The multiculturalism debate

February 25, 2011

I’ve written this post in response to a couple of comments on my earlier blog on multiculturalism. There were two main criticisms of it. The first was contesting that David Cameron had been pandering to far-right groups. I’ve responded to those claims in the comments, and I don’t intend to address them here.

Instead, I’ll mainly concentrate on the point that Roger made:

I don’t believe Cameron was pandering to far right groups but seeking to reassure the enormous silent majority of people like myself who believe that ‘multi-culturalism’ (i.e. the celebration and encouraged recognition of racial or social difference) has indeed been a terrible failure.

I was concious even after writing the blog that I hadn’t really grappled with the concept of multiculturalism in any detail. I want to therefore put that right with this blog.

The problem with trying to answer whether multiculturalism has failed is that it’s hard to define multiculturalism, and even harder to work out how it can be judged successful or not. There’s a few different definitions of multiculturalism here. My favourite is from Ruth Lea, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, who said:

There is another way to define multiculturalism which I would call diversity where people have their own cultural beliefs and they happily coexist – but there is a common thread of Britishness or whatever you want to call it to hold society together.

And that is clearly what I would support because you do accept that people have different cultures and you accept them.

It a positive acceptance not a negative tolerance.

That’s what I imagine multiculturalism to be. I imagine lots of different cultures – Afro-Carribbean, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, whatever – underneath an umbrella term of “Britishness”. I imagine, then, that I could be at odds with Roger on this point, but I wouldn’t want to speak for him on this.

It’s difficult to know what an alternative to this sort of approach would be. As Bob Piper cutely pointed out after Angela Merkel’s speech on multiculturalism:

Merkel says multiculturalism has failed in Germany. Surely she knows the last time they tried monoculturalism it was hardly a major success.

For there have always been different cultures. There is the distinction between popular and elite culture, for instance, which was written about by Richard Hoggart.

This split existed even in the Middle Ages. Take the veneration of a thirteenth-century dog St Guinefort by local peasants, which was a popular cult amongst the laity, even if it was frowned on by the established church. The distinction between different sorts of culture have always been around.

Anyway, back to the present. As pointed out above, multiculturalism could be judged to have succeeded if different cultures united around a common thread. In the Middle Ages, for instance, the different elite and popular cultures had a shared Christian culture. Now, the common theme would appear to be patriotism – a celebration of Britishness (or Englishness) and a feeling of national pride. As Sunder Katwala points out in this excellent article on the successes and failures of multiculturalism, this is something that Britain seems to have got right.

Katwala quotes comments made by Spurs footballer Benoit Assou-Ekotto to make his point:

Assou-Ekotto is beginning to look ahead to the World Cup finals with Cameroon. Although he was born in France and has a French mother, there has never been any issue over his allegiance. Like many young people in France born to an immigrant parent or parents, he feels that “the country does not want us to be part of this new France. So we identify ourselves more with our roots.

“Me playing for Cameroon was a natural and normal thing. I have no feeling for the France national team; it just doesn’t exist. When people ask of my generation in France, ‘Where are you from?’, they will reply Morocco, Algeria, Cameroon or wherever. But what has amazed me in England is that when I ask the same question of people like Lennon and Defoe, they’ll say: ‘I’m English.’ That’s one of the things that I love about life here.”

It’s quite clear that multiculturalism has succeeded more in Britain than in either France or Germany, where both their leaders have, like Cameron, declared it to have “failed” in their countries. As Sunder Katwala points out, despite maintaining a strong national identity by having “the Tricolore fluttering from every town hall”, and banning burkas, French society does not seem particularly integrated. Moreover:

[T]he truth is that France’s particularly strident anti-multiculturalism has run so deep that it makes a definitive social comparison difficult. It would famously offend against the Republican philosophy of integration to even collect the information which would be necessary to inform any serious study of the successes and fallures of how integrated (or not) France actually is.

Germany has done a woeful job of integrating its Turkish minority into its society, with over half of German Turks saying they feel unwelcome in the country, and some German-born Turks do not even have full voting rights. Judged by Germany’s standard, the integration of ethnic minorities into Britain has been a rip-roaring success.

The fact is that certain sections of the British media usually ignore any stories about the success of multiculturalism, whilst playing up any examples of a lack of integration amongst minorities. Take two events that happened last November, around the time of Remembrance Day:

Firstly:

About 35 Islamic protesters, dressed in dark clothes and with many masking their faces, carried banners and chanted slogans such as “British soldiers: terrorists”.

They gathered near Hyde Park in London before burning a model of a poppy on the stroke of 11am then marching along Exhibition Road and along an underpass, past the Victoria and Albert and Natural History Museums.

And also:

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association across England has been rallied together to join in fundraising for the Poppy Appeal on behalf of The Royal British Legion in recognition of the valuable role British Armed Forces played during the World Wars.

AMYA collected a total of £20,963.02 for the Royal British Legion over the period of 13 hours, which is a phenomenal achievement. Due to the impressive collections, the Royal British Legion has now asked us to assist in their regional collections also in Midlands, North West and Scotland.

Two very different stories about Muslim groups and their activities to commemorate British soldiers. Now, guess which one the tabloids focussed on?

Of course, it was the first one.

The point here is not that all Muslims raise money for charity, nor that they all burn poppies.

Rather, the question worth asking is why does the media focus on the poppy-burners? Partly because it’s a more interesting and sensationalist story. Another factor seems to be that it the media is falling for the publicity stunts that Muslims against Crusades do.

It’s also possible, however, that there is an agenda at play here. For months, if not years, some of our tabloid newspapers have been focussing on negative stories about a small group of Muslim extremists, which is having serious repercussions on how the British public perceives Muslims and Islam. The Star and the Express, owned by someone not known for having well-thought out views on cultural difference, have been putting forward the myth that an Islamisation of Britain is happening, and that we are being “taken over” by foreigners:

With all this, is it any wonder that 98% of Daily Star readers think that Britain is turning into a Muslim state? See this and this, also.

So I’d argue a main problem is one of perception. However, another problem is that it’s jolly difficult to have a sensible debate on multiculturalism, because the debate gets closed down very quickly, on both sides.

The first person to come out and say that multiculturalism had failed in Britain was Trevor Phillips in 2004, and he wrote that, for instance:

That is why I disagree with those who say that integration and Britishness are irrelevant to the struggle against racism. There can be no true integration without true equality. But the reverse is also true. The equality of the ghetto is no equality at all.

The responses to Phillips’ continuing critique of multiculturalism as “separateness” are bemusing, to say the least. On the one hand, Ken Livingstone, when he was Mayor of London, said that Phillips was so right-wing that “soon he’ll be joining the BNP”. In contrast, a charming video (with equally charming comments underneath) from a user called “BNPxTRUTH” calls him a “Marxist Thug”. Judging from the comments, that’s one of the nicest things that’s been said about him.

However, there is obviously a common ground with myself, Roger and Trevor Phillips. One cannot indeed just celebrate “difference” for the sake of it. There has to be a common thread that binds us all together. We cannot just say that to be British is simply to be “different”, as then your identity has an identity-shaped hole.

Furthermore, a “ghettoisation” of Britain has been happening, especially in areas outside London, and is something that is entrenched by faith schools.

Yet this is hardly something being said by a “silent majority”. How can it be said that the majority is silent, when you can have articles talking of the “war on the English” in Britain’s biggest-selling newspapers? In 2005 David Davis, then Shadow Home Secretary, called for the scrapping out an “outdated” policy of multiculturalism. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, said that multiculturalism had “failed the English”. Another prominent bishop talked of the “newfangled and insecurely founded doctrine of multiculturalism”. This is hardly a deafening silence, rather, it is a deafening clamour.

It’s becoming obvious that a nuanced debate on the successes and failings of multiculturalism, and working out how we proceed, is therefore difficult, but necessary. That’s why it’s even worse that Cameron’s speech didn’t take into account any of multiculturalism’s successes and instead stated that it has failed. By doing this he has played into the hands – willingly or not - of far-right groups by simply stating that multiculturalism had failed, and ignoring its successes.

It isn’t just Cameron who is guilty of this. In an interview last week, attorney-general Dominic Grieve had this to say:

the English Defence League’s anger at what it regards as “appeasement to Islammist [sic - this was quoted from teh Grauniad after all] extremism is something politicians may ignore at their peril”.

Which makes the EDL sound like a group quietly expressing valid views on the nicities of radical Islam, when in fact it’s run by people who think that “the sooner we start killing Muslims, the better”.

I think the time has come to move on from multiculturalism. That doesn’t mean that we should accept it’s failed completely - in many ways it has worked.

As noted above, the integration of ethnic minorities into a British national identity has been largely successful. As Medhi Hasan said on Question Time, his father emigrated to Britain in the 1960s, and lived mainly in a state of poverty. That his son could be on one of Britain’s leading political television programmes and define himself as “British” said a lot about the success of multiculturalism.

 Also, as Sunder Katwala notes:

[The] history of Britain is largely the history of successful integration. Perhaps that’s why we don’t notice it. But just about every one of the institutions of which we tend to be proud has been the product of immigration and integration – not just the NHS, but also the Ashes-winning cricket team, and the Army, and even the German-Greek infusions to the Monarchy. Though the headlines will always stress the flashpoints over the complex, everyday story of how we live together, our history should give us confidence that integration is possible.

We became a much less racist society. As John Redwood generously noted in response to David Cameron’s speech, the political left in Britain did a good deal to delegitimise racism (though this important broad social change was not the achievement of the political left alone).

However, even he says he is open to the need to move away from multiculturalism. However, if we do move from multiculturalism, what do we move towards?

We have to find some shared values and shared institutions. These institutions will include vague, fluffy values like tolerance, as well as other (slightly) more tangible concepts such as our democratic framework and the rule of law, which I think are aspects people both on the left and right can get behind.

As a social democrat, I’d also say that we need a certain level of equality, so people do genuinely feel like “we are all in this together”. Equality generally leads to a certain level of trust, so that people can pay their taxes and not feel cheated by “free-riders”. Tony Judt in Ill Fares the Land (what do you mean, you haven’t bought this brilliant book yet?) argued:

If we raise taxes or put up a bond to pay for a school in our home district, the chances are that other people (and other peoples’ children) will be the chief beneficiaries. The same applies to public investment in light rail systems, long-term educational and research projects, medical science, social security contributions and any other collective expenditure whose pay off may lie years away. So why do we go to the trouble of putting up the money? Because others have put up money in the past and, usually without giving the matter too much thought, we see ourselves as part of a civic community transcending generations. (pp64-5)

People are more likely to have the trust to do this if they have a lot in common with each other. This is why we cannot just celebrate “difference” for the sake of it but need some sort of shared common thread binding together the people in a community.

I daresay all of this is sounds like a rather woolly conclusion. But I have news for you: life isn’t simple. Multiculturalism wasn’t a complete success or a complete failure: there were good things and bad things to it. Our job in the years ahead is to keep the good things and toss away the bad things, and remember why they were bad. I’m sure some will disagree that it’s social democracy that can provide the common framework that Britain, as a society, needs to become more prosperous. And that’s also good – I don’t expect you to agree on everything.

However, a nuanced, reasoned debate on the merits of multiculturalism and where we go from here needs to be had. Judging from Cameron’s speech, we ain’t gonna get one any time soon.


Why No Platform is illiberal and misconceived

February 24, 2011

As an adjoiner to my previous post on multiculturalism, I wanted to write a piece on why the No Platform Policy is illiberal and misconceived. It’s something I’ve had strong views on for a while – I spoke at my university’s Debating Society against the No Platform Policy three years ago (and we won, thanks for asking).

As some of you might have gathered from the comments of that multiculturalism post, I’m planning on writing something on multiculturalism and national identity. For now, here’s something on No Platform, which is also seemingly back in the news. There’s an interview here with a Birmingham student who argues that engaging with radical Islamic preachers is the best way to challenge their arguments.

No Platform has also been thrust back into the spotlight because of the of the English Defence League. There were a few No Platform tweets when the EDL’s leader was interviewed on Newsnight a few weeks ago. “Tommy Robinson” – actually a pseudonym – gave a spirited performance, but it wasn’t quite good enough. It’s hard to present yourself as an expert on the ways of Islam when you refer to “radical inams”.

As soon as the interview had finished, the EDL reported a surge in membership, and as a result more people kept coming out of the woodwork and asking why we had allowed the EDL publicity. We shouldn’t allow facist movements to appear on television to give them publicity and legitimacy, so the argument goes.

These people obviously have short memories. What helped kill off the BNP in the May elections, as much as anything, was Nick Griffin’s leering performance on Question Time. The moment when he pointed to an Asian man in the audience and said to him “You can stay”, was the most revolting thing I’ve ever seen on that programme. As you can imagine, he’s going up against some pretty stiff competition there.

What Griffin’s performance on Question Time does prove is that the best way to defeat abhorrent ideas is to confront them and defeat them in open debate. Banning extreme groups does not work, and in many cases would play into the hands of the extremists. The BNP and the EDL like to put forward the claim that there is a “politically correct conspiracy” of the “liberal media” or “liberal elite” to stifle debate on issues such as multiculturalism or immigration. Banning these groups only serves to add credence to this message.

Perhaps banning these groups would send a message that we consider fascism, or Islamic fundamentalism, to be immoral. However, is it really the place of governments to decide what is and what isn’t morally acceptable? That is potentially a very slippery slope.

I’m always amused by the fact that people of all political stripes consider that every group should have rights – apart from people they don’t like. That could mean gypsies, fascists, etc etc. A conversation I had a couple of weeks ago demonstrates this, that I shall relate hopefully without slipping into Liberal Dinner Party syndrome.

I was talking to one of the Guild of Students’ sabbatical officers, who said that she was in support of No Platform because she was “opposed to discrimination in all its forms”.

“Except discrimination against fascists?” I piped up. After I said that, she and Hannah, occasional Paperback Rioter, looked at me as though I’d just come out as a closet Orange Booker. But the fact is, you cannot pick and choose which people you want to grant rights to.

I can see the logic for wanting to ban these fascist groups: it comes back to Cameron’s idea of “muscular liberalism”, wanting to ban “preachers of hate” and be “intolerant of intolerance”. However, the simple fact is that not only would banning these groups be illiberal, and not work, it would be impossible to enforce.

It would also be a counter-productive thing to do. Do we really want to force groups like the BNP or EDL underground? Surely it’s best to have their dealings in the open, where they can be easily monitored? Also, the publicity associated with banning American “shock jocks” or people like Geert Wilders from entering Britain gives their movement much more coverage than if they had actually just been allowed to enter quietly in the first place.

Also banning these organisations just doesn’t work, because they will just end up operating as before, but under a different name. This can be seen by the banning of Anjem Choudary’s Islam4UK. In a testy interview on the Daily Politics – and let’s face it, what’s the point of banning the organisation if as a result its founder gets an interview on BBC2? – Choudary said that he probably would just set up a new organisation. After all,

If I gather together with my friends in the park and eat together and decide to write a leaflet and distribute it in the market, is that illegal?

Well, quite. And indeed Choudary has now set up a new organisation, called Muslims Against Crusades. Should we ban that too as well? Perhaps, you could argue, but then he would just set up another organisation. It’d be like herding cats.

Basically, the No Platform Policy can never be a credible policy of any anti-fascist movement. Saying that you are “in favour of freedom of speech, but…” is on the same moral level as saying “I am not a racist, but…” Add to that the fact that it’s unworkable, and you have a heck of a silly, counter-productive policy on your hands.


David Cameron should have just thrown a brick through a curry house window

February 10, 2011

I read David Cameron’s speech on multiculturalism last Saturday. At least, I assume it was the speech he gave. It sounded like the Cabinet Office had lost the full transcript of Cameron’s speech, and had replaced it on their website with a speech that Tony Blair made between 2004 and 2006.

What Cameron said was only marginally more important than when he said it. There’s a few lines in which he covers his back by stressing that not all Muslims are complete scum:

So they talk about ‘moderate’ Muslims as if all devout Muslims must be extremist. This is wrong.

Someone can be a devout Muslim and not be an extremist.

We need to be clear: Islamist extremism and Islam are not the same thing.

However, there was enough content in there to pander to far-right groups such as the EDL. For instance:

Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream.

We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values.

So when a white person holds objectionable views – racism, for example – we rightly condemn them.

But when equally unacceptable views or practices have come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious, frankly even fearful, to stand up to them.

Now, a UK politician pandering to far-right sentiment is hardly anything new. However, although it has been stressed that the date of the speech was coincidental, Cameron said this on the day 3000 members of the English Defence League marched through Luton.

If you were Prime Minister and confronted by two different demonstrations, one of which consisted of 30,000 students protesting for the right to enter Higher Education without being burdened by debt, and another consisting of anti-Muslim racists, which protest would you pander to in a speech?

The fact that Cameron chose to pander to the racists tells you all that you need to know about his priorities.

And make no mistake, the message got through to the far-right. Nick Griffin, of all people, called the speech provocative. The BNP are certainly painting it as a victory, describing it as part of the Griffinisation of UK Politics. I can’t decide if that’s more humourous or appalling. Whereas some people on the EDL rally were delighted:

Some of crowd [sic - bloody Grauniad!] were jubilant, saying that Cameron “had come round to our way of thinking”. Paul Bradburn, 35, from Stockport, said Cameron was “coming out against extremism”.

He added: “The timing of his speech is quite weird as it comes on the day of one of the biggest EDL demos we’ve ever seen. If he wants to start sticking up for us, that’s great.”

Matt, 16, a school pupil in Birmingham who was at the march said: “He believes what we believe to some extent.”

Le Pen Jnr has praised Cameron’s speech from across the Channel, too.

It’s not even as if this sort of tactic works. I think Mark Steel put it best in Reasons to be Cheerful (p47) when writing about the fall of the National Front in the 1970s:

One explanation for their decline was that Margaret Thatcher stole their support, with her speech about people being swamped by an alien culture. But why were fascists capable of launching violent attacks in 1978 but not five years later? Were the British Movement supporters who attacked the Lurkers gig thinking, “I would have kicked that bloke’s head in but not that Mrs Thatcher has promised to introduce tough legislation I’ll let him go and grow my hair.” In France, the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen increased its support every time conservative politicians made racist speeches in an attempt to attract its supporters.

The argument that Thatcher ruined the NF is classically British, in that it imagines that no political action has an impact outside of parliament. Are they saying that the millions of leaflets, badges, stickers and placards, the gigs, carnivals and demonstrations had no effect at all? That disillusioned people considering a vote for someone appearing to offer something new weren’t influenced by the constant reminders that these people were brutal, violent and fascist? But one speech from Margaret Thatcher and they all changed their mind? What a depressing thought then, if fascist parties return. Because the only way to stop them will be to persuade the leader of the Conservative Party to make a racist speech. Maybe he should chuck a brick through a curry house window. Then the fascists wouldn’t stand a chance.

So, on to the substance – of sorts – of Cameron’s speech. Like all modern political phrases, it has meaningless neologisms in it. One of them is “state multiculturalism”, which doesn’t really mean anything. Cameron just seems to have stuck the word “state” on the front to make it sound bad. My favourite is “Muscular Liberalism”, which was actually the name of a blog I used to read in my decent-left days.

I’m not really sure what muscular liberalism is. On the one hand:

It believes in certain values and actively promotes them.

Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Democracy. The rule of law. Equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality.

So how do we safeguard freedom of speech, Dave?

We must ban preachers of hate from coming to our countries.

Oh.

I’m staunchly against No Platform, and that’s the topic of another blog post, but for now I should point out that the best way to defeat hateful messages is to defeat them in open debate. Also, it’s not very liberal to stop someone from speaking just because you disagree with their views.

Cameron also said he wanted an end to multiculturalism and a greater national identity, with schools teaching pupils about Britishness. I’m not sure where faith schools fit into his idea that multiculturalism has failed. But the message seems inherently contradictary to say that multiculturalism has failed, whilst at the same time ghettoising pupils by faith. After all, at least half of the new free schools will be run by some sort of faith-based organisation.

Cameron also suggests that it’s lack of integration that’s the problem. However, Medhi Hasan nicely explodes this myth:

Some of the most high-profile terrorists in recent years have been “integrated” Muslims. Take Mohammad Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the London bombings in July 2005. He was a teaching assistant who impressed parents, colleagues and pupils at the school where he worked. As a teenager, he called himself “Sid” and spent most of his time playing football with white kids. Then there are the white, British-born people who convert to Islam and become terrorists, like Nicky Reilly or Oliver Savant – are they unaware of, or unfamiliar with, British values? Would teaching them to speak English help secure our airports or railway stations?

Generation Jihad was a very interesting BBC programme from about a year ago that highlighted why young British Muslims are being radicalised, some to the extent that they blow themselves up. It’s now on Youtube if you want to watch it.

It gave two main reasons for this radicalisation. The first is they were being radicalised over the internet, which is something Cameron touched on in his speech (to be fair to him, though this is not something that teaching imams to speak English or banning “preachers of hate” will stop.

The second is anger at foreign affairs: not just Britain’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also Bosnia and Chechnya. This does seem a key part of the July 7th bombers – it’s painfully obvious when you read the transcript of Mohammad Siddique Khan’s martyrdom video:

And until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight.

We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.

This aspect was, however, completely ignored by Cameron in his speech.

I don’t know what was more depressing about Cameron’s speech: the sentiments it panders to, the muddled thinking it expresses, or its lack of any intellectual and moral courage whatsoever.


An exploration through the turd-strewn swamp that is the “Ground Zero Mosque” Debate

August 26, 2010

There have been two stories floating around the news agenda recently that I have wanted to write about. It’s taken this long because I only got round to watching Richard Dawkins’s documentary on Tuesday. The two incidents are useful to illustrate the boundaries that religion ought, and is entitled, to have in a liberal society. On the one hand, we have the ongoing saga of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”. Balancing that, we have the increasing presence in Britain of Faith Schools, criticised by Dawkins in the documentary. Both these illustrate the need for the state not to interfere in religious matters. To approach the issues correctly, you need to appreciate the fact that Church and State must be separated.

Why is this separation so fundamental? It is because religious persecution stems from the desire to correct error. This, in turn, arises from a desire to save souls. It’s hard for different religious groups to shrug and sigh “Live and let live”, when the consequences of being wrong are potentially disastrous – you could end up in hell. All this makes it harder for a religious group to tolerate another group setting up next door and proclaiming that they are the true path, not the other lot.

If there is an official state religion, this institutionalises one particular religion, or one particular branch of a religion, as the officially-sanctioned “chosen path”. This could give the state a legitimate right to convert, even forcibly, people who do not follow this official faith. Remember Weber’s definition of a state: that it has a “monopoly of the legitimate use of violence in the enforcement of its order”. See, for instance, the horrendous treatment of the Jews and also of heretics in Catholic Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Blurring the boundary between church and state does not inevitably lead to pogroms, but does make it easier to discriminate on religious grounds. It’s no accident that the most repressive type of state is a theocracy.

The state must ensure that there is freedom for people to practise whatever religious faith they wish to. Most of the time this can be done by doing nothing. A great case in point is that the government should not intervene to stop the building of what everyone should not be calling the Ground Zero Mosque. The fact that it’s being called the Ground Zero Mosque at all shows that the media narrative of the right is winning. There are two key reasons why the “Ground Zero Mosque” should not be described as such:

1) It’s not actually a Mosque. It’s an Islamic community centre, and will be open to the public. This centre will also have a basketball court. And yes, it will have a mosque, but before any idiot says, “See - it’s got a MOSQUE inside it”, just consider this. The Guild of Students at Birmingham University has an Islamic prayer room, and a Chaplaincy. Airports and hospitals also have spaces to pray. This does not make them religious buildings. I hope you understand this stonkingly simple argument.

2) It’s not actually at Ground Zero. It’s two blocks away. In a building that used to be a coat factory. Hardly “hallowed ground”.

Henceforth, I will refer to the Ground Zero Mosque as the “Lower Manhattan Community Centre”.

The debate about whether the Lower Manhattan Community Centre should be built seems so stupid, even by the standards of political debate in America. Let me direct you to the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The text is all constitution; the italics are all mine:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Barack Obama and Michael Bloomberg have both made eloquent speeches defending the right of the Lower Manhattan Community Centre to be built. Both emphasised the fact that neither could intervene, even if they wanted to, to stop this centre being built. The courts would immediately overturn such a block as unconstitutional.

The right are, therefore, trying to make this not a matter of religious freedom (which is obviously is) but instead are trying to paint the approval of the Lower Manhattan Community Centre as a victory for Islamism; just one more step towards a global caliphate. See, for instance, these two tweets by Newt Gingrich:

And this one:

The fact is, an establishment of a Manhattan Community Centre; open to all, with spaces to commemorate the victims of September 11th, would actually be a triumph for moderate Islam. It would be a sign that Islam is compatible with “The West”, as Fareed Zakaria argues. Above all, it would send a message that not all Muslims are crazy Jihadists who fantasise about blowing up McDonald’s.

Also, Gingrich is wrong to play down the fact that the outcry is not about freedom of religion, specifically the freedom of Muslims. These protests against the Manhattan Community Centre should be put into the context of other protests against the establishment of Mosques in Wisconsin, Tennessee and California. There is a vocal section in American against the building of other mosques, fuelled by the same sentiments that drive on the English Defence League here: hatred of Muslims and Islam. The Lower Manhattan Community centre must be built. We must  ensure that all religions can practise freely and fairly, without discrimination. We cannot give in to the racists on this point.

Thankfully the controversy over faith schools is conducted in a more sedate fashion. This was reflected by Dawkins in “Faith Schools Menace”, which is an excellent documentary. There was none of his shrill polemic that tends to put many people, including a great deal of atheists, off his work. He talked to almost everyone connected with faith schools; from teachers, pupils and parents to Charles Clarke and the British Humanist Association.

I had no idea, until Dawkins mentioned it in his programme, that one-third of all state schools were actually faith schools. This expansion is thanks to New Labour. It was Charles Clarke as Education Secretary, who wrote against faith schools in a 1978 pamphlet, who authorised the creation of 42 academies run by Christian groups, as well as one hundred schools run by other faith organisations (such as Islam, Judaism or Hinduism). Previously, in return for some special powers over their curriculum, religious groups could fund and run schools. Labour gave these schools millions of pounds, but the schools retained their exclusive controls.

Government money should not be going to schools run by religious institutions. It’s as simple as that. Faith schools ghettoise children at a very early age, when they should be mixing with kids from all backgrounds.

Also, despite the now cliched stories of parents faking a religious conviction and attending church to get their child into a faith school – and Dawkins finds a lot of evidence of that – there’s no real evidence that faith schools are better at teaching than other comprehensives. Steve Gibbons of the LSE, who Dawkins interviewed, compared the results of thousands of pupils. When comparing pupils with the same postcode, when one child had attended a faith school and one had not, Gibbons found that their academic record was very similar, regardless of the school they went to. What really matters, in his view, is the child’s social background and motivation of their parents.

Furthermore, as Johann Hari has written:

On average, [faith schools] get higher grades. But look again. A number of studies, including by the conservative think thank Civitas, have blown a hole in this claim. They have proven that faith schools systematically screen out children who will be harder to teach: children from poor families, and less bright children. Once you look at how much a school improves the pupils it actually admits, the only real measure of a school’s success, it turns out faith schools do less well than other schools – which isn’t surprising given they waste so much time teaching them crazy nonsense like Virgin births and Noah’s Ark. 

Perhaps the worst aspect about faith schools is that their RE curriculum is not monitored at all by the independent OFSTED, but is instead by religious authorities. This fact seems to be abused by certain faith schools: in “Faith Schools Menace” the British Humanist Association  provided examples of a Jewish school that had eight hours of timetabled RE lessons a week, compared to six for science. Some Catholic schools taught their sex education lessons in RE, so that what was being said could not be monitored by government regulators. Combined with what can euphemistically be described as a “lacklustre” teaching of evolution in the faith schools that Dawkins finds, it’s worrying that these schools continue to by funded by the taxpayer.

The argument over faith schools hinges of the issue of parental choice. You need to balance the right of a parent to choose how to educate their child with the right of the child not to be brainwashed. It feels that at the moment the balance is tilted too far in favour of the parent. If the parent wants to instil their child with religious values, there are other ways of going about it – Sunday Schools for instance – without it being funded by the taxpayer.

Britain and America are supposed to be secular, liberal democracies. This means that we can have mosques should be built without an outpouring of bile from the usual suspects, and the state shouldn’t fund faith schools.


Funny Friday (4) We’ve got to stop the Mosque at Ground Zero

August 20, 2010

Usually, I’d use Funny Friday to show sketches or clips from sitcoms that I like, but an important part of humour is unintentional humour. Finding humour in crass and bigoted statements is part of my defence against reality. I think this song is a wonderful example of my point:

On the face of it, this is terrible. It’s a bad song with an awful message: Phil Spector meets Glenn Beck. But it’s awesomely, wonderfully funny. From the first chord onwards, it’s flat-out hilarious. South Park couldn’t make a better parody.

I hope to write something on the Ground Zero Mosque next week, coupled with Richard Dawkins’ bit on Faith Schools. For now, enjoy the song.


How women will circumvent the veil ban

July 25, 2010

Paperback Rioter can exclusively reveal how Muslim women in France are going to get round the ban on the niqab:

The women’s groups I spoke to said it was an acceptable compromise, which cover their faces while also showing respect for “Western values”.

Critics of the niqab both in France and also in Britain are attacking the outfit.

Tory right-winger Philip Hollowhead MP thundered, “For women to wear this is intolerable. You can’t see their faces. For all we know they might be terrorists. It’s a great symbol of repression. We are a tolerant country, but if one of my constituents visited me with one of these outfits on, I would refuse to see them.”

Hollowhead has already tabled a Parliamentary motion to get the outfits banned in public spaces.

Watch this space to see how the French Parliament will react to this extraordinary development.


More on the veil

July 19, 2010

Although it would be best not to get too complacent, it seems there is very little chance of a ban on Muslim veils in Britain being imposed any time soon.

Banning the wearing of the Islamic full veil in public would be “un-British”, the immigration minister has said.

Damian Green told the Sunday Telegraph trying to pass such a law would be at odds with the UK’s “tolerant and mutually respectful society”.

Thank goodness for that. If this Parliament is going to be “the most liberal in a generation”, it can hardly start by banning people’s clothing.

What a pity for Mr. Green that some of his back-bench colleagues are not so enlightened:

A Conservative MP says he will refuse to hold meetings with Muslim women wearing full Islamic dress at his constituency surgery unless they lift their face veil.

Last night Muslim groups condemned Philip Hollobone and accused him of failing in his duty as an MP.

In an interview with The Independent, the Kettering MP said: “I would ask her to remove her veil. If she said: ‘No’, I would take the view that she could see my face, I could not see hers, I am not able to satisfy myself she is who she says she is. I would invite her to communicate with me in a different way, probably in the form of a letter.”

According to the BBC article I linked to above, Mr. Hollobone has also introduced a Private Members Bill which would make it illegal for people to cover their faces on the street.

I’m not sure there’s much more to add to this, apart from to state the obvious: Phillip Hollobone is a complete tool.


The unveiling of intolerance

July 15, 2010

I last wrote about veils over three and a half years ago. When I did so, I said that it would hopefully be a while before the subject returned. And it has. Just over three and a half years, to be precise.

France has followed Belgium, parts of Germany, and potentially Holland and Italy in banning the niqab. [for more on the legal status of Muslim dress in Europe, see here]. The niqab is the face veil, and looks a bit like this:

These bans make me uneasy. I’m not a libertarian, but I’ve got a streak of libertarian running through me. I don’t like banning things. Prohibition of minor, trivial items like alcohol, drugs and clothing always seems clunky, counter-productive and illiberal.

Those proposing a ban usually begin by saying that such clothes go against “Western values”. Often the argument goes, “we aren’t able to wear our own clothes in their country”. The Muslim world doesn’t approve of bikinis, therefore we should ban the niqab. Yet this admits that a key Western value is one of tolerance; and another is liberalism – the freedom to do/say/think what we like as long as it causes no harm to others. How does banning the veil fit into these values?

Usually the response is that veils offend people. Apparently, some can feel uncomfortable talking to someone with a face veil. It’s tempting to tell these sort of people to get over themselves. These women might be wearing veils, but they’re hardly monsters, as people would doubtless understand if they actually did talk to them. After all, we can hardly make causing offence a crime, can we?

There is also the feminist argument that the veil is the ultimate symbol of female oppression. This may be the case in other countries, but in a European context the vast majority of women making veils make the choice freely.

An interesting angle on this that I hadn’t considered before came up in the comments on Medhi Hasan’s excellent blog on all this. “8901stephen” said:

Anything that attacks primitive religious superstition [whether Muslim ,Christian or whatever ]should be applauded .Anyway ,instead of wearing the veil these religious nuts can wear T shirts saying“I`m an uneducated peasant with a head full of medieval superstition and a complete ignorance of modern science “.Should give off pretty much the same message … (sic)

I am an atheist. I have no religious convictions whatsoever, and I believe fervently in the separation of church and state. Which is exactly why the state should not be banning religious symbols. It’s why niqabs should not be banned, nurses can wear crosses, and also why certain religious types can say nasty things about homosexuals. They have the right to free speech, just as we have the right to call them idiots for what they’re saying. [As an aside, Henry Porter has said some excellent things on the same topic.]

Banning the veil in France seems like a grotesque over-reaction. It truly represents the tyranny of the majority, when a law can be passed (admittedly with large amounts of public support) which criminalises merely 2,000 of the 5 million Muslim women in France, just for wearing clothes. Policing this new ban will also be difficult. Property tycoon Rachid Nekkaz has started a fund to pay the fines for any woman who is penalised for wearing the niqab in public (the punishment is £125). He’s already put €200,000 into it and is hoping to have €1 million by September. That goal seems realistic – he received €36,000 of donations on the first day of opening his fund.

I’m not sure how anyone who self-defines as a “liberal” could support such a ban. Hopefully no such ban will ever be brought into place in the UK.


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