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Woolwich, Language and Religious Lives: Taylor Carey


In 2011, the BBC’s Reith Lectures bore the title ‘Securing Freedom’.[1] Re-reading them recently, the theme struck a fresh chord in light of the horrifying murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, killed outside his Woolwich barracks in May. Freedom presupposes a measure of security, poignantly violated on September 11th 2001, but – as Manningham-Buller began to argue – equally put at risk by the temptations of power. If desiring an excessive curb on civil liberties might be excused as a temporary reaction to appalling tragedy, a clear head would nonetheless quickly identify its intolerable dangers. Yet now, three years later, we find ourselves haunted by the unsavoury echo of Nixonian paranoia: the growing scandal surrounding NSA surveillance in the United States and abroad, and evidence of duplicity and corruption at the heart of executive agencies in the United Kingdom. Amidst the increased security, our freedom seems as threatened as ever.

At the centre of it all, another tragedy. Another young man’s life wasted, grief and pain brought to yet another family. Lee Rigby’s attackers were deluded in their ideology, saturated with a venomous distortion of Islam which subordinated loving peace to violent command. Yet the sentiments they echoed pose worrying questions for democratic citizens today. How, in a state blessed with stability, peace and relative prosperity, can lives fall so far through the net? How can communal frames of reference still contain within them the possibility of the violent rejection of societal norms?  And how can narratives of religious and political fanaticism become so persuasive and alluring to those who walk our streets and grow up in our cities?

In this regard, the secular vocabulary finds itself curiously outmoded. ‘Evil’, as N T Wright has gone to some length to show, is routinely misunderstood.[2] Held at arm’s length for the most part as an anachronism in a disenchanted age, it is nevertheless heralded with dizzying frenzy by the tabloids, every time our assumedly self-evident sensibilities are brought into question. Evil in this sense is perhaps, at best, a manifestation of functionalist disapproval; a condemnation of irrational regress in the court of self-evident, reasonable progress. And whilst no-one would disagree that the slaughter of fellow human beings in wanton acts of violence showcases the worst of human nature, a secular vocabulary fails to grasp the essential problem it precipitates. Acts of gargantuan barbarity don’t lend themselves to neat digestion. Evil, as Rowan Williams puts it:

‘becomes a trivially emotive way of referring to what we hate or fear or just disapprove of…rather than a reminder of… the fact that there are aspects of human behaviour which we only make sense of when we say we can’t make sense; or of an awareness that the roots of motivation aren’t exhausted by what we…call reasons’.[3]

Wedded as it is to an uncritical narrative of progress, programmatic secularism tends to leave us ‘linguistically bereaved’.  ‘We are vulnerable’, says Williams, ‘because we have no way of making sense of the most deeply threatening elements in our environment’.[4] Moreover, our linguistic poverty finds scant cure in a discursive sphere utterly closed to transcendence. The net result is an ironic parity of both nervous secularism and religious fundamentalism; neither admits the possibility of viewing the world as ‘inexhaustible’ and already ‘seen’. Both attempt to categorise and control rather than disrupt and explore.

A secularism which thus monopolises transactions in the public sphere competes for space with, and feeds from, the insecurities of religious absolutism, which similarly seeks to regulate ‘acceptable’ speech. This leads to an often bizarre paranoia about religious expression – the banal debate about crosses in the workplace, for example. But, if we’re to take on board the warnings of those who, like Eliza Manningham-Buller, attest to the futility of a security strategy based on territorial claims (in the linguistic and political spheres as much as anywhere else), a serious reconsideration of our prevailing secular impulses is needed. Religious lives are negotiations of territory and environment. Gestures and expressions constitute responses to the world rather than arbitrarily adorned embellishments. Religious language admits the possibility of transcendence – and, as Williams points out, this encompasses most of what we would want to call, in any meaningful sense, ‘art’. Art invites interpretation and admits multiple perspectives. At least in this regard, art, music and poetic imagination are ‘non-secular’.

Imagination is a germane idea to discuss. After all, ‘terrorism’, however we might want to narrow its definition, is essentially a technique which utilises symbolic violence or threat to project political pressure. Al-Qaeda’s success depends in large part on the manipulation of public imagination – hence the necessity for spectacle on 9/11. The resulting paranoia incubates the creeping assumption that the tenets of Islamic religious community are essentially incompatible with Western democratic liberty, whilst, for Muslims, the imagery of siege and persecution is allowed to fester in the wake of heavy-handed legislation by secular governments. Viewed in this way, a ‘War on Terror’ not only becomes a nonsensical construction, but an astonishing strategic blunder for the West. The resolution of conflict, such as it might be, rests on elusive military success (thus ruling out effective closure), all the time playing into the rhetoric of persecution so widely disseminated throughout Islamic communities, and touted as an explicit justification for the Woolwich attack in May.

Here then, we return to the questions that the shocking attack in London’s streets pose. Anything like a sustainable and effective response must begin with an awareness of the role of imagination in shaping the narratives and discourses in plural public life. Simply amputating religious expression – following the tabloids’ lead by denouncing ‘evil’ as a momentary slippage in the otherwise plain sailing of progress – fails to engage with the complex social matrix from which manifestations of fundamentalism arise. A secular discourse tone-deaf to the imaginative concerns of marginal communities represents a very real form of fundamentalism to those for whom societal ‘progress’ seems a remarkably exclusive phenomenon – and not least those, like Rigby’s attackers, whose upbringings have been punctuated by a litany of squalid afflictions: substance misuse, alcoholism, abuse, urban decay and the effects of multiple deprivation.

If the temptations of fundamentalism creep into communities burdened with intractable deprivation because of a disdain for the bourgeois luxury of ‘imagining a better world’ (which serves only to mask particular interests), the nervousness in moderate and mainstream religious communities across the West is prompted by the loss of confidence in secular provision for public self-expression. Both scenarios suggest a basic failure of the secular political sphere to take seriously the realities of lives for which natural ‘liberty’ consists in responding to and negotiating with the ‘environment’, as understood from the particularities of religious conviction. This is a failure, first and foremost, to imagine a world that can be ‘seen’ in any other way; in short, a world increasingly closed to the possibility of sincere art, poetry or imaginative expression – or for that matter, human life. And thus we come full circle: programmatic secularism and religious fundamentalism make surprisingly comfortable bedfellows.

The death of another young person, full of potential and possibilities, does not deserve to be made instrumental to any line of argument. But, seeing Lee Rigby’s murder for what it was – a sickening and pointless slaughter – jolts us out of the false comforts of supposing linear societal progression. The answer to those who seek to twist imaginations into nightmares for the sake of dictating political change, is to use the very same imaginative capacity to build a public sphere continually open to argument, and thus beyond suspicion of harbouring oppressive ambitions. Securing freedom can never be a matter of slamming doors and holding tight; only in the endless humility of mature conversation can it be maintained and kept open to all.



[1] The BBC Reith Lectures, 2011, including lectures by the then-imprisoned Burmese political activist, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the former Director-General of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller. Access to the online archive can be found here .

[2] N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Illinois, 2006), pp.3-4.

[3] Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square (London, 2012), pp.11-12.

[4]Ibid., p.11.

Note by editor: The text is entirely Taylor’s; the illustration, however, was chosen by the editor who, like Taylor, read international relations at university and shares his interest in politics and the overlap with individual morality. Two related quotations – the price of liberty is eternal vigilance (authorship disputed) and Quis custodiet ipsos custodies – who guards the guardians themselves? – are often cited in this context, partly because there is no ‘correct’ answer: this is an occasion for judgment on a case by case basis, held under constant review. What do you say, dear readers?

1 comment on this post:


A major issue in the study of secularization is the extent to which certain trends such as decreased attendance at places of worship indicate a decrease in religiosity or simply a privatization of religious belief, where religious beliefs no longer play a dominant role in public life or in other aspects of decision making.

07 February 2014 22:10

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