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Social Text 18.3 (2000) 105-121

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Continuity or Rupture?
An Argument for Secular Britain

Ranu Samantrai

The debate over secularism and public affirmation of religion easily transposes onto anxieties regarding immigration into the liberal democratic nations of Western Europe and North America. The anxious worry that the increasing size and strength of transnational ethnic, religious, and cultural diasporas, together with global information, production, and consumption networks, make a mockery of claims of national distinction and sovereignty. Some caution that while once immigrants assimilated into the modernity of secular political cultures, now diaspora dwellers no longer relinquish their premodern, because presecular, extranational affiliations. In short, newcomers threaten to undermine the traditions of individualism, pluralism, and tolerance that distinguish Western political culture.

But not all secularisms are alike. 1 They vary, just as their religious counterparts vary. Even those that idealize an attitude of state neutrality toward religious adherence may appear to some to be political expressions of a particular religious base. This objection is voiced equally by those who advocate closing the geographic and metaphoric borders of the West and by those who would forestall that closure. Representing the former position, Samuel Huntington and Fay Weldon caution that the introduction of alien religious practices into Euro-America will irreparably damage traditions of tolerance and secularism rooted in Western Christianity. Each draws on a version of the secularization thesis that attributes decline in the social significance of religion to modernity, while locating the seeds of that decline in the innovations of premodern Christianity. 2 This simultaneous affirmation and disavowal of Christianity as the distinguishing characteristic of the West links conservative and liberal articulations of anti-immigrant xenophobia.

Huntington, for instance, frames his analysis as a warning against an impending "clash of civilizations" between the Christian West and its adversaries, Islam and Confucianism. As "the single most important characteristic of Western civilization," Western Christianity is responsible for the "political and intellectual" features that distinguish Huntington's West, including the separation of church and state, the rule of law, social pluralism, civil society, representative government, and individualism. 3 Although primarily defending the West, Huntington also advocates protecting [End Page 105] "the rest" against the colonizing arrogance of those who believe "that the culture of the West is and ought to be the culture of the world." 4 Hence he argues that the segregation of the West and the rest is mutually beneficial. Specifically, traditions of pluralism, secularism, individualism, and tolerance characteristic of the West require the intervention of the state on behalf of Western Christianity, through the exclusion of those who would introduce religious or civilizational plurality: "Promoting the coherence of the West means both preserving Western culture within the West and defining the limits of the West. The former requires, among other things, controlling immigration from non-Western societies . . . and ensuring the assimilation into Western culture of the immigrants who are admitted." 5

Speaking of the British context and from the liberal side of the political spectrum, Weldon comes to similar conclusions. Angered by those who objected to the publication of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and to the restricted scope of British blasphemy laws, she declares, "Our attempt at multi-culturalism has failed. The Rushdie Affair demonstrates it." 6 Like Huntington, Weldon cautions against underestimating the threats posed by pluralism to the religious foundation of English "freedom of belief" and "tolerance": 7

Look, you can build a decent society around the Bible: if you value the Gaia notions that pervade the Old Testament, puzzle over the parables of Jesus, argue about the Epistles, suspect the visions of St. John the Divine; why, yes, reading all that and marvelling, you might just about have a blueprint for building heaven on earth. But the Koran? No. 8

But avoiding Huntington's harsh remedy of segregation, Weldon prefers enforced assimilation. "The uni-culturalist policy of the United States worked," she writes, "welding its new peoples, from every race, every nation, every belief, into one whole: let the child do what it wants at home; here in the school the one flag is saluted, the one God...


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pp. 105-121
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Archived 2005
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