Nothing has been stirring in my mind more, lately, than this matter of race and religion. Religion is not a trait that one is born with; it is a belief system that presupposes the existence of a supernatural being who commands the universe. There is a difference between believing in a religion and growing up in a racial or ethnic community dominated by it. Just as there is no one way to interpret and practice a faith, there is no reason to think that all who are born into a faith will come to accept its teachings.
Of this last I can personally attest. I grew up in a highly religious family. My earliest memories are of Sunday worship in the hot, vibrant setting of a south Florida church house. It is a well-established fact that black Americans—and black women in particular—are, along with Latinos, the most highly religious group in the country. My family was no exception to this rule. Not only were they religious, but almost everyone we knew was either connected to our church or another one.
Yet, belief in God and the supernatural never touched me. I do not mean that I rebelled against it; I mean that I never had anything whatsoever to do with it in moral feeling or intellectual outlook. Religion left me cold when I came to understand it; and it was all I could do to get through the chore of attending weekly church services (two days a week and twice on Sunday).
I did what I could, like the other kids, to make the most of church society. I made friends and flirted with girls. But by the end of High School I felt I had outgrown these associations. In the year before I left home, I decided to take advantage of having to be a member of the flock. I wanted to test my oratorical and leadership abilities, so I got involved in my church youth group and even preached a sermon on a day designated as youth Sunday. It was based on Psalm 111:10:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth for ever.
I was carried away by the effect my words had on the congregation; not because of any mysterious power running through my bones, but by dint purely of my own pride and vanity. I think it was then that I discovered, in a very half-thought out way, one of the rational principles of religion: it is the result of a human tendency to understand the world by transposing psychical acts into it. I don’t remember what I said during my sermon, but I do know that aside from that first bit of scripture all of it was mine. I recall that the crowd was stirred by my performance. And while I am sure that my youth and lack of authority precluded anyone from taking me seriously, I am also sure—again, owing to first-hand experience—that the words of real preachers were accepted by many in the same crowd as revelations of moral absolutes and as descriptions of how the world works.
Eventually I did leave home. I joined the Navy and was assigned to the Emirate of Bahrain as my first duty station. There I met a number of educated Bahrainis whose views on religion ranged from devout belief to convinced atheism. None, however, not even as grown men, would do or say anything that contradicted the orthodoxy established by the clerics and enforced by the wider society. It was then that I began thinking about the invisible strands of coercion which lurk beneath the smooth surface of piety in religion.
Today, I cannot help thinking that a great many young people growing up in Muslim communities in Europe may have doubts about the Islamic faith. They may feel that it is impossible, however, to go against not only their family but everyone who they have come to love and respect. I have seen a number of newspaper articles and television programs in which young Muslims say they have a choice as to whether and how they practice their faith. I don’t believe that is actually the case. Having grown up under similar circumstances, I know that they would have to disavow their entire means of material security and social support if they decided not to follow the tenants of their faith. Even if they were willing to do so, they would likely face further consequences that would make their lives unbearable.
Now there are many well-meaning secularists and leftists who do not understand what it is like to grow up in an environment in which the whole of one’s life is controlled by religion. Writers such as Ayan Hirsi Ali and Monica Ali have tried to describe it; but many on the cultural left, taking their cues from persons seen as respectable enough to speak for the majority of Muslims, denounced them as peddlers of racist stereotypes. This kind of thinking reflects a failure to take seriously the tensions and contradictions that exist between religion and progressive ideals.
Over the last few decades the Left has put the rights and oppressions of racial minorities at the center of its politics. However, any honest deconstruction of the structures of such oppression cannot stop with white racism; it must also lead to insight into how power is distributed within minority communities, and, ultimately, to an account of who holds power and the uses to which they put it.
In the black community in America, the power of the black preacher is unrivalled. No one can touch him—not the black politician, businessperson, lawyer, or civil rights worker. In many instances, the latter need his support to get anything of significance done. If Imams in Europe do not have the exact same standing, they have something close to it. And although such leaders—in America and Europe—have been involved in advancing some progressive causes, they tend towards retrenchment when it comes to the rights of women and LGBT, and at times promote dubious beliefs about evolution and other scientific truths.
The point in any case is that religious leaders in minority communities prioritize above all else the inculcation of a belief system which holds that an all-knowing, all-powerful consciousness shapes events and takes an interest in human affairs; and their main interest is the creation of a social order which they believe will please him.
What I have described is often defined as group identity. Religious leaders tend to be characterized as individuals who offer guidance and counsel and organizational skill to persons who wish to join with others to observe rituals, celebrate their faith, and fight against injustice and mistreatment. But one must take care to ensure that a particular form of identity is not attached to someone by accident of their birth. Being born into a Christian or Muslim family makes one no more of a believer in superstition than being born into a family of socialists makes one a follower of Karl Marx. However, it is harder to disentangle oneself from the former; for there is much greater pressure to stay true to the faith. It is for this reason that I think progressives should put themselves more in sympathy with the minority within minority groups: those who do not subscribe to the existence of the supernatural.
Furthermore, the clerisy isn’t needed to advance the cause of anti-racism or any other social justice project. In the furtherance of political and social rights for Muslim-majority countries and communities, Salama Moussa, Edward Said, and Naguib Mahfouz should stand as proof enough of this. In the case of the civil rights struggle in America, Martin Luther King Jr. and the work of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference are the most popular references when the topic is broached. But such allusions are based on a limited understanding of American history; for the black churches were quite late in joining the movement.
W.E.B DuBois, a towering figure in the fight for racial equality, a man who was born in the time of Reconstruction and who died the year that King gave his “I have a dream speech” said he never thought he’d live to see a radical black preacher. The statement was apropos. King’s conscription of the black churches in the struggle for civil rights was exceptional not only for its effectiveness but also for the fact that he was able to do it in first place. Until then, pastors and churches had kept out of direct action politics. King pioneered the role of black preacher as civil rights leader. He was at the time, however, carrying on causes that had been initiated well before he arrived on the scene. He was a strong opponent of the Vietnam War and a tireless campaigner for worker rights and economic justice, and was murdered while working on behalf of black sanitation employees who had gone on strike.
It is no wonder that A. Philip Randolph—a socialist, atheist, and trade unionist—was the principle architect of the march at which King gave his famous speech. Before the liberal-Christian civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s there was the even more radical socialist-secularist movements of the 20s and 30s, many of which were led by black intellectuals and political organizers. But The Harlem Tenants League, the Alabama Sharecroppers Union, and Red Chicago have been forgotten. The names Hubert Harrison, Cyril Briggs, Otto Huiswood, Richard B. Moore, Harry Haywood, and Hosea Hudson have been put out of circulation. And the role that artists such as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Paul Robeson had in the radical activism of the period tends to be played down. There seems to be a discomfort, especially among black liberals, to acknowledge the fact that the Communist and Socialist parties offered the first organizing force against racism in America. A solid grasp of this history is required, however, before one can get a clear and accurate picture of the ideas which inspired the persons who spearheaded progressive activism in the country in the early 20th century.
I have gone through this long digression to show that racial and ethnic minorities do not need religion to establish group identity or to work against their own oppression. Those who would restrict how religious criticism is expressed are, unwittingly, acting in deference to religious leaders who have gained the most power in their communities, not to any universal sentiment of the people within them. The voices of non-believers are not as widely heard as those of the faithful, but they exist and are usually the most politically progressive.