side with the employers right to enforce petty controls on their workforce. Because obviously the great injustice of this age derives not from relations getting special treatment, but from religious people getting "special treatment".

    All in all, they're a bunch of smug middle class dickheads

  2. All immigrants, it seems, are indiscriminately branded as bringing evil practices with them.
    Er, no they're not. There may be something in your attack on the NSS, and certainly the rest of the paragraph before the bit you quote doesn't make pretty reading, but when specific national groups and associated denominations are mentioned, the description "indiscriminate" is fairly inappropriate.
    I think your source has a bit of form for not always attacking the NSS in a way that really stands up.
    As for the comment, women's rights organisations tend to invariably side with the employers right to prevent pornography being displayed: does that make them shit on workers'rights?
    [Maybe you think the analogy is unreasonable, fair enough]

  3. Cholice Ketteridge16 August 2011 at 21:28

    A very poorly worded piece from Sanderson and I agree the resemblence to Powell's rhetoric is not ill-founded. If you were to say Sanderson misuses secularism to draw an 'us and them' narrative, I'd agree with you, but I lost interest in your argument when you said the NSS 'overplay the influence of religion on society and politics in general'. I'm sorry, but where does this come from? Religion (the three big monotheisms anyway) still enjoys considerable power in matters of censorship (Jerry Springer the Opera, the Muhammad cartoons, Geert Wilders getting banned from the UK) and public policy (compulsory "independent advice" for women considering an abortion), churches and religious organisations still enjoy automatic charity status even if they run their 'charities' at a profit and non-religious taxpayers pick up the bill for faith schools. Besides, is it mere co-incidence that homophobic hate crimes have gone up in East London since the steady rise in influence of the East London Mosque?

    Both atheists and the left (I fit both categories) would be doing themselves a faviour by not making blanket statements either way and focus their attacks on officialdom, not on factionalism and wasting time inventing enemies.

  4. "How curious, too, that no source is given for that figure of 4.5 million. It's almost like Sanderson made it up, as it certainly has no relation to the number of socially conservative immigrants who practise religion."

    It seems to come from the IPPR report on faith in Britain:

    According to that article:

    "According to the IPPR's "faith map" of the immigrant population, around 4.5 million of the UK's foreign-born residents claim to have a religious affiliation. Of these, around a quarter are Muslims while more than half are Christian, with Polish Catholics and African Pentecostals among the fastest-growing groups."


    "The report suggests that the arrival of large numbers of immigrants will potentially challenge the trend of secularisation in the UK as they tend to be more religiously observant."


    "In particular, it points to immigrants holding much more conservative views on the role of women and homosexual clergy in Christian churches."

    So it looks like Sanderson was summarising the IPPR.

  5. The number of foreign-born UK residents who have a religious affiliation is not the same as the number of foreign-born UK residents who have reactionary views like supporting honour killings, exorcisms or denying medical treatment. The point is that Sanderson conflates the two categories, which is not only plain wrong but exaggerates the figures for those who hold such views.

    It also treats immigrants as synonymous with such attitudes, failing to recognise that a) some immigrants won't hold those views, and b)some non-immigrants WILL hold such views. Immigration is thus regarded as a problem precisely because it supposedly brings backward ideas into our society, which would presuambly otherwise be unaffected by such 'alien' ideas.

    Not only is this giving a 'liberal' veneer to racist and right-wing ideology, it treats attitudes that derive from a complex mix of political, idological, cultural and religious factors as purely about religion (but of course with a racialised, selective view of religion).

    The claim that immigration 'will potentially challenge the trend of secularisation' is wrong, as it assumes that having more religiously observant people undermines a secular society. It doesn't. A secular society isn't defined by what proportion of the population practises religion or has a religious faith. What might be accurate is to say it undermines a trend towards the population being atheist or agnostic or simply not religiously observant. But that's not the same as secular.