Tag Archives: anti-Semitism

“What do Muslims really believe?”

Recently, Channel 4, a TV station in the UK, commissioned a survey about British Muslims and Trevor Phillips shared the results with a large TV audience in a documentary (“What do Muslims really believe?”) one night in mid-April (2016).

People have been right to point out that the survey has many real or potential problems. Only just over 1,000 Muslims (1,081) were interviewed. ICM, the company that conducted the survey, had failed to accurately predict the outcome of the 2015 UK general election, so would its findings about British Muslims be reliable? We do not know whether Shia, Sufi and Ahmadiyya Muslims were represented in the sample (and, if they were, whether in numbers reflecting their presence in the UK), or whether most or all respondents were Sunni Muslims. Moreover, we do not know whether comparable results would have been generated if a similar survey had been undertaken among just over 1,000 followers of, say, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism and/or Mormonism (mind you, had a faith group such as one just listed been surveyed, markedly different results WOULD have been generated. As it is, followers of such faith groups do not pose the same terrorist or security threats to the UK or other nation states as Muslims in considerable numbers currently do, so a survey into what they think is not of such urgency).

Despite the real or potential problems identified above, the survey findings cannot be ignored because many of them are confirmed by things said and/or done by Muslims themselves, both in the UK and, more obviously, elsewhere. But what the survey fails to do is differentiate between Muslims who incline toward a literalist interpretation of Islamic scripture while lacking an appreciation of the early history of Islam based on reliable evidence (most such Muslims are Sunni), and Muslims who interpret their scripture in other ways (e.g. metaphorically, selectively and/or with due regard for what is deemed morally acceptable today rather than in Saudi Arabia approximately fourteen centuries ago) while evaluating the early history of Islam in the light of contemporary scholarship, whether such scholarship is Muslim or non-Muslim.

Luton

Luton

Let’s begin with what might be deemed some good news: the great majority of British Muslims feel very strongly or fairly strongly that they “belong” to Britain, and the great majority of British Muslims feel that, when in contact with service providers, in most instances they will be “treated the same as” members of other religious groups. These findings seem to suggest that most British Muslims feel integrated and that most people providing services to British citizens treat everyone equally/fairly.

I will now turn to some of the more controversial/contested findings in the survey. After each of the following statements, the percentage for Muslim respondents precedes the figure for non-Muslims. Where only one figure exists, the figure applies to Muslims alone:

I visit a non-Muslim home once a year (21%).

I never visit a non-Muslim home (21%).

As far as is possible, I want to lead a life separate from the non-Muslim community (17%).

I would prefer to send my child/children to a school with strong Muslim values (45%).

It is acceptable for Muslim men to have more than one wife (31%, 9%).

Women should always obey their husbands (39%, 5%).

Stoning is an acceptable punishment for adultery (5%).

Homosexuality should be legal (18%, 73%).

Homosexuality should be illegal (52%, 10%).

Jewish people have too much power in the UK (35%, 9%).

I sympathise with violence against those who mock the Prophet Muhammad (18%).

No one has the right to show a picture of the Prophet Muhammad (78%).

No one has the right to make fun of the Prophet Muhammad (87%).

I sympathise with the creation of a caliphate (7%).

In parts of the UK, I would like sharia to prevail rather than laws determined by Parliament (23%).

I have sympathy for people engaging in terrorism such as suicide bombing (4%, 1%).

If the statistics above reflect realities within the UK’s Muslim community (Channel 4 assumes that almost 3 million Muslims live in the UK), they throw some doubt on just how successfully Muslims have integrated in British society, and they throw into question how much sympathy they have for freedom of speech, gender equality and equality of opportunity irrespective of sexuality. They also suggest that anti-Semitism is more widespread among Muslims than non-Muslims, and that violence against those who challenge cherished aspects of Muslim identity is sometimes justified. Much is made of the “fact” that about 100,000 to 120,000 British Muslims appear to be in sympathy with people who engage in terrorism such as suicide bombing, but the survey also appears to suggest that 600,000 non-Muslims have similar sympathies! My instinctive reaction to the figures generated by this aspect of the survey is that they do not reflect reality – but many of the other figures do, and some of the other figures are a far more accurate/reliable gauge of levels of support for extremism and/or terrorism among the UK’s Muslims.

Luton

Luton

Of interest is some of the information shared in the documentary that did not relate directly to the survey results themselves. For example, it would appear that no fewer than 85 sharia courts/councils already operate in the UK and that, in the way they function, they deny women equal rights with men (this is necessarily the case because sharia courts/councils function in a way that values more highly testimony deriving from men than from women).

Some statistics suggest that young Muslims may have more enlightened attitudes than elderly Muslims. For example, while 28% of Muslims aged 18 to 24 say homosexuality should be legal, only 2% of Muslims over 65 agree.

One worrying statistic is that only a third of Muslims would report to the police someone whom they knew might be involved in supporting terror in Syria or elsewhere. But it would appear that the non-Muslim population has a similar attitude toward people whom they knew might be involved in terror, which suggests all people are reluctant to inform on people they know, no matter the real or potential seriousness of their actions.

The documentary suggests that the more Muslims hanker after a separate existence within British society, the more likely it is that they will incline toward extremism and violence. There also appears to be a correlation between sympathy for extremism and violence and a lack of social belonging, a desire not to integrate, a desire for a fundamentalist Muslim lifestyle and a desire to impose sharia. Sympathy for extremism and violence also seems to correlate with a greater inclination toward illiberal views in relation to issues such as gender equality and gay rights.

Trevor Phillips offered few solutions to the problems the survey seems to reveal, but he said that some government policies were beneficial (e.g. challenging Muslim women’s isolation within mainstream society by ensuring they can speak English). He also said that it was necessary for the UK to “reassert the liberal values that have served us well for so long” and to “challenge the laissez-faire attitude of live and let live”, which has allowed de facto segregation and extremism to thrive within some Muslim communities. He briefly made a case for “active integration” rather than “live and let live”, which would require of those with the power and the influence to intervene where de facto segregation or extremism prosper or are likely to prosper. Phillips suggested stopping “the number of schools segregated on the basis of religion and/or ethnicity from growing further” and of applying to institutions such as schools “comply or explain codes” that have proved successful in the EU to reform corporate behaviour.

An example of how “comply or explain codes” might work in relation to schools would be as follows. It could be required of schools to never admit more than 50% of children from a single religion or ethnic group (although how this would work in some overwhelmingly monocultural areas is not clear). If a school admitted more than 50% of children from a single religion or ethnic group, senior managers would have to explain why the situation had arisen and, if the explanation was unsatisfactory, the school would be compelled to conform with the more inclusive arrangement that the requirement sought to establish. Of course, quotas of this nature could also be applied to matters such as staff recruitment (e.g. to ensure there is a balance between men and women, to ensure that teachers of all faiths and none work together), or to ensure that the governing body reflects diversity in wider society.

It was not something that was dwelt on during the documentary itself, but, when the survey is taken as a whole, there is a strong suggestion that a significant number of British Muslims (25%? 33%?) are not in sympathy with the so-called fundamental “British” values of democracy, individual liberty, the rule of (secular) law and/or “mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. Of course, British citizens who subscribe to world views, religious or otherwise, other than Islam are also not in sympathy with some/all of the values just listed, but we can say with confidence in numbers far fewer than is the case among British Muslims (this is confirmed in Kenan Malik’s article below).

I realise the survey is far from perfect and much more research is necessary to ascertain just how accurate the statistics are, but to some degree it confirms many of the worries that already exist about the UK’s Muslim community today. This said, I take comfort from the large number of Muslims who oppose stoning for adultery and the establishment of a caliphate. I also suspect that the survey does not do justice to the more progressive attitudes that prevail among most Shia, Sufi and Ahmadiyya Muslims as opposed to the less progressive attitudes that prevail among a majority of Sunni Muslims. It is the failure to account for the sectarian divisions among the UK’s Muslims that most worries me about the otherwise highly worthwhile exercise undertaken by Channel 4. But rather this degree of (relatively reliable) hard evidence than none at all.

Luton

Luton

Here is a (predictable) reaction to the documentary in “The Spectator”, politically a right-wing British magazine:

I think the general British public have known for some time what Phillips’s documentary professed to find surprising: that large numbers of Muslims don’t want to integrate, that their views aren’t remotely enlightened and that more than a few of them sympathise with terrorism. It’s only the establishment elite that has ever pretended otherwise.

“Everyone who has pinned their hopes on the rise of reforming and liberal British Muslim voices are in for a disappointment,” said Phillips. “These voices are nowhere near as numerous as they need to be to make an impact.”

Take those 85 sharia councils currently violating one of the most basic principles of English justice, equality before the law. Yes, we can cosily delude ourselves that they just deal with civil issues – marriage mainly – that can safely be regulated by religion. But can they? A Zurich professor called Elham Manea, herself a Muslim, has attended these councils and found them promoting a version of Islam as extreme as that practised in her native Yemen or by the Taliban, where women were treated as “minors in perpetual need of male guardianship”. How exactly does this accord with the legislation and practice of a country where men and women are supposed to have guaranteed equality?

Our solution up until now has been a kind of national cognitive dissonance – one where we all agree to pretend that Muslims are sweet, smiley and integrated, like lovely Nadiya from “Great British Bake Off”, and that her fellow Lutonians – the 7/7 suicide bombers – have, as the weasel phrase has it, “nothing to do with Islam”.

It’s not easy, though, and getting harder – as we saw on this week’s “The Island with Bear Grylls” (Channel 4, Mondays). I don’t doubt the producers were overjoyed when they managed to recruit their first Muslim castaway, Bradford body-builder Rizwan Shabir. But any hopes of a male Nadiya vanished this week when he quit, pleading an inability to cope with “living with women who are half-naked”.

I’ll leave the last word on this yawning cultural chasm to Noshaba Hussain, middle-aged former headmistress of Springfield Primary, one of the Trojan Horse schools in Birmingham. A nine-year-old pupil had asked why she wasn’t wearing a headscarf, declaring, “Only slags don’t cover their heads.” “This attitude is not acceptable in state schools in Britain,” observed Ms. Hussain.

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

A far more insightful reaction derives from Kenan Malik’s website called “Pandaemonium” (I have made a few cosmetic changes to the text for reasons of clarity):

This is not the first poll to have shown the social conservatism of British Muslims. Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University, for instance, conducted a series of surveys with YouGov on religion, politics and social and personal morality, the results of which were published in 2013… The poll showed that religious believers were more liberal on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage and assisted dying than is usually recognised in public debates. The key exception, however, were Muslims, whom the poll found to be more socially conservative than most other religious groups.

But that was not the whole story of the poll. It also found that Muslims were more polarised on many social issues than other groups. For example, on abortion 20% of Muslims wanted to ban abortion altogether, a much higher figure than the general population, and higher than any other religious group.  At the same time, 12% of Muslims wanted to increase the time limit, twice the figure in the general population and higher than in any other religious group.  The ICM poll also shows some evidence of such polarisation, on a range of issues.

Given this polarisation, there is a possible methodological issue with the ICM poll. It polled Muslims only in areas where they made up more than 20% of the local population. According to the statistician Martin Boon, this covered 51.4% of the British Muslim population. Those who live in areas of high concentrations of Muslims could well be more socially and religiously conservative than Muslims who live in predominantly non-Muslim areas, and possibly less integrated. That said, the findings of this poll are not that different from previous ones.

The ICM poll is, as one might imagine, complex in what it reveals, and far more so than the headlines suggest.

On certain social issues – particularly homosexuality – there is considerable illberalism. Just 18% of Muslims think that homosexuality should be legal (compared to 73% of the general population), while 52% disagree. 28% would be happy to have gay teachers, while 48% would not (the figures for the general public are 75% and 14% respectively).

A large proportion of Muslims believe many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. 35% thought “Jewish people have too much power in Britain”, 39% that they have too much power over the media and 44% that they have too much power in the business world (the figures for those that disagreed are 20%, 17% and 14% respectively). But when asked about what they thought of Jews personally, the picture changes dramatically. Respondents had to rate their feelings toward Jews on a scale from 0 to 100. The mean scores for Muslims and for the general population were similar (57.1 and 63.7). The mean score for Muslims’ feelings toward Jews (57.1) is little different to the mean score for the feelings of the general population toward Muslims (55.2). If we look at the proportion of the two samples that rated Jews between 0 and 50 (that is, rated them more negatively than positively), it is lower for Muslims than for the general population (39% to 52%). By that score, there appears to be more antipathy toward Jews within the general population than among Muslims.

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Muslims do not appear to see Britain as a nation in thrall to Islamophobia. 73% thought that religious harassment of Muslims was not a problem. 82% had not faced harassment in the past two years and, of the 17% who had faced harassment, more than three-quarters reported it as verbal abuse. More Muslims (40%) think anti-Muslim prejudice has grown in the last five years than think it has decreased (14%). But the comparable figures for the general public are 61% and 7% respectively. Muslims, in other words, actually seem less concerned about the growth of anti-Muslim prejudice than the public at large.

7% of Muslims supported the idea of a caliphate and 3% supported the Islamic State (2% of the general population supported a caliphate and 1% backed the Islamic State). Far fewer Muslims could “understand why a British Muslim like Mohammed Emwazi would be attracted to radicalism” than members of the general public (13% compared to 27%).

“The Daily Express”, under the headline “Astonishing two in three British Muslims would not give terror tip-offs”, “The Times” and many other newspapers in Britain and abroad noted that only one in three Muslims would report to the police someone close who might be getting involved in terrorism. But what the reports failed to note was that a lower proportion of the public at large (30%) would contact the police given the same circumstances.  This is, in other words, not a Muslim problem, but a general reluctance among people to shop friends to the police, however heinous their potential crime.

What is difficult to argue from the figures is, as Trevor Phillips claims, that the social conservatism of Muslims is linked to a lack of integration. When asked, “How strongly do you feel you belong to Britain?”, 86% of Muslims said they belonged to Britain compared to 83% of the general population. A higher proportion of the general population (17%) than Muslims (11%) felt little attachment to Britain.

Respondents were asked how much integration they desired. 49% of Muslims said they would like “to fully integrate with non-Muslims in all aspects of life”, 29% wanted “to integrate on most things, but there should be separation in some areas, such as Islamic schooling and laws”, 12% chose “to integrate on some things, but I would prefer to lead a separate Islamic life as far as possible”, and 1% wanted a “fully separate Islamic area in Britain, subject to sharia law and government”. The figures reveal a desire for a degree of separation among half the Muslim population, but not a “nation within a nation”, as Phillips claims.

What the poll seems to show, as previous ones have, is a deep well of social conservatism, a more polarised community than one might imagine and a considerable attachment to Britain and to British identity. It shows issues that need confronting, but not necessarily as the headlines present them.

British Muslims seem more socially conservative than Muslims in some other Western countries. An Ifop poll of French Muslims and a Pew poll of US Muslims, for instance, both show more liberal views.

The Ifop poll found that 68% of observant Muslim women in France never wear the hijab. Fewer than a third of practising Muslims would forbid their daughters from marrying a non-Muslim. 81% accept that women should have equal rights in divorce, 44% have no problem with the issue of co-habitation, 38% support the right to abortion and 31% approve of sex before marriage. The one issue on which French Muslims are deeply conservative is homosexuality: 77% of practising Muslims disapprove.

According to the Pew poll, US Muslims are much more liberal about homosexuality than co-religionists in Europe – 39% think homosexuality acceptable.

Brussels, Belgium

Brussels, Belgium

Over the past 25 years, people of most faiths in Britain have become more liberal on issues such as homosexuality and women’s rights. British Muslims, on the other hand, seem to have become more conservative on such social issues. I don’t have any proper data on this, but I speak largely from personal experience.

As I have observed many times, the views of today’s British Muslims are different from those of previous generations. The first generation of Muslims to this country were religious, but wore their faith lightly. Many men drank alcohol. Few women wore a hijab, let alone a burqa or a niqab. Most visited the mosque only occasionally, when the “Friday feeling” took them. Islam was not, in their eyes, an all-encompassing philosophy. Their faith expressed for them a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity.

The second generation of Britons with a Muslim background – my generation – was primarily secular. Religious organisations were barely visible. The organisations that bound together Asian communities were primarily secular, often political: the Asian Youth Movements, for instance, or the Indian Workers Association.

It is only with the generation that has come of age since the late 1980s that the question of cultural differences has come to be seen as important. A generation that, ironically, is far more integrated and westernised than the first generation is also the generation that is most insistent on maintaining its difference.

The differences between attitudes among British, French and US Muslims may be the consequence of a number of factors. One such factor may be the difference in countries of origin and social status of migrants. British Muslims came largely from south Asia. French Muslims came primarily from North Africa and, unlike British Muslims, were largely secular. Even today, the majority of French Muslims do not describe themselves as practising Muslims. American Muslims tend to be more middle class than those in Britain or France.

A second difference is in social policy, in particular the development of multicultural policies in Britain that have helped create a more fragmented society. The  differences in Muslim attitudes in the different countries are likely to have been created by  a combination of these two, and possibly other, factors.

Much of the debate around the poll, and Phillips’ own commentary, has confused three issues: social conservatism, lack of integration and jihadism.

We should be rightly concerned with the degree of illiberal social attitudes within Muslim communities, especially as it was very different just a generation ago. We should not simply shrug our shoulders and say, “That’s what happens in a plural society.” We should combat illiberal attitudes, from whichever group, and support those struggling for a progressive future, including within Muslim communities. Too often liberals betray such progressives in the name of tolerance or pluralism. But holding illiberal views is not necessarily the same as failing to integrate – and this poll does not reveal a link between the two. 

We should also be concerned with the more fragmented nature of British society today, with people inhabiting their own identity silos, and with the lack of social contact between different groups (some evidence for this is provided in the poll). We should be concerned, too, with the growth of sectarianism within Muslim communities. There is a good argument to be made that silo-building has helped create the well of social conservatism within Muslim communities, and has encouraged sectarianism. The problem is not so much a lack of integration as the view, promulgated by many politicians and policy-makers, that it is through identity groups that such integration should take place. We need to challenge the social and multicultural policies that have, over the past three decades, helped entrench identity politics and encourage silo-building.

Also, there is the problem of jihadism, and of a section of Muslims being drawn toward Islamist views. As I have noted before, most studies show that Muslims are rarely drawn to jihadist groups because they already hold extremist religious views; rather, it is their involvement in jihadism that leads them to accept religious extremism as a justification for their acts.  As the former CIA operation officer, now an academic and counter-terrorism consultant to the US and other governments, Marc Sageman, has put it, “At the time they joined, jihadi terrorists were not very religious. They only became religious once they joined the jihad.” This is why we need to rethink our ideas about radicalisation and how to combat it.

Illiberalism, lack of integration and jihadism are all urgent issues that need tackling. But we will not tackle any of them by drawing facile links between them.

Elazig, Turkey

Elazig, Turkey

Enough already. The Channel 4 survey into Muslim attitudes, although it has its problems, will prove worthwhile if commentary as perceptive as this by Kenan Malik is an outcome. But, as I have said on many occasions before, if problems of illiberalism, segregation and jihadism within the Muslim community are to be tackled constructively, there is only so much that the non-Muslim community can do. Solutions to the problems just listed lie ultimately with Muslims themselves, although non-Muslims with good intentions must lend their support to Muslims who seek to resolve such problems for the benefit of everyone.

Is religion a force for good in the world?

On 26th November 2010, Christopher Hitchens, the well-known atheist, and Tony Blair, the one-time British prime minister and Roman Catholic, took part in the Munk Debate addressing the question, “Is religion a force for good in the world?” The debate resulted in a Black Swan book entitled “Hitchens vs. Blair” published in 2011.

Sadly, Tony Blair’s contribution to the debate amounted to little more than a lot of hot air and wishful thinking, so much so that, below, I do not quote from his contributions (those of you keen to find out what he said will have to access the Black Swan book itself). Instead, I quote from Hitchens who had far more compelling things to share with the audience.

What is twisted and immoral in the faith mentality… is… its consideration of the human being as raw material and its fantasy of purity. Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes humans objects in a cruel experiment whereby we are created sick and commanded to be well. I’ll repeat that: created sick and then ordered to be well. And a celestial dictatorship is installed over us to supervise this, a kind of divine North Korea. Greedy and exigent. Greedy for uncritical praise from dawn to dusk and swift to punish the original sins with which it so tenderly gifted us in the very first place. However, let no one say there is no cure. Salvation is offered. Redemption, indeed, is offered at the low price of the surrender of your critical faculties…

Religion… makes extraordinary claims. Though I would maintain that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, rather daringly religion provides not even ordinary evidence for its extraordinary supernatural claims. Therefore we might begin by asking… is it good for the world to appeal to our credulity and not to our scepticism? Is it good for the world to worship a deity that takes sides in wars and human affairs, and to appeal to our terror of death? To preach guilt and shame about the sexual act and the sexual relationship – is it good for the world?… (Should religion) terrify children with the image of hell and eternal punishment, not just for themselves, but for their parents and those they love? Perhaps worst of all, to consider women an inferior creation – is that good for the world?…

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Religion forces nice people to do unkind things and also makes intelligent people say stupid things. Handed a small baby for the first time, is it your first reaction to think, “Beautiful, almost perfect. Now please hand me the sharp stone for its genitalia that I may do the work of the Lord.” As the great American physicist Steven Weinberg has very aptly put it, in the ordinary moral universe the good will do the best they can, the worst will do the worst they can, but if you want to make good people do wicked things, you’ll need religion… 

The Middle East is the birthplace of monotheism, so you might think it was filled with refulgence and love and peace. Everyone is roughly agreed… that there should be enough room for two states (Israel and Palestine), for two people (Jews and Arabs) in the same land… Why can’t we get it? We can’t get it because the parties of God have a veto on it and everybody knows that this is true. Because of the divine promises made about this territory there will never be peace, there will never be compromise. There will instead be misery, shame and tyranny, and people will kill each other’s children for ancient books and caves and relics, and who is going to say that this is good for the world?… 

No one was arguing that religion should or will die out of the world. All I’m arguing is that it would be better of there was a great deal more by the way of an outbreak of secularism… 

Name me one religion that stands for the empowerment of women or ever has. Wherever you look in the world and you try to remove the shackles of ignorance and disease and stupidity for women, it is invariably the clerisy that stands in the way…

I would hope (Roman) Catholic charities are doing a lot of work in Africa. If I was a member of a church that had preached that HIV/Aids was not as bad as condoms, I’d be putting some conscience money into Africa… 

The injunction not to do to another what would be repulsive if done to yourself (an injunction so often thought to lie at the heart of the monotheistic religions of the Middle East) is found in the analects of Confucius… But that truth is found in the heart of every person in this room. Everybody knows that much. We don’t require divine permission to know right from wrong…

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

Could religion sometimes be a good thing after all?… What would religion have to do to get that far?… It would have to give up all supernatural claims… the threat of the reward of heaven or the terror of punishment in hell… miracles… the idea of an eternal, unalterable authority figure who was judge, jury and executioner, against whom there could be no appeal and who wasn’t finished with you even when you died. 

There’s something about religion that is, very often in its original monotheistic, Judaistic form, actually an expression of exclusivism. “This is our God. This is a God who has made a covenant with our tribe.” You’ll find it all over the place… It’s always struck me as slightly absurd for there to be a special church for the English people. It strikes me as positively sinister that Pope Benedict should want to restore the (Roman) Catholic Church to the claim it used to make, which is that it is the one true church and that all other forms of Christianity are, as he still puts it, defective and inadequate. How this idea helps to build your future world of co-operation and understanding is not known to me.

Religion… is a surrender of reason in favour of faith. It’s a fantastic force multiplier, a tremendous intensifier of all things that are in fact divisive rather than inclusive, and that’s why its history is so stained with blood – and not just with crimes against humanity, but with crimes against womanhood, crimes against reason and science, or attacks upon medicine and enlightenment.

Four hundred years and more people (in Northern Ireland)… have been killing each other’s children based on what kind of Christian they were and sending each other’s children, in rhetoric, to hell… Northern Ireland… the most remarkable place in Northern Europe for unemployment, for ignorance, for poverty and for, I would say, stupidity too…

Rwanda is the most Christian country in Africa… Genocide was actually preached from the pulpits of the (Roman) Catholic Church. Many of the people we are still looking for, who were involved in that genocide, are hiding in the Vatican along with a number of other people who should be given up to international justice right away.

The United States has a unique constitution that forbids the government to take sides in any religious matter or to sponsor the church or adopt any form of faith itself… Thomas Jefferson wrote… “Rest assured that there will ever be a wall of separation between the church and the state in this country.” The maintenance of that wall, which people like me have to defend every day against those who want garbage taught in schools and pseudo-science in the name of Christ… is the guarantee of democracy…

Christus statue, North Visitor Centre, Salt Lake City, Utah

Christus statue, North Visitor Centre, Salt Lake City, Utah

 (We can all get along fine) as long as you don’t want your religion taught to my children in school, given a government subsidy or imposed on me by violence… They say it (religion) is the way to happiness. Why doesn’t it make the religious happy?… Because they won’t be happy until you believe it (their religion) too. And why is that? Because that’s what their holy books tell them… Do these texts say that until every knee bows in the name of Jesus there will be no happiness? Of course it’s what these texts say. It isn’t only a private belief.  It is, and always has been, a threat to the idea of a peaceful community and very often, as now, a palpable one…  

The Methodist Church of the United States adamantly opposed the liberation of Iraq, and the Vatican adamantly opposed the liberation of Iraq, as it had the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. It wasn’t the first time that a sort of sickly Christian passivity has been preached in the face of fascist dictatorship… Given the number of Muslims put to the sword by Saddam Hussein’s regime, it’s quite extraordinary to see the extent to which Muslim fundamentalists flocked to his defence… It’s those who would have kept a cannibal and a Caligula and a professional sadist in power who have the explaining to do (about the second Iraq war)…

(The Israeli and Palestinian problem is so complicated because of) the idea that God intervenes in real estate and territorial disputes… This is what I mean when I say that religion is a real danger to the survival of civilisation, and that it makes this banal regional and national dispute, which, if reduced to its proportions, is a nothingness. (Religion) makes that (problem) not just lethally insoluble, but is drawing in other contending parties who openly wish for an apocalyptic conclusion to it, as also bodied forth in the same scriptural texts – in other words, that it will be the death of us all, the end of humanity, the end of the whole suffering veil of tears, which is what they secretly want. This is a failure of the parties of God, and it’s not something that happens because people misinterpret the texts. It happens because they believe them, that’s the problem…

If we give up religion we discover what we know already, whether we are religious or not, which is that we are somewhat imperfectly evolved primates on a very small planet in a very unimportant suburb of the solar system that is itself a negligible part of a very rapidly expanding and blowing apart cosmic phenomenon. These conclusions… are a great deal more awe-inspiring than what’s contained in any burning bush or horse that flies overnight to Jerusalem or any of that. It’s a great deal more awe-inspiring, as is any look through the Hubble telescope…

Awe and wonder do not depend on superstition or the supernatural

Awe and wonder do not depend on superstition or the supernatural

The question is how to keep the numinous, the transcendent, I’ll go so far as the ecstatic, in art and in our own emotions and in our finer feelings, and to distinguish it precisely from superstition and the supernatural, which are designed to make us fearful and afraid and servile, and which sometimes succeed only to well… 

(Why is it that many renowned people embraced and then rejected communism – André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, etc. – despite its admirable aspirations?) Because it’s not worth the sacrifice of freedom that it implies. It implies that great things can only be done if you’ll place yourself under an infallible leadership, and once a decision has been made you are bound by it. You might conceivably notice where I’m going here… It (communism, and the same can be said about religion) wasn’t worth the sacrifice of mental, intellectual and moral freedom…

I don’t think someone is religious unless they have faith in what St. Paul calls the evidence of things not seen – in other words, the supernatural  or supervising deity, presence, force, who requires and expects certain kinds of propitiation.

A religious person… (has) special permission… to talk nonsense.

Mother Teresa… her teachings and entire lifetime of work were exerted to make sure that women could not get hold of the means of family planning, so that the effect she had on prolonging and entrenching and deepening poverty and disease hugely outweighed any good she might have done if she’d spent the money she raised on charity – which, as it turns out, she did not do anyway… And then you simply have to ask anyone if they know of a religion – and not just a monotheistic one – that does not, according to the texts, consider women to be an inferior creation.

What one has to avoid is certainty. The Socratic principle is that you’re only educated to the extent that you understand how little you know.

What I think would be nice is if people realised, for example, that a lot of devotional music is written by non-believers. I suppose Verdi is the best example.

There’s no doubt that Judaism is much nearer to being philosophy than religion, or rather much nearer to that claim than Christianity or Islam are, and that it is attractive for that reason.

I think part of having being a marxist meant I could not help noticing how many thinkers and writers of the left were Jews. And I also used to find any hint of anti-Semitism absolutely repulsive… My attitude toward Zionism had always been… that I very much doubt it to be the liberation of the Jewish people.

Auschwitz, Poland

Auschwitz, Poland

The reason for (anti-Semitism’s) virulence is religious… If the events (leading up to Jesus’ execution) as described took place at all – and I think that something like that did, that some charismatic rabbi was executed for blasphemy – then the Romans did it, but it was the Jews who thought, “Here’s another false claimant (saying they are the messiah).” They were the only ones who knew him, really, and they spat on him and turned away and for that they’re not going to be forgiven. That’s why it took the (Roman Catholic) Church until 1964 to stop saying that all Jews were personally responsible (for Jesus’ execution)… It’s the same with the Muslims. The first people who meet Muhammad are the Jews, and at first some of them are excited, thinking maybe this is the messiah. But he is not, they decide. Private time with the prophet is something that every Muslim in the world would give their all for… and this privilege was granted to a group who turned their backs.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

2,700 people listened to the debate. The pre-debate vote was 25% in favour of the resolution and 55% against, with 20% undecided. The final vote was 32% in favour of the resolution and 68% against, with no one undecided.

Sadly, Christopher Hitchens is now dead. His memory and work live on in many books and countless articles. Perhaps his most accessible (and controversial and entertaining) work is “God is not Great”, which dates from 2007.

I do not agree with everything Hitchens says in “Hitchens vs. Blair” – if he were alive today and knew I agreed with everything he said, Hitchens would have nothing but contempt for me – but most of what he says “is right on the money”, as our friends across the pond would say.     

The Act of Remembrance at St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne…

… for the seventeen people murdered in Paris by jihadi/Islamist extremists, January 2015.

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

The Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

The following is a joint effort by two friends, one Jewish and one Muslim, who prefer to remain anonymous.

We begin with commendations. First, Newcastle Church of England (CE) diocese did the right thing when it organised the act of remembrance, and must be congratulated for putting everything together in only four days. Second, for an event organised at such short notice it was a remarkable achievement that about fifty or sixty people attended, and that the event was promoted and then described positively in the region’s news media (we congratulate in particular the Newcastle-based “Evening Chronicle” and “Journal” newspapers and the Darlington-based “Northern Echo” for how they covered the event). Third, the simple format of the act of remembrance, which unobtrusively and sensitively utilised Jewish and Christian elements of worship/practice that no one could have objected to, was ideal for an event of such seriousness, and for an event attended by people belonging to some religions and none. Fourth, important public figures such as Newcastle’s mayor, the leader of the city council and some of Northumbria Police’s most senior officers were able to attend. Fifth, a Muslim, two Jewish people, a Sikh, a Zoroastrian and six or seven representatives of the city’s Christian denominations contributed as spokespeople. Sixth, some of the spokespeople found words that had a universal ring, that reflected the seriousness of the events in Paris the previous week, and that, perhaps most important of all, transcended their confessional and/or ethnic backgrounds.

Sohan Singh at the Act of Remembrance

Sohan Singh at the Act of Remembrance

But, and we realise there must always be at least one but.

Some of the spokespeople FAILED to transcend their confessional and/or ethnic backgrounds and their words therefore did not suggest that genuine dialogue can be undertaken to bring diverse people, religious or otherwise, together to challenge ALL forms of extremism.

No one spoke on behalf of the pagan, the Bahai, the Buddhist, the Hindu, the ISKCON, the Jehovah Witness, the Latter-day Saint or the Coptic Christian communities, to name but a few of the city’s religious groups who, as far as we could tell, did not even send a representative to sit in the audience (of course, this “but” is understandable given the short amount of time between the decision to hold the act of remembrance and when it took place).

No one spoke on behalf of secularists, humanists, atheists and/or agnostics (people belonging to one or more of these “communities” were murdered in Paris, so why were such people not asked to share their thoughts during the act of remembrance?).

No one said that the terrible events in Paris required their community to subject their religion/belief system to rigorous scrutiny to ensure that it did not possess within it the potential to breed the same sort of hatred and extremism that motivated a few jihadi militants to murder completely innocent cartoonists, police officers and Jewish shoppers at a kosher supermarket.

But you know what is perhaps saddest of all? Although Muslim and Jewish people were present at the act of remembrance, nothing but a brief exchange of hellos took place between them. What an opportunity missed for genuine dialogue. For example, would it have hurt the Muslims present to say something such as the following to the Jewish people (or, indeed, to everyone present): “Rest assured that, from now on, we will do everything in our power to challenge the anti-Semitism that exists among Muslim people both in the UK and further afield. We will condemn every act of violence against Jewish people by Muslims anywhere. Moreover, we will say loudly that the state of Israel must be supported as a necessary condition for Jewish survival in a world often hostile to a Jewish presence, and condemn every shell, rocket or bullet fired from Palestinian, Lebanese or Syrian soil.” And would it have hurt the Jewish people present to say something such as the following to the Muslims (or, indeed, to everyone present): “Rest assured that we will, from now on, do everything in our power to challenge the Islamophobia that exists among Jewish people both in the UK and further afield. Moreover, we will petition the state of Israel to recognise the right of the Palestinian people to have a state of their own as soon as possible, and remind the state of Israel that it has never lived up to its responsibility to comply with the second half of the Balfour Declaration of 1917.”

Okay: we know the above ISN’T much to ask of Muslim and Jewish people, but you’ve got to begin somewhere. And where we currently are we’re going nowhere but back to war and an era of even greater prejudice, racism and religious intolerance. This suits no one but the religious cranks who wish to take us a few steps closer to Armageddon.

The Act of Remembrance

The Act of Remembrance

As we all know, interfaith dialogue is ineffective, and long-term peace will never be achieved, unless empathic understanding exists. A pre-requisite for meaningful interfaith dialogue and long-term peace is that we see the world from the perspective of those whom we distrust, those whom we fear, those whom we vilify and those to whom we deny justice.

It’s possible that a discussion such as the one outlined above DID, in fact, take place. If so, perhaps someone can write to reveal what was said and what was promised. But if such a discussion did NOT take place, we urge Muslim and Jewish people to engage in one very similar very soon. Why? Because, if we fail to do so, things WILL get far worse before they start to improve. We know already that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are widespread in Europe and the UK. The longer that Muslim and Jewish people fail to resolve the problems that divide them, the more that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism will manifest themselves (although it is obvious that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are not a “product” of unresolved problems between Muslim and Jewish people alone).

The Act of Rembrance

The Act of Remembrance

Before Muslim and Jewish people allege that the sort of conversation outlined above is unimaginable, just consider this. Four days ago we brought together a few Muslim, Jewish and atheist friends so we could exchange thoughts inspired by the courageous decision of Newcastle CE diocese to organise the act of remembrance (we communicated intermittently by email for over five hours). All nine people involved agreed with us that a wonderful opportunity had been missed to initiate meaningful discussion at a local level that could possibly have sent beneficial ripples much further afield. Together, the nine of us came up with the formula of words above (in other words, the conversation above is an example of Muslim, Jewish and atheist people working together). Yes, the nine of us were in agreement that, in an ideal world, the above is what Muslim and Jewish people should be saying to each other to improve relations between the two communities. But you know what? Only three of the people who helped draft the conversation are willing to be identified by name because they fear that their ethnic and/or confessional group will disown them (for this reason, all nine people will remain anonymous). Pathetic? Yes it is. It is pathetic that you might be disowned because you wish to acknowledge past and present injustices and point people toward peace.

Oh yes. The same group of nine friends agree with the statement above, that the “longer that Muslim and Jewish people fail to resolve the problems that divide them, the more that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism will manifest themselves.”

The Act of Remembrance

The Act of Remembrance

But let’s end on a positive note. Many thanks to Newcastle CE diocese for arranging the act of remembrance. Many thanks to the few spokespeople who examined the world from outside the confines of their narrow ethnic and/or confessional boxes. And many thanks to the few spokespeople who could find words of universal rather than mere sectarian relevance. But the act of remembrance remains, at the most fundamental and meaningful level of all, a lost opportunity of considerable proportions (unless the imagined conversation above DID take place, or takes place very soon).

P.S. I (Phil is writing now) have just received the following from someone who used to be very active in interfaith matters in North-East England but has since moved to another part of the country where her efforts to bring people together are much valued. She is Jewish:

Anonymous spokespeople for sanity, you have confronted Newcastle (and perhaps even the North-East region) with a challenge it needs to respond to in a positive and constructive manner. If you are correct, the Muslim and the Jewish community representatives missed the chance to use the act of remembrance to begin dismantling barriers to interfaith harmony and understanding. Time and time again, when I attended interfaith events in Newcastle, I was told that the city has faith groups that are constantly in discussion with one another and working towards peace, interfaith understanding and justice for all, not least justice for those with whom we are frequently at odds. I must be honest: this is simply nonsense, and nonsense despite the tireless efforts of remarkable people such as Hari Shukla, and people within the CE diocese who have for years tried to encourage the faith groups to shed their narrow sectarian preoccupations.

Now would be the perfect time for Newcastle’s faith communities to live up to their much-vaunted reputation for working towards peace, interfaith understanding and justice for all. And, as a Jewish person profoundly concerned by the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Britain and Europe (and the rising tide of Islamophobia, for that matter), I think it is the responsibility of the city’s Muslim and Jewish communities to begin immediately to dismantle barriers to meaningful discussion about problems of mutual concern. I am an optimist, despite everything, and know this can be done. And I believe that, if Newcastle can do this, Newcastle can impact positively on other parts of the country. Dare I suggest Newcastle might even impact on the mess that is the Middle East itself?

One last thing about your imaginary conversation about Muslim and Jewish people offering to assist each other as they combat injustice, etc. If Muslim and Jewish people cannot give substantive expression even to your imaginary conversation (and some Muslim and Jewish people will be unable to get even that far, I fear), what hope is there? Very little. But you have clarified exactly what should be done as a meaningful first step.

I am therefore issuing a challenge to the Muslim and Jewish communities of Newcastle. Admit that there is right and wrong on both sides. Identify the aspects of injustice that must be addressed. Set up a group of Muslim and Jewish people who acknowledge what the aspects of injustice are and take action to promote justice for Muslim and Jewish people alike. We will then have a situation in which Muslims are campaigning for the rights of Jewish people and Jewish people are campaigning for the rights of Muslims (albeit in Newcastle only, at first). What could be more sensible and reasonable, not least in so far as both communities allege that they are committed to individual, civil, community and human rights. But we cannot be advocates for justice, committed to diversity or described as empathetic people if we are committed to OUR individual, civil, community and human rights alone. If WE benefit from such rights, WE must ensure everyone else also benefits from them. This is an aspect of the golden rule and, as a Jewish person, the golden rule inspires my actions on a daily basis.

You won’t be surprised that this courageous woman does not want to be identified. What a dire world in which we live.

By the way: I support every word she has written. You, the readers of the post, are reasonable, responsible, informed and empathetic people, so I know you will support her every word as well.

The Act of Remembrance

The Act of Remembrance

P.P.S. I’ve been asked what an atheist or a humanist might have said during the act of remembrance, had the opportunity arisen for an atheist or a humanist to speak. I cannot speak for all atheists, obviously, and, although Humanism is a belief system with which I have immense respect (it is one of the few belief systems, religious or otherwise, that makes a lot of sense), I do not define myself as a humanist. This said, I would have liked to hear someone say the famous comment originally attributed to the remarkable film-maker of Spanish origin, Luis Bunuel. Bunuel is reported to have said (and I hope my paraphrase encapsulates the essence of his wisdom), “I admire the person who seeks the truth, but live in fear that one day the person finds it.” As we all know, it is often those who think they possess the truth that want to impose their truth on others. Therein lies tyranny. Therein lies extremism. Therein lies the denial of individual, civil, community and human rights.

P.P.P.S. Just before uploading this post, the following exchange of views took place between Sohan Singh and me. Sohan:

The act of remembrance (for the people murdered in Paris) was held yesterday in my area and was well attended. People from different religious traditions recited their respective prayers, but the Muslim representative lamented that the Church of England had not organised a similar event last month when the Taliban murdered about 150 people, most of whom were children, at a military school in Pakistan. After the Muslim representative had spoken it was my turn at the podium, so, before giving my presentation, I praised Mr. R. for pointing out that atrocities have occurred in parts of the world other than Paris.

After the reciting of prayers we chatted for a few minutes in small groups. A senior police officer pointed out that they are very aware of Boko Haram’s activities in Nigeria, but nothing like their mass killings could happen in this country (the UK).

It suddenly occurred to me that we were all speaking from our narrow sectarian perspectives. What would Nigerians say about an act of remembrance that only recalled the recent events in Paris? And what would Christians and other minorities living in Iraq and Syria make of such an act of remembrance when they face genocide at the hands of ISIS?

We are all far too parochial in our outlooks.

Phil:

Can I congratulate you, Sohan, for your ever-so-perceptive point about how we are still locked into seeing the problems of the world from our narrow confessional/religious and/or ethnic point of view. This is precisely the criticism that, for me, was most obvious about the act of remembrance last week (although I congratulate the Church of England for arranging it at such short notice and I think the diocese did the best possible job that it could. No other faith group than the Anglicans could have brought together people of so many different backgrounds so quickly). Only two or three spokespeople found words that had a universal ring to them or suggested they could look at problems from a perspective other than that of their religious or ethnic group. We have a long way to go before interfaith dialogue becomes meaningful.

When I upload the next post on “Faith and Belief Forum” (this post, in fact), you will find that it is precisely this idea (we are too parochial in our outlook and, consequently, not yet in a position to resolve many of the most serious problems currently confronting humankind) that enlightens the text. In fact, your comments confirm I MUST upload the post. It will appeal to people with perceptions not significantly different to yours.

P.P.P.P.S. This is a much-delayed post because I wanted a number of trusted, detached, objective and perceptive people to critically evaluate it before it entered the public domain. Such people, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Bahai, Hindu, humanist and atheist included, have engaged in such critical evaluation and I now feel it deserves exposure. But will anyone rise to the challenge described above? Time will tell.

Oh yes: the criticism levelled at the diocese for not arranging an act of remembrance following the terrible events in Pakistan (when the Taliban murdered about 150 people, most of whom were children, at a military school) is most unfair. In a case of such brutality committed by Muslims on Muslims, it is mosque leaders who should arrange such acts of remembrance. Moreover, for such acts of remembrance, it is mosque leaders who should reach out to people of all faiths and none to show solidarity with Muslims ashamed of and/or disgusted by the actions of co-religionists capable of such crimes against humanity. We are all on a steep learning curve, quite clearly.