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Erosion of secular public culture in the UK and its implications for minority women

9 March 2011

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IDS Bulletin Special Issue: Gender, Rights and Religion at the Crossroads

Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 26–40, January 2011

Cohesion, Multi-faithism and the Erosion of Secular Spaces in the UK: Implications for the Human Rights of Minority Women

by Pragna Patel

Abstract: This article explores the erosion of secular public culture in the UK and its implications for minority women whose bodies have become the battleground for the control of community representation. It argues that struggles for equality and secularism now overlap and have taken on a sense of urgency because it is the human rights of women that are being traded in the various social contracts that are emerging between state and the religious right minority leaderships in the UK. The increasing communalisation (involving religious and community groups mobilising solely around religious identities) of South Asian populations, in particular Muslims, reflects a form of instrumentalisation of religion by the state which has severely constrained the public space available for women to mobilise around a rights-based agenda and has also significantly narrowed the choices of women of faith.

1 Introduction

The UK has seen a concerted assault on secular spaces in the wake of civil unrest in some of the Northern cities in 2001, the 9/11 atrocity and the 7/7 London bombings of 2005. In the guise of the ‘war on terror’, the state’s response to the threat of Islamist terrorism has been dominated by a two-pronged approach to minorities – first, to counter the direct threat of terrorism with draconian, anti-civil liberties measures; and, second, the development of a new ‘cohesion’ and faith-based approach to minorities to replace the previously dominant ideological framework of multiculturalism for mediation between State and minority populations.

The process of de-secularisation started in the late 1980s following the Rushdie affair, when cracks appeared in the widely held view that Britain was a secular society in all but name. The Rushdie affair and the resurgence of religious fundamentalism in all religions1 not only exposed the lack of separation between the Church of England and the State and the privileging of Christianity above other religions, but also the limits of multiculturalism which placed primacy on the preservation of religious identities of the various minorities above the need to build a democratic, secular and anti-racist culture.2 For Muslims, the Rushdie Affair marked a significant turning point when demands for recognition and equality became focused upon religious observance and identity. Other minorities quickly followed suit.

The ‘war on terror’ has resulted in the deliberate pursuit of domestic policies by the British state aimed at accommodating religious identity within public institutions. This is in turn, a reflection of a number of political and social trends resulting in the shrinking of secular spaces and the increasing communalisation (involving religious and community groups mobilising solely around religious identities) of South Asian populations in particular – a process which has been quietly taking place for some time.
In accommodating religion within state institutions, the state’s aim ostensibly has been to contain Islamist terrorism on British soil and to construct a moderate British Islam but the process of de-secularisation is having far-reaching consequences in re-ordering and undermining the democratic nature of civil society with very specific consequences for all progressive struggles but especially those waged by minority women. This process is occurring hand in hand with the dismantling of the welfare state and the pursuit of a racist anti-immigration agenda. The new cohesion and faith-based approach to minorities has therefore become a political resource used by the state and the religious right in all communities to aid the de-secularisation process.

This article explores the erosion of secular public culture in the UK and its implications for minority women whose bodies have become the battleground for the control of community representation. My argument is that struggles for equality and secularism now overlap and have taken on a sense of urgency because it is the human rights of women that are being traded in the various social contracts that are emerging between state and the religious right minority leaderships in the UK.

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Cohesion, Multi-faithism and the Erosion of Secular Spaces in the UK: Implications for the Human Rights of Minority Women - Pragna Patel - 2011 - IDS Bulletin - Wiley Online Library