Tag Archives: women’s rights

“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.

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“Amoris Laetitia”, Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation.

Pope Francis recently published the papal document, “Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love)”, which, although a marked shift in tone from that prevalent until very recently, makes no substantial difference in terms of fundamental Church teaching. Here is how “The Guardian” newspaper assessed the document:

Pope Francis has called for the Catholic Church to revamp its response to modern family life, urging greater acceptance for divorced people and those in same-sex relationships while adhering to traditional Church teachings.

The landmark papal document, entitled “Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love)”, was hailed as a “paradigm shift” by Francis’s biographer Austen Ivereigh, who said it had the “potential to shape the Church’s response to the family for generations to come”.

Over more than 250 pages, Francis outlines a more compassionate vision for the Church on family issues, urging priests to respond to their communities without rigidly enforcing Church rules. “Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs,” he wrote.

The apostolic exhortation concludes a two-year consultation that saw bishops twice gather in Rome to debate issues affecting the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

Ivereigh said the document was “a remarkable step forward for the Church”. It was “epic in scale, bold in ambition, and beautifully direct and tender, the fruit of decades of a holy man listening carefully to the truth of people’s lives”. He added: “It’s a fantastic piece of work.”

Alicante, Spain

Alicante, Spain

Much of the document is devoted to a detailed exposition of how a lifelong partnership between two people has the potential to bring joy, comfort and companionship. Francis offers practical advice for overcoming marital and family problems and issues, including bringing up children, conjugal sex and ageing.

In comments welcomed by some LGBT organisations, Francis urged the Church to “reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration”, while “every sign of unjust discrimination” is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression or violence.

But the pope stopped short of pushing for a change in Church doctrine. “De facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage,” he said.

The Church’s traditional definition of same-sex relationships as “intrinsically disordered” is notably absent from the exhortation, however.

Martin Pendergast, a Catholic LGBT activist in London, said the tone marked a new approach. The pope “clearly recognises the existence and experience of people in same-sex unions, although the Church is still not willing to equate such unions with marriage. But the door is still open. Conservatives won’t like this document,” he said.

After a lengthy debate about remarried divorcees, who are not allowed to take holy communion, Francis did not call for the rules to be changed but said such parishioners must be made to feel part of the Church.

He signalled his support for a proposal by progressives for “internal forums” in which a priest and a parishioner decide jointly, privately and on a case-by-case basis whether they can receive communion.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, who presented the document in Rome, said he recognised that some Catholics would be disappointed that the pope had not provided a new set of rules to govern the Church’s response on remarried divorcees. But the pope’s response demonstrated progress was being made on Church teachings, said Schönborn, who is viewed as a progressive within the Vatican hierarchy.

In discussing reproduction, the pope voiced the Vatican’s opposition to abortion in all circumstances: “No alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life.” He also rejected fertility treatment, describing creation as something which “must be received as a gift” and suggested infertile couples could adopt.

Francis offered support for women, condemning the “verbal, physical and sexual violence” that many endure in marriages, rejecting “sexual submission” to men and denouncing the “reprehensible” practice of female genital mutilation. He said the belief that feminism was to blame for the crisis in families today was completely invalid.

Alicante, Spain

Alicante, Spain

The pontiff dedicated two pages to “the erotic dimension of love” within marriage, promoting a positive vision of sexuality. “[This] must be seen as a gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses,” he said.

The 79 year-old pontiff explored the way technology affects relationships, such as when people stay on their mobile phones during meal times. He said the fast pace of the online world was affecting people’s approach to relationships. “They believe, along the lines of social networks, that love can be connected or disconnected at the whim of the consumer, and the relationship quickly ‘blocked’.”

The papal document – which also touches upon a number of other issues affecting families, such as abuse, migration and unemployment – reflects the hands-on approach seen throughout Francis’s three-year papacy. The pope emphasised the need for priests to reach out to members of their communities and present the Church as a “field hospital”.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the general secretary of the synod of bishops, who presented the document alongside Schönborn, envisaged a difficult road ahead for priests as they tried to follow the pontiff’s guidance. “We are not used to such a work. Everything was imposed from above and now we have to apply discernment… to each and every situation. So we have to keep the doctrine of faith very clear,” he said.

Peter Doyle, the chair of the bishops’ committee for marriage and family life, said the document was “very exciting, embracing everyone whatever their situation. Some people will be disappointed that it is not full of black and white solutions, but, as Pope Francis says, every situation is different and needs to be approached with love, mercy and openness of heart.”

Matthew McCusker, of the conservative organisation Voice of the Family, said there were “grave problems” with the document, which failed “to give a clear and faithful exposition of Catholic doctrine”. He said: “The Church has always taught that when a Catholic does something that is gravely wrong they must seek reconciliation with God and the Church through confession prior to receiving holy communion. If a person chooses to remain in a union that contradicts the moral law, they cannot be admitted to holy communion.”

Valencia, Spian

Valencia, Spain

When a pope issues an apostolic exhortation in response to a meeting of the synod of bishops (a gathering of bishops from around the world), it is called a post-synodal (after the synod) apostolic exhortation.

One problem with the document is that it does not have the authority of an encyclical. An apostolic exhortation is a pastoral document in which the pope exhorts the Church. Although it contains doctrine, its primary focus is on pastoral care. Apostolic exhortations are different to encyclicals, which do focus primarily on doctrine.

The “National Catholic Register”, published in the United States, notes with obvious regret that very little is said about homosexuality:

Same-sex unions “may not simply be equated with marriage”.  “Amoris Laetitia” also says: “During the Synod, we discussed the situation of families whose members include persons who experience same-sex attraction, a situation not easy either for parents or for children… We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while every sign of unjust discrimination is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence… Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.”

In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, “as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”.

Additionally, it is unacceptable “that local churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex”.

And that’s it. Contrary to the hopes of some, the document did not attempt to reframe the Church’s teaching on same-sex activity or same-sex unions.

Montilla, Spain

Montilla, Spain

Conclusion? The pope has done a little too much for the conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church but far too little for the liberals, but, given the overwhelmingly conservative character of the most senior figures in the Church, he probably did as much to shift Catholic thinking as is currently possible. I genuinely believe the pope is keen to reform many aspects of Roman Catholicism’s more ludicrous teachings, but he has so few reformist allies among the Church’s most senior figures that his room for manoeuvre is very limited. Then again, I could be misjudging the man. Perhaps he is just very good at appearing liberal in inclination when in reality he is almost as conservative as the popes who immediately preceded him. Perhaps we will be in a better position to judge him in two or three years’ time.  

Religious people behaving badly (and far, far worse), three.

One.

At last, attention of a popular as well as a scholarly kind is being given to the innocuous-sounding World Congress Of Families (WCF), an Illinois-based alliance of conservative religious groups (to date, most such groups exist within the embrace of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Why is the WCF a manifestation of religious people behaving badly? Because it leads a global legislative and public relations campaign against LGBTQ and reproductive rights. It is listened to far too readily in Africa and Russia, two parts of the globe where LGBTQ and reproductive rights are already most under threat. For anyone who wants confirmation that the activities of the WCF must be challenged, type “World Congress of Families” into your search engine and, if short of time, examine articles only by Political Research Associates, Right Wing Watch and the Human Rights Campaign. You will get the full picture very quickly.

Two.

It is almost certain (even the Israeli government believes that what follows is true) that the fatal arson attack on 31st July 2015 that left eighteen-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsheh dead in his family’s West Bank home was carried out by Jewish settler extremists (whether Hassidic or Haredi settler extremists we cannot, at this point, tell, but, if I were pushed to hazard a guess, I would say responsibility lay with Haredi settlers).

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

Three.

A devout Jewish protester armed with a knife ran amok during Jerusalem’s Gay Pride March stabbing six people – one woman seriously – in the worst incident of homophobic violence in the city for a decade.

According to eyewitnesses, the attacker, named by a police spokesperson as Yishai Schlissel, had hidden in a supermarket and waited for the march to arrive. Witnesses described seeing Schlissel, “an ultra-Orthodox Jewish male” who had been released from prison three weeks earlier after serving a sentence for stabbing several people at a gay pride parade in 2005, run screaming through the crowd in a central Jerusalem street stabbing people at random before being overpowered by police.

A few days after the stabbings, Shira Banki, aged sixteen, died of the wounds inflicted by Yishai Schlissel.

Four.

Leaders in the Methodist Church in the UK have apologised for failing to protect children and adults following nearly two thousand reports of physical and sexual abuse dating back to the 1950s.

When people feel that members of a religious group behave in a reprehensible manner (e.g. priests in the Roman Catholic Church sexually abuse children and young people), expressions of outrage can be violent. Malaga, Spain

When people feel that members of a religious group behave in a reprehensible manner (e.g. priests in the Roman Catholic Church sexually abuse children and young people), expressions of outrage can be violent. Malaga, Spain

Five. 

A former minister who held one of the most senior roles in the North-East Anglican Church is facing trial for a string of serious sex offences dating back to the 1970s. The Venerable Granville Gibson, aged seventy-nine, former Archdeacon of Auckland, County Durham, has appeared at Newton Aycliffe Magistrates Court charged with eight offences in total relating to two alleged victims, both of whom were teenagers at the time.

Six.

The Islamic State continues to deny Muslim women under its control the same rights as Muslim men and exploits non-Muslim women as sex slaves. Moreover, Yazidis who have escaped from territory ruled by Islamic State militants confirm that Yazidi males have been murdered in substantial numbers. Despite the brutality of the regime, considerable numbers of men and smaller numbers of women travel from Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia to lend their support to the Islamic State. Worries about the Islamic State and religious groups almost as extreme are so acute in the UK that David Cameron, the prime minister, announced a five-year plan designed to combat extremism and radicalisation.

Seven. 

Mohammed Fakhri Al-Khabass of Middlesbrough is believed to have persuaded at least sixteen medical students to travel from Sudan to Syria to join the Islamic State.

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

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

Eight.

Matthew Syed, a Muslim, has written in a passionate but informed manner about the need for Muslims to address the misogyny that exists in some expressions of Islam, misogyny that makes scandals such as the sexual abuse of children and young women in Rotherham more likely to occur.

But…

Sajda Mughal, the only known Muslim survivor of the 2005 7/7 terrorist attacks in London, is given an OBE for services to community cohesion and interfaith dialogue.

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

More Sex and Christianity.

The second part of Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s TV series about attitudes toward sex in Christianity was so good that I cannot resist providing a summary of what he said. If, by summarising, I misrepresent what was originally said, the fault is all mine. Blame me and not the professor.

During the first thousand years of Christianity, Christians converted sex from something Jesus hardly ever discussed into a sin. Sex became something shameful and women were described as temptresses driven by uncontrollable sexual desire.

From the 11th to the 16th century there were two “revolutions” in Christian thinking. The first “revolution” saw the churches take control of people’s lives, minds and bodies as never before. The second “revolution” was the Reformation, which resulted in many Christians rejecting papal authority and the Church in the West splitting into two. However, by the end of the 16th century Christianity’s grip on sexual morality was stronger than ever.

Covington, Kentucky, USA

Covington, Kentucky, USA

It was in the 11th century that the Roman Catholic Church sought to micro-manage people’s sex lives, and such micro-management began with the institution of marriage.

For the first thousand years of Christianity people did not go to churches to marry. For all that time marriage was a civil contact between a man and a woman. However, in 1073 a new pope emerged on the scene, Gregory VII, who wanted to take control of the institution of marriage. His desire to control the institution of marriage occurred at precisely the time that wealthy and powerful men wanted to ensure that their wealth and power benefited their heirs; such men wanted to ensure that all their world goods were inherited by their oldest son.

The problem of inheritance was predicated on the fact that wealthy and powerful men had a tendency to produce children with different women and their sons would therefore dispute who was the rightful heir to their father’s possessions. Outcome? The Roman Catholic Church would co-opt the best referee of all, God, to determine who was the rightful heir. The Church would declare marriage valid so that men would know that the legitimacy of their heirs was beyond challenge. In so doing, the dynasty would be safe.

This turned out to be a neat deal sealed by the clergy and the nobility. People now had to be married by a priest. Inevitably, this significantly increased the power, influence and, eventually, wealth of the Church, especially once the Church had drawn up laws saying precisely who people could and could not marry. The Church soon found itself in a position in which it could approve or veto almost every marriage across the West. However, for a hefty fee the pope would grant special dispensations to side-step the laws!

By such means the clergy came to control society more effectively than in the past and, in the process, the Vatican became very rich. The Church now had a legal stranglehold on sexual expression. Moreover, by the end of the 12th century marriage had become a sacrament. Marriage therefore became an unbreakable contract with God in the same way that baptism and communion were already such unbreakable contracts.

But control of the institution of marriage confronted Christians with a dilemma. Since the time of Augustine all sex had been deemed sinful, even within marriage. Tension lay between approval for marriage as a sacrament and marriage tainted by sexual desire. The dilemma meant that, when the clergy first conducted wedding ceremonies, they were held in the porch leading into the church. Marriage would lead inevitably to sex, sex was sinful, and those who would soon commit sin should be excluded from the interior of the church itself.

However, by the end of the Middle Ages most of the wedding service was conducted inside the church in front of the altar. By that time, therefore, the Church had finally adopted marriage with enthusiasm. The central institution of Western society was now unmistakably a Christian sacrament.

Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

Attention soon turned from marriage to the sex life of the clergy. Until the 11th century, a large number of the clergy were happily married and had children. Until then, monks and nuns represented the “benefits” of celibacy; there was no such insistence that the clergy should also be celibate. However, Gregory VII wanted the clergy to renounce sex. He and other leading figures in the Roman Catholic Church thought that married clergy were offensive/an affront to God. But married clergy also posed a threat to the wealth of the Church in so far as their wives and children had to be supported. Church wealth was finding its way to the priests’ off-spring rather than staying in Rome.

In 1139, a council of bishops meeting in Rome declared clerical marriages were universally unlawful and invalid. Clergy had to embrace the “highest Christian ideal” of celibacy. But one unforeseen consequence of this was that the clergy soon began to see themselves as superior to everyone else. They saw themselves as set apart from those who engaged in the sin of sex. The clergy began to look down on the inferior members of the laity, especially women.

It was not long before the misogynistic inclinations within Christianity led to women being defined as threats to the holy places. For example, Durham Cathedral (in what is now the UK) became a Benedictine monastery and women were forbidden to enter the main body of the nave. A ban on women in cathedrals became quite common in many parts of Roman Catholic Europe. The ban operated at a time when women were rarely granted a public voice so their protests/objections could easily be ignored.

The only places where woman were in charge were nunneries/convents. Some nunneries/convents had large libraries and celebrated female scholars. But from the 12th century nuns were increasingly excluded from the world of learning. Why? Because intellectual life began to prosper at its most innovative in universities, but entry to the universities was restricted to males alone. In time, of course, it was in the universities where the clergy, doctors, lawyers and other most important figures in society received their education and training, but all such important figures had to be male.

As a general rule, the all-male clergy did not raise objections to the exclusion of women from learning. In response to being denied scholarly opportunity women inclined toward mysticism, which did not require access to books. It was not long before women in nunneries/convents in many parts of Europe began having visions, and some of the visions were of a sexual nature. Some women had erotic visions involving Jesus.

Such sexually charged mysticism was one of the few outlets for women’s voices in the Middle Ages. Women were otherwise kept silent within the walls of the nunnery/convent or by their husbands within marriage.

Kansas City, Missouri, USA

Kansas City, Missouri, USA

By the 13th century the Roman Catholic Church had taken control of marriage, made the clergy celibate and largely silenced women’s voices. It had boosted its power and influence by intruding in people’s private lives to an unprecedented degree. Sexual desire, even for your partner in marriage, was a sin. The Church disapproved of all sex, even sex within marriage.

But many ordinary people ignored a lot of what the Church taught about love and sex. Even during the Middle Ages there was a lot of sex, and not only within marriage. Medieval Christians celebrated adultery, so much so that they turned it into great literature. There was also a lot of same-sex love. The Medieval period was a golden age for gay poetry and monks were among those who wrote such poetry. Moreover, many members of the clergy indulged in the “sin” of homosexuality.

People engaged in so much sexual activity outside marriage that, in an effort to control such “unacceptable” behaviour, the Church began to set up and licence brothels. Where the Church managed such institutions its wealth increased significantly. This became yet another way that the Church tried to control how, when and where people could have sex.

Malaga, Spain

Malaga, Spain

But the Reformation inaugurated a change.

The Reformation was set in motion in 1517 by a celibate Roman Catholic monk called Martin Luther. The Reformation not only led to the emergence of many Protestant churches, but also to changes in attitudes toward sex.

Luther challenged the idea that you can enter Heaven only by accepting the Church’s offers of confession, penance and forgiveness. He came to the conviction that God alone can decide whom to forgive. This meant that all the Church’s ceremonies, confessions and promises that good deeds will get you to Heaven were worthless. They were a sham.

Luther issued a challenge to papal authority when he shared with the public his 95 theses. But he also challenged Church teaching on sex. He thought of sex as a fundamental gift of God and it was there for everyone to benefit from. Sex was not just for the procreation or children; it could also be enjoyed. He also said that marriage had never in fact been a sacrament. It was a civil contract between a man and a woman who loved each other, a contract that could be broken by the husband or the wife. Following Luther’s lead the Protestant churches introduced divorce, which fundamentally altered how Western society viewed marriage.

The Protestant churches also rejected the insistence on clerical celibacy. Luther saw celibate clergy as a potential danger to society, partly because such clergy felt they were superior to those who engaged in sex, and partly because celibate clergy often succumbed to sexual temptation, invariably in ways detrimental to others. Luther said that all clergy should marry to avoid problems of sexual temptation.

It was not long before the clerical family became a model for non-clerical families to emulate in the emerging Protestant communities. The wife of the clergyman became a valued member of Protestant society and, of course, there was no equivalent to her in Roman Catholic Europe.

Inevitably, the Roman Catholic Church condemned the Protestants as dangerously heretical, not least for their “progressive” views about sex. The Protestant view that people should be encouraged to enjoy sex within marriage seemed especially shocking to many Roman Catholics, and their worries about what the Reformation had unleashed seemed confirmed when some Anabaptists, a “radical” group of Protestants, began to indulge in promiscuous sex in Switzerland. Some Anabaptists, noting that many marriages in the Old Testament were polygamous, introduced polygamy.

The Anabaptists also caused the Roman Catholic Church great alarm because they said that only adults who knew what responsibilities and commitments they were assuming should partake in baptism. Of course, this challenged over a thousand years of Christian tradition in which Christians baptised babies at fonts. To deny baptism to babies was to “dynamite” the Christian foundations of Europe (even though Jesus had not been baptised until he was himself an adult).

In time, Roman Catholics and Protestants united to suppress some of the excesses that the Reformation had unleashed. Roman Catholics and most Protestants felt that the “sexual revolution” had got out of hand.

Spain

Malaga, Spain

In response to the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church launched a holy war against the Protestant churches. In 1545 it convened the Council of Trent, which began what came to be known as the Counter-Reformation. The Counter-Reformation dealt with some of criticisms levelled against the Roman Catholic Church in Luther’s 95 theses, but it was also an opportunity to impose even more controls on the laity and clergy. The celibate clergy were described as superior to the fallen laity and celibacy was enforced among the clergy as never before.

One beneficial outcome of the Counter-Reformation was that the Roman Catholic Church engaged in social work to assist the poor and supported the opening of many schools. In time, however, the opening of schools had unforeseen and tragic consequences. Why? Because celibate clergy who succumbed to sexual temptation played a key role in educating children and young people and/or running the schools.

Calasanz was one of the first Roman Catholics to open schools for poor children and young people (many such Roman Catholics were known as Piarists) and it was not long before he was in charge of a growing number of such schools. However, it soon became apparent that the headmaster of one of Calasanz’s schools in Naples was sexually abusing the boys for whom he was responsible. The headmaster had influence in the Vatican and, to rid the school of the headmaster’s malign influence, Calasanz had to promote him to another post rather than dismiss him altogether (the headmaster’s new post was one that gave him even more access to children and young people). The scandal was hushed up and all incriminating documents burned.

The pope knew about the sexual abuse of boys in Naples but did nothing. This was an extraordinary failure of power and trust. Amazingly, the problem of the abuse of children and young people in the Roman Catholic Church has persisted into the contemporary era, as has the cover-up of such abuse, the denial that it happened and the excusing of those responsible for it.

While the sexual abuse of children and young people by members of the Roman Catholic clergy could sometimes/often be ignored, adulterers, fornicators and homosexuals among the laity were punished all over Europe as Roman Catholics and Protestants tried to outdo each other as they imposed what they deemed “acceptable” in relation to sex and sexuality.

Extremadura, Spain

Extremadura, Spain

All expressions of the Christian religion in the West viewed witches as agents of sexual disorder and therefore persecuted them. Christians thought they were destroying Satan when they persecuted people said to be witches. Inevitably, the great majority of those accused of being witches were women, and a thousand years of Christian misogyny was given full and violent expression through their persecution. Some 60,000 people, most of whom were women, are estimated to have been executed as witches in Europe. Most victims were widows or single women who lacked a husband to protect them. Moreover, most women confessed to being witches only following threats and torture. Their confessions condemned thousands of innocent people to a dreadfully painful death, one often brought about by burning.

Such was Christian Europe’s mania to control sex and sexuality that Roman Catholics and Protestants killed thousands of innocent people. Protestants began by challenging celibacy and freeing marital sex from the taint of sin, but they agreed with Roman Catholics that sexual transgressions such as adultery, fornication and homosexuality threatened the very fabric of Western society.

Sex and Christianity.

Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch recently narrated a TV series about attitudes toward sex in Christianity. I found the series excellent, although, in truth, it did not tell us very much that is not already known by millions of reasonably intelligent and/or widely read people. However, what is astounding is that the knowledge and understanding contained within the TV series has not already had a profoundly beneficial impact on Christian thinking about sex. Might it have a beneficial impact in the near future? I am not sure, because closed minds are resistant to accommodating what is true, particularly if the truth conflicts with what people assume are truths contained in scripture.

I am so impressed with what Diarmaid MacCulloch had to say in the first episode of the series that, below, I paraphrase the main points in his argument. If, by paraphrasing, I misrepresent what was originally said, the fault is all mine. Blame me and not the professor.

Comments in brackets are my reflections on what was originally said.

Guisborough

Ruined monastery, Guisborough, United Kingdom

Churches in the West have never been able to agree what to say about sex, and such disagreement has turned sex into an obsession. Issues such as contraception, homosexuality, women in the priesthood and clerical child abuse have long caused immense controversy, just as today immense controversy rages within Christianity about same-sex marriage and whether women should be ordained as bishops.

The early Christians (in reality, some of the leading and allegedly most learned Christians) turned sex from biological necessity into a vice, from a pleasure into a sin.

According the the gospels, Jesus said very little about sex. He spoke in favour of monogamy and against divorce, and, when asked by a crowd of people if they should stone a woman thought to be guilty of adultery (Jesus is alleged to have said that only those who are themselves sin-free can cast a stone. The crowd broke up when it was obvious no one was sin-free), he made it clear to the woman that she should not sin again (we can therefore assume that Jesus thought adultery a sin). Perhaps of far greater importance than his pronouncements on sex is that Jesus appears to have thought that forgiveness and mercy are far more important than just about everything else (as the story just mentioned would seem to confirm).

Early Christian attitudes toward sex were shaped by Judaism, the religion from which Christianity emerged, and Greek and Roman civilisation. Judaism and Greek and Roman civilisation were male-dominated and, although Jesus challenged some of the patriarchal attitudes enshrined in contemporary Judaism and Greek and Roman civilisation, it was not long after his execution that Christianity became as patriarchal as the world views from which it emerged.

Near Tercan, Turkey

Ruined Armenian church, near Tercan, Turkey

Jesus, himself a Jewish male, knew full well that contemporary Judaism was preoccupied with the survival of the Jewish people because of how the Jewish people were so often subjected to persecution and massacre (persecution and massacre were suffered partly because Judaism required its followers to subscribe to a monotheistic conception of the divine, when, as far as we can tell, all other Middle Eastern religions were dualistic or polytheistic). Reproduction of the Jewish people had become a sacred duty, so much so that procreation was the main object of marriage. However, sex was something that could be enjoyed, but within marriage alone. Divorce was possible, but, as a general rule, for specific reasons only. However, the reasons for divorce favoured men and disadvantaged women.

It would be a mistake to paint too glowing a picture of sexual attitudes within Judaism because the patriarchal assumptions of the time meant that husbands possessed their wives. Also, the story of Adam and Eve in the Torah suggested that women were nothing but trouble. Outcome? Women had to be controlled and confined as much as possible to the home where they had to “serve” their husbands. Moreover, the Jewish people engaged in polygamy, which, although increasingly uncommon with the passage of time, was not outlawed until the 11th century. Celibacy and adultery were unacceptable and homosexuality an abomination (more so among men than women). Put rather crudely, sex within marriage was wonderful, but sex in all other circumstances was unacceptable.

The Greek and the Roman world views affirmed sexual pleasure whether such pleasure was heterosexual or homosexual. Concubines existed, as did male and female prostitutes. Older Greek men of high social standing befriended younger males to teach the younger males how they could prosper in wider society, and such relationships invariably involved sexual encounters that were deemed normal and acceptable.

However, a very different line of Greek thought began with Plato who believed that a great gulf existed between the body and the soul. He said that reality and everything that was important to humankind related to the soul, while unreality and everything that was unimportant related to the body. The world of the flesh, which embraced the sexual impetus, was false, worthless and wicked. Plato advocated “denial of the flesh” and, in the fullness of time, this became a basic instinct in Christianity. Plato’s concern for the “pleasures of the flesh” played a key role in encouraging Christian celibacy and monasticism.

Aristotle built on Plato’s thinking by developing a distinction between what he thought were “natural and unnatural practices”. Such practices applied to the sexual domain as to all others. Aristotle believed that male semen contained a complete unborn child in embryo and a male needed a woman only to incubate the semen as it developed into the unborn child. Aristotle argued that to “spill” male semen for other than reproductive purposes (e.g. in masturbation, in sexual encounters with other males) was to engage in the “unnatural act” of murder.

Inside the Armenian church, Kayseri, Turkey

Inside the Armenian church, Kayseri, Turkey

With all these sometimes contradictory ideas about sex and sexuality around when Jesus was alive, it becomes clear that Jesus was relatively radical in his thinking. For example, it can be argued that his commitments to monogamy and life-long marriage were designed to enhance women’s rights at a time when they had very few rights. Moreover, Jesus posed other challenges to patriarchal attitudes in so far as he seemed to encourage women, some of whom existed on the social and sexual margins of society, to play an active role in the religious sect emerging prior to his execution. It is also worth noting that, according to the Bible, women were the first people to be aware of Jesus’ resurrection, and they are described as deacons not long after his execution.

What we can say with confidence is that, if the New Testament is to be believed, Jesus said nothing about homosexuality and very little about celibacy, even though both these matters assumed disproportionate importance in Christianity after his execution. Conclusion? jesus is not representative of what was to become a sexually repressive religion.

Paul, who at one time was called Saul and engaged in the brutal persecution of Jesus’ followers, can be blamed for steering Christianity toward a more sexually repressive outlook, but only because Christians who followed him took his writings out of context and ignored some of the positive statements attributed to him.

Paul has a lot to say about sex in relation to the city of Corinth, which, at the time, would appear to have been a place where people lived in a most uninhibited manner. It was the alleged “sinfulness” of many of the Corinthians, and the fact that Paul thought the end of the world was not long away, that led him to suggest that marriage had no point to it and celibacy would ensure no one engaged in fornication. But Paul is also on record saying that marriage between a man and a woman is good and that, within marriage, a man and a woman are equals. He also praises a number of women deacons and calls a woman in Rome an apostle. However, Paul says that women should not speak in houses of worship, which would seem to negate their chance to officiate during ritual practices, and this statement has been used to this day by many Christians as the reason to deny women a leadership role in churches.

Taken collectively, Paul’s pronouncements on matters sexual are, at best, contradictory. Christians in some denominations have ignored the pronouncements that point toward gender equality to deny women the same opportunities as men. Paul denounces male and female homosexuality, but there are only two New Testament verses of about forty words that refer to same-sex relations. Forty New Testament words out of 200,000 are used by many Christians as an excuse for homophobia.

The early Christians (in reality, some of the leading and allegedly most learned Christians) ignored Paul’s more positive views on sex and emphasised celibacy and hostility to homosexuality instead.

Malaga, Spain

Malaga, Spain

The celibate lifestyle of monks and then nuns first appeared in the 2nd century (among hermits living in isolation in very barren parts of Egypt and Syria), but there is nothing in the New Testament about monasteries, monks or nuns. A significant part of what was to become mainstream Christianity therefore has no support in the Bible. The inspiration for monastic lifestyles derived from Syrian merchants who travelled to the east where they encountered Hindu holy men who gave up all their material possessions and Buddhists who lived simply in monastic communities. Individuals known as hermits first took to a life in which they denied themselves comfort and pleasure, sometimes in desert regions. In Egypt, Anthony played a key role in making such self-denial popular, so much so that by the beginning of the 3rd century celibacy and chastity had more prestige among Christians than marriage and sex.

It was toward the end of the 2nd century that literate Christians began to rewrite early Christian history to emphasise the value of virginity and, in the process, it was not long before Christians sought to remove any taint of sex from the story of Mary, Jesus’ mother.

In that only two of the gospels mention it, the virgin birth of Jesus cannot be regarded as a fundamental article of faith for Christians. This is even more the case in that the two gospels mentioning the virgin birth seem rather confused about whether it took place. For example, much time is spent exploring Joseph’s family tree. Why do this unless it is to confirm that he is Jesus’ father? Also, the author/authors of Matthew’s Gospel refer to Jesus’ brothers and sisters, which sits oddly with the idea of a virgin birth.

Gospels such as that of James which did not find their way into the Bible place more emphasis on Mary’s virginity than the four gospels that are canonical, and they also say that God intervened in the conception of Mary herself! Of course, the idea that Mary was conceived without sin has become a very important Roman Catholic idea, but it is not an idea that derives from the New Testament.

What is perhaps the second most important story in the New Testament for Christians, that of Jesus’ birth (the most important story is the story of Jesus’ resurrection), does not therefore involve sex at all! And what of the “problem” posed by Jesus’ brothers and sisters? Jesus’ siblings are explained away as Joseph’s children from a marriage preceding his marriage to Mary.

The shift from the merits of marriage to the merits of celibacy were accentuated by Clement of Alexandria, for whom sex could be engaged in only for reasons of procreation, and Origen, who castrated himself so as to make it impossible to satisfy any urges he might have to engage in penetrative sexual acts. And the shift in favour of celibacy helps to explain why the early Christian churches did not elaborate a wedding ceremony. Marriage remained a civil ceremony for many centuries and the churches did not seek to interfere in the matter. It is only Christians of a much later time who felt it necessary to establish a grip on the institution of marriage. Given Christianity’s relatively late interest in marriage, one begins to wonder whether some Christians today have an interest in the institution merely to deny gays and lesbians the opportunity to partake in same-sex marriage!

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Emperor Constantine’s change of heart toward Christians in 312 opened the way for Christianity to become a world religion with immense power and wealth (and in the process a religion that once suffered persecution found itself in a position to persecute others). And, as its power and wealth increased, it could promote its views on sex wherever its influence spread.

At a time when the wealth and the power of the Christian churches was rapidly increasing, Jerome tried to remain true to what he thought Christianity was all about, simplicity in faith and avoiding the temptations of the flesh. He said that sex was bad because it endangered your salvation. For this reason, virginity was best. Jerome played a key role in ensuring that, despite opposition from other Christians, celibacy and chastity were deemed superior to marriage and sex, and he had an important ally in Augustine. The idea began to emerge that all sex is intrinsically evil and sinful, even in marriage for reasons of procreation. Hence the idea that all children are born into sin and that their sinfulness must be overcome. At the same time, males elaborated the idea that women were sexually unruly temptresses as well as inferior to men (is it not always the case that those who are already vulnerable and denied opportunities enjoyed by others are scapegoated and vilified? Humankind is God’s supreme creation? Pull the other leg and quickly).

The collapse of the Roman Empire did not lead to the collapse of Christianity, even though, when the empire collapsed, Christianity was intimately associated with Roman power and prestige. Christianity endured, offering certainty in an uncertain world. Christian values gradually became the dominant values in the Western world.

In the 6th century, monks in Ireland began to turn their attention to the sexual behaviour of the laity around them. They developed many penitentials based on what they perceived to be unacceptable sexual practices. Those who indulged in such sexual practices were required to undertake penances that differed depending on the seriousness or extremity of the unacceptable act. In the fullness of time, such penitentials led to the confessional, which significantly increased Christianity’s ability to shape and control society.

The writings of some of the Irish monks are full of rules relating to sex and sexuality. The rules are so thorough that, in any given year, people could engage in sexual acts for about only a hundred days (and such acts had to be between heterosexuals who were married). Precise penalties for unacceptable sexual acts soon became the norm and such penalties were issued in the confessional.

The penitentials first elaborated in Ireland became for five hundred years the means to impose a rigid Christian sexual morality on large swathes of the Western world. As never before, an institution was invading people’s lives, and in relation to the highly personal matter of sex, which the churches thought to be sinful. Those who transgressed in relation to sexual matters should be made to feel considerable shame and guilt, and the penalties relating to such acts were often very extreme.

The murder of Farkhunda in Kabul on 19th March 2015.

If we seek evidence of just how bestial and barbaric people can be, an examination of what Islamic State militants are capable of is perhaps the best place to look. However, a few days ago the news broke about the way an enraged mob murdered a woman aged twenty-seven in Kabul in Afghanistan. All the people who engaged in the murder appear to be male, but worryingly, they do not appear to be members of the Taliban or Islamic State. In other words, the murderers appear to be ordinary Afghan males, some mere teenagers.

That such a crime can be committed in 2015 for any reason at all defies belief (almost), but I leave it to you to decide the following. Is it more likely to have happened because it was in Kabul in Afghanistan than, say, in Hanoi in Vietnam? Is it more likely to have happened because the victim was female rather than male? Is it more likely to have happened because the perpetrators have a religious commitment? And is it more likely to have happened because those with the religious commitment are Muslims?

Diyarbakir, Turkey

Diyarbakir, Turkey

Yes, these are difficult questions to answer, but perhaps what follows will help you reach informed conclusions. Everything below has been gleaned from reliable/responsible sources of print news.

An Afghan woman beaten to death by a mob has been buried in Kabul, her coffin carried aloft by women’s rights activists. Hundreds of people gathered in the north of the capital for the funeral of Farkhunda, who, like many Afghans, is known by only one name.

Farkhunda was killed late on Thursday by a mob of mostly men who beat her, set her body on fire and then threw it into Kabul’s river, according to police accounts.

President Ashraf Ghani condemned Farkhunda’s killing as a “heinous attack”. The authorities are still investigating what prompted the mob assault. Following allegations that police stood by and did nothing to stop the attack, Ghani said it revealed “a fundamental issue” – the country’s police were too focused on the fight against the Taliban to concentrate on community policing.

Ghani’s comments followed widespread condemnation of the killing. In Afghanistan, despite constitutional guarantees of equality, women are generally treated as inferior and violence against them often goes unpunished. Some Afghan officials and religious leaders sought to justify Farkhunda’s killing, alleging that she had burned a copy of the Qur’an. But at her graveside, the head of the interior ministry’s criminal investigation directorate, General Mohammad Zahir, said no evidence had been found to support such an allegation. He said, “We have reviewed all the evidence and have been unable to find any single iota of evidence to support claims that she had burned a Qur’an. She is completely innocent.” He said that thirteen people had been arrested in connection with her killing.

Yavuzlar, Turkey

Yavuzlar, Turkey

Hundreds of people gathered at a graveyard in the middle class suburb of Khair Khana, near Farkhunda’s home. Unusually for Afghanistan, women’s rights activists wearing black and with the permission of Farkhunda’s father, carried her coffin from an ambulance into a mosque for prayers, and then from the mosque to her grave. The city’s head of criminal investigation, Mohammad Farid Afzali, said Farkhunda suffered from an unspecified psychiatric illness, but a neighbour told the Associated Press that she was near the end of a religious studies course and preparing to become a teacher.

“Everyone respected her. She was very religious and never left her home without covering her face with a hijab,” said Mirwais Afizi, who has lived on the same lane as Farkhunda’s family all his life. “We never heard anything about her being mentally ill. She was about to graduate,” he said.

An interior ministry spokesman said earlier that Farkhunda’s family was staying in protective care.

Ghani put women’s rights and equality at the heart of his presidential campaign last year and has given his wife, Rula, a high public profile. A Christian of Lebanese descent, Rula has spoken for women’s rights in Afghanistan, a country routinely named by international rights groups as one of the world’s worst places to be a woman.

Under the harsh Islamic rule of the Taliban, who were ousted by a US-led invasion in 2001, women were not permitted to work, study or leave their homes without a male relative. The new Afghan constitution guarantees women equal rights and protection from violence, but these standards are still enforced haphazardly. The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement on what it called “the brutal murder of a vulnerable woman by a mob on Kabul’s streets” and called for the punishment of police officers who took no action to stop the killing. “The authorities need to prosecute those involved in this terrible crime and take action against any police officers who let the mob have its way,” said Patricia Gossman, HRW’s senior Afghanistan researcher.

Near Hizan, Turkey

Near Hizan, Turkey

In Afghanistan, mourning a family member is never a private matter. But, for Mohammad Nader Malikzadah, grieving his murdered daughter, it has happened in front of an international audience. Farkhunda was killed by a mob last week in front of the mosque where she worked as a religious teacher after being falsely accused of burning pages from the Qur’an. A crowd of men beat her, pulled her off a roof when she tried to escape, pelted her with wooden planks and ran her over with a car before burning her dead body.

Videos circulating on social media showed the hour-long incident in detail, sparking global headlines and outrage.

Farkhunda’s family has been besieged for days as the case has grabbed the attention of local and international media. Throngs of relatives have lined up outside their house to pay condolences, as have officials, who are facing mounting criticism for allowing the attack to happen. The attention has visibly drained the family, but it has also brought a big benefit. Without it, they say, the truth about Farkhunda’s murder would never have come out. “If there was no attention from the media, my family’s life would be in danger,” Malikzadah said on Monday.

The attack on Farkhunda outside Kabul’s Shah-Do Shamshira Mosque was triggered by a mullah who shouted that she had burned pages of Islam’s holy book, thereby igniting uproar among men at the scene. Investigators have since denied that Farkhunda burned the Qur’an, if she indeed burned anything at all. Additionally, the Kabul police chief initially claimed Farkhunda was mentally ill, something the family denies. “The police chief told me that he had told the media that she had mental problems, and that was why she had burned the Qur’an. He said, ‘You have to confirm this’,” Malikzadah said.

Naeem Akbar, a distant cousin and close friend, said Farkhunda was healthy. “The past year she kept to herself, but she was not ill,” he said. Relatives said Farkhunda had memorised the Qur’an, graduated from high school and had a great knack for mathematics.

Urfa, Turkey

Urfa, Turkey

Even for a city hardened by regular suicide attacks and indiscriminate bombings, the killing of Farkhunda shocked Kabul and stirred fear in many of its residents. The incident has become a lightning rod for women’s rights activists, who are shocked that this took place not in a rural province but in the capital, less than two kilometres from the presidential palace. “It was a wake-up call for people of Kabul to see how much power a mullah has,” said Mariam Awizha Hotaki, a civil rights activist. Particularly alarming, she added, was that the perpetrators were not men from the conservative fringes of society. “These are not the Taliban, these are not the Islamic State,” she said. “These are people like my friends, who go to school in the city. It is shocking that people from the same background as us can commit such heinous acts.”

Women in the capital have closed ranks in a rarely seen united front. A rare sight unfolded at Farkhunda’s funeral on Sunday when dozens of women broke tradition and carried her coffin to its final resting place. Protests have continued since the funeral, with a gathering at the site of the killing on Monday and a demonstration planned for the front of the supreme court on Tuesday.

Hotaki said women were reacting so strongly because, although they were accustomed to everyday harassment, an attack like this was inconceivable. “How much repressed anger and hatred must be involved for them to act like that, and feel like they have the power over a woman like that?” she said.

The killing has undermined the already thin trust in the police. Phone recordings of the attack revealed that several police officers stood by while it unfolded. President Ashraf Ghani told reporters on Saturday that the incident showed that Afghan police officers lack capabilities in upholding civilian law and order because they are preoccupied with fighting a war. “The heinous attack,” Ghani said, “has no place in a country like ours. We are not going to allow mob justice.”

Fawzia Koofi, a female parliamentarian who is part of an eleven-person commission formed by the president to investigate the incident, said that seeing this tragedy befall an innocent woman had traumatised her teenage daughters. “The first thought that came to my mind was, ‘Is this going to be the future for girls in Afghanistan?’” Koofi said. She blamed the government and the police for not preventing the attack.

“If they can assign twenty to thirty security guards to one politician, how come they can’t provide twenty to thirty police officers to protect a woman in danger of being killed by these animals,” she said.

Public outcry has made the murder a political matter. On Monday, outside a funeral service for Farkhunda at a mosque in northern Kabul, where security measures resembled those of a state funeral, high-ranking officials swarmed in and out of black SUVs, including the minister of interior and Kabul’s chief of police. “I’m here to condemn what happened to our sister,” said Bakhtar Siawash, an MP and former television presenter. “It was not an attack on a woman; it was an attack on a human being,” he said.

Not everyone agrees with the young MP that gender was not a factor in the attack. “Afghan women are so much at risk of anything,” said Koofi. “If she was a man, could they still do this to her? Of course not.”

For Farkhunda’s family, a three-hour service to be held on Monday will bring another day of mourning in a frenzy that has yet to slow down. For now, though, the attention bolsters them somewhat. Her brother Najibullah said, “I am not only the brother of Farkhunda. I now have millions of brothers and sisters.” He had just decided to take a new last name: Farkhunda.

Urfa, Turkey

Urfa, Turkey

It was initially claimed that the crowd had beaten Farkhunda to death because she had burned a copy of the Qur’an, an accusation even senior police officials admitted they believed to be false after detaining eighteen people over the murder and suspending thirteen police officers. Now witnesses have come forward to claim that Farkhunda was murdered because she dared to question the superstitious practices of a local mullah who was known for selling charms to women outside a shrine in central Kabul.

Countering the claims of burning the Qur’an, locals have come forward to say that Farkhunda was brutally murdered after accusing a mullah of encouraging desperately poor women to waste money of charms and amulets at the shrine. An argument is said to have ensued, during which Farkhunda was accused of not being a proper Muslim and then, most seriously, of burning a copy of the Qur’an.

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 online 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.