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

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.

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

  1. Hannah says:

    Certainly, I have no problems with the logic of your argument, but I am struck by the parallels between some of Dawkins and the BHA’s rhetoric (not necessarily in this case, I haven’t seen the programme so don’t know how it came across, but have seen complaints from friends on Facebook)and that against the LMCC. Dawkins/BHA and others seek to demonise religion generally, by attacking, even their most benign activities in pretty hyperbolic terms (“brainwashing” is a fairly ludicrous way of describing what goes on in most British faith schools, besides making the fundamental error of ignoring that all education seeks to reproduce some sort of values, his imagined position of neutrality is a fallacy. Also I imagine the amount of time spent on Noah’s Ark and virgin birth’s is fairly minimal) in the same way that American conservatives demonise, even moderate, Islam.

    • I think Dawkins is quite reasonable in this documentary. It’s on 4OD (http://www.youtube.com/show?p=2b1FUAvycDc&feature=fvsp) until September 17th, so you can watch it when you come back from holiday if you like 🙂 The questioning of pupils in a faith school and their science teacher is one of the best parts of the documentary. I don’t think Dawkins oversteps the mark at all, I think he’s quite restrained and patient in his questioning. It’s also rather obvious that the teacher doesn’t really know what she’s talking about when discussing evolution.

      There was another documentary on yesterday about Dawkins and his view of religion. I’m going to write about that later this week. I don’t agree with his central premise – that religion is the root of all evil – but I’m certainly going to give it a watch.

      One of the points Dawkins makes in the documentary is that children can be a) rather credulous and b) believe things happen for a reason even if they don’t, which makes them even more “susceptible”, if that’s the word, to religious ways of thinking at an early age. If it’s not actually brainwashing, it’s not a million miles away. I would have no problem with, say, Sunday schools or whatever, but giving taxpayers money to religious groups to run schools and then not submitting their religious lessons to independent scrutiny is just wrong.

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