Atheism, secularism and religious freedom: Debates within the German left

Issue: 150

Kate Davison

Debates in Germany in recent years around the wearing of the hijab, Islamic religious instruction in schools, circumcision and claims of a “Salafist” threat continue to demonstrate the importance for Marxists to be clear on the question of religious freedom.1 Under the cover of defending “Western” culture—always “defined” as “Christian-Jewish” or Christianity-based—these controversial discussions have created an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion, offering renewed opportunities for racists and reactionaries. In the wake of the events of 2015—the sexual assaults in Cologne and elsewhere on New Year’s Eve, the terrorist attacks in Paris in November, and the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January—voices calling for tighter controls on non-citizens from Muslim backgrounds have grown ever louder. These events have reinvigorated the confidence of new racist movements such as Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamification of the West) and their electoralist counterparts the new AfD (Alternative for Germany) party, to demand restrictions on immigration and refugee intake and on Muslim religious expression.

Yet the attacks on Islam have not been confined to right-wing racist movements and parties. They have been either explicitly or tacitly supported by the governing Christian Democrat Union (CDU), the Social Democrats (SPD) and some of the smaller parties. Even within the left, and specifically within the party Die Linke (The Left), there have been doubts about the extent to which solidarity should be extended towards Muslims in the face of wide-scale demonisation. Given the large influx of new refugees fleeing Syria and the Middle East who are overwhelmingly Muslim, it is more important than ever that the left adopts a clear and principled stance on religious freedom in order effectively to deal with conflicts over religion that are surely on the horizon. By exploring some of the debates that have taken place over recent years within Germany and the German left, this article asserts that a properly Marxist understanding of religion demands the unconditional support of religious freedom for religious minorities.

The conflict between religious freedom and secularism is seemingly insurmountable. Within the left, the debate over this question has been characterised by ambivalence. Those who defend unconditional religious freedom, who oppose restrictions on Muslim women’s dress, bans on circumcision or who support the inclusion of Islam in existing religious instruction programmes in schools, are often quickly criticised. Critics assert that such approaches are tantamount to a concession to religious obscurantism and false consciousness, and undermine the principles of secularism and the separation of church and state. Secularism here is mistakenly interpreted to mean unconditional opposition to all religious beliefs and practices at all times, in order to remain true to the “militant atheism” that purportedly stands at the centre of Marxism. But this interpretation of secularism as anti-religious does not accord with the dialectical materialist approach advocated by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

It is erroneous to believe that a ban on religious practice imposed by a bourgeois state, or state-sanctioned inequality, will convince those affected by it that they do not need religion. In the context of a growing atmosphere of racism against Muslims, we must recognise that a critique of religion that finds its primary expression in a critique of Islam, plays a reactionary role. This does not in any way mean that Marxists should abandon or compromise our critique of religion; Marxists adopt a materialist approach which sees human action and interaction with the world, not divine intervention, as the determining factor in life. Rather, the key point is unconditionally to defend the right of religious-cultural minorities, which in Germany include Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and others, freely to practice their beliefs. This is why we must distinguish between notions of secularism that uphold the bourgeois state on the one hand, and a revolutionary, dialectical practice on the other, which enables us not only to present an uncompromising critique of religion but simultaneously to oppose discrimination and fight for democratic freedoms.

It is important to recognise at the outset the strong link between the current discourse around religious freedom and the growing level of confidence of anyone expressing racist views. Indeed, general calls to restrict religious expression by Muslims form a central, ongoing feature of anti-immigration protests. In Germany, the tone of the debate has been set by key conservative political figures. The epoch-making statement in 2011 by the then interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), that “Islam does not belong to Germany” officially confirmed an aggressive new stage in the anti-Muslim campaign that has been growing in Europe since the 1990s.2 The previous year former SPD Berlin finance minister Thilo Sarrazin had published a book, Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany is Abolishing Itself), in which he asserted that Germany and its schools were being dumbed down due to the increasing presence of children from migrant Turkish-Muslim backgrounds.

Now, following the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults, the declaration that Islam does not belong in Germany has been further extended to those from “North African”, “Arabic” or Muslim-majority cultures.3 Unfortunately, these ideas have been uncritically taken up by some within the Die Linke leadership. In January, less than two weeks after Cologne, prominent spokesperson for the party, Sahra Wagenknecht, drew hefty internal and public condemnation when she said that “Whoever abuses the right of hospitality forfeits that right”.4 Gregor Gysi, the former Die Linke parliamentary leader, distanced himself from the remark, yet even his more cautious comments left the notion of “foreign values” completely intact: he asserted that Germany needed to do more to educate new arrivals from such cultures on issues of women’s freedom and sexual self-determination.5

This is not mere rhetoric. Germany is now the site of a truly shocking increase in violent acts against those seen to fit the above descriptions. Muslim organisations in Germany state that there were 80 attacks on mosques in January 2016 alone.6 In the same month, there were 99 recorded attacks on refugee accommodation, including 16 involving arson, as well as 23 anti-immigrant demonstrations.7 These figures reflect steady increases in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim violence over at least the past five years. While the German federal government acknowledged 22 attacks on mosques per year between 2001 and 2011, this number rose to 35 in 2012 and 36 in 2013.8 In 2015, a total of 924 attacks on refugee accommodation were recorded, including 69 arson attacks and over 130 involving potential bodily harm. This itself was a dramatic increase from 199 recorded attacks in 2014, 69 in 2013, 23 in 2012 and 18 in 2011.9 These attacks are rarely fully or properly investigated, and the perpetrators even more rarely held to account.10

It is significant, too, that these attacks are explicitly Muslim-focused. Attacks on synagogues do occur, but are widely regarded as unthinkable and are only perpetrated by the most committed and traditional neo-Nazis. Mosques on the other hand have become the target du jour of popular, anti-immigration movements, which have a much broader base and have reached a comparatively high level of public acceptance. The results of three simultaneous state elections held on 13 March 2016 show how increasingly violent anti-immigration sentiments are finding expression within the political system. The near-fascist AfD enjoyed unprecedented gains with 12.4 percent in Rhineland-Palatinate, 15.1 percent in Baden-Württemberg and an alarming 24.2 percent in the former eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, second only to the CDU. These figures far exceed those achieved by any other far right party in any German election since 1945.11 This is a party whose leader, Frauke Petry, said in January that German border officials must “use firearms if necessary” to “prevent illegal border crossings”.

The singling out of specifically Muslim practices, mosques and other Islamic organisations is a strong indicator of how criticism of this particular religion blends seamlessly into support for racism. A clear example of the way the political right’s Islamophobia has been taken up by opinion-makers can be seen in an editorial by Nicolaus Fest, deputy editor-in-chief of the tabloid newspaper Bild am Sonntag, in mid-2014:

Only Islam continues to disturb me. I am disturbed by the disproportionately high level of criminality among youths with Muslim backgrounds. I am disturbed by the readiness-to-kill with which Islam totally disrespects women and homosexuals. I am disturbed by forced marriage, “arbiters of peace”, and honour killings. And anti-Semitic pogroms disturb me more than half-way civilised words allow. And so I ask myself: is religion an obstacle to integration? My impression: not always. But in the case of Islam, certainly. This should expressly be taken into account in relation to asylum claims and immigration. I do not need any imported racism, and whatever else Islam stands for, I don’t need that either.12

One of the most obvious debates over freedom of religious expression has been around whether to ban Muslim women from wearing certain head coverings, whether it be the hijab, burqa, niqab or chador. On 13 March 2016, the same day as the triple state election, the Berlin state conference of the AfD voted by an overwhelming majority to include a general ban on headscarves in all schools and universities in the party programme.13 In December 2014 a motion to support a ban on the “full” veil (ie the burqa and niqab) was put to the CDU’s annual national conference by its deputy leader, Julia Klöckner. In an interview, Klöckner denied that her proposal echoed the politics of the AfD and Pegida. As an “open society” and “free land” rooted in Christianity and Judaism, Germany needed to show an “open face” and support “enlightened” women: “There are no religious discounts on the constitution”, she said, “not for Islam or anyone else”.14

Public debate over the idea of a ban on religious facial or head coverings in Germany has tended to ignite periodically over the past 10 to 15 years, in service of various shorter-term ideological goals, but unlike in France, it has never reached the level of a successful parliamentary bill on a national level. Lukewarm reactions can be found across the political spectrum, and even members of the more conservative Bavarian party CSU have suggested that a ban would be disproportionate.

Nevertheless, the influential feminist editor and commentator Alice Schwarzer has been an important ally to supporters of the ban. Schwarzer has in recent years become a notorious Islamophobe under the banner of defending women’s freedom. She has claimed that a grand Islamic conspiracy exists behind demands by Muslim women for self-determination, aiming to introduce Sharia law by stealth: “the hijab is but the first step”, she claimed on her blog in December 2014, “and the next is the burqa”. She further linked the idea of permitting this form of religious expression to potential terrorism, suggesting that Al Qaeda is gunning for any excuse at revenge.15

In Germany, the debates over circumcision and religious instruction in schools have been trickier, perhaps due to the issues of individual liberty involved. Practitioners of non-Christian religious rituals such as circumcision have been branded by sections of both the left and the right as backward-looking enemies of the Enlightenment, subjecting their children to oppressive and archaic rites.16 Yet the same paternalism evident in the discourse around Muslim women’s clothing choices is evident here too. As noted by Ulla Jelpke, interior spokesperson for Die Linke, “for many in these debates, concerns about the welfare of children have only been mobilised in order to promote anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim prejudices”.17

In May 2012, in the Cologne state court, the state prosecutor brought a case against a Muslim doctor for “physical abuse” of a four year old boy after a ­circumcision procedure resulted in post-operative haemorrhaging. Although the operation had been performed correctly and the doctor was eventually acquitted, the court concluded in June 2012 that circumcision on religious grounds “contradicts the interests of a child, especially with respect to his ability to make his own choice about religious belonging later in life [as well as his own bodily integrity]”.18 This verdict amounted to a de facto criminalisation of religion-based ­circumcision. It took a motion in federal parliament six months later (which ensured that circumcision for both Muslims and Jews is permissible) to have it rescinded.

While Cologne’s short-lived ban on circumcision formally applied in equal measure to both Muslims and Jews, it gave expression above all else to the prevailing anti-Muslim mood. From chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement on the issue, one could easily have got the impression that the furore would not have occurred had it been a ban on an exclusively Islamic ritual: “I do not want a situation in which Germany is the only country in the world in which Jews cannot freely practise their [religious] rites”.19 For Merkel, it was apparently of little import that the Cologne verdict was primarily directed against Islamic circumcision. But the very real double standard was made abundantly clear by the then executive secretary of the CSU (now federal transport minister), Alexander Dobrindt, who said that:

Islam is—with good reason—not a religious community that can be placed on equal footing with the Christian churches, and it would be a fatal error to thereby call into question the Judeo-Christian imprint of our mainstream culture [Leitkultur]. The demand to treat Islam as equal to the Christian churches can only be made by those who are completely ignorant of current constitutional law, and who in any case want to remove crosses from classrooms and introduce Muslim feast days [into the German calendar].20

We shall return to the question of crucifixes in classrooms below. Here it will suffice to observe how unthinkable it was for Dobrint that in the context of a multicultural society, denominational diversity could also be acknowledged in practice. In addition, it is simply untrue that the introduction of “Muslim public holidays” would run contrary to the constitution. The constitution protects all “state-approved” public holidays—it is simply up to the parliament to decide what those holidays are. A more aggressively xenophobic campaign has been that led by Hessian MP Hans-Jürgen Irmer (CDU) in the Wetzlar Kurier and elsewhere against the construction of mosques.

In other words, even prior to the sexual assaults and terrorist events of 2015, attacks on the freedom of Muslims to carry out their ordinary religious practices were already playing a central role in the broader campaign against Islam. These views have found an increasingly positive resonance in broader society. An October 2010 survey of over 2,400 people by the social democrat-inclined Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FEF) found that the percentage of respondents holding anti-Muslim views had risen from 34 to 50 percent within one year.21 A survey by top German pollster Infratest-dimap in the same month found that 37 percent of respondents believed that it would be better if Islam did not exist in Germany, while 44 percent indicated that they felt more confident openly to criticise Islam following the publication of Sarrazin’s book.22 And, if there were still any doubts as to the consequences of growing racial intolerance for religious practices, the FEF study also found that 60 percent agreed with the statement: “For Muslims in Germany, the practice of religion should be substantially restricted” (in certain regions the agreement rate was as high as 76 percent).

The trend has continued. In January 2015, another German pollster, the Bertelsmann Foundation, found that the percentage of respondents who found Islam “threatening” or “very threatening” had risen from 53 in 2012 to 57 percent in 2014. Those who believed Islam “does not really” or “absolutely does not” belong within Western society had risen from 52 percent in 2012 to 61 percent in 2014.23 On the other hand, a poll by Forsa, likewise in January 2015, found that only 16 percent of respondents believed that Muslims were more inclined to violence than members of other religious traditions. Similarly, only 18 percent supported the assertion that Islam made them feel “uncomfortable”. Of these respondents, supporters of Alternative for Germany (AfD) were very highly represented. Some 63 percent of all respondents believed that Muslim organisations in Germany should be “doing more” to counter radical Islamism.24

Apart from some residual manifestations of biological racism,25 in Europe today racism is in the vast majority of cases expressed in terms of culture and religion. While this new “cultural” racism has become the norm since 9/11, some commentators date its origins further back to the Fatwa declared against Salman Rushdie in 1988.26 The popularisation of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” theory (proposed in a 1996 book of the same name), and the claims of Sarrazin and other high-profile conservative commentators, have contributed to the increasing interchangeability of “migrants” and “Muslims” as targets of racist hatred, where the highest priority is to protect “Western values” from pollution by Muslim outsiders; to protect the legacy of the Enlightenment from Islamic backwardness.27 The refugee crisis created in 2014 and 2015 by the wars in Syria and the Middle East, and the New Year’s Eve events have further supported this trend.

Just one example of the invocation of the Enlightenment against “non-Western” people was an open letter initiated in 2012 by Professor Matthias Franz of Düsseldorf University and signed by 700 doctors, lawyers, psychoanalysts and other academics across Germany.28 The letter, entitled “Religious freedom must not be a licence for child abuse”, was an appeal to members of parliament in the lead up to the federal parliamentary vote on circumcision in July 2012. The signatories assured that they too wanted to protect “Jewish and Islamic life within the confines of German law”, but went on to say that “as children of the Enlightenment, we must at last open our eyes: one does not harm children!” The subtext was that these unenlightened “Others” are child-abusers.

The clash of civilisations theory has also been rebranded in progressive rhetoric through talk of defending the rights of women, LGBT+ people—and now children—from pre-modern religious throwbacks. This version has been found seductive by many on the left who have made the mistake of equating small, socially-excluded religious minorities in Europe (no matter how regressive or reactionary their theological doctrine may be) with the powerful state religions. For example, the young German men gathering around the Islamic convert and preacher Pierre Vogel (who have been problematically and inaccurately branded “Islamo-fascist” by members of the German Greens and equated de facto with Nazis), are erroneously seen by some as equivalent to the ruling elites of Saudi Arabia or the Islamic Republic of Iran. The idea, as the editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung Lothar Müller has pointed out, is that “in every Muslim there lurks…a potential oppressor of women, an enemy of freedom of opinion, and a fanatic, against whom the only recourse available to liberal democracy is the withdrawal of their religious freedoms”.29 One justification for restricting the right to religious freedom of these “fanatics” within Europe was the factually doubtful claim that such measures seek merely to redress the “asymmetry of religious bans [that exist] between the Orient and Occident”—in other words, a call to base domestic policy on an eye for an eye model.30

It is clear that in much of the rhetoric a very deep double standard is setting the agenda. In the same breath that commentators call for stricter controls on “the Salafists”—by which they usually mean all Muslims—they complain that in many majority-Muslim countries, Christians are sitting in prison cells and have no religious freedom. This was the claim of Matthias Matussek—a journalist who has openly sympathised with Sarrazin—in a primetime television panel discussion on ARD’s Menschen bei Maischberger entitled “The Salafists are Coming: Does This Islam Really Belong to Germany?” in May 2012. The programme was watched by a staggering 2.4 million viewers.31

Martina Fietz, a correspondent with Focus magazine, went even further, accusing the very people who are under attack of using double standards. She suggested that Muslims in Europe have no right to claim religious freedom as protected under the constitution, because they are supposedly guilty of other things that contradict the constitution—namely, bodily harm and suppression of opinion. “The struggle of the Salafists”, she wrote, “is not a struggle for religious freedom, but the expression of a belief-diktat… Our basic constitutional law protects freedom of religious practice. Whoever wants to draw upon that document, must also accept the other articles of the constitution—the right to freedom of opinion and the right to bodily integrity”. But having just argued against their expression of a “belief-diktat”, she went on to defend the right of free speech for Nazis, and the right wing Pro-Germany movement’s right to have racist demonstrations. “The views of the Salafists…represent an ur-Islam, which rejects every kind of modernisation… And just like other Islamist groups, the Salafists wield enormous appeal for young men. This explains the high number of converts among them”.32

Here, the reason why the “Salafists” are so attractive to these young men is, probably unwittingly, attributed to the supposed strength of their ideology. The daily discrimination, alienation and racism experienced by these and many other young men and women is completely ignored. Witness, for example, the racial profiling poster campaign “Missing” (Vermisst), commissioned by the then minister for the interior, Friedrich. This was a series of about a dozen posters portraying mugshots of young men with names like “Abdul”, “Muhammed” and “Erkan”, accompanied by fictional narratives of parents worried about radicalisation, and a hotline number. Yet such attempts at racial profiling have also been stymied by the fact that in some cases it has been adventure-seeking young white German men with no Muslim background whatsoever who have mystified their families either simply by converting to Islam, or even by taking off to become fighters abroad.33 In reality the reaction in Germany to comprehensive “Aussteiger” programmes, such as Prevent in the UK, has in fact been lukewarm, though numerous regional initiatives have been introduced. On the left, the dominant focus has been on addressing socio-economic issues such as poverty, housing, employment and education/training opportunities, combined with political struggles against racism and social exclusion. Yet the suspicion towards Islam as a religion persists.

The German left and the critique of religion

The examples outlined above illustrate the growing racism of certain sections of the German middle class. Of deeper concern here, however, is the audience that restrictions on religious practice have received on the left, and more specifically within Die Linke, especially where notions of the “Enlightenment tradition” have played a role. One example is the reaction of the Die Linke parliamentary fraction to a motion in the federal parliament in July 2012 to reaffirm Germany’s commitment to freedom of religious belief for both Muslims and Jews. Prompted by the embarrassment caused by the Cologne circumcision ban, the motion, moved jointly by the CDU/CSU, the SPD and the FDP (Liberal Democrats), was an important PR exercise. Out of a total of 76 MPs from Die Linke, nine voted for the motion. But the majority abstained, and nine even voted against it on the basis of opposition to religious paternalism and support for children’s rights.

The central argument of those who favoured a ban on circumcision was that the practice goes against the rule of law because it constitutes abuse of children. But this was fudging the issue: there are numerous parallel practices whereby children are subjected to pain for non-medical or non-therapeutic reasons, which have nothing to do with religion. One example which is arguably far more controversial is surgical gender assignment in gender-ambiguous infants. Moreover, around 70 percent of men in the United States today are circumcised, and until well into the 1980s it was standard procedure in hospitals across the Western world, for either religious or non-religious reasons, among Jews, Muslims, Christians and non-believers alike. It is important to realise that the exclusive link between this ritual and Jewish and Muslim traditions is a relatively recent phenomenon. The more hysterical responses have even compared ­circumcision—a practice aimed at welcoming boys into a religious community and which is intended to form a central, positive part of their identity—with female genital mutilation—a practice aimed at destroying the independent personhood of girls and permanently ensuring their social inferiority. Based on these social meanings, the two rituals could not be further apart. Importantly, although criticism of the circumcision ritual has come from within the various religious communities in question as well as from outside, few such internal critics have ever called for a ban to be imposed externally by a secular state.

The political meaning of the Cologne verdict and the Bundestag motion effectively to reject it had, in any case, little to do with the actual practice of circumcision. It is difficult to believe, for example, that there was not a little opportunism on the part of the CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP and the Greens in their support of the Bundestag motion. The CDU-led government in particular, at a time when it has been spearheading a Kulturkampf (culture war) against Muslims and after harsh criticism of the verdict by representatives of Germany’s Jewish community, was eager to present itself in the public eye as being committed to ­anti-discrimination. The potential embarrassment of the Cologne verdict certainly seems to have been one of Merkel’s top concerns: she worried that Germany would make itself a “laughing stock” by going down such a familiar road.

For the left, a state-imposed ban on religious practices, including circumcision, is absolutely the wrong solution. Supporters of the Cologne verdict invoke—often for admirable reasons—the general principle of secularism, thought to be the linchpin of the modern constitutional state; that is, the separation of church (or mosque, or synagogue) and state. Much leftist criticism of religion has, however, failed to provide a clear distinction between official Christian state religions and minority religions that are often ostracised and discriminated against. The critique of religion stems from a real problem. Religion has been and is used by the ruling classes as a tool of oppression. Religious orders are in many countries closely intertwined with the ruling political order (if not one and the same).

Marxist support for secularism is therefore a core position for an ­emancipatory left politics. But here it is necessary to take a closer look. It is not always the case that a declared commitment to secularism serves progressive, emancipatory goals, as we can learn from German history. Additionally, the churches do not have the same power over the German population that they enjoyed 100 years ago. The ideas of the ruling class are still the ruling ideas, but today the mass media plays a decisive role in the formation of public opinion. The influence of the Christian church (both Catholic and Evangelical) upon the German state can indeed still be felt. But the idea of having to “defend” the principle of secularism against Muslim religious symbols and practices is tantamount to attacking a straw man.

It is not Islam that poses the greatest threat to secularism; in fact, what the left must face is that the fight was never definitively won against the Christian churches in the first place. What is really being defended by many in the name of secularism is the historical-cultural monopoly of the Christian churches in the political-social sphere, in other words, the “Christian Leitkultur”. What then is to be done when a religious minority—in the framework of the most aggressive wave of systematic racism in Europe in decades—is discriminated against, socially and politically excluded, their children criminalised, their places of worship attacked, and their traditions, rituals and even clothing outlawed?

Die Linke’s often ambiguous public reactions, but also internal party debates, around the question of Islamic religious instruction in schools have exposed the weaknesses of a false interpretation of the Marxist critique of religion, as distinct from a truly Marxist approach to the politics of religion which can distinguish the religion of the oppressor from that of the oppressed. Such an approach recognises the need both for strategic alliances against capital and for unconditional solidarity with those facing oppression and social discrimination in whatever form they may appear.

The weakness of Die Linke on this question has had material consequences for its members active within the anti-racist movement, for example in debates over which groups we are prepared to extend the hand of solidarity to in protests against racist and fascist movements such as Pro-Deutschland and the more recent Pegida. While the party’s reaction to Pegida has over the past year been much more firmly and confidently anti-racist, this has not always been the case. In 2012, in the lead up to a four-day “tour” organised by Pro-Deutschland, in which it planned to target several mosques across Berlin, Muslim community leaders and anti-racist activists jointly organised mass solidarity rallies in front of the mosques. The aim was to show broad community opposition to Pro-Deutschland and their ideas.

But within Die Linke and the left more generally, there were quite serious discussions about whether left-wing activists should participate in united fronts with Muslim groups identified as “Salafist”, and even whether the solidarity rallies should include mosques thought to be associated with them (there can be little doubt that these particular mosques had been strategically chosen by the fascists). It is worth pointing out that many of the objections to particular mosques were built on hearsay.

In response to the debate about which mosques to defend, the Marx21 network inside Die Linke extended an invitation to local party members in Berlin to an open forum on the topic, in an effort to put forward an argument for a united front against the Nazis and for unconditional solidarity. Though the forum was well attended, criticism flowed in, much of it built around the accusation that Marx21’s approach was a compromise of secularism. One person argued that such Muslim groups in Germany,

cannot possibly be thought of as allies, who with “Allah’s sharia” have reversed
200 years of secularism and who want to make the only legitimate form of worship an Islamic theocratic state. Distinctions in this context between “good” and “bad” Salafists are irrelevant. It is indeed astonishing that we even need to discuss self-evident points.

But there is not necessarily anything “self-evident” about these points. In fact, such a static approach could lead Die Linke inadvertently to support the interests of capital, which uses racism to divide, rather than stand unconditionally on the side of victims of Nazi and racist hate. It fails to grasp that when Nazis, fascists and racists target a mosque, they are intentionally and symbolically targeting the entire Muslim community. It is of little theological importance to them who the Imam of the mosque is. As one insightful commentator in the mainstream newspaper Die Zeit observed:

The “Pro” supporters are not demonstrating against an official church, which is connected to the leading figures of an undemocratic regime, but rather against a religion in toto. Consequently, the critique of religion here does not distinguish between different varieties from harmless to radical. And a good portion of racism is always present in their activities.35

Islamic religious instruction in state schools

In 2011 a bill to expand the curriculum to incorporate Islamic instruction was put to the Hesse parliament by Green MP Mürvet Öztürk. Arguments against supporting the proposal were based on “protecting” the perceived sanctity of religion-free schools. But in Hesse, the right to provide religious instruction in state schools has long been enjoyed by the large Christian denominations and Judaism. Some within Die Linke have argued that if we are serious about the separation of state and religion then religious instruction must also be kept out of schools. There must be no weakening of this principle, they assert, not even in the name of equal rights for hitherto discriminated religious communities. Opponents of Islamic religious instruction in state schools in Germany’s western states point instead to the example of Berlin, where a non-confessional “ethics” stream is part of the compulsory school curriculum until year 10 (age 16).36 But adopting a Berlin-style model would require a majority parliamentary vote to change the Hessian constitution, because the provision of religious instruction is inscribed into Article 57. By contrast, the introduction of an Islamic stream within the present curricular structure could take place without constitutional change. The abolition of religious instruction or its replacement with an alternative could not and a political majority for such a move is, in the Hessian parliament, nowhere in sight.

The only question that remains for the left therefore is whether support for broadening the curriculum to incorporate a wider range of religious traditions would contradict the political principle of secularism. There are parallels we can look to, where support for reforms could appear to contradict core principles, but where the actual context of political positioning is decisive. As Marxists we are critical of the formal institution of marriage, for example, but we nevertheless support uncompromisingly the right of all people to marry, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, and thus support widening its definition. We also fight for increases in wages, even though we would like to see an end to the whole system of wage labour. Political struggle occurs within existing social relations. A militant defence of secularism removed from the context of concrete social circumstances leads to a distorted, untenable position.

Today, this debate is indelibly imprinted with right wing perspectives. The liberal FDP for example, issued public statements that they would support the bill only on the condition that the proposed syllabus explicitly promoted “full equality for women, pluralist democracy and religious freedom for others”,37 an obvious perpetuation of racist depictions of Muslims as uniformly sexist and anti-democratic. The demand by the left for a general and mixed ethics stream in the compulsory high school curriculum is in no way compromised by support for an expansion of the current religion curriculum to include the Islamic faith. In fact, a ban on Islamic instruction within the existing system would not strengthen support for a secular ethics curriculum, but would rather cement Christian dominance.

It is therefore imperative to campaign for equality of all religious confessions, and to see this as linked to a longer-term goal for a non-confessional ethics curriculum to be adopted in all German states. It is worrying and unfortunate that sections of the left have become so energetically vocal in defence of the separation of church and state precisely over a reform which would have the effect of reducing inequality. The other privileges of the Christian churches, which enjoy a semi-official status in Germany (for example, the use of state revenue services for the collection of church tax), are conspicuously absent from the discussion.

The debate is not about religious instruction as such. Rather, it is about redressing a situation where Germany’s four million Muslims are made to feel like second-class citizens, and in which the cries of conservative politicians that Muslims “do not belong to Germany” are confirmed daily.

What causes religious belief to grow?

The criminalisation of religious practice is a weapon of the right and a core element of racism in Europe today. Philip Marfleet and Nira Yuval-Davis, editors of an online book devoted to exploring the connections between racism, religion and migration, suggest that the “clash of civilisations” theory is now often taken for granted, with opposition to religion playing a central role in its normalisation. Social problems within Europe are thus now predominantly seen, as detailed above, as “confrontations between a progressive Western bloc and a recalcitrant Islam”. They outline the way in which Fortress Europe policies exposing vulnerable non-European migrant communities to increased social hardships “have brought a new visibility and potency to religious organisations and networks”, particularly where these “support and advocate for migrants and other members of racialised communities”.38 They argue that this, alongside the prevalence of religion in racist and anti-racist discourses across Europe, is the source of renewed attachments to religious networks and a retreat into religious faith. Yet the debate has also generated renewed interest on the left and among feminists as to the meaning of secularism.39 Marfleet and Yuval-Davis emphasise that the current growth in religious identification is not motivated by theological or spiritual considerations, but rather comes out of a search for belonging in a society which continually divides and shuts people out.

This brings us back to Marx. At the centre of the Marxist critique is the idea that religion has social roots. In his Theses on Feuerbach Marx underlined the importance of “religious sentiment” as a “social product” taken up by individuals who are themselves products of particular social formations,40 a view shared and reinforced in other texts by his collaborator Engels. The question of state-imposed bans on religious practice was anathema to that critique. In 1909, reflecting on Engels’s Anti-Dühring (1878; a critique of the scientist Eugen Dühring), Lenin wrote with solid approval of how, “while ruthlessly attacking the slightest concession made…to idealism and ­religion, [Engels] condemns no less resolutely Dühring’s pseudo-revolutionary notion that religion would be prohibited in a socialist society”.41 Such a prohibition would constitute, as noted by American Marxist Paul Siegel, a diversion from political struggle and would only result in strengthening religion, as those targeted by the ban would—­understandably—retreat into a defensive position and seek support and solace within their religious communities.42 Nor was the privileging of one religion over another (for example, of Christianity above Islam, Judaism or any other minority religion in Germany) something which Marx could abide. In an opinion piece in the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842 he criticised the claim by several of his contemporaries that the privileging of Christianity in a European context was justified because “all our European states have Christianity as their basis”. On the contrary, he argued, the defence of a secular state does not promote the privileging of one religion over another, but emphasises the importance of equality.43

As indicated above, the argument from some sections of the left in defence of secularism often invokes the tradition of the French Enlightenment—in its promotion of rational thought and materialism, and its subsequent challenge to the Catholic monarchy. But often missing is the Marxist critique of the Enlightenment itself, in particular by Engels. In Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, he observed that the materialism of the Enlightenment philosophers was “predominantly mechanical”. This approach was limited in that it tried to apply mechanical laws to organic and chemical processes, but also revealed an “inability to understand the universe as a process, as matter undergoing uninterrupted historical development”.44 The 18th century French materialists saw the universe as a machine which constantly repeats its functions in a circular fashion, producing the same results “over and over again”, but they also tended to see human society as being manipulated from without by great individuals, rather than as a process subject to internal contradictions and movement. As Siegel points out, “they tended to look upon religion as a conspiracy of kings, priests and aristocrats to ‘lull to sleep the people in fetters’, as one of them put it”.45

The French Enlightenment philosophers, quite rightly, viewed the Catholic Church of their time as an enemy of progress, but their general conclusion that all religion must necessarily be a manifestation of reaction was one-sided. By contrast, a Marxist approach which begins with an analysis of religion as a spiritual salve for the seemingly unavoidable hardships of life can more easily account for the later emergence of religious movements such as those associated with liberation theology in Latin America, where many Catholic priests devoted their lives to struggles against US imperialism, local despotism and corruption. Religion, as a weapon (as Engels described the Bible in The Peasant War in Germany), can therefore fall just as easily into the hands of opposing sides. It can be used by forces of reaction, or it can be used by the oppressed to galvanise massive insurgent movements for democratic aims.

This analysis can shed light on Marx’s comment that religion is “the opium of the people”—arguably one of the most misquoted statements in his entire oeuvre. It is often taken to mean that religion is as artificial as a drug, keeping people in a haze and blinding them to the realities of their own existence and oppression; an obscurantist blindfold. But this interpretation misses the dialectical understanding at the core of Marx’s materialism. Here, it is worth quoting (and reading) the passage from which the “opium” phrase is taken—in the introduction to his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843-44)—in full:

Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of manstate, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.46

Here, we see two parallel and competing statements, which speak to the dual nature of religion. On the one hand, religion offers a salve or soothing anaesthetic to people who are suffering or in need, while on the other it can be understood as a form of “protest against real suffering”. Marx and Engels supported a materialist worldview, in which human action and interaction with the world are the determining factors of social existence and coexistence. But this did not mean that they adhered either to a static, historically ignorant understanding of religion as a purely reactionary ideology serving the interests of the ruling classes, or to a view that religious people and religious ideas could not be capable of playing a politically advanced, even revolutionary role in certain historical periods.

They also, therefore, rejected a militant atheism which strove to make the repression and even prohibition of religion a core political objective of the labour movement. In Marx’s and Engels’s opinion, religion would not be “abolished” but would wane in importance and eventually die a natural death in the course of society-changing class struggles. As a reflection of the ability of religion to manifest either/both as an instrument of oppression and as an expression of the struggle against injustice, the Bible provided the inspiration both for civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King and for members of the racist Ku Klux Klan. The oppression of women can similarly be justified on religious grounds in the name of the Qu’ran (as with the Bible), and yet at the same time, many of the women revolutionaries of the Arab risings in 2011 also drew inspiration from the Qu’ran to fight for their rights.

Lessons from history

These 21st century debates are not without historical precedent. In fact they share astonishing similarities with those of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is in no way surprising that the term Kulturkampf has been liberally sprinkled across the pages of European newspapers. In fact, much of contemporary anti-Muslim rhetoric closely resembles the discourse of the Kulturkampf led by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck following the first German unification in 1871. His state-run campaign of religious vilification was aimed at suppressing the religious freedoms of Catholics. At the centre of the Bismarck campaign was a ban on political commentary by clerics, one of a raft of anti-Catholic measures which spread to enflame a generalised anti-Catholic sentiment across society. The measures were primarily designed to reinforce the power of the newly unified ruling class and to shore up the new German Reich against instability.

Speaking in Parliament in June 1872, August Bebel, the founder of the Social Democrats (SPD), positioned himself in opposition to Bismarck and on the side of the Catholics, but in doing so, anticipated a clash with a majority of Liberals and even a few Socialists who supported the laws in the name of the Enlightenment. At around the same time, Engels repeatedly rejected attempts by the left to make explicit support for an atheist war on religion a part of the party programme, a move which would have been a fatal mistake if the Party were to be able to relate to the masses of believing workers. Attempts to codify atheism ultimately ran aground with the adoption of Marx’s and Engels’s analysis of religion in the SPD programme of 1891, expressed in the demand for the “official declaration of religion as a private matter”.47

The new Russian Soviet Republic 30 years later has often been misrepresented as having set out to destroy religion from the start. In fact, the massive wealth and property of the Russian Orthodox Church—which until the October Revolution of 1917 was the official state religion of which the Tsar was supreme religious leader—was repossessed by the fledgling revolutionary democracy and a full separation of church and state was implemented. Religion was not banned. On the contrary, religions that had been oppressed under the Tsar—Islam, Judaism and others—gained complete religious freedom, while the former Christian state religion lost its special privileges. These policies closely resembled the calls by Russian punk band Pussy Riot in 2012 to break down the cooperative anti-democratic power of Vladimir Putin’s government and the Russian Orthodox Patriarchy.48 In many regions of Russia, the overwhelming majority of Red Army soldiers were Muslim and in some cases, Sharia courts even coexisted alongside revolutionary courts.49

As we have seen with the example of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf against Catholicism, secularism has been, and continues to be, utilised for reactionary political purposes. In the 1930s, Germany witnessed another Kulturkampf which this time helped deliver the Nazi Party to power and whose aim, by the Nazis’ own definition, was to achieve a complete separation of church and state. In July 1935 the Reich minister for the interior, Wilhelm Frick, demanded the “full deconfessionalisation of all public life”. In 1933, Hermann Goering had already banned all Catholic newspapers in Cologne stating that “political Catholicism” would not be tolerated. (Although this is reminiscent of the phrase “political Islam”, the Catholic Centre Party was a far more powerful organised force in the early 20th century than Muslims in Germany today.) But after 1935, the focus shifted primarily towards the question of religion in schools. Over the next few years, religious instruction of all kinds was either restricted or completely abolished. In 1936, the state attempted to ban all crucifixes from classroom walls in Oldenburg, a decision that was only reversed following a mass movement from below in defence of religious freedom.

According to the logic of an abstract defence of secularism and the separation of church and state, Marxists and socialists would have had to support this campaign by Adolf Hitler’s, or at least not oppose it. On the contrary, in response to a letter in 1935 from a young communist who stated that he was “against every form of support for the churches”, Leon Trotsky affirmed that “naturally there can be no question of supporting the church”. Rather, he cautioned, the only question for the left was “do we or do we not support the political struggle of the Catholics and Protestants for their right to remain Catholics and Protestants and to act as such?” This question, he stressed, must be answered in the affirmative. He elaborated that, while “solutions such as separation of church and state, school and church, are, of course, correct in themselves and must be advocated whenever the opportunity presents itself”, they “don’t quite hit the nail on the head in actuality”. Rather, it “is a question in the first place of freedom of conscience, then of equal rights regardless of creed…then the right of forming organisations”.50

While Hitler’s project of separating church and state may appear to have superficially accorded with the principle of secularism, the function of the Nazi campaign in actuality was to disband the churches as independent institutions to ensure full political control on the part of the Nazi Party. In addition, it aimed to erase genuine Christian thought from the minds of citizens and replace it with the German-Aryan mythology of National Socialism. The experience of the 1930s shows that an abstract and undialectical approach to “secularism” can actually play into the hands of the right. This alone should be persuasive enough for leftists to unequivocally oppose the recent calls by the AfD or the CDU to ban headscarves in schools and universities. Equally persuasive are the more recent examples from France.

Secularism and the French left

German leftists have kept a close eye on French debates over religious freedom, albeit often without gaining a grasp of the dual nature of religion. In the words of French socialist Antoine Boulangé, “What characterises any religion is its ambiguity. It is a tool of domination for those who run the system. But it can also be a tool of resistance for the oppressed”.51 The opportunity for secularism—­laicité in French—in its bourgeois liberalist guise to be misused and abused is not limited to the past. Jim Wolfreys highlights how the notion of secularism has been increasingly mobilised over the past decade by right wing reactionaries to pursue a relentless campaign of anti-Muslim xenophobia, in which Nicolas Sarkozy in particular danced happily to the tune of the fascist Front National.52

As Wolfreys points out, Sarkozy’s use of the tradition of the Republic served right wing and reactionary interests in glossing over the massive programme of social cuts in Europe’s deepest economic crisis since the 1930s: “Unable to provide solutions to any of the major problems facing its population, Republican state power has chosen instead to preoccupy itself with what Muslim girls and their mothers wear on their heads, with how their food is labelled, with where they pray and with whom they can do aquagym classes”.53 Yet in a prime example of French social democracy’s perpetual slide to the right, the Socialist Party president François Hollande has supported many of these measures, bowing to the growing confidence of racist parties and movements. Repeatedly, the people affected are those who have already been demonised en masse for the past 15 years at least. Worse still, in December 2015, Hollande’s government indicated that it would be taking steps to close down up to 160 of France’s 2,600 mosques, in response to the Paris terror attacks of the previous month.54

On the far left, too, the ideal of secularism has become a “blind spot”, particularly when it comes to confronting the Front National. Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Parti de Gauche (Left Party) for example, supported the ban on the hijab and expressed criticism of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) in 2010 for running a hijab-wearing candidate, Ilham Moussaïd, a move that was very controversial within the NPA itself.

The fruits of the French situation can be seen in the introduction of the anti-niqab law banning all facial coverings in public in 2011. The left’s inability effectively to oppose this trajectory had unforeseen consequences when a group of activists expressing solidarity with Pussy Riot were arrested for wearing the band’s signature garment of brightly coloured balaclavas.55 Contrary to the claims of its defenders, the anti-niqab law is not neutral, but thoroughly reactionary. As an example, it shows how questions of laicité can very quickly become muddled together with the concerns of national security—no longer is it about defending secularism, but rather about catching terrorists. The connection between restrictions on religious freedom and general restrictions on civil liberties could not be clearer.

Secularism from the right

Secularism is in no way the monopoly of the historical left. There are also other, less obviously right-wing versions now in circulation. These new versions of “muscular secularism” on the liberal side of politics have led to some truly bizarre and unfortunate manifestations. One example is the European feminist group Femen, whose French chapter staged a widely reported media stunt at the 2012 London Olympics protesting the oppression of women under Islamist regimes. While the controversial Femen trademark of topless protest was followed by most participants, one of the activists was dressed-up as a “Muslim” man in a ­blatantly racist caricature, with a dark, drawn-on beard and a mean and menacing facial expression. The only people applauding such a caricature are to be found among the ranks of anti-Muslim racists and fascists.56 Further examples include websites in defence of laicité, which publish contributions from both right and left. As Robert Albarèdes, one of the contributors to the Riposte Laïque blog stated, “we have a common idea that unites us all, and that is the secularism and its importance in the French society. Except for that, our contributors, permanent or freelance, can be from the far-right or the far-left party, nobody cares”.57

Of greater significance, however, is the phenomenon of “New Atheism”, which has grown in popularity since 9/11. Many of these New Atheists would describe themselves as liberals, however they have become notorious through their support, either tacit or explicit, for the war on terror, and for lending weight to Islamophobia under the thin guise of atheist objectivity. In his book, The God Delusion (2006) Richard Dawkins argues that all religious belief (and by implication, practice), of any variety, in any time and in any context, and including moderate religious views, are to be fiercely contested. But as Terry Eagleton pointed out, the liberalism espoused by Dawkins “has nowadays degenerated into a rather nasty brand of neoliberalism”.58

This is certainly true of Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great (2007), whose gratuitous celebration of George W Bush’s use of cluster bombs in Afghanistan made him one of the most outspoken supporters of the war, and whose aggressive Islamophobia is, purportedly, merely a part of his hatred for all religion. He believed that atheists had a special ability to comment on the war on terror. Sam Harris has adopted the same line, suggesting that most liberals have failed to understand “how dangerous and depraved our enemies in the Muslim world are”. He even goes so far as to suggest that “the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists”.59 Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a “feminist atheist” associated with New Atheism and a fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, argues that “all Muslim schools” should be closed down.60 Some of these ideas are also beginning to emerge in Germany via more homegrown voices. There now exists a veritable list of consultants being invited with increasing regularity onto German television and radio, including heads of “ex-Muslim” organisations whose main strategic use in media debates appears to be to offer “insider” credibility to the claim that Islam is, after all, a violence-oriented religion and must be curtailed.

All of this represents what Australian writer Jeff Sparrow has called the “weaponisation of atheism”—the instrumentalisation of a valid critique of religion for the purposes of extreme right-wing or neo-conservative interests. As Sparrow notes, not everyone inspired by the New Atheists is a “Hitchensian warmonger”; many of them indeed opposed the invasion of Iraq and the excessive Islamophobia of these figureheads. Nevertheless, he cautions, the leading representatives of the movement “express ideas that otherwise we’d associate with the hard right”.61 As Eagleton observes sharply, the anti-religion invectives of Dawkins & co. have never been accompanied or paralleled by a substantive critique of the global capitalist system, which “generates the hatred, anxiety, insecurity and sense of humiliation that breed fundamentalism”.62 Dawkins believes, for example, that the conflict in Northern Ireland would disappear if religion did—as though three or so centuries of British imperialism and colonial expansion was inconsequential—and that Islamist terrorism is based on religious/theological ideas rather than arising out of specific geopolitical conditions.

Why we should support religious freedom unconditionally

The upshot of all this is that atheism in the abstract is not necessarily progressive. Moreover, it cannot be held up as an ossified ideal devoid of a real-world context. As Marx noted, atheism may be a precondition for a fully equal, democratic, communist society, but it “is at first far from being communism; indeed, that atheism still mostly an abstraction”.63 This is because

Religious estrangement as such occurs only in the realm of consciousness, of man’s inner life, but economic estrangement is that of real life… The philanthropy of atheism is therefore at first only philosophical, abstract philanthropy, and that of communism is at once real and directly bent on action.64

It is crucial for Marxists to have a strong critique of religion and its function under capitalism.65 We must recognise the power of anti-materialist ideas of miraculous and heavenly beings in hindering ordinary people from ­recognising their own human power to destroy the “heartless world” of capitalism and replace it with a society in which people would not need to look to the heavens for a riposte to poverty, unhappiness, violence and crime. However, it is also crucial that such a critique remains dynamically engaged with the material and historically specific conditions on the ground and does not become a dogmatic hindrance to our opposition to fascism, racism and oppression. Some strands of Islam are indeed reactionary, just as some strands of Catholicism are reactionary. Hindu nationalism has in recent history been a bulwark for the Indian right wing, while Pentecostal Christian organisations have offered significant legitimacy to US imperialism and war. And in early 2013, Buddhist monks in Myanmar (80 percent majority Buddhist) led a series of brutal pogroms against Muslims (commonly regarded as non-citizens), razing homes and setting fire to mosques. The function and standing of Islam in Germany and Europe should not be confused with its function and standing in, for example, Saudi Arabia, where it constitutes the state religion and takes a particularly reactionary form (Wahhabism). Nor should the “Christian West” of Europe be mistaken for an ideal model of the secular state, and certainly not Germany, which collects a levy for the church from all citizens’ taxes unless they opt out, to say nothing of Italy or Poland.

Discussing socialist strategy towards religion, Lenin in 1909 provided a hypothetical example: A group of workers under the influence of the Church are, with the help of their local priest, organising a Christian trade union which then has a strike. What should Marxists do? Head down to the strike and try to convince the workers of atheism? No, because “to preach atheism at such a time, and in such circumstances, would only be playing into the hands of the church and the priests” and would merely perpetuate division of people along religious lines. The Marxist, he says,

must be a materialist, ie an enemy of religion. But he must be a dialectical materialist, ie one who fights against religion not in the abstract, not by means of abstract, purely theoretical propaganda, equally suited to all times and to all places, but concretely, on the basis of the class-struggle actually proceeding… The Marxist must be able to judge the situation as a whole.66

Socialist or Marxist strategy must not be reduced to “abstract ideological preaching”; rather, it must be aimed at “eliminating the social roots of religion”. In a passage that virtually speaks back to the New Atheists a whole century before their time, Lenin continues:

Why does religion retain its hold…? Because of the ignorance of the people, replies the bourgeois progressist, the radical or the bourgeois materialist. And so: “Down with religion and long live atheism; the dissemination of atheist views is our chief task!” The Marxist says that this is not true, that it is a superficial view, the view of narrow bourgeois uplifters. It does not explain the roots of religion profoundly enough; it explains them, not in a materialist but in an idealist way. In modern capitalist countries these roots are mainly social. The deepest root of religion today is the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparently complete helplessness in face of the blind forces of capitalism, which [are even] more severe than those inflicted by extra-ordinary events, such as wars, earthquakes, etc… No educational book can eradicate religion from the minds of masses who are [at the mercy of] capitalism, until those masses themselves learn to fight this root of religion, fight the rule of capital in all its forms, in a united, organised, planned and conscious way.67

For this reason, he concludes, the fight against religious ideas is secondary to the fight against imperialism and capitalism, and for an equal, democratic world. Solidarity with the oppressed and against the forces of anti-democracy should be the priority.

It is not the granting of Islamic religious content to pupils in Hessian state schools that poses the greatest threat to secularism in Germany, or indeed the preachings of Pierre Vogel. Rather, it is the racism of the Sarrazin-ites and more broadly of the Islamophobic politial and media elite that offers the most effective recruitment drive for jihadi politics. As the Lebanese Marxist Gilbert Achcar succinctly puts it:

Islamophobia is the best objective ally of Islamic fundamentalism: their growth goes together. The more the left gives the impression of joining the dominant Islamophobia, the more they will alienate the Muslim populations, and the more they will facilitate the task of the Islamic fundamentalists, who will appear as the only people able to express the protests of the populations concerned against “real misery”.68

It is imperative, therefore, that the left in general—including Die Linke—continually adopts a position of unconditional support for religious freedom for all, otherwise we not only begin to participate in oppression, but we cut ourselves off from the very people we are trying to motivate for the struggle not just for religious freedom, but for universal human freedom.


1 Many thanks to Volkhard Mosler, David Meienreis, Jan-Peter Hermann, Mona Dohle, Marijam Sariaslani, Florian Butollo, Rosemarie Nünning, Jimmy Yan, Phil Butland and Alex Callinicos for their helpful and critical comments on earlier drafts. This article was first published in German in November 2012 in the journal Theorie21—Davison, 2012. It has been revised and updated. All translations of German sources are my own.

3 The Cologne New Year’s Eve events involved claims that up to a thousand men of North African or Arabic appearance were involved in mob-style attacks on women in the main Cathedral square. The majority of attacks appear to have involved petty theft, but hundreds of charges of sexual assault have also been brought, including two cases of rape. For a more detailed discussion, see Davison, 2016.

4 Hagen, 2016.

5 Meisner, 2016.

6 Buchholz, 2016.

7 Neues Deutschland, 2016.

8 Bax, 2014.

9 Spiegel Online, 2015a.

10 Spiegel Online, 2015b.

11 Deutsche Welle, 2016. Another surge in far-right support occurred in the early-mid 1990s when the Republikaner party achieved 10.9 percent in Baden-Württemberg.

12 Fest, 2014.

13 Tagesspiegel, 2016.

14 Schulz and Klöckner, 2014.

15 Schwarzer, 2014.

16 This point was made well by Dalia Wissgott-Moneta in the Jüdische Allgemeine—Wissgott-Moneta, 2012.

17 Jelpke, 2012, p8.

18 Landgericht Köln, 2012.

19 Spiegel Online, 2012.

20 Cited in Ruf, 2012, p81.

21 Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2010.

22 Infratest-dimap, 6-7 October 2010.

23 Hebel and Elmer, 2015.

24 Stern, 2015.

25 For example, Sarrazin’s claim that Jews are genetically predisposed to be smarter—Sarrazin, 2010, p316.

26 Marfleet and Yuval-Davis, 2012.

27 Die Linke, 2010. See also Benz, 2009 (especially introduction, pp9-20).

28 Franz and others, 2012.

29 Müller, 2010.

30 Müller, 2010.

31 Ehrenberg and Huber, 2012.

32 Fietz, 2012.

33 See for example the case of “Christian” reported in Jessen, 2015.

34 This was a comment made by a participant on an email list server about the forum.

35 Ghelli, 2012.

36 Religious instruction can be taken as an optional stream.

37 Harnack, 2010.

38 Marfleet and Yuval-Davis, 2012, pp4-5.

39 Marfleet and Yuval-Davis, 2012, p5.

40 Marx, 1947.

41 Lenin, 1909.

42 Siegel, 1986, p195.

43 Marx, 1842.

44 Engels, 1886.

45 Siegel, 1986, p22.

46 Marx, 1843-44 (italics in original).

47 Erfurt Program, 1891, item 5.

48 State bans on certain aspects of religion did, however, become a feature of Joseph Stalin’s reactionary regime later on.

49 Crouch, 2006.

50 Trotsky, 1946.

51 Boulangé, 2004.

52 Wolfreys, 2012. For a more thorough discussion of developments in France in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, see Wolfreys, 2015.

53 Wolfreys, 2012, p35.

54 Safdar, 2015.

55 Chrisafis, 2012.

56 For more information and a closer analysis of the politics of FEMEN, see Davison, 2013, including further information in the comments section.

58 Eagleton, 2006, pp32-34.

59 Harris, 2006.

60 van Bakel, 2007

61 Sparrow, 2012.

62 Eagleton, 2006.

63 Marx, 1844.

64 Marx, 1844.

65 For a more theoretically detailed discussion of the Marxist explanation of religion, see Molyneux, 2008.

66 Lenin, 1909.

67 Lenin, 1909.

68 Achcar, 2005.


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