Joan Smith: The evil impact of the return of religion

The last thing any of us needs at this febrile and insecure moment is a proliferation of religious labels
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When I was growing up, I was hardly aware of other people's religious affiliations. Religion was rarely discussed on the council estates where I lived, even among my parents' Irish friends who went to Mass. For many years, when I met people who had come to Britain from the Indian subcontinent, I had no idea whether they were Hindus, Muslims or Parsees, any more than I knew for certain which of my schoolfriends had parents who were practising Christians.

The exception was when earnest young men with cropped hair and American accents appeared on the doorstep, proselytising on behalf of the Mormons, whereupon we invited them in and had a no-holds-barred exchange on the malign effects (as we saw it) of religion. I quite enjoyed these debates - more, probably, than the Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses on whom I practised my teenage debating skills - but then they had broken the unwritten rule that religion was a private matter.

This may seem, from the standpoint of the 21st century, a backward state of affairs. There was no Muslim Council of Britain and therefore, some Muslims would argue, no one to represent the interests of their minority faith in a predominantly Christian country. I never thought of the UK in that way, given that most churches were more than half-empty on Sundays, and I still don't. I like living in a secular society, but now I see the disasters attendant on privileging religious identity above everything else - nationality, politics, gender, family, friendship - unfolding around us.

Muslim leaders and representatives of other faiths are regularly consulted by Government ministers, who are also lobbied extensively by the Anglican, Catholic and evangelical Christian churches. One consequence is a huge increase in the number of faith schools, those institutions which did such a splendid job of perpetuating sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland. Another is a sustained attack on freedom of expression, with frequent attempts to censor anything religious leaders, notoriously touchy, deem offensive.

Something similar has happened in the US, where an alliance between evangelical Christian politicians and neo-con ideologues has given faith-based organisations privileged access to government funding and enormous power over the lives of poor Americans. The President mentions God in his speeches as frequently as I talk about my cats, wilfully undermining the separation between Church and State and fostering divisions on religious lines.

This is one of many ways in which the rhetoric of George Bush and Tony Blair does all of us a disservice. The President's "axis of evil" and the Prime Minister's "arc of extremism" don't merely expose their Manichean world view; what's even worse is the way in which their dogmatic insistence on the centrality of faith contributes to the problem. Will these guys never learn? If they go around encouraging people to define themselves as Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and so on, it is hardly surprising if society begins to fracture.

Indeed you might easily imagine, listening to the ill-tempered debate following the disruption last week of an alleged plot to blow up transatlantic flights from British airports, that the sole reason why the Government's foreign policy has been wrong in recent months is that it offends British Muslims. This is dangerous nonsense: imagine the chaos that would ensue if every religious organisation in the country was given a crack at deciding Britain's policy on the Middle East or China. (Falun Gong, next week it's your turn.)

The Prime Minister's failure to call for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon was wrong not because it favoured Jews over Muslims, but because it allowed thousands of Lebanese civilians to be bombed and driven from their homes. Lebanon is an Arab country, not a Muslim one, a crucial distinction that is ignored almost as often as the difference between Jews and Israelis. My Lebanese friends include Christians, Muslims and people who are wholly secular, and I have been entertained with lavish hospitality in Druze villages.

It's true that Iraq is predominantly Muslim, but the principal objection to the Anglo-American invasion is the fact that our leaders took us to war on a false prospectus. By launching an attack for the wrong reasons, Bush and Blair pre-empted a difficult but unavoidable debate about when it is right to intervene in a sovereign state where human rights abuses are taking place on a massive scale.

At some point, the democratic nations of the world will have to confront that question. In the meantime, the God-bothering habits of Blair and Bush have allowed the ghastly aftermath of the Iraq war to be hijacked in the service of a lazy rhetoric in which Muslims worldwide are portrayed as victims of Western imperialism. In fact, Muslim, Christian and secular Iraqis alike are being murdered daily by Muslim paramilitaries who owe their allegiance to rival clerics or Osama bin Laden, confirming that the resurgence of sectarianism is the single greatest obstruction to Iraq's emergence as a secular, democratic state.

In this country, people are now so scared of being accused of Islamophobia that they don't acknowedge something that should be glaringly obvious: it is the insistence of some young Muslim men and women on an in-your-face Islamic identity, which claims superiority over "decadent" Western values, that (along with terrorism) is creating ever greater hostility among non-Muslims. In that sense, the politics of religious identity is producing the very outcome that everyone, with the exception of extreme Islamists, claims not to want.

Even the writers' organisation English PEN is making this mistake, turning what was originally intended as a celebration of Middle Eastern literature into a Muslim event. An evening at a London theatre entitled Writing Muslim Worlds, scheduled for October, has caused controversy within the organisation, where some members believe that talking about "Muslim literature" is as ill-judged and divisive as lumping together Julian Barnes, Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan and describing them as "Christian".

The last thing any of us needs at this febrile and insecure moment is a proliferation of religious labels. There is no denying either that religion has made a comeback or that the cost is a horrible atmosphere in which its role in the formation of personal identity has begun to threaten the existence of secular culture. We allow this at our peril: only secular culture, in the form of respect for the rule of law, can offer a stable political solution in countries where people have so many different faiths or none at all.