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Ethnic and Racial Studies

ISSN: 0141-9870 (Print) 1466-4356 (Online) Journal homepage:

Religion, faith, and intersectionality

Michael Banton
To cite this article: Michael Banton (2011) Religion, faith, and intersectionality, Ethnic and
Racial Studies, 34:7, 1248-1253, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2011.582727
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Published online: 16 Jun 2011.

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Date: 10 September 2015, At: 22:39

Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol. 34 No. 7 July 2011 pp. 12481253


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Religion, faith and intersectionality

Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 220 pp., 55.00 (cloth).
Hamburg: Korber Stiftung, 2011, 190 pp., t16.00 (paper).
When is it better to use the word faith rather than the word religion?
I have wondered about this since reading, in Ethnic and Racial Studies,
vol. 23, no. 3, Mary Searle-Chatterjees criticism of the hold that the
world religions paradigm has upon the classification of beliefs and
practices. Perhaps it is better to keep religion for institutionalized
behaviour and faith for the beliefs and practices of individuals?
Although their argument rests upon other distinctions, Macey and
Carling might see value in such a distinction. When reviewing their
truly excellent book for readers of Ethnic and Racial Studies, the best
place to start may be the authors observation that in Europe,
historically, the liberal solution to religious conflict was to locate
religion in the private sphere; now we are confronted by the
multicultural proposal to bring it back into the public arena
(p. 146). The observation is accurate, but, of course, the solution
was a Protestant one that has been variously implemented in different
countries. Those who speak for Islam and for Roman Catholicism
cannot accept the liberal solution.
How is it that the liberal solution is now challenged? The authors
outline the process by which religion has become a distinct
dimension of the equalities agenda alongside the racial and ethnic
dimensions. Protective legislation has followed in paths established
earlier. The International Convention on the Elimination of All
Forms of Racial Discrimination protects human rights in the
political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.
The rights to work, to housing, and to education are defined as
falling within the public sphere. The Convention on the Elimination
ISSN 0141-9870 print/1466-4356 online
DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2011.582727

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of All Forms of Discrimination against Women details some

corresponding rights but, significantly, no restriction to public life
appears within it. The protection of the rights of women has
breached a dividing line.
The word intersectionality is used to designate the disadvantages
that women experience because their gender category is so closely
associated with other disadvantageous social categories (like some in
the job market). What Macey and Carling call communal identity,
which they see as composed of race and ethnicity and religion, is
another form of intersectionality. It produces hyphen-groups in the
conceptualizations employed by social commentators. The reality is
usually less simple. When, in 1992, Bosnia was in the news, the mass
media reported on ethnic Muslims. A British politician, Claire Short,
followed suit when she said that she was an ethnic Catholic. Baroness
Kishwer Falkner describes herself as a secular Muslim, though some
Muslims would say that this is a contradiction in terms. What cannot
be disputed is that the degree of association between social categories
is a variable to be measured empirically. The association of religion
with ethnic origin is split both by the recognition of ethnic Muslims
and by conversions. Five thousand ethnic Europeans convert to Islam
every year.
Macey and Carling document the continuing process of secularization in Europe shown by declining observance in organized
(mainly Christian) religions, together with the accompanying shift
from forms of religion that are imposed or inherited to forms of
religion that are primarily chosen (p. 147, quoting Davie). At the
same time, stimulated by the settlement of migrants from countries
outside Europe, religion has become a basis for collective action in
the public sphere. Moreover, the move towards choice in faith has
added to the controversies over claims made in the name of religion.
These trends have resulted in a striking disjunction between the
place of organised religion in the spheres of politics, culture and the
law, and its place in peoples lives (p. 148). The discrepancy between
the evidence in the field (faith) and the received opinions (about
religion) of the ostensible experts is said to have arisen from
ideological influences upon the ways that issues are approached
and policies conceived.
This ideology has two branches. One the one hand there is what we
have called the ideology of religious injustice (p. 152). This ideology is
characterized by the conceptual inflation implicit in assumptions that
all inequality is the product of external factors; that all inequality
results from injustice, and so on. The other branch is connected with
multiculturalism, which needs to be seen against the background of
the subjectivist turn within Western culture more generally, linked
especially to the rise of postmodernism, and the emphasis on an

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identity politics of recognition, at the expense of a material politics of

distribution (p. 152).
The combined effect of these two ideologies can be traced both at
the level of perception and at the level of practice; it has
strengthened the argument for the recognition of religious injustice
by government and in law (p. 153). Yet the purported documentation of discrimination on the grounds of religion has relied on
evidence of perceptions, not of measured experience. Evidence of
disadvantage has often been interpreted as evidence of discrimination. Loose use of a contentious expression, Islamophobia, has
restricted reasoned argument about observed behaviour (pp. 69, 87).
The two ideologies have weakened the concern for injustices within
ethno-religious communities, so that action against forced marriage
has been enfeebled. Nor have there been any prosecutions under the
Female Circumcision Act of 1985 or its 2003 replacement. The
obstacles to so-called transracial adoptions have been a further
example of surrender to transient political correctness. The
ideologies have tended to overplay the injustices experienced by
men especially in civil society and downplay the injustices experienced by women (and LGBT individuals), either in civil society or in
community life (p. 153).
If British experience is to be located in a frame that facilitates
comparison with trends in other countries, it may be helpful to note
changes in the association of the racial and the religious categories
over a longer time period. In 1983 (Sociology, vol. 17, no. 4, p. 557)
I argued that there was a change in black-white relations in England
in the late 1950s. The majority population had believed that the
possession of colonies was to the nations benefit and that colonial
people generally came to Britain either to study or as visitors. Then,
round about 1958, at a time when the public learned that the colonies
were becoming independent, they discovered that newcomers from the
West Indies and South Asia were not visitors but settlers. I concluded
that as long as the Empire was run by people of English, Welsh,
Scottish and Irish ancestry, and of white appearance, ancestry,
appearance and political power were equated: being British meant all
three [. . .] One of the last consequences of Empire was the change in
the composition of the British population and its internal relations
[. . .] Because relations between whites and blacks are no longer
relations between imperial and colonial people, the English, for the
first time in a hundred years, have to ask what is to define their
The expectation that ancestry and appearance went together as part
of their daily lives was upset when the English found that they were
sharing parts of those lives with people whom they had thought
did not belong in their country. As decolonization gave way to

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globalization, they had to reshuffle their ideas about social categories

at a time when new laws told them that they might not, in the public
sphere, treat anyone less favourably on the ground of colour, race or
ethnic or national origins.
Maybe there was a difference between those countries which, like
France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, had colonies, and visits from
people who lived in them, and those countries which, like Germany
after 1918, did not. The difference affected the nature of immigrant
settlement and the kinds of discussion about integration that followed.
In Germany it has taken the form of an ill-informed debate about the
place of Islam. At a conference in the University of Westminster in
2011, a journalist from Die Zeit, Jo rg Lau, maintained that the debate
was at least as much a controversy about the German, the European,
the Christian, and the secular identity. A similar argument has been
developed by a Turkish-born writer, Zafer S enocak, in a collection of
S enocak observes that the generation which had experienced World
War Two kept silent about the recent past. There was little use of
national symbols. Then the next generation asked reproachful
questions and opened the era of Vergangenheitsbema
ktigung, of
coming to terms with the past. It was succeeded by a period in
which Germans lacked words to express their incoherent sense of who
they were. They had seen themselves as den deutschen Volk  even
today, S enocak writes, Deutsche Nation sounds a neologism  but the
Volk had been an identification of ancestry, appearance, and political
power and that had come apart. As in Britain, there were Germans
who complained, We feel as if we are in a foreign land and
I recognise my country no longer. They could regain a little of their
lost sense of belonging by opposing their sense of identity to that of
the Muslim newcomer.
Now, according to Lau, there is a new German patriotism, on one
level expressed by identification with the German football team, on
another level in constitutional patriotism (Merkur 2006, pp. 689
690). According to the columnist Franz Josef Wagner, it began when
it became possible for a former member of the Hitler Youth, Joseph
Aloisius Ratzinger, to be elected Pope. The Holocaust has become
part of German history and not its culmination. Yet the controversies
over the place of Islam have attained a new intensity. Some features
are specifically German; others are common in Western countries.
Among the latter is the tendency to refer to Muslims as if they were
all alike. This is an association of social categories  a hyphenation 
on a grand scale, for Islam is as divided as Christianity (and
Hinduism even more so). Journalists, pollsters, and politicians
may protest that they cannot manage without such generalizations.
Thus, the Gallup poll reported in 2009 that British Muslims identify

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with Britain more strongly than non-Muslim Britons (77 per cent
compared with 50 per cent). Similar findings have been reported in
Germany. They are first approximations that grasp only a fraction of
what is going on.
European public opinion has been offended by practices (for
example, in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan) that those responsible
believe to be enjoined by the sharia. Their claims to scriptural
authority should be questioned. A colleague of mine, the late Badr
Dahya, explained to me in a private letter that: It is not often
realized that the sharia is not divine and immutable. It is based on
general principles derived from the Quran and supplemented by the
Prophets Traditions. It did not come into existence all of a sudden
but evolved over centuries and was codified in the 11th C. In
codifying the sharia, jurisconsults were, as in all tribally-organized
societies, custom-bound, and their traditional behaviour and values
as established by precedents acquired sanctity for them. They
disregarded the textual significance of various injunctions, reforms
and principles embodied in the Quran. For example, the punishment for adultery in the Quran for both man and woman is one
hundred lashes each but the sharia changed this to death by
stoning. There is no provision for apostasy in the Quran but it is in
the sharia. Lay Muslims have been conned into believing that the
sharia is of divine origin, and here the fault lies with the mullahs.
Fazhar Rahman (d. 1988), a distinguished Pakistani scholar has
observed Islamic law. . . is on closer examination a body of legal
opinions. . . an endless discussion on the duties of a Muslim rather
than a neatly formulated code or codes . Muslim scholars maintain
that their fellow-believers should study their spiritual inheritance in
order to learn its lessons for the present.
The parallels with Christianity are intriguing and important. How
and when did Mohammeds oral revelation attain written form? How
and when were Hebrew and Christian texts selected and used to
compile the Catholic and Protestant Bibles? How much is to be
learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls? Some Muslims and some
Christians believe every passage in their scriptures to be of equal
authority. Scholars give reasons to the contrary, but disagree among
themselves. Some Christian mullahs are also at fault; they do not
explore their spiritual inheritance and have not yet absorbed the
theological discoveries of the nineteenth century. Opinion polls in
Britain disclose how few respondents can name the four gospels or the
first commandment, yet many of these respondents have a sort of
Christian faith that exists in an uncertain relationship with the
Christian religion. If some are classed as secular Christians, that
only creates new problems since the notion of the secular has meaning
only in opposition to the sacred.

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In Germany, discussion of the place of religion in the equalities

agenda may follow the path taken in Britain. Even if it does not, it
could well use a distinction between organized religion and the very
disorganized panorama of individual faith because the right to
freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is an individual right.
# 2011 Michael Banton
School of Sociology, Politics and International Relations,
University of Bristol