The Church of England, the British reassure themselves, is a church that doesn’t really believe in anything. Hence even the most liberal English person can be intensely relaxed about the fact that this country has an established religion whose leading men sit in the legislature by divine right.
It probably is true that Anglicanism, at least in the UK, Ireland and North America, is more liberal than the other Christian offerings - at least for now. But this can leave some of its acolytes thirsting for something more, something fervent, authentic, real.
Step forward the Reverend Giles Fraser.
Fraser’s “Loose Canon” column in the Guardian regularly reveals a yearning for something more than the bake sales and roof-fund raffles that are the lot of the average Anglican priest. He is drawn to the extreme, whether that be the sinister ideology of Neturei Karta, (who Fraser has incorrectly identified as
speaking for representative of the majority of Haredi Jews in their hardline anti-Zionism), or the jihadist CAGE group.
Both of these groups find their way into mainstream liberal culture by using commonly held, recognisable ideas (opposition to Israeli policy towards Palestine, concern over Islamophobia and the war on terror), to further their actual agendas (in both cases, hardline, exclusive religious interpretations).
Fraser’s column this week (Assimilation threatens the existence of other cultures) is a response, in part, to the Casey review on community integration, an almost universally-derided piece of work trotting out the usual cliches amounting to an Eric Bristow tweet given a sheen of respectability. The report is crass enough to use the Rotherham, sex abuse scandal as a typical failure of integration, ignoring the other aspects of that horrific story. As Oliver Kamm wrote on the Prospect website:
“[I]t serves to place the moral onus on ethnic minorities for supposed failures of integration. That’s a shabby thing to do, in a document that bears more resemblance to a long and unsubstantiated opinion column than a serious review of the state of Britain.”
Fraser decides to forgo valid criticism of the report, instead launching a full frontal assault on what he sees as the assimilationist tendency in British society.
He starts with the story of a young Jewish man he has heard of, who, despite having been born and raised in London, can only speak Yiddish.
For the Reverend Fraser, this is a cause for celebration. “Some may be appalled by the insularity of the community in which this young man was raised. But I admire it” says Fraser, suggesting that the Hasidic community of Stamford Hill is succeeding in resisting “assimilation”. That they do this by sending children to schools where they do not learn even the most basic life skills, thus rendering them entirely dependent on their community, is of no consequence to Fraser, who attended Uppingham, then Newcastle University, did his PhD at Lancaster and later taught at Oxford.
Fraser continues: “It adds immeasurably to the richness and diversity of how life is apprehended that not everyone sees the world in the same way. It is mind-expanding to be challenged by those who commit to another way of life.”
Which works oh so well for Fraser, but not so much for the young Jewish men and women in north London who can barely communicate with the wider world. They must be denied this immeasurable richness so that Fraser can have more of it.
Fraser then goes on to criticise communities secretary and Star Trek enthusiast Sajid Javid, who accused some members of minorities of “refusing to integrate” and “failing to embrace the shared values”. Javid is like the Borg, says Fraser, forcing assimilation on all he encounters.
The reverend concludes: “Of course, the barely concealed target of Casey’s report is Muslims. They are serial offenders in their resistance to the hegemony of integration. They won’t allow the Borg-like values of secular liberalism to corrode their distinctiveness. They seek to maintain their religious convictions and way of life. They refuse all that nonsense about religion being a private matter. They stand strong against the elimination of diversity. And we are all immeasurably richer for their resistance.”
A paragraph where he starts off right but quickly goes supernova-scale wrong.
It is blatantly clear that, yes, reports like Louise Casey’s are aimed at Muslims. No one in government is really talking about how Plymouth Brethren engage with the rest of the world, or even those Yiddish speaking young man in Stamford Hill Fraser started off with.
But Fraser’s portrayal of “Muslims” here is alarmingly simplistic. The idea that a large diverse group such as British Muslims universally share a single attitude to the secular world is simplistic, sinister, and selfish. For a start, where does Sajid Javid fit in Fraser’s idea of Muslims?
Quite simply, for Fraser, Muslims are exotic, extreme, unpredictable, irrational people: they fulfil his idea of the euphoria and unreason he yearns for: in a column in May 2015, headlined “”I believe in an authority greater than David Cameron’s. Am I an extremist?
“And then along comes Islam – and, thankfully, it disrupts this absurd game and refuses to play by the rules. Its practitioners want to talk about God, sex and politics rather than mortgages, school places and the latest Boden catalogue.”
If that’s not orientalism, I’m really not sure what is.
Fraser is just as excited by the current narrative as Louise Casey is: both see every Muslim as a potential violent extremist: but Fraser doesn’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. At very least, he is drawn to the idea.
This is a type, of course. In the 80s and 90s, British people of this mindset, such as Ken Livingstone, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, were drawn to Irish republicanism. It had the same air of excitement. They could sing rebel songs in Kilburn and Camden’s Irish pubs, shout “Up the ‘Ra” and giggle at their transgressiveness, buy An Phoblacht, make a donation to “the cause” as the buckets went round and perhaps, one day, meet someone who might have held a gun to someone’s head.
Now that Sinn Féin are in government in Belfast, all the fun’s gone out of the Irish (such passionate, fervent at times irrational people, don’t you think?), so the groupies have moved on to another simplistic, dangerous view of people who they can wear like a lapel pin and discard when they get too boring. Fraser dismisses integration policies as “little more than a dash of cultural colour at homeopathic levels: a calendar of exotic festivals, some religious fancy dress, a Christmas tree here, some Hanukkah candles there”, but it is he who is using real people with real issues as mere accessories for his own radical chic.