The rise of radical secularists

8 Apr 2020

 

As I’m sure you’re aware, the former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and prominent journalist Trevor Phillips has been suspended from the Labour Party over allegations of Islamophobia, relating to his past comments.

 

Now, while the laughable irony of a party currently dabbed in various racism and antisemitism allegations of its own to take the moral high ground on anything is obvious, that’s beside the point.

 

What it reminded me of was the political movement that Phillips (intentionally or otherwise) was a part of. It had no distinct left or right-wing base, but whose ideas have influenced many governments and policy makers across the Western world. It may have criticised and even hated religion as a concept (some more than others), but at the same time preached tolerance to one another.

 

And while many of its proponents may have been on the fringes of politics, its commitment to freedom, civil liberties and free speech made it distinct. I’m of course talking about the radical secularists.

 

Who are the radical secularists? They are a group of political activists, from all ideological stripes, who plan to stand up for a tolerant society where religion gives way to reason and freedom is cherished beyond anything else.

 

They’re a bizarre combination of Enlightenment liberal values, a pro-West global outlook, and range from being secular and multicultural to being anti-religious (especially towards Islam) or sceptical of it on the basis that it fringes on human rights and civil liberties. Additionally, they are sometimes, albeit not always, pro-interventionist when it comes to military conflicts overseas – especially against specific targets like Iran.

 

Their biggest period was definitely during the 2000s. This is mainly because the neoconservative foreign policy that many of them espouse was beaten up by the governments of the West – namely  in response to Iraq, when most of the radical secularists supported it, even if some have changed their tune since then.

 

Also, there were various Islamic terror attacks (like 9/11 and 7/7) and incidents involving Islamic extremists in that decade (like the Danish cartoons controversy and the War on Terror). There was more debate and questions about Islam’s place in the West of which gave such ideas the proverbial flame that they needed to become popular, for better or worse.

 

Who are some of the biggest names in the movement? There are many, but they all occupy various elements of the political aisle. Some are undoubtedly on the right, like political columnists Douglas Murray and Melanie Phillips, and include prominent neoconservatives, like Middle East Forum head Daniel Pipes and The New York Times columnist Bret Stephens.

 

Others are definitely on the left, such as the aforementioned Trevor Phillips and the late philosopher and journalist Christopher Hitchens), whilst some are more centrist and liberal – like Quilliam Foundation founder and LBC host Maajid Nawaz and comedian Pat Condell. There are also those who occupy the more extreme elements of politics, including far-right English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson and anti-Islam founder of For Britain Movement, Anne Marie Waters).

 

A bizarre bunch perhaps, but it’s very telling that such a mix of ideas so strong as to be able to unite people as varied as former president George W. Bush and famed biologist Richard Dawkins.

 

So, what’s good about their ideology? Well, it cherishes freedom, and that is no bad thing by any stretch. It also embraces reason, which is also good. Its main benefits are the best parts of Enlightenment thinking. It thrives on debate and reason to further its arguments, all the while standing up for the good values of Western civilisation against any and all hostile attacks from it, whether it be from the revolutionary left, hardcore Marxists or Islamists alike.

 

 

And while many are from the left, their willingness to criticise their own side when it’s necessary is something many could learn from on both sides, especially given the polarisation our political climate is currently in. And many don’t support the big state government unlike many neocons (who they’re ideologically aligned with), so there’s that.

 

If that’s the case, what’s so bad about it? Well, several things. The main one is their creative destruction. While it is happy to destroy, it doesn’t create, which is a massive problem during a time where the West is in its worst identity crisis in decades. While some still want to preserve religion, those who don’t often play in to the hands of the radical left.

 

It also doesn’t help that their hostile views to many religions is alienating as well, especially their overzealous hatred of Islam, which unfortunately gives rise to straight anti-Muslim hatred. From a conservative angle, their emphasis on pushing away traditional values in favour of a more multicultural, globalised West can often undermine many of the great things that it stands for (especially those surrounding religious moral values and community cohesion).

 

So, it’s not surprising that such views, while initially popular, haven’t taken steam as strongly in the last decade as the political debate has moved swiftly on to other major problems, like immigration, globalisation and economics. While some radical secularists have been able to add to this conversation, especially with Murray’s excellent last two books on such matters: The Strange Death of Europe and The Madness of Crowds), many others haven’t as they often support the establishment on such matters.

 

It’s clear that the ideology has had its time as the political conversation changes and focuses on more pressing problems. That being noted, their good ideas (mainly those of free speech and freedom of thought) are still worth defending, and are no better needed than in a time of cancel culture, like the suspension of Trevor Phillips from the Labour Party, among many others.

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