Tag Archives: British Humanist Association

Ban? What ban? The European Court of Justice and religious artefacts, etc.

Here are some comments about an important ruling recently made by the European Court of Justice:

The ruling by the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ) that employers with justifiable rules on “dress neutrality” can ban workers from wearing any political, philosophical or religious symbols at work is deeply disturbing.

The ECJ ruling is deeply worrying for Sikhs living in mainland Europe because they are already vulnerable to widespread discrimination at work.

The Church of England has attacked the ruling. It has condemned the ruling on the grounds that the judgement would allow employers to ban workers from wearing crucifixes. The Church said the “decision would prevent Christians from exercising their religious freedom”. Islamic groups have also condemned the decision and consider that “the decision would legitimise attacks on Muslims”. The Jewish community would also be unhappy as it could forbid Jews from wearing a yamulka in public (a yamulka is especially popular with Orthodox Jewish men).

Sikh organisations will find it difficult to reverse the ruling on their own. Chances of success will be greater if we worked closely with Christians and Jews. I have nothing against Muslims, but the ruling against the wearing of Islamic headscarves could be because of fear of Islamists. However, forcing everyone to “dress neutrally” because you are alarmed by one minority group is plainly wrong.

DSC_0640

Elazig, Turkey

I have sympathy with some aspects of the above, but I also think that a lot of the above is based on sloppy thinking, as is a lot of other comment that the ruling has so far provoked. What follows is not by any means the final word on the ruling (for one thing, I do not agree with everything said), but it engages in a more considered, inclusive and challenging manner with the ruling’s implications than most comment has so far managed.

Yes: the only way to fight the ruling (which many firms/organisations will NOT invoke, of course, because of their respect for/commitment to individual/human/religious, etc. rights) with hope of success is to unite across religious/sectarian divides. Ideally, therefore, Muslims SHOULD be embraced to fight the potential “ban” – if only to get across the message to Muslims that it’s just as wrong that Muslims deny to non-Muslims the right to wear religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. in overwhelmingly Muslim lands, as it is that all religious people might be banned from wearing religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. in allegedly secular/ predominantly secular nation states. To make an obvious point: if banning the hijab, the niqab or the burka is wrong, then it is equally wrong for Muslims to ban turbans, crucifixes, kippahs/yamulkas, Stars of David, etc.

The point that follows is too important to ignore: at present around the globe, nation states in which religion overtly or covertly shapes all/most aspects of life, the political included, are more likely to ban the wearing of religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. than overwhelmingly secular nation states (and such bans are most likely to occur in overwhelmingly Muslim nation states). Moreover, in India under the Hindu BJP, it is more dangerous for non-Hindus to wear religious artefacts, etc. than before the BJP rose to power – but, thankfully, the situation in India is not nearly as bad (yet?) as in neighbouring Pakistan or Bangladesh where even minority Muslims, let alone Hindus, Sikhs and Christians, are murdered by members of the Sunni Muslim majority because of what they wear, do or believe as a consequence of their religious affiliation. The point I make is this: as a general rule, it’s religious people and not secularists who find other people’s religious artefacts, etc. unacceptable, and unacceptable to such a degree that a common outcome is the murder of those who display such artefacts, etc.   

But we have to be careful here. Will it be possible to distinguish between what most people of sound mind regard as acceptable/non-controversial religious artefacts/ symbols/items of clothing, etc. (which surely include the chador, the hijab, the turban and the kara), and things such as the niqab and the burka, which, for all sorts of reasons whether persuasive or not, cause concern to vast numbers of people (and which have more of a cultural than a religious basis, and which women are often compelled to wear by males so that males can deny women the same opportunities as men)? 

Two positive things about the Sikh 5Ks and Christian crucifixes are that they are recognised by the vast majority of people of sound mind to be acceptable/non-controversial religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc., and they are worn by men AND women without distinction!!!! 

What I am getting at is this: when are religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. indicators of gender inequality and markers of the weak/disenfranchised/ oppressed? Perhaps it is the indicators of gender inequality and the markers of weakness/disenfranchisement/oppression that bans ought to/should/must apply. After all, we do not question that oppressive/regressive practices such as forced marriage, FGM, honour-based violence and slavery, the latter sometimes for sexual exploitation, are wrong, and wrong in each and every instance. 

USA August 2007 581

Shrine, Hindu-run business, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

But there is another question that needs addressing: is the right to wear religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. so much more important than, say, 15 million people living as slaves in India, or 20 million people facing famine in 6/7 African and Middle Eastern countries, or the continued existence of the caste system in the Hindu world, or the destruction of large regions/whole countries by militant/extremist Islamists (with the latter leading to perhaps 20 million additional refugees than would otherwise be the case)? Add to this the harm that commitment to religion is causing in so many other parts of the globe and you have to wonder whether human beings can assess the problems that confront them with any sense of perspective and/or proportion. Last, of what consequence is the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. compared with the problems of climate change and uncontrolled population growth, the latter on a planet with rapidly depleting natural resources? People of faith get very upset about a possible threat to the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. when they should be devoting far more attention to other matters, not least climate change and uncontrolled population growth. People of faith have done nothing of real/lasting substance to combat either of these long-standing global problems. Furthermore, Roman Catholicism and Islam are themselves major CAUSES of uncontrolled population growth (and thus of climate change) because of their increasingly eccentric views about human fertility/women’s rights and responsibilities.

I would gladly impose a ban on the wearing of all religious artefacts, etc. in exchange for ending forever slavery in India, or overcoming the threat of famine in parts of Africa and the Middle East, or consigning to history the Hindu caste system, or liberating the world from militant/extremist Islam. Moreover, I am confident that the vast majority of religious people of sound mind would agree with me – if only because the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. is of far less importance than ending the brutal obscenities of slavery, famine, the caste system and Islamic militancy/extremism. Put another way, the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. is of far less importance than providing fellow human beings with the liberty and the life chances that I take for granted on a daily basis.

As a good Buddhist friend said in relation to the controversy, “So much unnecessary fuss is made about religious symbols when that is all that they really are, symbols. Would any person of sane mind, religious or otherwise, argue that a symbol should be put before the life or the liberty of a fellow human being? If such a person exists, then they have not understood what religion (or life itself, perhaps) is truly about: spiritual growth, knowledge and understanding, ethical conduct, compassion and forgiveness, and the provision here and now of enhanced opportunity for everyone.”     

But back to the ECJ “ban”: it must be remembered that it applies equally to political and philosophical as well as religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. If we condemn the “ban” on religious artefacts, etc., it is illogical not to also condemn the “ban” on political and philosophical symbols, etc. This confronts us with a challenge of considerable gravity. If we insist that it’s okay to wear religious symbols, then it must be equally okay to wear symbols such as the Nazi swastika. How many Jewish people will support the right to display the Nazi swastika in exchange for the right to wear the kippah/yamulka? I’m not Jewish, but even I cannot bring myself to support the right to display the Nazi swastika.  

The ECJ “ban” may yet inspire some sensible/considered/thoughtful/beneficial outcomes – but at present people are still primarily concerned with their narrow sectarian/confessional worries instead of looking at the bigger picture.

Which brings me to my penultimate point: perhaps we have got ourselves into the current mess about religious artefacts, etc. only because we never in our own minds had a clear understanding about which were acceptable/non-controversial and which were unacceptable/controversial. Outcome? In a sometimes misguided attempt to “respect” cultural diversity, even when cultural diversity results in enforced segregation, gender inequality and the denial of rights and opportunities to the weakest within many communities, whether such communities are minority or otherwise, we conceded ground to the militants, the extremists and those who seek to sustain regressive practices. As usual, it is mostly men who are the militants, the extremists and those who seek to sustain regressive practices – and their first victims are the women and children in their own communities.

My view in relation to the controversy? There ARE some religious artefacts, etc. (and some political and philosophical symbols) that most definitely do NOT deserve to be banned, but others that SHOULD be banned (as should some political and philosophical symbols). But if it is impossible for society as a whole to agree on what to ban, I would happily ban the lot because the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. is of far less importance than many other matters humankind urgently needs to engage with. Compare the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. with climate change, uncontrolled population growth, slavery, famine, the Hindu caste system and/or Islamic militancy/extremism, and you have the difference between an issue largely devoid of significance and issues of inescapable global consequence. As my Buddhist friend suggests, religious symbols are just that, symbols. What is the point worrying about mere symbols when confronted with the consequences of climate change, uncontrolled population growth, slavery, famine, the Hindu caste system and/or Islamic militancy/extremism?

DSC00444

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The above provoked the following seven thoughtful responses from people with and without faith commitments:

One. Much has been made of the fact that the ECJ ruling has been welcomed by far right political groups in parts of Europe, but much less attention has been given to the support it has secured from organisations such as the UK’s British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society, organisations whose commitments to liberalism, inclusivity and cultural pluralism are impossible to dispute. That the ruling has secured support from such diverse interest groups who rarely agree on anything confirms in my mind that the ruling is far more subtle/nuanced/complex/even-handed than many allow. Moreover, I welcome the ruling because it will at last provoke some serious thought about matters of considerable concern in pluralist societies, societies that have to balance respect for cultural diversity with ensuring that none of their citizens suffer disadvantage, discrimination and/or the denial of basic human rights. Needless to say, where respect for cultural diversity results in people suffering disadvantage, discrimination and/or the denial of basic human rights, the aspects of cultural diversity that lead to such intolerable circumstances must be challenged, and challenged as a prelude to, in many cases, outlawing them altogether. We could therefore do a lot worse than agree about the religious artefacts, etc. that are indicators of gender inequality and the markers of the weak/disenfranchised/ oppressed and decide what to do about them. My instinctive reaction to such religious artefacts, etc. is that they SHOULD be banned.

Two. I agree with a lot of what is said above, but offer a few words of warning or caution. Even if broad agreement is reached about the religious artefacts, etc. that are contemptible/indicators of gender inequality/markers of the weak/disenfranchised/ oppressed and thereafter it is decided to ban them, will the ban be the thin end of the wedge leading to a ban on all religious artefacts, etc.? Personally, I think the problem is not insurmountable – but “thus far and no further” guarantees will have to be considered to ensure that, for example, gender inclusive/non-controversial artefacts, etc. are never considered worthy of a ban.

Three. For me, the key issue is that you cannot say bans on religious symbols are wrong while saying that bans on political and philosophical symbols are right. If bans on religious symbols are wrong, it is equally wrong to ban political and philosophical symbols.

Four. Self-evidently, many religious, political and philosophical artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. ARE uncontroversial, but others are less so.

IMG_5015

Montilla, Spain

Five. Since we already have in the UK laws that forbid things such as the incitement of murder and racial hatred, I imagine that some political, etc. symbols are already banned. Perhaps we simply need to look again at our laws to first identify what we regard as just as bad as the incitement of murder and racial hatred (e.g. homophobia, slavery, denying girls and women the same rights and opportunities as boys and men, denying people with disabilities/special needs/learning difficulties the same rights and opportunities as everyone else, etc.) and then consider outlawing everything that contributes to/sustains such disadvantage and discrimination, religious, political and/or philosophical symbols included.

Six. Many religious symbols are not only indicators of gender inequality and/or the markers of weakness/disenfranchisement/oppression; they are a way of exaggerating differences between people when humankind needs to emphasise all that unites rather than divides it. Note also that the merits (or otherwise) of a specific religious symbol are very definitely in the eye of the beholder. I observe above that crucifixes (and, by implication, Christian crosses more generally) are thought to qualify as acceptable/non-controversial religious artefacts, etc. But consider this:

“In truth, countless Jews of our world will never be able to distinguish the cross from the swastika, nor ought they be expected to do so. It was after the Holocaust that a Jewish woman, catching sight of a huge cross displayed in New York City each year at Christmastime, said to her walking companion, Father Edward H. Flannery, ‘That cross makes me shudder. It is like an evil presence.’ It was in and through the Endlosung (the final solution of the question of the Jews) that the symbol of the cross became ultimately corrupted by devilishness. When asked by two bishops in 1933 what he was going to do about the Jews, Adolf Hitler replied that he would do to them exactly what the Christian church had been advocating and practicing for almost two thousand years” (Roy and Alice Eckhardt, “Long Night’s Journey into Day: life and faith after the Holocaust”, Wayne State University Press, 1982, pp. 99-100).

Thus, one person’s treasured religious artefact is another person’s reminder of discrimination, persecution and mass murder/genocide. In responding sensibly to the ECJ ruling, this must not be forgotten.

Seven. As an anarchist with marked libertarian inclinations, I am reluctant to ever advocate banning anything – but I note with considerable interest that for the last two to three thousand years people of faith have engaged in banning things with a frequency that even authoritarian/totalitarian political regimes have rarely emulated (such bans are usually predicated on frankly ludicrous ideas associated with “heresy”). Nonetheless, I see exactly what is meant in relation to a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable religious artefacts, etc. However, perhaps the thing to do is not to ban unacceptable religious artefacts, etc., but engage in a process of education/discussion/debate to “prove” that they are unacceptable. Once the process has been completed, people will dispense with the unacceptable artefacts, etc. in precisely the same way that no people of sane mind (to use a phrase from above) today tolerate slavery, famine, the caste system, the denial of equal rights and opportunities for particular groups or individuals, and/or the torture or murder of suspected witches. In other words, through a process of education/discussion/debate we become what we purport to be, a civilised society.

DSC01061

Diyarbakir, Turkey

P.S. The above was uploaded to the blog not long after a terrorist incident in Westminster in London that resulted in the death of four innocent people, one a police officer on duty outside the Houses of Parliament (the terrorist was shot dead by the police), and not long after a similar terrorist incident in Antwerp in Belgium that might easily have resulted in far more fatalities than in London. But none of the people who wrote to express concern about how the ECJ ruling might somehow compromise the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. thought the latest terrorist incidents in London and Antwerp worthy of comment. Clearly, many people struggle to distinguish between what is truly important and what is far less important.

P.P.S. It is time to draw this post to a conclusion, partly because it has generated more interest (e.g. see the comments) than any other post on the blog. Thus, my thanks to people of different faiths and none (e.g. a Roman Catholic, two Muslims, a Buddhist, three Sikhs, a Druid, an atheist and an anarchist), whether male or female (in one way or another, almost as many females as males have contributed to the post). But my greatest thanks go to Rawda Kemal, a Syrian woman who arrived in Darlington a few years ago. Rawda self-declares as a Shafi Sunni Muslim. Many of the insights in the long contribution above (the one beginning, “Yes: the only way to fight the ruling…”) are hers (the contribution is a joint effort written by Rawda and one other person). Rawda is likely to contribute to the blog again in the not-too-distant future.

P.P.P.S. A fifth innocent person, a young Romanian woman on holiday with her boyfriend, has died (6.4.17) as a consequence of the terrorist incident in Westminster. To date (7.4.17), no individual anywhere in the EU has been banned from wearing religious artefacts, etc. in the workplace because of the ECJ ruling.                               

Advertisements

How can humanists and Muslims live and work together in 21st century London?

This blog is predicated on the perception that interfaith dialogue, in the UK at least, very rarely engages with substantive issues in a way that requires those who participate to subject their beliefs to much-needed critical analysis. Below, however, is an example of interfaith dialogue that goes far beyond the norm and therefore provides us with an example of what might be deemed best practice in the field. My thanks to Chris Butterworth in Northumberland (the UK) for bringing this remarkable article to my attention, and thanks to humanists in London for setting up the occasion that made what follows possible. I have changed nothing but a few typographical errors in the original, thereby preserving all the wisdom, insights, comments, opinions and perceptions that make this encounter between humanists and Muslims so invaluable. What follows is a lesson to us all. We now have a benchmark against which to measure future interfaith initiatives.

The original article appeared in “Humanist Life” and was entitled “Common ground dialogue”.

London

London

According to the 2011 census, one in eight Londoners identifies themselves as a Muslim. In November 2014, a group of us (humanists) decided it was time to move beyond the black-and-white “Isn’t Islam terrible” rhetoric and start talking with, and listening to, fellow Londoners who are Muslim. The aim was not to debate whether Islamic beliefs were right or wrong, but to respect the fact that most Muslims will continue to see their faith as an element of their identity. We wanted to get behind the media stereotypes and start to understand what real Muslims think, and where the real differences and common ground lie. Above all, we wanted to start seeing Muslim Londoners as fellow human beings, and not as “the other”.  So we invited four Muslims to a dialogue at Conway Hall on 25th November 2014, a dialogue chaired by Alom Shaha, author of “The Young Atheist’s Handbook” and an ex-Muslim with a Bangladeshi background.

Our guests were Mamadou Bocoum – Public Relations Officer for the Sharia Council; Huda Jawad – Advisor at the Centre for Academic Shia Studies and Research Coordinator for Solace Women’s Aid; Sara Khan – Co-Founder and Director of the human rights charity Inspire, and Yasmin Rehman – from the Centre for Secular Space and a researcher into polygamy and the law. 140 people turned up – mainly humanists but also a number of Muslims. The feedback afterwards was overwhelmingly positive. As one of the attendees said, this was “a chance for humanists to hear a range of views from intelligent and non-stereotypical, politically-engaged Muslims, without anyone demanding that they justify their religious belief”. We see this as a valuable first step in mutual understanding.

Muslim identity, racism, victimhood.

Yasmin’s parents came to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s. Growing up in a small mining town in North East England meant facing routine racism and the threat of violence. On the day of her father’s funeral, someone posted a note through their door saying, “That’s one less Paki to worry about.” Then there was the Rushdie Affair, the point at which it felt that the government started to consider Muslims as a group that needed special attention. That was powerfully reinforced by the 11th September (9/11) and 7th July (7/7) terror attacks in New York and London respectively. Unfortunately, even now when dealing with officials, Yasmin reports that “you get a seat if you say the right thing”. Faith leaders were only too happy to respond by providing a strengthened faith identity. From being a Punjabi Muslim with more in common culturally with Hindu and Christian Punjabis than Muslims from other parts of the world, Yasmin found her Muslim identity promoted to the top of the list and, with it, increased pressure on her generation to practice their faith and adopt its outward signs. Racism then morphed into anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred. Yasmin’s son, then aged eighteen, was brutally assaulted on a London bus in the wake of the 7/7 attacks and has moved to the Far East. She fears he will never return to the UK.

Huda was a child in a Sunni area of Saddam’s Iraq. She was taught to conceal her Shia identity in order to protect her family from persecution. When she came to the UK, she did not even identify herself primarily as a Muslim, and the Islam she heard about in school RE lessons seemed unrecognisable. But things changed after the Rushdie Affair “when the question became, ‘Are you British or are you Muslim?’” Thus began a personal journey to explore her faith and its key texts.

Alom grew up in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s where racial prejudice was considered normal and unremarkable. He saw 9/11 as the turning point when his generation began to be pigeon-holed as Muslim and racism evolved into anti-Muslim prejudice. In his experience as an ex-Muslim, sometimes people use their atheism to mask covert racism and anti-Muslim bigotry. And, too often, terrorist is equated with Muslim.

But the Muslim communities themselves also had to take some responsibility for the current “us and them” position. Firstly, in Sara’s view, they have been let down by poor leadership, which has made them vulnerable to pressure from extremists. Frequently she had seen leaders unwilling to counter extremist on-line narratives, simply claiming “there’s no problem. It’s all to do with British foreign policy”. Inadequate leadership was particularly serious when failing to confront issues of gender inequality. When the police or representatives of the local authorities approached mosques to discuss issues such as violence against women, they were often told there was no issue and they found it impossible to talk directly to Muslim women. Mosques became “gatekeepers, not gateways”.

Secondly, in Yasmin’s view, a sense of victimhood pervaded Muslim households, especially on the back of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Satellite TV channels were filled with reports of Sunni victimhood from Chechnya and other places across the world. Yet, when she tried to challenge this sense of victimhood, she found herself accused of Islamophobia.

The speakers felt that the media provided an extremely misleading picture of British Muslims, which then formed the basis for opinions of the wider population, which added to a Muslim bunker mentality. The result, in Mamadou’s view, was that Islam was being hijacked by the hardliners. Sara quoted the example of the BBC giving Anjem Choudary the key 8.10am interview slot on Radio 4’s “Today” programme after the Lee Rigby murder, despite his extreme views being detested by most British Muslims.

London

London

The rise of ISIS and of extremism in the UK.

All the speakers were horrified by ISIS and what Sara referred to as their “takfiri” form of Salafist/jihadist Islam, in which anyone who does not share their extreme dogma is considered not a true Muslim and is therefore dispensable – a “school of thought alien to most Muslims”. Sara pointed out that the Islamic state, as defined by ISIS, was a modern idea. She saw it as part of the wider challenge of reconciling Islam with modernity.

Extremist ideas generally, and ISIS in particular, posed a serious challenge to Muslim parents in the UK. Young British Muslims who were already feeling alienated and angry were easy prey for jihadist propaganda. But the underlying causes of radicalisation are complex. Sara explained that the government’s “Prevent” strategy had evolved considerably in recent years, and there was now a wealth of academic research about extremism. The research shows no single cause or route to extremism, and no correlation between extremism on the one hand and poverty or lack of education on the other.

It was true that British Sikh and Hindu communities, which had also suffered from racism, did not incline toward extremism to the same degree as the Muslim communities, though Huda pointed out that every religion had the capacity for extremism and violence. She gave the example of Buddhist monks who persecuted Muslims in Burma. A number of factors had affected the position of Muslims in the UK. Foreign policy was one. But it was also significant that, unlike some migrant communities, most British Muslims had their origins in relatively poor rural areas in the Indian sub-continent. Children of first generation immigrants often came from homes where they were told not to question their parents’ views and authority, while at school they were being taught that questioning and enquiry were a good thing. At the same time, in addition to the influence on them of extremists in social media, Sara pointed to the millions of pounds that have been spent by Saudi Arabia on pushing Wahhabism, a hardline variety of Islam with a bigoted view of those who do not share it, and which takes no account of cultural background.

The pressure toward hardline thinking was therefore significant. And, as Huda said, ISIS were especially good at media management and recruitment, while at the same time in Britain “my sons are being told they are the enemy and potential terrorists. How do I prevent them from walking into the arms of ISIS?”

Extremism affected both Muslims and non-Muslims: a Pakistani police colleague of Yasmin’s had been killed by a suicide bomber when he shook his hand in a mosque. In Belgium, a Shia mullah had been killed by Sunni extremists, and in the Edgware Road in London, a mob of Anjem Choudary followers had attacked a man simply for being a Shia. Meanwhile, the Far Right was exploiting ISIS and other Islamist extremists to fuel anti-Muslim hatred. Huda felt the pressure acutely: “This is home. But I’m increasingly feeling there will be a time when I need to find the bags that I’ve packed, but I don’t know where I’m going. I’m not Muslim enough, not secular enough, not Shia enough. How many more headlines do I need to read in the Daily Mail before it’s time to go?”

Yasmin felt that women could play a vital role in combating the extremist trend, citing the example of Northern Ireland where women from both sides of the sectarian divide had lost children in the conflict but came together to work for peace.

There was agreement that it was better for Anjem Choudary and other hardliners’ activities to be visible rather than driven underground, but disagreement over whether there was any benefit in attempting dialogue with such people.

London

London

We have a problem with the text.

Mamadou knows the Qu’ran intimately – he memorised the whole book when he was fourteen and can quote chapter and verse. But he thinks “we have a problem with the text”. In his view the main issue is people taking verses out of context and interpreting them literally. He agreed with the Christian theologian who said, “Any text without context is a pretext”, and pointed out that, if he were following the Qu’ran literally, “I would not be sitting here” because humanists are not Muslims and there is a verse in the Qur’an which says non-Muslims are enemies.

But the Qu’ran itself asks readers to contemplate and think for themselves about its meaning so that “the understanding of the text is greater than the divinity of the text”. Mamadou called for Muslims to be brave enough to question the meaning of the text and to understand and apply Kant’s approach to hermeneutics in order to move beyond literalism.

Sara and Huda shared this interpretive thinking: “The text will be as moral as the reader”, as Sara said. Like Mamadou, Huda saw the text as “all about enquiry”, with verses requiring Muslims to reflect, ponder and understand too often overlooked in favour of simple dos and don’ts. It concerned her that many Muslims forget the blossoming of science and philosophy which took place in Muslim Spain, an empire which lasted for three centuries where rational enquiry was valued. In Mamadou’s view, Muslims could learn from humanists to “put human beings at the centre of what we do. I have a human being in front of me, not God,” he conceded.

London

London

Multiple Islams.

On the panel were three Sunnis – if we include Yasmin, who preferred not to discuss the details of her beliefs – and one Shia Muslim.

Huda explained the split between Sunni and Shia (the latter literally “the followers of Ali”) as originally a political disagreement about the leadership of Islam after Mohammed’s death, with the Sunnis backing the leader chosen by all Muhammad’s followers, and the Shia believing that leadership should devolve on Muhammad’s descendants, starting with Ali, his cousin and son-in-law. Despite agreement about the basic tenets of Islam and the centrality of the Qur’an, over time religious, cultural and political differences of such significance have emerged that the Sunni and Shia schism is one of the main factors shaping wars in the Middle East. Conservative Sunni clerics do not consider Shias true Muslims. Huda sees ISIS as “an unholy alliance” between jihadis and Baathists formally loyal to Saddam Hussein who consider Shias “the number one enemy”, thereby echoing Saddam’s view that they are “worse than Jews, worse than flies”.

Huda saw massive diversity within British Islam. She regarded her faith as a framework for people to find their own path. Her mother was a science teacher and her family includes converts and secularists. Her personal view was that “Islam is all about rationality – we are told to forget tradition”. Unlike Yasmin and Sara, Huda wears a hijab, not because it is a religious requirement but because she has worn it for so long it is part of her personal identity.

Mamadou was born and brought up in Senegal. Among his identities was Sunni Islam with an African flavour, which he continues to foster. Arriving in the UK he found an alien “chicken tikka masala Islam” in which the culture and practices of rural villages of the Indian sub-continent dominated. He argued for the development of a British “fish and chips Islam” reflecting both the diversity of the Muslim communities and British values and culture.

Feminism and women’s rights.

Sara identifies herself as a Muslim feminist, a term that some atheists and Muslims tell her is an oxymoron. For her, “My faith… has given me a notion of equality, freedom of belief”, and it was her reading of the Qur’an that inspired her to fight for justice regardless of the personal cost which has included abuse and death threats. Attacks and threats have come from jihadists and, ironically, jihadists’ most virulent critics. For example, Rod Liddle referred to her in the “The Spectator” as a “pseudo-apologist for the jihadis” because she challenged media generalisations about British Muslims.

In her view, many Muslims do not know their own history. Islam promoted women’s rights in 7th century Arabia. She recommended that Muslims should study “Islamic Humanism” by Lenn Goodman. Unfortunately, the faith has been largely developed by men opposed to gender equality. Ultra-conservatives are trying to extend this thinking, for instance, by introducing gender segregation into British universities and denouncing those who oppose them as “non-Muslims”, thereby echoing ISIS. Globally, extremist Muslims are targeting Muslim feminists, as in the case of a Libyan feminist who was recently murdered.

But that was not the only source of opposition to progress. As Huda said, moderate Muslim feminists in the West find themselves in a triple bind: they have the general challenges associated with being Muslim in the West; their co-religionists use “feminist” as a form of insult; and their co-feminists attack them either for being too religious or not religious enough. Sara has even been accused by white, non-Muslim feminists of being an Islamophobe.

London

London

LGBT rights.

A member of the audience referred to a Gallup poll of five hundred British Muslims in which no respondents had considered homosexuality acceptable and asked, “How can gay people live freely alongside Muslims, for example, in East London?”

Huda’s view was that “God is the only judge” about what is right and wrong in relation to sexuality. But she was not surprised by the data because people will tend to answer this question the way they think is required of them. In fact, Muslims in her community talk about the issue in private all the time, but consider it taboo to discuss publicly.

Huda said there was no question that the current view across Islam is unfavourable toward homosexuality. A particular reason for resistance to change was that, for a community that feels under siege, the traditional teaching is seen as a bastion against the West.

Mamadou compared the development of Christianity and Judaism with Islam, which he saw as still a relatively young religion that needed time to reform. But things may be slowly shifting. There is an organisation called Imaan set up to support LGBT Muslim people – it held a conference earlier this year (2014). TellMAMA, which monitors anti-Muslim attacks in the UK, had recently recruited Peter Tatchell to its board. Shereen El Feki’s book “Sex and the Citadel” addressed the reality of gay life in Arab society, and the Safra Project supports Muslim LBT women. Mamadou had worked with a gay mullah in Washington.

On the other hand, the Safra Project had received threats for campaigning against forced marriage and the liberal Muslim Institute had come under attack for a recent discussion about gay rights.

Yasmin singled out the East London Mosque, which she said had been taken over by Islamists who were strongly homophobic. Sara demanded zero tolerance of homophobia, pointing out that Muslims cannot complain about Islamophobia without at the same time challenging homophobia.

Freedom of speech.

In response to a question about threats of violence directed by Islamists at people deemed to be insulting Islam, Huda said that those who issue such threats must always be condemned, provided it was done even-handedly. “God and the Prophet can take care of themselves”, and she thought most Muslims don’t take violent offence to challenges. But she wondered whether sometimes the target is not so much faith but a particular community. For example, she wondered what the headlines would have looked like if Harold Shipman had been Muslim rather than Jewish.

Faith schools.

There was a clear difference in view among the speakers on faith schools. They did not all support Alom’s call to back the British Humanist Association’s position opposing faith schools as sectarian, divisive and, in a majority of cases, openly discriminatory.

Huda said she did not send her children to a faith school, but understood the need for a safe space where parents could ensure children know enough about their religious and cultural backgrounds to defend themselves against ISIS propaganda. Mamadou thought that some faith schools were “doing a wonderful job” and they should not be closed down. But support for them also meant being ready to criticise them when they got it wrong.

Yasmin had herself attended a convent and considered separating children on the basis of faith a form of apartheid. She had been disturbed to come across a junior school where young girls were wearing hijabs. She felt strongly that the state should not fund faith schools, which only increased division on the basis of religion and class, and she wanted to see world religions taught as an academic subject with less “eurocentricity”.

Sara had two daughters at a local community school. She had no confidence in what a Muslim faith school or a madrassa would teach them and preferred to do “religious education” herself. She recognised that there are some good faith schools and felt parental choice should be respected, but good governance was essential.

Sharia and apostasy.

Although Mamadou is the Public Relations Officer for The Sharia Council, there were only a couple of references to sharia during the meeting. The first reference derived from Yasmin, who pointed out that there is not just one sharia law: there are “four distinct schools within Sunni Islam alone”. She was “really troubled by government support for sharia councils for dispute resolution”, and wanted “all women to have equal access before the law”. She wondered why it was that only in the past twenty years have British Muslim women who want a divorce been expected to go to a sharia court. Did this mean that all the previous divorces were invalid? Huda later pointed out that there are five schools of sharia law, four Sunni schools plus one Shia.

Surprisingly, the issue of apostasy did not come up in the questions, although the speakers’ rejection of qu’ranic literalism suggested what their views might be.

London

London

Were the speakers representative of the wider Muslim community?

A questioner cited opinion polls suggesting the speakers’ liberal views were not representative of the general Muslim population in the UK.

Yasmin was critical of much of the polling data, which she did not recognise on the basis of the many people she knew. It was often unclear who actually got to fill in the questionnaire. Sara pointed out that over 80% of British Muslims were very patriotic, and even the extremists seemed to prefer the benefits and freedoms of living in the West.

Messages to humanists.

During the discussion there were a few points directed at the humanists hosting the event.

  • Sara: “We value your support and assistance in combating extremism.”
  • Huda: “It’s better to ask and enquire than hold back for fear of causing offence.”
  • Mamadou: “It’s important to avoid the arrogance of exclusiveness – what I believe is right, what others believe is wrong.” He called for the non-religious to be “modest enough to accept the religious person”.
  • Huda: “When I’m reaching out to humanists and secularists, I do so in the hope that they will accept me without trying to demonise my religious beliefs or identity or ignore me because I’m not rich enough or educated enough.”

I for one would like to think that these misconceptions about humanists were greatly clarified by the event.

All four speakers welcomed the opportunity for the dialogue and wanted to see it continued.

Religious Studies teaching is pathetic – either improve it or ditch it. By Giles Fraser.

Introduction.

In contrast with many other nation states that exclude religion from their schools (on the grounds that religion is a potentially divisive phenomenon which, if addressed in schools, will ferment more discord than peaceful co-existence), the education system in the UK REQUIRES religion to be addressed. All state-funded schools MUST provide religious education/religious studies (RE/RS) to their pupils/students throughout their school careers, and maintained schools MUST provide a daily act of collective worship which, if the letter of the law is adhered to rigidly, will be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character” (if the latter isn’t potentially divisive, I don’t know what is). For over 25 years it has been widely understood that RE/RS MUST reflect that the UK is enriched by many expressions of religion, with the result that it has been normal for almost all schools that provide RE/RS to deliver a multifaith syllabus (at the very least, the vast majority of such syllabuses address Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism). However, since at least 2004, people responsible for the development of RE/RS syllabuses have been urged to aim for even greater inclusion by also offering pupils/students the opportunity to engage with “secular worldviews such as Humanism”.

I welcome the fact that RE/RS MUST be provided in our schools and that it MUST be taught in ways which reflect that people in the UK subscribe to many religions and beliefs (one reason I welcome the current arrangements is because, unless they prevail, when will children and young people ever get the opportunity to engage with the religions and beliefs of others in a reasonably coherent and/or systematic manner?). This therefore means that the vast majority of RE/RS teachers up and down the land are contributing to interfaith dialogue in ways that are rarely acknowledged, and, despite the concerns about RE/RS raised in the article to follow, are often doing so in very innovative and effective ways. And how are such teachers contributing to interfaith dialogue? They are increasing understanding and good relations; identifying causes of tension in relations between people belonging to/subscribing to different worldviews; building understanding and confidence to overcome or prevent tension; and breaking down the barriers and stereotypes which lead to distrust, suspicion and bigotry. This begs the inevitable question: In terms of interfaith dialogue, who are the real heroes and heroines working toward its aims and aspirations on an almost daily basis?

I wanted to remind people about these realities before sharing with you the following article by Giles Fraser, which first appeared in the “Guardian” newspaper in late 2014. Some of the content I agree with, some I do not. But Giles Fraser has hit on something of importance which no one can deny, not even those excellent RE/RS teachers up and down the land (and there are many excellent RE/RS teachers up and down the land, believe me): the subject is in a mess, despite the awesome endeavours of many talented teachers (I blame a lot of the mess on central government education policy, and on senior leadership teams in many of our schools that do not appreciate what their statutory responsibilities are as they apply to RE/RS, or how RE/RS can generate substantive benefits in relation to a host of whole school issues).

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

So: the article itself by Giles Fraser. By all means send me your reactions and I’ll upload the very best.

For years my daughter called it “colouring in”. And I assumed it was some sort of free lesson in the timetable. Much later I discovered this was the period that her school knew as religious studies (RS) – a subject, I am proud to say, that my children have all been spectacularly bad at.

Like them, I glazed over at the sheer inanity of the subject matter: a tepid version of cultural studies where religion is transformed into a calendar of funny festivals, lighting candles and distinctive headgear. And when the curriculum had the temerity to venture into territory with even the vaguest potential for moral or spiritual gravitas, it was obvious that a sort of moral and intellectual panic gripped many of the teaching staff.

Terrified by the potential for offence, terrified also of giving the impression that any one line of thought was preferable to any other, the default position on every subject became a mushy relativism where every conceivable matter of opinion was deemed to be as valuable as any other. Apparently, if you call something a religion, you can say anything you like about life, the universe and everything and it has to be respected. Which is another way of saying that RS became a hollow subject entirely devoid of intellectual debate or moral challenge. And, as a consequence, schools became a production line for children all programmed with the dull-eyed, shoulder-shrugging atheism of indifference (in my experience, the stickiest form of atheism ever discovered).

Which is why I am delighted to support the British Humanist Association (BHA), which is complaining that its own position is not being represented on the curriculum for GSCE and A levels. Back in 2013, the Department for Education issued advice to schools that a range of material could be used in RS lessons, including “atheism and humanism”. In updated advice, this phrase has been removed.

Like them, I am dismayed. Why should the world’s major faiths be so unfairly held back by first being presented to impressionable minds by a pallid watch-glancing geography teacher at 3.00pm on a Friday? Why should humanism have the privilege of looking like dangerous free-thinking, the sort of exciting thing one reads under the bedclothes at night with a torch? No, I say bring it into the curriculum and see it suffer the same fate as all the other worldviews: death by textbook. Or better still, let’s get rid of the subject altogether.

Am I being unfair on RS teaching? Perhaps a little. Some will argue more than a little. But part of the problem is that not enough of those who actually take RS classes are specialists in the subject. And this is just as true in many faith schools as it is in secular ones. Most are teachers from other disciplines just helping out for the afternoon. In schools, RS is a compulsory subject – but no one really wants to teach it.

Not that it was any better back in my day: colouring in a card for Divali or Hanukah is no worse than tracking the journeys of St. Paul around a map of the Mediterranean with tracing paper. Arguably, modern colouring in has the marginal advantage of increasing sensitivity to other cultures – though feel-good multiculturalism courtesy of Caran D’ache has a flattening-out effect that treats all religious traditions as basically alike, and thus fails properly to honour the distinctiveness and specificity of any particular religious practice. How this leads to greater community cohesion is anyone’s guess. In contrast, the traditional Christian-dominated Bible stories approach did at least have the not inconsiderable benefit of introducing children to the foundational texts of the western canon. But this could be just as much a justification for compulsory classics as for compulsory RS.

The fear that most right-thinking liberals have about RS lessons is that they are a means of indoctrination, a Trojan horse that inducts vulnerable children into some dangerous cultic religious practice long before they have had a chance to think for themselves. The thing is, properly done, RS lessons could be a tool for helping children to do precisely that: to think, to question, to argue. It could be a place where the adolescent philosophy of “that’s just my personal opinion” is challenged and moved on. It could be a place where children begin to discover why it is that some will live and die for their belief. But all this is rare. Instead, the secret contained in the belly of the RS Trojan horse is not religious fundamentalism evangelised by stealth, but the steady suffocation of curiosity and intellectual enthusiasm. And it looks like the BHA has fallen for the trap.

P.S. I backed the BHA in its campaign mentioned above for two main reasons. First, as someone in favour of inclusion, what else could I do? Second, if religion as a phenomenon is to be understood in a detached and unbiased manner, pupils/students must have the opportunity to engage with worldviews that contrast with religious worldviews. To understand religious beliefs and practices better, pupils/students must engage with the beliefs and practices of the opposition, whether the opposition is loyal or not. I know it makes sense and you know it makes sense. How else can pupils/students get an education about religion?

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne