Wednesday, 7 September 2011

There is No Hierarchy of Sectarianisms

Audre Lorde once said “there is no hierarchy of oppressions and in Scotland we should be cautious not to create one. 2011 has seen the Scottish parliament attempt to draft and hastily pass legislation on what is publicly celebrated in the political soundbite of “anti-sectarianism legislation” ("Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill"). The rushed draft illustrates little consideration of what sectarianism means and subsequently employs an imbalanced definition. The stated purpose of the legislation is to criminalise behaviour that expresses “hatred of, or stirring up hatred against, a group of persons based on their membership (or presumed membership) of a religious group, a social or cultural group with a perceived religious affiliation”. There are provisions for applying this to hatred against groups other than religious ones but these are sub-sectional clauses. They do not apply to section 5, a crucial part of the bill, which covers all recorded forms of speech. The emphasis is on discrimination or “stirring hatred” against groups defined by religion. The Scottish council of Jewish Communities astutely raised the problem that this “risks creating a hierarchy of discrimination. This would mean that we only discuss “sectarianism” and prejudice in terms of religion thus ignoring ethnocentrism and racism.

No public debate over the meaning of sectarianism has taken place despite widespread calls for one, including from the Harps Community Project, an Irish cultural association, and the Rangers Supporters’ Assembly. There is no agreed academic definition of sectarianism but its use presumes and perhaps normatively demands a higher, enclosed form of national identification. One definition of sectarianism, which circulates widely in the media and on internet forums comes from Wikipedia: "bigotry, discrimination, or hatred arising from attaching importance to perceived differences between subdivisions within a group, such as between different denominations of a religion or factions of a political movement". This presumes the existence of a unified group in the first place; some common identity which is being split between internal sects. However, the issue at hand is tension over group identification itself: people identifying with two different group categories (Irish and British) and competing for recognition and sometimes dominance. Nil By Mouth the leading Scottish charity, which challenges sectarianism, defines sectarianism as “Narrow-minded beliefs that lead to prejudice, discrimination, malice and ill-will towards members, or presumed members, of a religious denomination”. This defines and stigmatises sectarianism as purely a religious issue. This is not an academic exercise- how we define the word could determine who is to be imprisoned for up to 5 years under the new legislation. Without an informed and public debate people will continue to conflate and confuse nationality and religion. The comments of Police Federation Chairman, Les Gray, typified this confusion when he is quoted as conflating a 17th century King of Scotland, England, and Ireland with a contemporary religious leader: "I've been in homes with King Billy on the wall and on the other side with the Pope on the wall, and both sides are just as bad.".

This is not to say that “sectarianism” has nothing to do with religion. However, it is unconvincing to frame the violence on the streets of Scotland after Celtic and Rangers play football and amongst men who do not attend church through the prism of the “Great Schism of Western Christianity” (1378-1416) or the Reformation beginning in the 16th century. Some Celtic fans do choose to sing ‘Roamin in the Gloamin’ (“Fuck King Billy and John Knox”) and some Rangers fans choose to sing ‘No Pope of Rome’ (“No chapels to sadden my eyes”). These songs clearly emphasise religious identification and some would argue hatred of a religious Other. However, it is difficult rely on religion to explain why many more Celtic fans choose to sing The Soldier’s Song, the Irish national anthem, and Rangers fans, Rule Britannia. It seems misleading to discuss “sectarianism” or so-called “sectarian identities” without reference to nationalism and national identities.

In public political debates, there has been too little mention of the competing views on what nation(s) we belong to when we see Scottish, Irish, Northern Irish, and British flags being waved at our football grounds, some of which rightly or wrongly spark antagonism. It is this antagonism which is often at the heart of tensions we tend to describe as “sectarian”. One song sung by Rangers fans and cited as racist and sectarian by Celtic fans is The Famine Song (“the famine is over, why don’t you go home?”). This song does not refer to religion. The song is about telling descendents of Irish immigrants they are no longer welcome in the nation of Scotland and that they should return to their “home” nation. Many Rangers fans and Strathclyde Police assert that The Boys of the Old Brigade is equally “sectarian” (“On Easter morn’ I sigh, for I recall my comrades all, and dark old days gone by”). The song laments the loss of life during the Easter Rising, in which Catholics and Protestants participated. The reference to joining the IRA in the song is what is cited on the blogs of Rangers supporters as “sectarian” and crucially “anti-British. Framing how people think about Irish history today solely through the prism of religion is problematic when people today know Protestants and Catholics alike participated in the Easter Rising. This religious prism fails to help us understand that at heart what is being criticised as sectarian in The Boys of the Old Brigade is about national boundaries not simply religious ones: “anti-British” not anti-Protestant.

The main concern raised in the Rangers Supporters Assembly’s contribution to the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee was that of the singing of “non-patriotic songs”. This presumably refers to songs which are patriotic towards Ireland over Britain such as The Boys of the Old Brigade. The Rangers Supporters Assembly claim this should be included as a prosecutable offence under the new legislation, illustrating the tensions over national identification being played out here. Online debates amongst Rangers fans and indeed former Rangers director Donald Findlay QC have sought to redefine the term “Fenian” from common usage on Scotland’s streets as a general slur with anti-Catholic connotations against Celtic fans to now mean Irish nationalists. “Fenian bastard” is then argued to be a permissible phrase because it insults and excludes people on the basis of their national and political identification. However, it seems unreasonable to argue that it is unacceptable to stir hatred against religious groups but it is acceptable to stir hatred against groups defined by national identification.

The Harps Community Project said “preconceptions surrounding cultural expression and identity with reference to Scotland’s Irish community must be discussed out-with this enforced sectarian narrative of Catholic versus Protestant”. In other words, national heritage should not be understood within an unconsciously bigoted framing of Scottish to mean Protestant and Irish as Catholic. Singing the Boys of the Old Brigade or Derry’s Walls may reveal something about someone’s national identity or their politics but it does not directly express religious hatred and it tells us nothing about someone’s religion. Hatred of the Other should not be tolerated but by defining “sectarianism” in purely religious terms we ignore the competing national identities, which are often at the heart of these communal tensions. Rogers Brubaker, an eminent expert on Nationalism, tells us national conflicts are not resolved- politicians can’t suddenly change how people identify themselves. What they can do is help create an environment in which conflict is less necessary and those identities have less political relevance. Allowing people to celebrate how they identify themselves without fear of persecution, providing they are not celebrating hatred against other groups, would help create such an environment. Creating a hierarchy of sectarianisms where we can abuse people on the grounds of national identification but not on religion may do the opposite.

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