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Gary Younge
Illiberal secularism

Her performance and popularity signified a nascent liberalism following the recent end of Sharia law. The rocks that rained down on both her and the crowd courtesy of the Muslim Brotherhood symbolised the precariousness of that liberalism in a country where fundamentalists would soon regain control.

A year later, just hours before my mother's funeral in Barbados, the pastor told me I would have to unplait my hair before he would let me attend. Only women wore plaits, and God would not approve. When I asked him to show me the part of the Bible that says men cannot wear plaits, he told me it was his church and my choice. I took them out.

Such experiences are illustrative, rather than formative, of why I have never been a great fan of religion. I don't trust things I can't argue with, and religion, at its core, is one of them. I have a philosophical problem with submitting my destiny to a higher being; a political problem with religious institutions that discriminate against women, lesbians and gay men; and a spiritual problem with giving a name to my sense of what is morally right and wrong.

However, I would not go as far as to call myself an atheist. I am more of a lapsed agnostic. I used to not know, but it's quite a while since I've even thought about it. Growing up in a country with an established church has not scarred me. But I'm sure if I had grown up anything other than nominally Protestant it might have alienated me.

I support the separation of church and state, but with few illusions since it is painfully obvious that a secular constitution gives no guarantee of a secular culture. A global poll, conducted last year by Pew research centre, that asked "Is it necessary to believe in God to be moral" found views in the US to be closer to those in Pakistan and Bangladesh than to those in Britain.

In short, when it comes to religion I would call myself a liberal secularist. Yet when I hear most liberals talking about secularism, I want to seek sanctuary in the nearest church, synagogue or mosque. As the French parliament prepares to debate the bill banning the hijab, yarmulke and turban in schools, it is time for Europe's secularism to catch up and secularists to calm down.

Religions are rarely equal in power, and their relative strengths and significance shift according to time and place. To take a crude example, being a Jew in Germany in the 30s did not remotely mean the same as being a Catholic. Nor does it mean the same thing as being a Jew in Germany now. To take a complex one, Muslims in western Europe remain the most vulnerable to racist violence but, according to research, they account for a growing number of the perpetrators of anti-semitic attacks. This is not a competition to see who is most oppressed - sadly there is enough misery to go around. It simply shows that while the scriptures haven't changed, just about everything else has, apart from, it seems, many secularists' understanding of the world.

Take France. The French government's motivation appears to be twofold. It says it is defending the secular nature of its republic and, in so doing, facilitating the integration of minority groups. It is wrong on both counts, essentially for the same reason.

Its secular traditions were secured after the revolution. The monarchy had held absolute control with the active assistance of the clergy, but in 1789 the monarchy was abolished and the church sidelined. However, a lot has happened in 215 years. After a brief spell, the French decided the universal rights of man did not apply to non-white people. Instead they built and lost an empire, and millions of former subjects came to the metropole to make their home as citizens. In the meantime there was the Dreyfus affair, the Vichy regime which collaborated with the Nazis and of course the Holocaust.

So today the target of these secularist ideals in France, and in much of western Europe, is not a section of the ruling class (the US is an entirely different matter) but groups who are ethnically and racially marginalised.

In short, the principle obstacle to the integration of Arab and Jewish children in France has never been the hijab and yarmulke but racism and anti-semitism. Those to whom liberty, equality and fraternity have meant either deportation, colonisation or incineration can be forgiven for looking askance when the state reaches for its constitution.

The French president, Jacques Chirac, a man who once complained that immigrants had breached the "threshold of tolerance" and were sending French workers "mad" with their "noise and smell" knows this only too well. Who can blame them for refusing to integrate into a culture that gives more than a quarter of its votes to a fascist?

That does not mean those secularist ideals should be abandoned or that all manifestations of religion must be embraced so long as they come from those who suffer discrimination. What it does mean is that if European secularism does not adapt its principles to the 21st century, it will be easily, and not entirely mistakenly, understood as racism.

For on a continent where racism and anti-semitism are on the rise, religion is oftentimes not simply an incidental marker of a person's belief but a crucial part of a racial and ethnic identity perceived to be under assault. In these circumstances a mosque is not just a place of worship - it is a place you won't be spat at, where you know you will find people who look like you, speak the same mother tongue and have an understanding of what you are going through.

So when British cabinet ministers and commentators question the loyalty of Muslims to the country in which they live and Jews are held responsible for Israel's actions, the tectonic plates of racial discourse are clearly sliding from race to religion and colour to creed.

Herein lies the paradox of David Blunkett's proposals to outlaw religious discrimination. The home secretary's reckless, racist language has contributed in no small part to the very conditions that might make the proposals necessary. If liberals oppose them, they must do so in the knowledge that the only reason religious groups are being made a special case is because bigotry has made them a special case.

There is something seriously wrong with a national identity that forces Muslims and Jews to choose between their religion and their nationality. Similarly, there is something seriously wrong with a liberalism that forces progressive people to choose between secularism and anti-racism.

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