I’d like to start by saying thank you to Ramin for inviting me to speak at this first public seminar of Ex Muslims Scotland.
Having been involved with secular and humanist campaigning for a good few years now, I notice that we can sometimes become accustomed to certain aspects of public discourse. Most noticeably of course is the unanimous agreement among the media and many politicians that there exists a homogeneous group called, ‘the Muslim community’?
It is for reasons like that, that events such as these should NEVER be underestimated. We are here today, thanks to Ramin’s courage and determination, to say loudly and proudly that religion, or lack thereof is not a tool which will be used to divide us one against another, and that as human beings the world-over we stand united against the dangers of totalitarianism and wishful dogmatic ideology.
I’d like to, as you might suggest, focus my comments here today on education. First I’m going to reflect on the recent issues in Birmingham, and what implications they may have for the situation here in Scotland.
I’m then going to talk generally about some issues of religious and cultural identity, which I feel are too often swept under the carpet.
Coming first to the issues raised recently in relation to education in Birmingham, I think it’s always important when discussing ideological issues, such as Islam, to distinguish between the idea and the person. As a humanist I value the intrinsic worth of every person, regardless of their beliefs. However I also believe strongly that all ideas are open to criticism, and that in a liberal democracy, no ideology is beyond question. There’s no doubt that the issues raised in the recent Ofsted inspection in Birmingham make for grim reading. It’s important to be clear what we mean by radicalisation.
The recent issues in Birmingham highlighted a number of practices which understandably raised concerns, such as gender segregation and promotion of a very conservative social ideology. That is quite different from issues of radicalisation though.
Of course, there are a number of non-religious schools across the UK which have policies of gender segregation. It could also be argued that Roman Catholic schools promote a very conservative form of social policy, of course, we would not understand this to be radicalisation. We must be careful then, when discussing issues from an Islamic perspective, not to use the term radicalisation too easily.
Michael Gove’s reaction to the Birmingham schools incident, whilst understandable, wasn’t the right one. It’s still unclear exactly what Michael Gove and other UK Government ministers mean by ‘British values’. Earlier this year, the Prime Minister David Cameron provoked a backlash from prominent humanists and academics for suggesting that Britain is still a ‘Christian country’. Is it these ‘British Christian values’ that Mr Gove hopes to promote through the education system?
If the Birmingham incident has shown us anything, it is that when one ideology (religious or otherwise) is given unfair prominence and unquestioning deference in the education system, the results are stark.
Educational establishments are first and foremost a place of learning, of academic endeavour, for being challenged and encouraged to question and think for yourself. Educational establishments do not exist to promote ethnic or cultural identities.
Of course, as a humanist I support the idea of an integrated education system, one in which children are not separated according to the religious identity of their parents. What a wonderful opportunity we have to bring all young people together, to learn and work alongside each other.
The truth is that there is no such thing as ‘British values’, but only human values. The values of fairness, equality, democracy and solidarity with each other. It’s important to be mindful that children entering primary school in Scotland this August are likely to still be active in the workforce in 2070! It is impossible to forecast what kind of world these children will be living in, one thing we can be sure of; that science, technology, engineering and mathematics will be integral to that global economy. This is where our children’s future lies, not in the misguided and insular notion that Britain has a monopoly on ethical values.
So, what implications does this have for us here in Scotland, well, let me read you a headline from the Scottish Herald “Muslims target schools for takeover”, and the by-line reads: “FOUR Scottish schools have been targeted by Islamic campaigners who are calling for them to be converted into the country’s first dedicated Muslim primaries.”
How recent do you think that headline is? A few weeks? A few months? Well, it’s actually from 2003.
In Scotland there have been, to my knowledge, only two real attempts to establish Islamic state schools in Scotland. In 2003, in Glasgow, there was a controversial takeover bid by some Muslim parents of a Roman Catholic primary school. It must be said that this takeover bid did not succeed, and that was largely due to the response of a vast number of Muslim parents in Glasgow who took a proactive stance against the move, concerned that such a takeover bid would foster negative relations against Glaswegian Muslims. There are no Islamic state schools in Scotland at the moment, although there is one private Islamic school in Glasgow.
As many of you here will know, the real threat from pervasive religious influence in education in Scotland comes mainly from the Roman Catholic Church. Having previously worked in the education departments of three of Scotland’s local authorities, I can tell you that I have seen two colleagues blatantly refused a job because of their sexual orientation. I have seen teachers sacked or threatened with dismissal because they weren’t religious enough!
There are also a number of private and independent schools in Scotland, who have a very strong religious character, such as the Plymouth Brethren Schools, who have a strict dress code for female employees, which includes covering their hair and wearing ankle-length skirts. It remains the current Scottish Government’s policy to support the development of further state-funded faith schools in Scotland where they receive local support.
However, the situation at the moment requires a lot of examination. There are still too many children at schools in Scotland being required to take part in prayers and other forms of (usually Christian) worship. The fact that in 2014, we still have three unelected religious representatives on local authority education committees is a stark affront to the idea of democracy, and continues the false notion that religious individuals or groups have a special moral or ethical insight, not available to other Scots.
Scotland faces different risks in relation to religious and cultural divides. As an example to show how dangerous the process of religious and cultural ‘othering’ is, I’d like you to consider the following extract from an influential report, I’ve removed the name of the group to which it refers;
“They have separate schools for their children; they have their own clubs for recreation and for social intercourse; they tend to segregate in communities, and even to monopolise certain departments of labour to the exclusion of Scots. Already there is bitter feeling among the Scottish working-classes against the [other] intruders. As the latter increase, and the Scottish people realise the seriousness of the menace to their own racial supremacy…”
The ‘other’ in this example, is Irish Roman Catholics, written in the 1920’s at a time where there was mass immigration from Ireland, including some of my own forebears. The author of the report by the way, the Church of Scotland.
However, it’s interesting to note that one could easily replace the mention of Irish Roman Catholics, with Muslims, and this would represent the sentiments of some in the media at the moment. Given the lived experience of many Scots in relation to sectarianism, we dare not risk creating more sectarian divides.
As a humanist, I will always reject and condemn Islamic extremism, as with all other forms or religious totalitarianism which are anathema to human progress. I will also continue to make the case for diversity, dialogue and understanding for all human beings, regardless of their beliefs.
This, then, brings me to my next point.
Some of you here today will know that I have recently left a job with Glasgow City Council, where I worked in the department which oversees the training and development of Social Work staff, to focus more time on my work with the HSS. In that department I used to run several programmes, as well as oversee qualifications. Before I left, I lifted the following essay from the set text of our HNC Programme: “Cultural Relativism – This Eras Fascism”, by our own distinguished guest, Maryam Namazie.
I’d like to quote a short extract from that essay to highlight my point:
“Cultural relativists say that we must respect people’s culture and religion, however despicable. This is absurd and calls for the respect of savagery. Yes, human beings are worthy of respect but not all beliefs must be respected. If culture allows a woman to be mutilated and killed to save the family “honour”, it cannot be excused. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, religion rules and has become the mass murder or people. If religion says that woman who disobey should be beaten, that flogging is acceptable, and that women are deficient, it must be condemned and opposed.”
This essay was published in 1998, and it saddens me to think that little has changed in many people’s attitudes. There is a prevalent idea that I, as a western white male, somehow cannot, or should not criticise beliefs and practices which I find appalling. That my sentiments of solidarity with the voice of secular progress in the middle-east is somehow supportive of right-wing politics, or hawkish foreign policy.
For those of you who have been, or still are Mulsim’s, you will be all too aware of the ‘Arabisation’ of Islam, and the childish conflation many politicians make between religion and culture.
I spoke at an event at the University of Edinburgh on the subject of the ‘Niqab Ban’ (which I do not support), and again I quoted some of Maryam’s work. I was genuinely surprised when that was met with opposition, and I was castigated for being someone who supports apostasy.
I support freedom of thought, and freedom of speech, that is it! If some people from a particular religious philosophy want to call that apostasy, then so be it.
I was reminded of some comments I made a few years ago by someone at this event, when I asked whether someone who followed Islam could ever be secular. I can’t claim to be an expert on Islamic theology, but it seems to me that there are some core principles which are inconsistent with a secular society. One such principle would be the punishment of apostasy, so far as I can see, apart from a limited number of medieval scholars, there is a common view in Islamic jurisprudence that apostasy should merit imprisonment or death. There is no doubt that this view is in conflict with the idea of a progressive secular society.
Or course, many other religious ideologies would not pass this test, my own religious tradition of Roman Catholicism has many dogmas which are inconsistent with a secular society; such as the infallibility of His Holiness the Pope.
The truth is that, as I said at the start, people deserve respect, ideas do not. Personal beliefs and identities and complex, often multiple and overlapping. I stand united with anyone who shares my vision for a fair, democratic and just society, regardless of what they call themselves or how they choose to identify.
I will not turn my back on my fellow human beings. I will never back down from opposing those who have come to believe that all ideas are of equal worth, irrespective of the impact on human lives. To all the people who think that I shouldn’t criticize Islamic beliefs or cultural practices, I say no.