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With God, or without
Atheists and religious people can fight oppression together In the early 1980s I joined my local branch of CND. We met in the Quaker meeting hall because they let us use it for free. My first meeting there was an interesting experience. The speaker was
Saturday, April 7,2007 00:00
by Sasha Simic, Guardian

Atheists and religious people can fight oppression together

In the early 1980s I joined my local branch of CND. We met in the Quaker meeting hall because they let us use it for free.

My first meeting there was an interesting experience. The speaker was a Church of England bishop who gave a talk on the ethics of nuclear disarmament. He started by telling us he did not believe in a God that separated the sheep from the goats and that all life was threatened by nuclear weapons.

After he had spoken for 20 minutes the floor was open for questions and a voice piped up: "What was that about sheep and goats?"

The Bishop explained that it was a biblical reference which alluded to God sorting the good from the bad. The voice then asked why God discriminated against goats. Were they less worthy than sheep?

The Bishop explained that he didn’t think that this was a value judgement against goats but merely an analogy.

But surely, the voice persisted, it implied that goats were inferior animals in the eyes of a God responsible for all creation. Was it fair of God to blame the goats for a status he had imposed on them?

The Bishop agreed that it was a theological grey area but shouldn’t be taken too literally. The voice hoped this was so because she kept goats ... and rabbits. What did God think about rabbits?

I had joined this group to abolish nuclear weapons and instead spent most of the night listening to a pointless discussion on God and livestock.

This was at a time when CND could mobilise hundreds of thousands of people against nuclear weapons in general and Trident in particular. It was, and still is, a broad campaign in which Christians of various denominations played a leading role. One of its foremost spokesmen was Bruce Kent. He still is of course, but back then he was a Monsignor of the Catholic Church.

What never arose back then were complaints from the secular left about the role of Christians in the campaign. Quite correctly, it wasn’t an issue. We were in a movement to abolish nuclear weapons which united people of all beliefs and none against a common threat. People understood the world of difference between the reactionary Pope John-Paul II and the progressive Monsignor Kent, despite the faith they shared. The irrational aspects of Christianity - its belief in hell, its strange rituals involving the symbolic consumption of flesh and blood, its oppression of women and gays - were not a barrier to common struggle. People marched together against the bomb and argued their differences out within the movement.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the majority of delegates to the Cairo International Conference (see my earlier reports here and here) were Muslims. One of the largest opposition groups in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood which has two million members and which would be, were Egypt a democracy, the party of government. The Brotherhood had helped to stage the conference and sent many delegates there. In addition, there were delegations from Hizbullah and Hamas.

In one of the sessions on forging unity between the Left and Muslim organisations, members of Egypt’s old left reluctantly attended and raised many of the arguments we have heard from secularists in the UK. They all boil down to the question of how progressive atheists can work with Muslims. Aren’t they reactionary? Doesn’t Islam treat women as subordinates? Aren’t they anti-gay? How can we work together?

This attitude assumes that Islam is a monolith and that all Muslims share the same outlook. It is nothing but naked bigotry.

This is not to argue that there are no tensions in working together. In that same meeting one old leftist reacted with incredulity when he was told that the Muslim Brotherhood believed in the separation of religion and the state and in democracy: "How can we be sure the first election they win in a democratic Egypt won’t be the last election we ever have?"

A hijabed woman from the Brotherhood replied: "How can WE be sure that the first election you win won’t be the last? We remember what happened under Nasser."

So we didn’t been discuss how many angels can dance on the head of a pin at the Cairo conference. The issues were the war in Iraq, the imperialist ambitions of our rulers, the fight against globalisation and neo-liberalism, the fight for genuine democracy, Palestine, and the struggle for social justice.

Muslims are no more separated from the outside world than any others. Representatives of the victorious strikers from Kafr al-Dawwar and Zifta began their reports to the conference with a "salaam" to the audience and then went on to describe their struggles.

Earnest young women in hijabs asked their leaders why they weren’t calling the masses on to the streets to topple Mubarak. Some of them did ask me if I believed in God. They weren’t offended when I told them I didn’t. They were thoughtful and passionate about social justice and they were light-years from the western stereotype of the submissive Muslim woman.

The spirit of the conference, and of the wider movement beyond it, was summed up in an address by Dr Ali Fayed of Hizbullah: "A person from another religion, be they Christian or Jew - or any atheist - who fights oppression and imperialism, is closer to me than a Muslim who stands with imperialism. The future is with the poor and oppressed.The future is with resistance."

Amen to that.

Other Topics:

Children of MB Detainees Launch "Children For Freedom"
Hashem Amin, Ikhwanweb - Cairo, Egypt
Cairo Antiwar Conference Pledges Solidarity With Egyptian Opposition
Abd Mon’em Mahmoud, Ikhwanweb - Cairo, Egypt
With God, or without
Guardian Unlimited - UK
Resisting our rulers
Slide show: 5th Cairo Anti-War Conference
Anti-globalists reach out to Islamists
Cooperation between Islamists and the left is growing, reports Eric Walberg
New faces, new politics
There is a rising generation of leftist and Islamist activists, reports Gamal Nkrumah
’Our opponents are on the defensive’
John Rees tells Amira Howeidy why the anti-war coalition outlived that of the willing


All Sasha Simic articles

Posted in MB in International press  
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