The 'Big Society': filling the breach

If Prime Minister David Cameron’s 'Big Society' brings religious groups to the fore even more than Tony Blair’s opening of the education system to faith groups, what impact will this have on British society?
Jenny Morgan
14 December 2010

British Prime Minister David Cameron seems like a secular sort of chap, but will his ‘Big Society’ - voluntarism meant to replace the state in providing public services - have the effect of allowing religious organisations much more play in social and political life in Britain? As local councils step back from running libraries, children’s centres, youth clubs, care services for elderly and disabled people, and so on – and thousands of the people who supply these services lose their jobs – are religious institutions likely to step into the breach? And will their effect be progressive, or the opposite?

A study by the Association of Women in Development (AWID) that uses information from 1600 women’s rights activists to analyse the strategies of religious fundamentalist groups across the world suggests many of the conditions that aid the growth of religious fundamentalism are developing in Britain – social upheaval, an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, the privatisation of public services, fear of the future. The student uprising in the streets around the British parliament (and shaking the odd royal limousine) suggests that what Cameron’s government might in fact be doing is reviving the honourable British tradition of disrespect for authority and popular disturbance (on the night students attacked the Treasury and ambushed Charles and Camilla’s car, historian David Starkey told the BBC there’d been nothing like it ‘since the Chartists’!).

But Pragna Patel, long-term activist in the London-based feminist organisation Southall Black Sisters, says the privatisation agenda is strengthening the hand of religious groups: ‘It’s giving religion a space, because when the state wants to offload its functions, who has the capacity and the resources? Religious institutions! When we have women who have no recourse to public funds, who is it who can give them shelter and food? The gurdwara (Sikh temple) !’

In their analysis for openDemocracy of the ‘assertiveness of public religion’ in the past few decades, Anne Jenichen and Sahra Razavi challenge the idea that ‘secularist’ states have ever been able to detach themselves comprehensively from the values and influence of the prevailing religious authorities. And governments’ and governing elites’ indifference to the needs of their populations has always meant non-state organisations, including religious groups, try to provide relief and support; Asma’u Joda from Nigeria told AWID, ‘If the resources of Nigeria were being used more efficiently and effectively and social amenities were available, I have a strong feeling religion would not play such a strong role’. Not for nothing did Marx describe religion as ‘the heart of a heartless world’.

But the fundamentalist upsurge isn’t just to do with the prevalence of poverty and political despair in the world, even though, as Farida Shaheed says, ‘What religious fundamentalists say about the widening gap between rich and poor resonates with people’s feelings of injustice’. Many progressive religious organisations were and are actively engaged in campaigns against social and political injustice – the World Council of Churches, for instance, supported and financed southern African liberation movements fighting to end apartheid – but they have ceased to have the public impact of aggressively rightwing fundamentalist forces. Why?

Surprisingly, women’s rights activists across the world told AWID that supplying services like healthcare and education was only fifth on the list of strategies they perceive religious fundamentalist groups using to increase their influence. The top strategy involves blaming women for social problems. Youth gangs on the street and too much divorce? Get women back in the home. Too many unwanted pregnancies, too much sexually transmitted disease, too many irresponsible fathers? Get those women with their bank accounts, their flats, and their sexual autonomy, back under the supervision of husbands. This simple idea has resonance beyond fundamentalist groups: Frances Kissling from the USA told AWID that ‘for many people - and particularly for fundamentalists - the family is the blueprint for all social structures beyond it’. Men and women share what the AWID report, calls ‘nostalgia for this simpler world and the “traditional” family that supposedly once existed’. The report argues that religious fundamentalisms rely heavily on the idea of ‘cultural purity’; if their supporters follow God’s word to the letter, they will find a way out of a ‘degraded present’ to a utopian future that will simultaneously recreate a ‘glorious past’.

Vijay Nagaraj, research director at the International Council on Human Rights Policy, recently gave this powerful description of the effect of fundamentalist ambitions: ‘When we are confronted with religious fundamentalisms we are facing a very pernicious re-ordering of relationships between self and others, and a challenge to our autonomy to define our being and way of relating… At the heart of religious fundamentalism is the project to redefine human agency in a very profound way.’

The profound ‘re-ordering’ of an individual’s relationship with the world, in line with revealed ‘truth’ and under the supervision of wise and benevolent men – what could be more seductive for those at sea in an unjust, unkind neoliberal world? ‘Spiritual fast food’ is what Honduran activists quoted in the AWID study more disparagingly call it....

Except as the report also points out, religious fundamentalist groups are chameleons – for some young people, Islamist movements appear to offer a means of rebelling against the unjust status quo, while for poor women in Africa, membership of charismatic and Pentecostal churches offers business connections with fellow congregants and possible entry to a richer class. In Pakistan, ruled by military and security elites, fundamentalist groups recruit amongst the upwardly mobile; in Latin America and the Caribbean, the fundamentalists are very often the ruling elite -- members of Opus Dei and the Legionnaires of Christ. Common to all these groups though is what Nagaraj calls a ‘totalitarian ethos’; fundamentalists, he says, ‘are about power, and not just about prejudice’.

So if David Cameron’s Big Society brings religious groups to the fore even more than former prime minister Tony Blair’s opening of the education system to faith groups, what impact might this have on British society? The AWID report, based on women’s rights experiences, remarks that religious fundamentalists ‘tend to sexualize all human interaction’. In Montreal, Hasidic Jews paid for frosted glass to be put into the windows of the YMCA so men using the nearby Yetev Lev synagogue wouldn’t be disturbed by the sight of women exercising in ‘spandex tops and shorts’. In July 2010, five Muslim families in Basle, Switzerland, were fined for keeping their daughters out of mixed swimming lessons. Their daughters are all under ten. In Hackney, London, two leisure centres provide separate sessions for Jewish boys and girls: 'According to Jewish law mixed swimming is not allowed' a spokesperson from the North London Jewish Youth Community told the magazine Time Out 'We have no mixed social activities. It leads to temptation and wrong things'.

What makes dealing with these questions so difficult for secular authorities is that conservative religious codes are claimed as ‘rights’ – ‘Our choice, our freedom, our right’, said the International Network Assembly for the Protection of Hijab, formed in 2004 in response to the proposed French ban. In October 2010 the Jewish Orthodox Council for Community Relations in Quebec challenged a proposed ban on Muslim women wearing the niqab when giving or receiving government services, saying it was in conflict with the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights and freedoms. The Council said ‘the boundaries of state secularism needed to be clearly defined; otherwise it could impede religious freedom’.

Vijay Nagaraj comments, ‘Religious fundamentalist groups know how to mobilise the language of rights’. He thinks it’s a ‘challenge of ethics’, not politics alone, to ‘retrieve the self, as well as individual and social relationships’, from ‘the totalitarian ethos of fundamentalism’.

Are women and their allies up to it? AWID's global survey indicates that religious fundamentalist movements have gained so much ground partly because they ‘deal with people’s subjectivity, which is marginalised in Left discourse’. Nagaraj thinks feminist practice provides a way forward because ‘feminism has challenged the way we fundamentally think about ourselves and the way we relate to each other’. If a decimated public sector in Britain becomes a battle-ground for competing fundamentalist views – those of the authoritarian Left as well as authoritarian religious groups – feminists and their allies will need every ounce of inspiration we can muster.

To read the AWID report Towards a future without fundamentalisms click here


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