What did the ruling in the London Oratory case actually mean?

On Friday in the High Court, Justice Cobb handed down the latest judgment in the long-running saga that is the legal dispute over whether or not the London Oratory School’s admissions policy complies with the School Admissions Code. The case started just over two years ago when the British Humanist Association submitted an objection, and the latest decision pertained to the legality of a determination issued by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) that was issued last summer. The school challenged ten different aspects of that determination.

Some parts of the press reported the judge’s decision as a ‘win’ for the Oratory, with the school describing its challenge as ‘successful’ and its head quoted as saying that ‘The Judge’s decision supports us in continuing to preserve the School’s ethos and serving Catholic families throughout the whole of London.’ But a thorough reading of the decision leads us to three different conclusions:

  1. The judge’s decision was, in our view, wrong in several places.
  2. At any rate, the school actually has largely lost the case, only generally winning in places that do not mean it can change its admissions policy back to what it was before the whole saga started.
  3. And even in places where the school won, the decision was often that the OSA’s reasoning was flawed. This does not necessarily mean the OSA’s conclusions were wrong and in fact in a few areas the judge ruled that a fresh decision must be taken – i.e. the case is not yet over yet.

So the school has really won very little at all.

 

In total the school was found by the OSA to break the Admissions Code in 105 different places. The school only challenged a handful of these, leaving the vast majority unperturbed. The main impetus for the school’s challenge was the decision that the school could no longer have a ‘Catholic service criterion’ as part of its admissions arrangements. This required three years of service to the Catholic church or other associated activities, with priority given on the basis of things like flower arranging. This was found to be uncompliant with the Code for a number of different reasons, including paragraphs 1.9e) (giving priority on the basis of practical support to a religious organisation), 1.9i) (taking into account religious activities not laid out as permitted by the school’s diocese), 1.8 (unfairly discriminating on the basis of ethnicity and social background) and 1.38 (not having had sufficient regard to the diocesan guidance).

In judicially reviewing the OSA’s decision, the school did not even challenge the finding with respect to paragraph 1.9e), so never had any hope of getting a ruling that fully contradicted the OSA’s decision in this area. On top of that, the school lost its challenge under paragraph 1.9i). This means that the main areas where the school won actually will have no impact on its admissions criteria: in effect it still has to change them in the way the OSA determined last year.

So we can see already that in the vast majority of cases, including with respect to the ‘Catholic service criterion’, the decision taken against the school has already been found to stand.

Beyond that, it is worth going through each of the school’s ten areas of challenge, with our three conclusions in mind.

(1) Failure to ‘have regard’ to the Diocesan Guidance

Paragraph 1.38 says that ‘Admission authorities for schools designated as having a religious character must have regard to any guidance from the body or person representing the religion or religious denomination when constructing faith-based oversubscription criteria’. The OSA found that the School had broken this, in part because ‘paragraph 1.38 is given greater force in relation to faith-based oversubscription criteria generally by paragraph 1.9i of the Code’, which says that the school must not ‘prioritise children on the basis of their own or their parents’ past or current hobbies or activities’, except when taking account of religious activities, as laid out by its diocese. If the school had properly had regard to the guidance, it would not have broken paragraph 1.9i).

In reaching his determination on this issue, however, Justice Cobb did not mention the role of 1.9i) at all (only considering it later under the school’s third challenge) and instead only focused on 1.38 and the meaning of ‘have regard to’, going through a range of relevant case law. Here he found that the OSA applied a too stringent test (in deciding that any reason for departing from the guidance must be ‘good’ and ‘compelling’), and therefore, while finding that ‘the School’s approach to the relevant test was also flawed’, he concluded that the OSA had not correctly found that 1.38 had been broken.

As a result he ruled that there will ‘need to be a further determination of the School’s approach to the Diocesan Guidance, its compliance with para.1.38 of the Admissions Code, and the adequacy of the reasons for departure, applying the appropriate test.’ So the school has not yet won here but only triggered a further case.

(2) Socio-economic discrimination

Paragraph 1.8 of the Code says that ‘Admission authorities must ensure that their arrangements will not disadvantage unfairly, either directly or indirectly, a child from a particular social or racial group.’

The London Oratory School is highly socio-economically selective. As we wrote in our paper which we submitted to the case in May 2014, the January 2013 School Census records that 6.6% of pupils are eligible for free school meals, compared with 38.7% in its middle super output area (i.e. immediate vicinity), 40.8% in the neighbouring MSOAs, 42% in its local authority, and 26.1% across London as a whole. The Fair Admissions Campaign’s map ranks this disparity between the school and its area as making it the ninth most socio-economically selective state secondary school in England.

Justice Cobb, however, starts off by agreeing with the adjudicator that there is ‘some inherent social selection of school candidates within the Catholic population as a whole’, before going on to find that ‘the data relied on by the School showed that six of the eight schools with similarly high percentages of Catholic pupils had similar levels of pupils entitled to free school meals to the School’. This, surely, simply shows that such discrimination is common amongst oversubscribed Catholic schools.

However, Justice Cobb also found that the adjudicator did not show that it was the faith-based oversubscription criteria that were causing this discrimination, nor that it was unfair. It seems to me to be quite obvious that if we first agree there is ‘some inherent social selection of school candidates within the Catholic population as a whole’, and then we select Catholics, then that faith-based selection is going to cause socio-economic discrimination. But no matter: the more significant point is that the decision did not address per se the conclusion that the school is socio-economically advantaged. It unambiguously is. It only found that the case had not been properly set out.

Finally, the school also argued that it was unfair that it had not seen the adjudicator’s evidence around socio-economic advantage prior to the determination. The judge agreed with this. I do not agree: 1. The BHA submitted such evidence during the course of the case, which the school chose not to look at; and 2. At any rate it is easily available in the public domain. The school should have been aware of these statistics; that it was not was negligent on its part.

(3) Catholic Service

To reiterate, paragraph 1.9i of the Code says that the school must not ‘prioritise children on the basis of their own or their parents’ past or current hobbies or activities’, except when taking account of religious activities, as laid out by its diocese. The judge correctly rejected the school’s challenge to the finding that the ‘Catholic service criterion’ breaks this paragraph. This essentially means that the success of challenges 1 and 2, above, are symbolic victories.

It is worth noting that the judge incorrectly states that the OSA ‘declined to state whether this criterion also breached para.1.9(e)’, when in fact the adjudicator did find that this paragraph was also broken.

(4) Catholicity: Parent or Parents

The fourth challenge by the school was to the OSA’s finding that its arrangements were unfair in requiring two Catholic parents to both be religiously observant.  The judge agreed with this finding with respect to the school’s 2014 admission arrangements. But he disagreed with respect to the 2015 arrangements due to the new statement in the 2015 arrangements that references to ‘parents’ should be read as ‘to one parent if the child resides with only one of the parents’. But this new statement does not deal with the case where the child has two Catholic parents but only one is observant: this child/observant parent is put at a disadvantage to a child who only has one Catholic parent. The judge got this wrong in a way that threatens the widely established principle that ‘faith’ schools can only require one parent to be religiously observant, something that is a very basic question of fairness. The Code might now need clarification.

(5) Request for parents’ baptismal certificates

The school asks for parents’ baptismal certificates. The OSA said that this breaks paragraph 2.4 of the Code where it says that the school must not ask for ‘any personal details about parents and families, such as maiden names’ – as maiden names will be revealed by baptismal certificates. But the judge ruled that 2.4 ‘is not to be read in such a way that would place a Governing Body in the position of being unable to apply a legitimate oversubscription criterion in practice just because it was prevented from requiring the necessary evidence’ – and therefore the request could stand. I do not agree that this is a correct reading of 2.4 and think the Code could now do with being clarified.

However, the judge also writes that this part of the decision is dependent upon the ultimate outcome of challenge (1) above, i.e. ‘is dependent on a future finding that there is a clear and proper reason for departing from the Guidance in these respects’ – as if the school did not have good reason from departing from the diocesan guidance in this area, then the oversubscription criterion is not legitimate so paragraph 2.4 does in fact apply. So this is only a preliminary finding.

(6) Previous Catholic education

In its arrangements the school gave priority to those attending Catholic primaries in 2014, and then those having received a Catholic education (including through primaries) in 2015.

Paragraph 1.9b) says that schools must not ‘take into account any previous schools attended, unless it is a named feeder school’. Paragraph 1.15 adds that ‘The selection of a feeder school or schools as an oversubscription criterion must be transparent and made on reasonable grounds.’ The school was found to break both of these paragraphs of the Code.

The judge upheld the decision with respect to 1.15, but overturned it with respect to 1.9b) on the basis of the reasoning that ‘the primary information sought from the candidate’s parent(s) is whether the candidate has attended a Catholic School (not which school), even though the name of the school is requested as proof of that education’. This seems to me to be an extremely strange reading of 1.9b) – taking into account a type of school (e.g. all Catholic schools) is still taking into account previous schools attended, even if the specific individual schools are not taken into account. Perhaps the Code now needs clarifying in this area.

The judge also writes that ‘there is no prohibition within the Admissions Code… upon a Governing Body asking the name of previous schools’. But paragraph 2.4 says that schools must only ‘request additional information when it has a direct bearing on decisions about oversubscription criteria’. So in fact there is such a prohibition.

At any rate, this is again a departure from the diocesan guidance, and the judge again writes that this part of the decision is dependent upon the ultimate outcome of challenge (1) above, i.e. ‘is dependent on a future finding that there is a clear and proper reason for departing from the Guidance in these respects’. So again this is only a preliminary finding. But what is more the school sought to justify its taking into account Catholic education by reference to canon law. Therefore such consideration plainly falls under the remit of paragraph 1.9i). It is not laid out as permitted by the diocese for a school to take into account Catholic education as a religious activity. This fact is not discussed in the judgment and could well be grounds for a future successful challenge to the school’s admissions arrangements, if such a criterion continues to have a place in them.

(7) Choristers

(8) Statement of ‘Medical and social need’ on Religious Inquiry Form

(9) Parents’ signature(s)

These three challenges concerned points of clarity and the judge concluded that the OSA’s determination was fine. However in the third (allowing two parents to sign the form) he wrote that the adjudicator’s determination ‘verges on the pedantic’. I do not agree: as a matter of fairness it is important that schools make clear throughout that only one parent is considered in religious oversubscription criteria.

(10) Consultation on admissions criteria

The last issue related to whether or not the school consulted parents of 2 to 18 year olds, which is required by the Code and regulations. The OSA wrote that the school had ‘no evidence … which … constitutes a meaningful attempt to bring the school’s proposed arrangements to the attention of the group in question’. The judge did not agree with this, and so quashed this part of the decision, but did agree that insufficient steps had been taken and so rejected the school’s reasoning. This therefore is a partial victory for the school at best.

Conclusion

As can be seen, therefore, in almost every case where the school won, the victory was partial, temporary, and/or of no practical consequence. In this light the school’s statement that the judgement was a great victory on its part was erroneous. This fact should be reflected in its subsequent admissions arrangements.

Polls consistently show we’re not a religious country. So why don’t our politicians get it?

The numbers are in (and have been for a while). Can politicians really keep insisting this is a 'Christian country'? Photo: Chris Combe.

The numbers are in (and have been for a while). Can politicians really keep insisting this is a ‘Christian country’? Photo: Chris Combe.

Elected officials to this day continue to cite the Census to make the point that Britain is a ‘Christian country’ or a country made up principally of Christians. The Census statistic of 59% is used to justify all sorts of privileges granted to the religious in Britain today, including the widespread handing over of public services and schools to religious control and the place of unelected bishops in our legislature, not to mention the recurrent exceptionalising of Christian contributions to our shared cultural life. But is that statistic true? Is it any good?

The likely answer is no, and any demographer can tell you why. By asking the leading question  ‘What is your religion?’ in the context of a series of questions about ethnicity and cultural background, the Census leads to higher numbers of people identifying themselves with their family or cultural religious background, and for the most part not with that they actually believe, feel they belong to, or practise.

The Census statistic is used to justify all sorts of privileges granted to the religious in Britain today. But is it any good?

Most other rigorous surveys will tell you a different story – the story of a very diverse Britain united for the most part by common values which straddle the ‘religious divide’. The most recent of these surveys was by YouGov this April, and it found that around two thirds of Britons, when asked, would say they are ‘not religious’.

The April poll, commissioned by the Sunday Times, asked the question ‘Would you describe yourself as being a practicing [sic] member of a religion?’ and found that 62% of the general public said ‘no’. Christianity polled as the second most popular option, accounting for 33% of the public. And it’s by no means a one-off. Most polls of the last decade have given very similar results.

This majority ‘not religious’ figure has been found repeatedly in recent years. A recent example of this trend is the Survation poll last November, which asked ‘Do you consider yourself religious or not religious?’ and found that 60.5% of Brits are the latter. These figures are in turn consistent with year-on-year polling from the British Social Attitudes Survey, which finds that around or slightly over half of the population is in fact non-religious (and that 42% Brits identify as Christian) when it asked ‘1. Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? 2: If yes: which?’. A YouGov poll in April 2014 also found that 50% of Brits were non-religious, and that three quarters of the population were ‘not religious or not very religious’. Very similar results in 2011 and 2012, and numerous others, overwhelmingly reinforce the pattern.

We can say with some confidence that half of Brits are non-religious

Equally, the one third figure for believing Christians has been found time and time again. A YouGov poll for the Times in February this year found that only 55% of British Christians ‘believed in God,’ bringing the total proportion down from 49% of Britons who say they are Christian to around 23% for ‘Christians who believe in God’.  A 2013 YouGov poll which asked how many people in Britain believed in the central tenet of Christianity – that Jesus of the Nazareth was the son of God – found a figure of 30%. It’s that same figure again – around a third

In most aspects of their jobs, politicians look closely at these sorts of surveys when making policy decisions, or when attempting to win over new voters with popular initiatives. They know, and statisticians can tell you why, that the margin of error on these things is usually around 1-3%. So I feel we can say with some confidence that half of Brits are non-religious (only 4% of ‘nones’, according to the Times/YouGov 2015 poll, ‘believe in a god’) and that beyond that, two thirds are ‘not religious’ – in the sense of not seeing religion as very important or not practising. It’s a widespread trend: only 30% of Brits are believing Christians, and only 6% or fewer Brits go to church on a given Sunday.

Much more importantly, three quarters of Brits say they are opposed to public policy decisions being influenced by religion

The Census result would suggest that three quarters or more of Brits, cutting across the religious divide, would cite some sort of Christian cultural background, but this is a broad group indeed – both Justin Welby and Professor Richard Dawkins would say they are culturally Christian! Much more importantly, three quarters of Brits say they are opposed to public policy decisions being influenced by religion – with 92% of Christians agreeing that the law should apply equally regardless of religion.

Politicians trotting out the old Census figure to justify handouts or, engaged in cynical vote-grabbing, should remember that most of us want to be treated equally and want a level playing field – including by opposing ingrained religious privilege, such as by opposing  ‘faith’ schools and bishops in the House of Lords. Of course, politicians are not won over by opinion polls alone, and most are wary of the power of religious institutions, whose views tends to be a bit more traditional than those of their flocks. But change is inevitable, and on the way – the fact that the next generation rising through the ranks is overwhelmingly non-religious could well promise to erode the power of churches over our elected representatives.

Under 35 and non-religious? The word that best describes your worldview might be ‘humanist’

James Fogg, in this guest post on HumanistLife, discusses the increasing popularity of the humanist perspective among young people, as well as the broad popularity of BHA campaign areas within that demographic.

Your views on various issues, and the rational, empathetic approach you took to get there? It has a name. Photo: Jacob Bøtter

Your views on various issues, and the rational, empathetic approach you took to get there? It has a name. Photo: Jacob Bøtter

I believe many people, young and old, are unconsciously living a humanistic lifestyle. Never before has Humanism been so unconsciously prevalent in the lives of young people. According to the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, two thirds of today’s young people between ages 15 and 34 say they have no religion, and this means that they are happily finding their own way… without need for religious guidance. If you’re in this demographic, many of your friends will probably be humanists as well, often without realising. In fact, the UK population shares a great deal of common ground when it comes to a ethical issues and questions – and many of them will take a decidedly ‘humanist’ approach to answering these questions. When it comes to these sorts of questions, the views of the public at large, and young people in particular, align with those of the British Humanist Associations and its portfolio of campaigns.

‘Faith’ schools

With 51% of the British population identifying themselves as non-religious, we can safely assume a large proportion of children will not be brought up in a religious home. However, one third of state-funded schools are ‘faith’ schools, and children are sometimes very susceptible to misinformation. As they regard schools as places of education they may automatically assume all that they are taught is fact-based. We of course know better. But needless to say, religion is not fact-based. It is riddled with flaws including archaic doctrines, irrational behaviour, illogical thesis, and mythical beings.

The only place religion should have in schools is in the History and Religious Studies curriculums – it is of course right that young people learn about major world religions. But it’s wrong to teach them that any religion is literally true, as can be taught in ‘faith’ schools.

A Guardian poll in 2005 for example, found that 64% of people surveyed opposed state-funded faith schools of any kind. I firmly believe there is no such thing as a Christian, Islamic, Jewish child or otherwise. All children are born blank slates, without knowledge of custom or religion, until their minds are introduced to religious ideas or indoctrination, at home or in schools. Opposition to ‘faith’ schools is one area where the BHA and humanists generally act as prominent voices for the views of a wide swathe of people in Britain.

Equality and human rights

Human rights, covering things like the right to know our own minds, to express our own thoughts and beliefs, the right to education, a fair trial, freedom from slavery etc. are universal. We have these rights by dint of being human. Human rights are a bulwark against inequality, prejudice, and oppression. Equality and human rights are one and the same thing, and it is these simple truths as to the basic rights we require to live our lives – as encoded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which best encapsulate what it means to be free, to be human, and to be who you are with confidence and without worry.

 Marriage equality

The YouGov/Sun Poll from 2013 found that three quarters of people aged 18-24 supported the right of same-sex couples to have legally binding partnerships, referring to civil partnerships. Many more polls since have found broad support for same-sex marriage and civil partnership rights across the population, and consistently among young people. Humanists and the BHA have a strong history on this issue, and one they can be proud of. For example, humanist organisations around the world, including the BHA here in Britain, have been at the forefront of campaigns for marriage equality. I believe we can look forward to a time when ‘coming out’ of the closet and perhaps even concepts of sexual orientation are regarded as old-fashioned.

Assisted dying

This is a sensitive subject for many people. It raises many questions about ethics and the level of control we have over our own lives, and it’s a subject I feel passionately about. People should have the right to die. It’s as simple as that. I hope I live long enough to decide how I go, and if not, I hope I go out in style. Around 80% of the British population support a change in law allowing the terminally ill help to end their own lives. The current law mandates relentless suffering, and makes no concessions for the right to autonomy. Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill is an important piece of proposed legislation, and has been a lightning rod for a much-needed wider discussion around this issue. The BHA advocates for anyone suffering an incurable illness, who has made a committed and uncoerced decision, to have an assisted death should they want one. This, I believe, is the most ethical position and it is one motivated by a humanist perspective on ethics.

For me, that’s what Humanism is all about: rational thought and compassion working for the benefit of everyone. For the purposes of illustration I have chosen just a handful of the BHA’s campaigns. There are more, and there is plenty more good work to be done.


James Fogg is a volunteer at Young Humanists, the new section of the British Humanist Association for 18-35 year olds. Young humanists are invited to the launch party taking place in London on 27 March – find out more at www.younghumanists.org.uk/launch. You can follow Young Humanists on Facebook and Twitter.

Why Humanism and feminism go hand in hand

For International Women’s Day (8 March 2015), Cordelia Tucker O’Sullivan explores the profound unity of Humanism and feminism.

Supporters of feminist, anticlerical activist band Pussy Riot outside the Russian embassy in London. Photo: Sean Comiskey.

Supporters of feminist, anticlerical activist band Pussy Riot outside the Russian embassy in London. Photo: Sean Comiskey.

‘Why feminism and not just humanism?’ is a question often invoked by closet misogynists attempting to highlight some imagined incoherence or hypocrisy embedded in the feminist ethical perspective. It is a question which lacks the intended effect, given that it incorrectly defines both Humanism and feminism, but does actually provoke some deeper questions about the historical and philosophical relationship between the two. So, even though the questioner is at best ignorant and at worst bigoted, there is a silver lining.

So what is the difference? Feminism is defined most commonly (and I believe most accurately) as ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of equality of the sexes’, whereas a humanist believes in the authority of the scientific method in understanding the world, rejecting the supernatural (including a belief in god), and in seeking to live an ethically fulfilling life on the basis of common reason and humanity, challenging religious privilege in the public sphere. Not only does the inquirer demonstrably rely on ill-defined terms for their criticism of modern feminism, they clearly have not done their research – the overlap between feminist and humanist beliefs and goals is deep and significant.

To start, the suffragette movement in both the UK and the US was against a background of voracious defence of male privilege by the church, an idea found in bountiful supply in the Bible (among other religious texts). The claim was that god created women as inferior to men, and it is part of god’s plan that it remains that way. Jesus, the earthly incarnation of god, was also a bloke – if he existed at all. We of course can’t relegate this archaic attitude to the past, as the Church of England consecrated its first female bishop in January this year. It therefore seems natural, or even obvious, that there would be a significant overlap between humanist and feminist objectives and beliefs.

In fact, two out of three leaders of the suffragette movement in the US were explicit ‘free thinkers’ (a term used to denote those who reach ‘unorthodox’ conclusions about religion), who criticised the church for their institutionalisation of discrimination against women. The British Humanist Association (BHA) holds an emphatically pro-choice position on the issue of abortion, and actively campaigns for reproductive rights for all women. Diane Munday, the feminist campaigner who lobbied successfully for the passing of the Abortion Act 1967, numbers among their patrons. The BHA and other humanist organisations actively campaign for the provision of human rights to all, and support progress in the direction of women’s substantive emancipation worldwide. Evidently, these are both issues which feminists typically support (I would be slightly confused if I came across a feminist who was ‘pro-life’, let alone who thought that women’s emancipation was no big deal!).

So what exactly is responsible for this extensive common ground amongst feminists and humanists? At first glance, it looks like it might be mere coincidence that those of both ethical stripes pursue similar political goals. Humanists criticise the abortion prohibition because it is grounded in religious exceptionalism, as such the non-religious ought not to be compelled to comply, whereas feminists are more concerned with the woman’s right to choose, and the rights she enjoys over her own body. This is superficial. To get a more coherent and profound analysis of humanism and feminism, we must look to the moral bases of each, which, as it turns out, they have in common. Humanism grounds morality in the welfare of humans and other sentient beings, seeking moral guidance on the basis of our common reason and humanity. As such, the right to autonomy is of paramount importance, as it is a central feature of living a good human life – whatever that entails for the individual (that’s the point). Therefore, a humanist considers the legalisation of abortion a moral imperative not just because it respects the beliefs of the non-religious, but because it is a matter of respecting one’s right to self-determination. Similarly, coherent feminists are not misandrists, they seek equal rights for men and women on the basis that both sexes have the ability and the right to lead self-determining lives for which control and ownership over one’s body is a necessary component.

So, in response to ‘why feminism, and not just Humanism’ I say this: the only real difference between the two is an explicit denial of the existence of a deity for humanists. What these philosophies share is a deep commitment to equal rights, non-discrimination, and the right to self-determination and autonomy, and that is what is really important.


Cordelia Tucker O’Sullivan is a master’s student in political theory at the London School of Economics and a public affairs volunteer at the British Humanist Association.

Bigger fish to Fry?

Forget the problem of evil, argues Matthew Hicks. Why aren’t we getting more het up about injustice and human suffering?

Last week saw a media storm over an interview with Stephen Fry. During the interview (embedded below), Fry was asked: ‘What if you’re wrong? What would you say to God if you found you were at the pearly gates?’ Fry said that he would ask this benevolent, compassionate, all-knowing God what bone cancer in children was all about before becoming reservedly enraged about the level of suffering on this planet against a backdrop of a supposedly benevolent, compassionate, all-powerful, and all-knowing being.

Fry’s response was by no means novel, but he articulated himself sufficiently well that people either identified with it or took disagreement with it strongly enough to result in millions of shares and retweets . What stuck out to me however, was not his articulacy or verbosity, but rather his rage at injustice and suffering in the world today, an emotion which was almost palpable.

The question posed to Fry was a narrow-minded, both philosophically and spiritually, and Fry very eloquently answered back in those same terms. But it was the narrowness of Fry’s response which has led to people from both ends of the belief spectrum rushing in to claim an intellectual or spiritual high ground.

With Fry’s rage about suffering so effectively bypassed by those responders, I would like to ask a question. If we are so concerned with the nature of this dilemma, and so many of those with faith or lack thereof are, then why can’t we find it in ourselves to stand alongside Fry in this rage regardless of our belief?

The realms of the supernatural and the rational can fight all they want, split verbal hairs and claim immaturity and narrow-mindedness on the other’s part.  Any one of us can detail the insides of our navels over this issue and wait sneeringly for a response. If we do that however, and jump on the difference of opinion rather than share in the rage of injustice, then we are no different from an allegedly all-powerful, all-compassionate God who sits on his divine derrière.

We live in an age where we who have access to Fry’s interview (and the ability to share it) have a comprehension of the world and its affairs that is unprecedented in history. We are as close to an all-knowing animal as we can get right now! And through the Internet, we also now have the ability to change so much that which is unjust. We are not ourselves all-powerful but as men and women, we have countless opportunities to effect change through democratic activity.

‘For me the evil of inactivity is so much more malignant than the evil of difference of opinion.’

My point is that rage spent on attempting to reverse injustice and suffering is much more productive than rage spent on pointless debate. Are we not better off expending energy on real issues at stake in the world today through channels such as scientific research, foreign aid, and the promotion of human rights? Surely that is a more worthwhile display of our better human qualities than arguments which have no benefit except to fuel the ego of those arguing their point.

Whether there is a divine being is irrelevant to the point in hand. What Fry’s response encapsulates is a sense of anger that we all feel and identify with at some level regardless of belief.  Of course highlighting our differences is so much easier than seeking common ground. To do the latter would open up a whole can of worms with regards our sense of responsibility toward our fellow humans. For me the evil of inactivity is so much more malignant than the evil of difference of opinion.

As Martin Niemoller said:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.


Matt Hicks can be often found touring Devon with a bag full of songs and his ukulele. He blogs at The Wooden Duck.

 

Please don’t bash our media freedoms: one humanist’s plea for careful language

Tony Charlesworth is alarmed by what he sees as crude generalisations about ‘the media’ at the recent ‘Common Ground’ event between humanists and Muslims at Conway Hall.

Alom Shaha chaired four Muslim panellists in front of a mainly humanist audience.

Alom Shaha chaired four Muslim panellists in front of a mainly humanist audience.

People are not punchbags. Mutual comprehension is always preferable to conflict. ‘Jaw, jaw’, said Winston Churchill, is always better than ‘war, war’. So the recent ‘Common Ground Dialogue’ at Conway Hall between a panel of four moderate Muslims, chaired by BHA trustee Alom Shaha, and an audience largely made up of humanists was to be welcomed. And it proved worthwhile. The panel was composed of intelligent, reasoning people with interesting things to say.

Any initiative that says we should listen in a reasoned way to people with opposing ideas, rather than shouting at each other, is always to be welcomed. The organisers and the panelists are to be congratulated. And certainly it was useful to hear about the spectrum of ideas that exist within Islam.

The speakers asked probing questions about their own Muslim faith. They spoke about the treatment of women; the deep-rooted sectarianism within Islam; and about the problems that flow from literal interpretations of holy texts. Questions from the audience shed light on matters to do with ‘faith’ schools; homosexuality; and links between Islam and violence.

Given the issues that the panel members experienced with their own faith, it was a pity that they weren’t pressed more on what it is they continue to get out of this faith themselves and what it means to them as individuals. That was an opportunity missed.

And while we’re at it, we also need to be honest and acknowledge that very many humanists don’t feel quite so sanguine about this kind of ‘interfaith’ dialogue. I should stress that I am not one of them. But as a member of the BHA, I’m acutely aware that many of my fellow atheists feel that religion must be directly addressed rather than tolerated. They would argue that it’s a highly problematic circle to square: both to live harmoniously alongside the religious, whilst also being strongly opposed to religion. But that’s a big separate discussion for another time.

Loose language

So now let me come to the one major aspect of this Conway Hall event that troubled me greatly. And it’s a matter thrown sharply onto centre-stage by the recent freedom of expression discussions in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo affair.

The panel’s niceness and reasonableness (together with the niceness and reasonableness of the humanist event organisers) flew out of the window when it came to one important group: the media. As far as the media was concerned, instead of reasoned thought, we heard worryingly loose language from the panel and organisers, as well as lazy thinking, unquestioned assumptions, and sweeping generalisations. All things I would say are unforgivable for a humanist meeting.

This isn’t merely a peripheral matter. It was precisely those kind of sweeping unthinking generalisations about groups of people that this event was intended to tackle!

Let me start with the recent article in HumanistLife which reported on this event, written by Jeremy Rodell, one of the organisers.It was headlined: ‘Common Ground dialogue: how can humanists and Muslims live and work together in 21st century London?’ (Jeremy, by the way, is a friend of mine and he already knows my views.)

Jeremy’s opening introductory paragraph says that the purpose of the event was to ‘get behind the media stereotypes’ and ‘beyond the black-and-white “isn’t Islam terrible” rhetoric.’  But exactly what ‘media’, and which ‘stereotypes’ and what ‘rhetoric’ was he referring to? We’re not told.

He goes on to say that the purpose of the event was to ‘start to understand what real Muslims think’. But what actually is a ‘real Muslim’?  What would an ‘unreal Muslim’ look like?

By simply lumping together ‘the media’ as if it were a single monolithic entity, Jeremy and his fellow humanist event organisers, together with the panelists, fell straight into the intellectual beartrap of precisely the kind of undifferentiating generalisation that they criticize others for when they lump together people as:  ‘the Muslims’, ‘the Christians’, ‘the Jews’, and ‘the humanists’!

Lack of evidence

I’ve spent my entire career working as a journalist and TV producer for the BBC, Reuters, and the Associated Press. They differ markedly as organisations. Yet depressingly, this phenomenon of referring airily in general to ‘the media’ is something one comes across a great deal. When Jeremy and the panelists refer to ‘the media’ (and actually ‘the media’ are people too!), whom and what do they have in mind?  Is it:  the Financial Times?  Playboy?  Channel Four News? The Daily Mail?  Al-Jazeera?  The Sun?  Charlie Hebdo? The Chinese Peoples’ Daily?  Have I Got News For You?  The Guardian?  I could go on.

It was certainly striking that the humanist event organisers, the Muslim panelists and Alom Shaha as chair all tacitly indicated that for them ‘the media’ was a hostile force. Underlying this entire discussion was an unquestioned and untested assumption that ‘the media’ is to blame (partly or even perhaps wholly) for at least some of the current difficulties that Muslims find themselves in. A further unquestioned and for me objectionable underlying assumption throughout was that the work of ‘the media’ is somehow morally reprehensible.

At one point, one of the panelists spoke about the influence of ‘the global media empire’. I don’t recognize such an ‘empire’. It doesn’t exist. Such a phrase belongs to the most absurd kind of paranoid delusion. Yet nobody questioned it.

The evidence of reprehensible media influence adduced by the panel was pitifully weak and highly selective. The examples produced were: one interview with a radical cleric on BBC Radio’s Today programme; an opinion piece in the Spectator; unspecified headlines in the Daily Mail. We also had some fanciful speculation about how the Dr Harold Shipman case might have been reported had he been a Muslim. And a propos of nothing at all, a panelist spoke about disliking ‘wall to wall satellite news images of Muslim fighters in Chechnya’. Another panelist baldly asserted: ‘the headlines are always grabbed by the Muslims’. Really? Are they?

Thinking humanists (and thinking moderate Muslims) really need to do a lot better than this.

If none of this amounted to any kind of coherent case against ‘the media’ as a whole, perhaps most depressingly of all there was also no recognition at all given to the fair, objective job of reporting Muslim issues that professional, responsible, serious media organisations undertake in free societies.

At one point in the proceedings it was mentioned that one of the speakers had written several articles for various British newspapers. No details were given, but presumably she had been given a platform to present her views. Isn’t therefore generalized denigration of ‘the media’ a case of biting the hand that feeds?

The point is that ‘the media’ is a spectrum as varied and as diverse as any other social grouping, be it religious, political or whatever. But ‘the media’ became a convenient punchbag (a scapegoat even?) at this event. Let’s please be careful about crude simplifications!

The messenger is not the message

Media organisations in free societies in all their complex, highly varied pluralistic aspects communicate about, reflect on and report on the, often extremely shocking, events that are happening in our world.  But media organisations are not the people who are actually carrying out what is happening in our world. The messenger who carries messages to and fro is not the same  person as the person who is carrying out the actual events about which the messages are being communicated. Media organisations undertake communication of messages; they are not the people who decide the manner in which those messages are then received by an audience or how those messages should subsequently be interpreted by that audience. 

Furthermore, it is also self-evident that, as well as reporting on world events, media organisations in free societies do a huge amount to facilitate and provide a platform for precisely the kind of open debate and discussion on current issues and problems that is needed in our world. Yet the organisers of this event and the event speakers simply chose to ignore all of this.

Just like democratic politics, the fact that we have free uncensored media is something that has been hard-won and shouldn’t be easily taken for granted. Moreover, much media reporting in authoritarian unfree places (such as we see in parts of the Muslim world), where it exists at all, is often undertaken by journalists at no small personal danger and risk. But once again, none of any of this was ever remotely acknowledged by either the event organisers or the panellists.

Shining a spotlight

I can entirely understand that moderate Muslims may feel extremely sensitive and feel under (real or imagined) threat when it appears to them that a glaring media spotlight is being shone on them personally because of the activities of extremist Muslims. Likewise, ordinary Jews, for example, may also feel extremely uncomfortable about the hostility (real or imagined) directed towards themselves because of the activities of the current Israeli government with regard to Gaza. I personally felt extremely uncomfortable when some of my French friends said that British people were war criminals because our government had approved the invasion of Iraq.

But the fact that people are made to feel uncomfortable about what they see, read and hear from media organisations should never in a free and open society be any reason whatsoever for the often very unpalatable and disturbing things that are going on in the world not to be reported fully, unflinchingly and unsparingly by media organisations. Nor should it be any reason to suppress the publication of what some might regard as unwelcome opinions.

Free expression, the mark of open democratic societies, needs pluralistic, vigorous, robust, questioning, often insolent, hard-nosed media organisations to hold people accountable and to shine a bright spotlight on what is happening in our world. It is precisely the mark of authoritarian, unfree societies that everything there is presented as officially rosy, no one is made to feel uncomfortable, and nothing is questioned or brought to light.

Hard-won privileges

I’m not saying that media organisations are beyond criticism. Far from it. Appalling criminal activities, for instance, like the phone hacking and entrapment that have been practiced for so long by the Rupert Murdoch-owned press must be punished hard.

And I certainly support the British Humanist Association (BHA)’s recent call to Ofcom for the BBC to carry more humanist and specifically non-religious content.

‘We just want to be allowed to get on with our lives,’ pleaded one of the panellists. But actually where is the evidence that in Britain today, Muslim people are not being allowed to do just exactly that?  A sense of victimhood can become an identity.

No one should ever be racially abused. But racial hatred is now covered by British laws – unlike in the past, as Alom described it, when people were abused in the street and called ‘Paki’. There are also defamation laws that protect attacks on personal reputation. So while we’re at it, let’s also give two cheers (three’s probably too many!) for a legal system which we (unlike certain other countries in the world I can think of) are also fortunate to possess.

It’s very easy to take our media freedoms for granted. Just like we can take our democratic political institutions for granted. But these are precious, hard-won things. Much of the world doesn’t have any of our privileges. We should be celebrating these things, not denigrating them. And as humanists especially we always have the clear duty to beware of loose language, unquestioned assumptions and sweeping generalisations wherever they are found.


Tony Charlesworth is a former journalist and television producer on the staffs of the BBC, Reuters and Associated Press.  He runs Tony Charlesworth Associates, a television and communications agency, and is a member of the BHA.

 

What is TTIP, what’s going on, and should we care?

An anti-TTIP flashmob in Hamburg, Germany.

An anti-TTIP flashmob in Hamburg, Germany.

TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, sounds pretty dull, doesn’t it? I had to force myself to take an interest and read up on TTIP (pronounced ‘T-tip’) when a friend in the local World Justice Movement group persuaded me to organise a small delegation to my MP late last year. Even though I was merely the channel to a local MP and others in the group would do most of the talking, I thought it would be embarrassing to introduce a topic about which I knew little or nothing. So I did some homework.

And like most people who read up about TTIP, apparently the world’s biggest ever trade deal, I became increasingly concerned. It’s not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with removing tariffs and freeing up trade between the USA and the EU, which is the main purpose of TTIP. On the whole, with the exception of a few developing industries in a few developing countries, protectionism does not seem like a good or necessary thing. But ‘harmonisation’ of regulations and standards, another aim of TTIP, could be a thoroughly bad thing, depending on whether this raised standards or reduced them – and, as the negotiations seem to be dominated by large corporations and their requirements, one can guess which way that will go.

I use words like ‘seem’ and ‘guess’ advisedly, as another concern about the TTIP negotiations is their secrecy, the lack of opportunity for proper democratic scrutiny, and the haste with which some supporters want to push through the deal – though, fortunately for democracy, the negotiations seem to be proceeding at glacial speed.

Our December meeting with my MP, Zac Goldsmith, went well. He, like many others, had found that the more he learnt about TTIP the more concerned he became – and he is keen to get other MPs (of all parties) interested and concerned.  Since then, I have emailed all my (London) MEPs and received a couple of replies – one from a UKIP MEP who opposes the TTIP and a thoughtful response from a Conservative MEP, Syed Kamall, who supports it and has written about it for The Huffington Post here and here.  It could be, as Syed Kamall suggests, that there is some exaggeration and scaremongering on the anti-TTIP side. It has been called by the World Justice Movement ‘the most dangerous free trade deal in a decade, [which] threatens democracy, public services and the environment.’  But if this ‘scaremongering’ is provoking debate and calls for openness and scrutiny it might not be a bad thing.

For TTIP does now seem to be emerging from the shadows, with increasing interest from MPs and the media. In January, backbench MPs initiated a debate on the motion: ‘That this House believes that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and any associated investor-state dispute settlement provisions should be subject to scrutiny in the European Parliament and the UK Parliament’ (Hansard report here). Business Secretary Vince Cable and the Liberal Democrats seem to be pulling back on TTIP, perhaps as part of a pre-election distancing from the Tories and the Coalition. There was some speculation that the sudden government rush to legislate for plain cigarette packaging was at least partly because it could become much more difficult post-TTIP. And there was also a useful half-hour discussion on Radio 4’s In Business programme in January.

So the discussion does seem to be hotting up, and that’s an achievement for the charities and pressure groups that have been campaigning on TTIP. However, it often seems as if the different sides are talking about different things, and what one thinks about TTIP does depend on one’s personal priorities and preferences: a boost for economic growth and businesses versus protections for consumers and national rights to regulate corporations.

Like many of the issues highlighted by Humanists for a Better World, TTIP is not a core BHA policy concern, and it’s certainly not an exclusively or particularly humanist issue – it’s one for all active citizens. At the very least, thoughtful voters should ask questions about TTIP and try to persuade our democratically elected representatives to take an interest in it and insist on transparency and opportunities to scrutinise and amend the treaty before it’s a done deal. If you’d like to know more about TTIP or take action on it, do please have a look at H4BW’s December 2014 briefing on TTIP.

 

Common ground dialogue: how can humanists and Muslims live and work together in 21st century London?

BHA trustee Alom Shaha led the discussion, joined by several Muslim panellists

BHA trustee Alom Shaha (centre) led the discussion, joined by several Muslim panellists

According to the 2011 Census, one in eight Londoners identifies themselves as a Muslim. In November 2014, a group of us 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 of them to a dialogue at Conway Hall on 25 November 2014, chaired by Alom Shaha, author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook and an ex-Muslim from a Bangladeshi background.

Our guests were Mamadou Bocoum – Public Relations Officer for the Sharia Council; Huda Jawad – Advisor at the Centre for Academic Shi’a 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 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 it as a first step.

This report ‘tells it as it was’ – barring a rearrangement of points into a logical order – without comment, reflecting our aim to improve understanding. You can hear the full audio recording here.

Muslim identity, racism, victimhood

Yasmin’s parents came to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s. Growing up in a small mining town in the North East 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 September 11 (‘9/11′) and July 7 (‘7/7′) terror attacks in New York and London. Unfortunately even now, when dealing with officials, Yasmin reports ’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 18, 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 home 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?”, and so began a personal journey to explore her faith and its texts.

Alom too grew up in a 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’, despite the data.

But the Muslim communities themselves also had to take some responsibility for the current ‘us and them’ position. Firstly, in Sara’s view, they had been let down by poor leadership, making them vulnerable to pressure from extremists. Frequently she had seen leaders unwilling to counter extremist on-line narratives, simply claiming ‘there’s no problem, it’s all to do with foreign policy’. Inadequate leadership was particularly serious when failing to confront gender issues: when police or Local Authorities approached mosques to discuss issues such as violence against women, they were often told there was no issue and 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 outlook, she found herself accused of ‘Islamophobia’.

The panellists felt that the media gave an extremely misleading portrayal of British Muslims, which then formed the basis for the opinions of the wider population, which added to a ‘bunker’ mentality. The result, in Mamadou’s view, was that Islam was being hijacked by the hardliners. Sara gave 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.

The rise of ISIS and of extremism in the UK

All the panellists 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, in the sense that ISIS was pursuing it, 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 available in this area. It showed no single cause or route, and no correlation with poverty or lack of education.

It was true that British Sikh and Hindu communities, which had also suffered from racism, did not suffer from extremism to the same degree as the Muslims communities, though Huda pointed out that every religion had the capacity for violence. She gave the example of Buddhist monks who persecuted Muslims in Burma. A number of factors had impacted the particular position of Muslims in the UK. Foreign policy was one. But it was also significant that, unlike some other immigrant 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 has 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 towards 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 Imam 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 stoke 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 trend, citing the example of Northern Ireland, where women from both sides who had lost children in the conflict had come together.

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 them.

‘We have a problem with the text’

Mamadou knows the Qu’ran intimately – he memorised the whole thing 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 which says non-Muslims are enemies.

But the Qu’ran itself asked 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 itself’. He 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’ in Sara’s view. 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 where rational enquiry was valued and which lasted for 300 years.

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,’ she conceded.

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 (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 his followers, and the Shia believing that it should be his descendants, starting with Ali, cousin and son-in-law. Despite agreement over the basic tenets of Islam and the Qu’ran, over time that had developed into a religious, cultural and political difference to the extent that the Sunni-Shia schism is one of the main underlying factors in the current 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’, echoing Saddam’s view that they are ‘worse than Jews, worse than flies’.

She saw massive diversity within British Islam, with no single identity. Instead 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, 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 develop. 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. As he pointed out ‘You cannot have this platform in the Middle East, or in the sub-continent. This is “fish and chips Islam”’.

Feminism and women’s rights

Sara identifies herself as a ‘Muslim feminist’, a term that some atheists, and some 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 Qu’ran that inspired her to fight for justice, regardless of a personal cost which has included abuse and death threats. Attacks have come both from jihadists and, ironically, from their most virulent critics. Rod Liddle, for example, 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 early ideas of women’s rights in seventh century Arabia, which included numerous social, political and economic rights. She recommended Lenn Goodman’s book Islamic Humanism. Unfortunately, the faith has been largely developed by men opposed to challenge on the grounds of 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’, echoing ISIS. Globally, extremist Muslims are targeting Muslim feminists, as in the case of the Libyan activist 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 western Muslims; 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’.

LGBT rights

A questioner quoted a Gallup survey of 500 British Muslims in which none had considered homosexuality acceptable. How can gay people live freely alongside Muslims, for example, in East London?

Huda’s view was that ‘God is the only judge’. But she was not surprised by the data because people would tend to answer this question the way they think was expected. In fact Muslims in her community talk about the issue in private all the time, but consider it taboo to discuss it publicly.

But there was no question that the current view across Islam is unfavourable towards 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; TellMAMA, which tracks anti-Muslim attacks in the UK, had recently recruited Peter Tatchell on to its board; Shereen El Feki’s book ‘Sex and the Citadel’ covered the reality of gay life in Arab society; and the Safra Project, which supports Muslim LBT women. Mamadou had worked with a gay imam in Washington.

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

Yasmin ‘called out’ the East London Mosque, which she said had been taken over by Islamists who were strongly homophobic. And 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 they 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

The question of whether the state should be paying for sectarian religious schools clearly divided the panel

The question of whether the state should be paying for sectarian religious schools clearly divided the panel

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 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 when they got it wrong.

Yasmin had herself attended a convent and considered separating children on the basis of faith a form of apartheid. And she had been very 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 global 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 it 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 Muslim Law (Sharia) Council UK, there were only a couple of references to Sharia during the meeting. The first was from Yasmin, who pointed out that there is not just one Sharia law, with four distinct schools within Sunni Islam. 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 20 years have British Muslim women who want a divorce been expected to go to a sharia court: did that mean all the previous divorces were invalid? Huda later pointed out that in fact there were five schools of Sharia Law, four Sunni plus one Shia.

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

Were speakers representative of the wider Muslim community?

A questioner cited opinion polling suggesting the speakers’ liberal views were not representative of the general views of British Muslims.

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 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 ‘you’re 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.


The event was organised by local humanist groups in London and Conway Hall Ethical Society. The core team was Helen Palmer (Chair, Central London Humanists), Jeremy Rodell (Chair, South West London Humanists), and Rory Fenton (Dialogue Officer, British Humanist Association).

On the death of Debbie Purdy

The BHA has long campaigned for a humane assisted suicide not just for the terminally ill, but for the incurably suffering as well - people like Debbie Purdy, Jean Davies, and Tony Nicklinson

The BHA has long campaigned for a humane assisted suicide law not just for the terminally ill, but for the incurably suffering as well – people like Debbie Purdy, Jean Davies, and Tony Nicklinson

Everyone at the British Humanist Association (BHA) was deeply saddened to hear about the death of Debbie Purdy just before Christmas, after taking the decision to starve herself. Debbie was an inspirational campaigner for reforming the law on assisted dying, and hers was an enormously dignified voice in public debate over many years. It was her brave campaigning that led to the publication of new legal guidance on the prosecution of family members who help loved ones to end their lives.

This was a step forward, but only a very small one because the new guidelines did not change the law. In spite of all Debbie’s courageous efforts and campaigning until the very end, assisted dying remains against the law in the UK. This means that thousands of terminally ill and permanently and incurably suffering people across the country are unable to enjoy their lives as much as they can, because they cannot rely on receiving the assistance they may need to end their lives in circumstances of their choosing, in dignity and free from pain.

Much recent media attention has focused on Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, currently before the House of Lords. If passed, the Bill would allow terminally ill patients to request life-ending medication from their doctor. This represents another step forward, preventing unnecessary, prolonged suffering by providing those who are terminally ill with choice and control over how and when they end their lives.

But though this is a step in the right direction, it does not go anywhere near far enough. As Debbie Purdy pointed out in her final article before her death, the Bill only extends to terminally ill people judged by a doctor to be within six months of the end of their life. That excludes people who are permanently and incurably suffering – people like Debbie as well as the late Tony Nicklinson and Jean Davies, whose illnesses were not terminal but who had reached a point where they simply could not tolerate continuing to suffer any longer.

As Debbie made clear, the Bill must be passed – but it is just not enough. It does not provide a solution for people like her who seek permission to get support to end their lives in dignity, should living become truly unbearable. The BHA has long wished to see an assisted dying law which is responsive to the needs of people like Debbie who are permanently and incurably suffering, as well as those who are suffering from a terminal illness – and the majority of the public agrees.

Now is the time to act, by reforming the law to legalise assisted dying both for people suffering from a terminal illness and for those who are permanently and incurably suffering. If the law is not changed, people will continue to die after suffering for prolonged periods, in pain and robbed of their dignity. We owe it to courageous people like Debbie Purdy to make sure that this is no longer the case.

Systematic discrimination against the non-religious is happening all over the world. And Britain faces a crossroads.

‘Systematic discrimination; in flux.’

That is how the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) described the United Kingdom in its annual Freedom of Thought Report, which arrived last week for Human Rights Day on 10 December. It is the authoritative annual report into the legal status of and discrimination against the non-religious around the world.

In Saudi Arabia, atheism is now ‘terrorism'; in Malaysia, ‘humanism and secularism as well as liberalism’ have been singled out by the leader of the nation as prime causes of moral degradation. In 13 countries, atheism is punishable by death. This represents one end of the spectrum, and it would be tempting on the basis of this comparison to view Britain as a paradise for non-believers. But the reality isn’t quite so; only nine countries support full legal equality for religious and non-religious alike, IHEU finds.

As in previous years, the UK has been given an amber rating, signifying ‘Systemic Discrimination’, because of entrenched problems such as discrimination in admissions and employment by state-funded ‘faith’ schools, the presence of established churches in England and Scotland, and reserved seats for bishops in the House of Lords.

The UK was also one of only a handful countries this year to receive the special ‘In Flux’ rating because of conflicting signs about the future of discrimination against the non-religious in Britain. Despite the distance we’ve travelled to ensure that most non-religious people can live happily, confidently, and without harassment in their everyday lives, systemic problems remain, and 2014 was a year of marked attempts to politicise issues around religion or belief, as well as for claiming special significance for Christianity in Britain. And in parts of the country such as Northern Ireland, religious influence over politicians still remains the primary roadblock to sexual health rights for women and marriage rights for gay people.

The BHA will of course continue to work towards a secular state ensuring equal treatment of everyone, regardless of religion or belief. You can help this work by becoming a member, if you haven’t done so already, or by encouraging your friends to sign up. Your membership directly empowers our work financially – running campaigns can be expensive – just as your support infuses our work with energy and vitality.