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A religious worldview cannot expect the same kinds of tolerance as racial, gender, or sexual identities. Here’s why
Throughout the Western world, the political ‘Left’ is in disarray. It is fragmented, rudderless and lacks a coherent plan to stem the tide of ‘populism’, nationalism and xenophobia. Identity politics and questions of religion have done much to fuel both the Right’s xenophobic tendencies, and the Left’s fragmentation. The ‘Old Left’ embraced a simple Manichean worldview of good versus evil: the enemy was easily identified (the rich and powerful, who oppressed the poor and the weak), and its agenda was simple and clear (redistribution of wealth and greater economic equality).
In contrast, the ‘New Left’ has introduced multiple new agendas – and enemies. The ‘Old Left’, it is said, was insensitive about issues affecting a range of marginalised groups, who identify themselves along lines of race, gender and sexual orientation. The three-legged stool of the Old Left – ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ – was never very secure, but when fraternity was replaced by the demands of group identity, little stability remained.
Among other things, the core Old-Left liberal value of religious tolerance has now come into confrontation with the identity politics of the New Left. Indeed, one central strand of New Left thinking regards all talk of (liberal) ‘religious tolerance’ as mere camouflage concealing deep and systematic disrespect and unequal treatment of religious minorities. From this perspective, what needs priority is not so much the right of individuals to choose their religion as they see fit and without interference, but the rights of religious groups to secure and preserve their standing and identity in a society that would otherwise marginalise them.
How should the Left understand and practise religious tolerance in the face of the emphasis that various groups now place on the value of their religious identities? This is a question that has, of course, become tangled up with overlapping issues, such as racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and various forms of nationalist xenophobia. But we should keep these issues separate and focus on the difficult enough question of the relationship between religious toleration and identity politics. Much of the (New) Left analysis, which concentrates on the language and agendas of identity politics, has paid too little attention to a very significant distinction that falls within the various identities that have been proposed as a basis for rectifying various forms of social injustice and unequal treatment: the distinction between ideological and non-ideological identity commitments. A lack of clarity about this basic divide within identity politics has led to a serious failure to provide credible understanding of what tolerance requires when we are confronted with questions about the rights of different religious groups to be treated equally and with respect.
Some claim there is an analogy between the identity politics of religion and the issues that arise with other excluded groups based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability and the like. What is supposed to hold these divergent identities together is that the groups in question have been treated unequally, or do not receive adequate recognition in the existing social and legal system. Religious groups require protection to secure their rights and recognition of their particular interests in practising their religion. Yet, however plausible these claims might be, there is a key distinction that needs to be made between identities that are based on what can be broadly described as ideological or value-ladencommitments, and those that do not carry any such baggage. This distinction is essential to understanding the role of (religious) toleration in a liberal, democratic society…