Britain's War on Religious Liberty
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Britain's War on Religious Liberty

Imran Mulla

In late 2020, following a spate of violence by men claiming to act in the name of Islam, the French Republic embarked upon a severe crackdown on its Muslim communities. Not content with security measures, the Interior Minister expressed his horror at seeing halal food in supermarkets, President Macron excoriated gender segregation, linking conservative religious practice to “Islamism,” and his government moved to shut down the organisation that documented anti-Muslim discrimination in France. Such happenings were symptomatic of France’s brand of secularism, laïcité; it was a significant indicator of how the United Kingdom is changing, then, to witness the British establishment’s response to events across the Channel.

Monarchical Britain has long differed from republican France with regards to questions of secularism and religious liberty, but few condemnations of Macron’s measures came forth from the British commentariat. Instead, government ministers Tom Tugendhat and Neil O’Brien publicly praised the French government’s actions, and now-cabinet minister Sajid Javid penned an incoherent article for the Telegraph praising Macron and warning against allowing “woke activists” to inhibit the fight against “Islamist extremism.” Liam Duffy, a researcher in the field of British “counter-extremism,” also lauded Macron’s approach—while none of his colleagues spoke in disagreement. The bestselling historian Tom Holland, meanwhile, wrote passionately that it is France’s privilege to “serve, more than any other country, as the very embodiment of the West”.

The respectable British stance on France’s secular militancy is intriguing, for it serves as a sign of how Britain’s once-cherished tradition of religious liberty is no longer esteemed by its ruling elite. In order to understand the extent of British secularism’s transformation in recent years, we must look back to the late eighteenth century, and the British response to the upheaval in France of the old order.

It was in 1789 that the French Revolution erupted. The Bastille was stormed, the Ancien Régime toppled, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen adopted by the National Assembly. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité," declared Robespierre the following year as blood filled the streets. King Louis’s head rolled in 1793. In England, disgust was almost ubiquitous. Even those English reformers who had initially cheered on the Revolution watched in horror at what it had turned into, for their radical tradition was fundamentally different from that of Robespierre. They proclaimed adherence to an imagined vision of the old Anglo-Saxon liberties and valorized the constitutionalism of the 1688 Revolution, which had reached a compromise with the monarchy rather than abolishing it. From Cumberland and Westmorland in the North came a public declaration signed by 19,322 people expressing disgust with events in France: “We abhor monarchical tyranny. We still more abhor republican tyranny.“

“The Contrast,” Thomas Rowlandson’s famous print produced in 1792, contrasts the supposed ideals of the French Revolution with ostensibly British ones. French liberty, it announced, meant “atheism, perjury, rebellion, treason, anarchy and misery.” British liberty, by contrast, signified “religion, morality, loyalty, obedience to the laws, national prosperity and happiness.” This was, of course, propaganda intended to rebuke those who sympathised with French revolutionaries, but it demonstrates the significant difference in how religion was being treated by the two states. By “atheism” Rowlandson was referring to the French Revolution’s violent subjugation of Catholicism, seen as part of the Ancien Régime. French secularism was intimately tied to republicanism, representing an anticlerical effort by the state to completely dominate religion (Jews, too, were expected to disregard the mosaic law). Secularism in Britain’s constitutional monarchy, by contrast, was not at all antagonistic towards the dominant religious authority; Anglicanism was the state religion, and the monarch served as head of the Church. Though tolerance of Catholics and Protestant Dissenters was limited, the position that Anglicanism was afforded in the public sphere set British secularism firmly apart from its French counterpart.

In the writings of Edmund Burke, the preeminent conservative thinker of the Anglosphere, we see a perfect articulation of English secularism’s potential for tolerance. He vehemently condemned the French Revolution, sensing in it a spirit of wild anti-religious destruction; secularism for Burke entailed “the consecration of the state by a state religious establishment". But he defended religious freedom, supporting freedom of worship for Dissenters and attacking the anti-Catholic legislation imposed on his native Ireland. Toleration, he argued, was desirable, for the Church was "built up with the strong and stable matter of the gospel of liberty". Burke also campaigned extensively against the British East India Company’s exploits in the Indian subcontintent. Britain was becoming a multicultural empire, and Burke advocated for the preservation of India’s long-standing religious traditions and cultural formations. His vision may have been disregarded by the colonialists, but it is significant to note that the conservative figure was an early and passionate advocate for British imperial multiculturalism and religious freedom.

In Britain, secularism developed over the next century and a half, with religious toleration gradually increasing (an important moment, for example, was the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829). In France, meanwhile, secularisation had a different trajectory, culminating in the Law of 1905 which decisively separated church from state and aimed at eliminating the clergy’s influence in the lives of the populace. After the Second World War, moreover, the situation began to change even more dramatically, as unprecedented numbers of colonized Asians and Africans began arriving on British and French shores, bringing with them new religious traditions. Ever since then, religious freedom in an increasingly diverse Britain has been more expansive than its French counterpart, especially given France’s escalating attempts over the past few decades to use legislation to privatize and subjugate the growing tradition of Islam in the way that Catholicism and Judaism had previously been repressed. France has banned the hijab for schoolgirls and the face veil wholesale; Britain has not. France is stripping parents of the right to choose homeschooling in an attempt to increase state control over the education of children; there is no imminent prospect of the same happening in Britain. In the French Republic, the government will not so much as collect data based on religion, while British politicians take photos at places of worship and routinely wish religious minorities well on their holidays.

Religious liberty for French Muslims has nearly vanished with Macron’s recent demand that mosques sign a “Charter of Principles” for French Islam, which would declare the religion an entirely private affair, to be banished from the public sphere. A believer’s religious convictions govern their entire worldview; to have to keep their values consigned to the home is to lose any semblance of genuine freedom of worship. France is essentially issuing an ultimatum to its most religious minority: publicly accept the majority’s social values or lose any possibility of a respectable life in this country. What, then, explains the enthusiasm shown by so many British conservative commentators, counter-extremism practitioners, and government ministers for Macron’s crackdown on French Islam? The answer lies in the significant erosion of religious freedom that has occurred in Britain over the past decade, an erosion carried out largely through incursions into British Muslim civil society.

"Multiculturalism has failed,” declared then-Prime Minister David Cameron in 2011, firing the starting pistol for what the British government calls “muscular liberalism,” a startling departure from established British norms. The belief—contradicted by sociological data—supporting this agenda was that Muslims were constituting a self-segregated nation within a nation. Alongside it came the conviction that too many Muslims rejected liberal values, threatening law and order. “When,” Boris Johnson once asked, “is someone going to get 18th century on Islam’s mediaeval ass?” The watershed moment was the “Trojan Horse” hysteria in 2014, wherein the mainstream media induced a nationwide panic concerning a supposed Islamic plot to take over Birmingham state schools. The case collapsed and the plot was exposed as non-existent, but the damage was done. The government soon unveiled a significant ramping up of its Prevent “counter-extremism” agenda.

A statutory duty in the public sector, Prevent came to demand adherence to a set of “British” (in reality, liberal) values; “extremism” now constitutes vocal or active opposition to these values. Ofsted, the British state’s education watchdog, launched an inquisition into schools, with inspectors questioning young Muslims on their religious beliefs and adherence to liberal principles. Muslim schoolgirls across the country have been interrogated as to why they wear the hijab, and in 2018 the head of Ofsted—seemingly channelling the spirit of laïcitédefended a school’s decision to ban it outright.

The education system has been further transformed by Prevent in recent years. The Department of Education recommends that Relationships and Sex Education “meets the needs of pupils and parents and reflects the community they serve.” Yet, as John Holmwood has shown, the Prevent agenda proudly eschews such diplomacy: when Muslim parents protested their lack of consultation regarding a Prevent-related curriculum in 2019, they were roundly condemned as extremists and bigots by the political establishment. Muslim children, bien pensant opinion now holds, are to be protected by the state from the religious values of their parents.

This is liberalism of a coercive, statist bent, one that threatens the freedoms of all traditional religious believers, even if has thus far focused on Muslims. Liberal toleration was not conceived of by its original proponents as an end in itself, but rather as an instrument for facilitating a marketplace of ideas: it was from this marketplace that liberal values would supposedly emerge triumphant. Today, in an increasingly irreligious Britain, liberals see traditional religion as disrupting that process; the government's response is increasingly to intervene in the marketplace in favour of liberal values. The state's imposition of its own conception of Britishness on the populace, then, is not an attempt to express what Britons have in common. It is the vaunting of the establishment's own particular sentiments and values, and a marginalisation of anyone who dissents from the current secular liberal orthodoxy.

Britain, we might conclude, has disregarded its traditional conception of the importance of religion to the nation in a way that is rapidly collapsing the difference between British and French forms of secularism. Edmund Burke would likely be horrified to witness the current state of religious liberty in Britain, as well as the reticence of most self-described conservatives to protect it. Whenever any of the Equality Act’s protected characteristics (such as race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation) are seen to come into conflict with each other, it is religious freedom that is jettisoned. In the absence of a broad coalition being formed to counteract this trend, the current onslaught on religious liberty is likely to continue.

Where might such a coalition be found in a post-Christian, largely non-religious Britain? Those within the conservative establishment, whose concerns are secular, have more in common with Macron than with Burke, while the liberal-left is generally untroubled by attacks on religious freedom. Even the Church of England has proven itself willing to defer to the demands of coercive liberalism. The Muslim community cannot mount a campaign alone. As the country slides towards a more militant secularism, the question we must urgently pose is this: who will defend religious liberty in Britain?

Featured image: Photo by CGP Grey via Wikimedia Commons.

Imran Mulla lives in England, where he studies history. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.