Monthly Archives: November 2011

UK: Church and humanists clash over Bishops in parliament

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association.

*Watch the evidence session http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=9552*

The conflicting views of the Church of England and the British Humanist Association (BHA) were clear at today’s evidence session on Bishops sitting in the House of Lords, the ‘Lords Spiritual’. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and Andrew Copson, BHA Chief Executive, were both invited to give evidence to the parliamentary Joint Committee looking at the draft House of Lords Reform Bill on Monday 28 November. The BHA had, last month, submitted detailed written evidence to the Committee opposing and criticising the government’s proposals on the Bishops.

In his written submission to the Joint Committee, Dr Williams described why he supports having Church of England Bishops in the House of Lords as of right and why the appointments process should also have regard to increasing the presence of leaders of other denominations and faiths. The UK is the only democracy in the world to have reserved seats for clerics in its parliament, and the BHA has been campaigning for many years to have abolished this outdated, undemocratic, unequal and unfair tradition which, if retained, would seriously undermine the validity of any reform of the House of Lords.

Mr Copson set out why there are no good arguments for keeping reserved seats for the Church of England in parliament. Throughout the evidence session, Mr Copson emphasised that there was no constitutional reason to have automatic places for the Bishops, and anyone who argued for their retention was simply arguing to extend a religious privilege which has no place in a modern, liberal and diverse democracy.

He told the Committee that the argument of tradition, that we should have Bishops because we have had them for a long time and it’s best to leave things as they are, was irrelevant and insubstantial.

Mr Copson emphasised that many would disagree with the idea that the Bishops ‘speak’ for those of all faiths and that there are many too, including Anglicans, who would disagree that they can provide a unique ethical perspective in the chamber. He described how there was no case to be made for reserving seats for Bishops in the House of Lords on the basis that those men are uniquely well placed to provide vital expertise on matters of public policy, because they are not. This is the case not least because their views on the ethics of assisted dying for the terminally ill or equal rights for gay people or state-funded religious schools were unrepresentative and often lay far outside the mainstream.

Mr Copson spoke about how, increasingly, advocates of Bishops have also built their case on the position of the Church of England as our largest NGO – a civil society group with a branch in every community. However, he pointed out that it were the case that we should treat the Church as an NGO (doubtful given its entanglement with the state), why then should we consider it unique compared with trade unions or the National Trust or the Women’s Institute?

Mr Copson detailed for the Committee how there were clear objections to having automatic places for the Church of England Bishops on grounds of equality and fairness. If parliament is supposed to represent the people, Mr Copson questioned, why should only one denomination of only one religion have a guaranteed twelve seats when other denominations of that religion, other religions and other non-religious philosophies and approaches to life have no such representation? It would only be fair to represent all religions and philosophies. Mr Copson said this could immediately be seen to be impossible, not least because we would need an unfeasibly large second chamber to represent all shades of religious and non-religious opinion. Having reserved seats for Bishops of any number represents a privilege that is insupportable in today’s diverse and increasingly non-religious society.

Central London Humanist Group | 28th November 2011

Notes

For further comment or information, contact BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson on 07534 258596, or BHA Head of Public Affairs Naomi Phillips on 07540 257101.

Further details.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Northern Ireland: end segregated schooling, says first minister

Northern Ireland’s first minister tells Channel 4 News it is time to end the “benign apartheid” separating Catholics and Protestant schoolchildren, which he says has contributed to a divided society.

The vast majority of schools in Northern Ireland fall into either the Catholic or mainly Protestant state sector. But the first and deputy first ministers of Northern Ireland want that to change.

Peter Robinson, DUP leader and Northern Ireland first minister, told Channel 4 News that separating children from an early age has led to a “benign apartheid”.

“You can’t send young people from different communities to different schools and then wonder why, in later life, we have these problems,” he said.

“We’ve come through a time of deep division in Northern Ireland. We are now in a position of having come through it, and we can see that a contributing factor was an education system where young people were separated.”

‘Them and us’

For decades, the DUP’s rallying cry was “Ulster says no”, led by former leader the Revd Ian Paisley. But in the new, post-“Chuckle Brothers” era of Northern Ireland politics, Mr Robinson said that this policy “won’t stretch the party at all”.

In his speech to the DUP party conference at the weekend, the first minister said that a better society could only be achieved by getting rid of a “them and us” attitude – and he put schools in the spotlight.

Both the first minister and deputy first minister, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness, have pledged to establish a ministerial working group to advance shared education, reporting to the education minister.

Next on the agenda is ensuring that all children have access to some kind of shared education by increasing the number of schools that share facilities.

“We need to do it in a way that is sensitive to the institution of the Catholic church,” Mr Robinson told Channel 4 News. “Like anything else, it will be a step by step process. It has to be done gradually.”

Martin McGuinness also spoke about the importance of pursuing shared education during the annual dinner of the NI Chamber of Commerce last week: “Don’t let anyone underestimate the challenge that we face in progressing shared education. There are many within our society, who may be still resistant to the reality of shared education,” he said.

Integration “can’t be forced”

Mixed or “integrated” education has been available in Northern Ireland for 30 years. Although 90 per cent of adults polled say they support integrated education in principle, only 7 per cent of pupils attend mixed schools.

Instead, Stormont is keen on “shared” education, where pupils from different schools come together for one subject or for extra-curricular activities.

The sharing education model, pioneered by Tony Gallagher, pro-vice chancellor at Queen’s University Belfast, has been gaining ground over recent years and has now involved over 10,000 pupils.

Professor Gallagher welcomed the first minister’s comments, as well as Martin McGuiness’ continued support for the programme. But toldChannel 4 News that integration can’t be forced.

“It’s only going occur through consensus and choice. I don’t think it’s about extending the number of integrated schools – maybe somewhere down the line, but I don’t think there’s enough support on the ground for that,” said Mr Gallagher.

Instead, the politicians and the academics are backing stronger relationships between schools working in the same area, allowing existing structures to accommodate a fundamental change in the Northern Ireland education system.

“There’s short term things that can be done to improve relationships and begin to break down these institutional barriers,” said Mr Gallagher.

Channel 4 News | Monday 28 November 2011

You can’t send young people from different communities to different schools and then wonder why in later life, we have these problems.

Peter Robinson,

NI first minister

It’s only going occur through consensus and choice. I don’t think it’s about extending the number of integrated schools – maybe somewhere down the line.

Tony Gallagher,

Queens University

pro-vice channcellor

Spain gay rights and abortion activists fear backlash

Spain's gay couples won the right to marry under the Socialists

The centre-right Popular Party (PP) won Spain’s general election promising to lead the country out of economic crisis and restore investor confidence in its solvency.

Uncertainty over how precisely it plans to do that continues to rattle the financial markets.

But the mystery surrounding PP policy in other areas is proving equally unsettling for some Spaniards.

Gay-rights groups are concerned about the fate of the same-sex marriage law. Feminists worry a new conservative government will reverse the new abortion law.

Both were Socialist Party initiatives, and the PP lodged immediate appeals against both in the Constitutional Court.

‘Sword of Damocles’

So the mayor of one small town in Andalusia says there has been a surge of interest in his “express-marriage” service for same-sex couples anxious to tie the knot as soon as possible.

“They’re afraid of what the PP will do,” Jose Antonio Rodriguez told the BBC from Jun.

“Before the election debate on TV, about 60 couples had contacted me. Now I reply to about 100 enquires a day.”

In that TV debate, the Socialist Party candidate called on his opponent to remove “the sword of Damocles hanging over couples’ heads” by withdrawing the Pop’s appeal against the gay marriage law.

Mariano Rajoy responded that it is “just a question of name” – he prefers the term “civil union” – and concluded that he would “wait for the decision of the court”.

But for those affected, the name is everything.

“It [marriage] means that all families are recognised as equal,” argues Antonio Poveda, president of Spain’s Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals and Bisexuals (FELGTB).

That equality – including the right for gay couples to adopt – was hard-won after decades of discrimination under General Franco’s dictatorship.

“There was a poll just after the transition to democracy and 85% of people thought homosexuality was an illness or should be punished. We have moved from there to having equal rights,” Mr Poveda says.

Rajoy's PP stressed the 'right to life' during the campaign

He argues that such rights should be cherished.

“It was a great day for democracy here when the same-sex marriage law was passed. For the first time, Catholic Spain became a reference point for social rights,” says Antonio Poveda.

“The economic crisis will pass, but the legacy this government will leave are those advances in equal rights.”

Despite its deep Catholic roots, Spain was the third country ever to legalise gay marriage.

About 20,000 couples have wed since the civil code was changed in 2005. A 2011 survey showed that 77% support for the reform among 15- to 29-year-olds.

Abortion fears

But it is not the Socialists’ only major reform with an uncertain future.

At the PP victory rally on Sunday, a group of young women unfurled a long banner demanding changes to the legislation on abortion. The party counts many staunch Catholics among its supporters.

A new law in 2010 allowed abortion on demand up to 14 weeks into a pregnancy. The government framed the reform in terms of the woman’s right to choose.

The PP argued then for the rights of the unborn child, and it still does now.

Its electoral programme talks of “protecting and supporting” maternity, and says it plans to alter the abortion law “to reinforce the protection of the right to life”.

The party also opposes a new clause allowing girls of 16 or 17 to end a pregnancy without their parents’ knowledge.

“When Rajoy says he wants to increase the right to life, we understand that he wants to return to the 1985 law which only allowed abortion in exceptional cases,” says Ignacio Arsuaga of the anti-abortion campaign group Hazteoir.

Then, terminations were permitted in cases of rape, foetal deformity or risk to the mother’s physical or mental health.

In practice, it was relatively easy to get an abortion on mental health grounds, with minimal explanation required.

Secret agenda?

Supporters of the new law argue it is too soon to see its real impact. But they are sure there has been no surge in terminations.

“The number of abortions has fallen, because the crisis means there are fewer immigrant women here and because of the morning-after pill,” argues feminist Empar Pineda. She says immigrant women accounted for 54% of abortions in Madrid.

“I think the government would find it difficult to change the law now,” she argues. “Spanish society has already taken it on board and they’d come under heavy criticism.”

In the run-up to the vote, the Socialist Party campaigned with scare tactics. It warned of a secret PP agenda – not only to bring spending cuts – but to reverse its progressive reforms.

One advert made by supporters shows a female couple’s marriage certificate being torn up; another has voters shouting at the PP for clarity on its plans.

In the current climate, the party will be forced to make economic recovery its priority. Less urgent – highly divisive – issues will likely be left hanging.

In the meantime, the mayor of Jun has his work cut out, marrying gay couples unwilling to take any chances.

“People have relaxed a bit, because the PP won’t actually take over government until the end of December. But I’m still getting a huge number of enquiries.”

BBC News | Sarah Rainsford | 26 November 2011

Is Turkey Using the Courts to Silence Critics?

Nine months after they were first detained, two well-known and internationally acclaimed Turkish investigative journalists finally appeared before a judge on Tuesday in a trial that has become a rallying point for critics of Turkey’s curbs on freedom of expression. Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener are among 13 defendants, including editors of a hard-line secularist website, accused of seeking to overthrow Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-leaning government — charges that international observers say have little evidence to support them.

“The prosecutors had promised to produce hard evidence to justify [the journalists’] pretrial detention. Where is it?” said Johann Bihr, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Europe desk, outside the Istanbul courthouse. “Contrary to what was always claimed, the case against them is based on their work as journalists.” (Read TIME International’s cover story “Erdogan’s Moment.”)

Held up as an example of secular democracy for the Middle East, Erdogan’s government is increasingly under fire for its treatment of journalists, pro-Kurdish advocates and opposition activists. There are more than 1,000 cases before the European Court of Human Rights concerning the Turkish government’s alleged quashing of freedom of expression, according to officials. “This situation has a chilling effect on journalism and journalists in Turkey,” said Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary-general of the Council of Europe.

Members of the European Parliament, members of journalists’ groups and rights advocates were among the dozens gathered on Tuesday outside Istanbul’s so-called Palace of Justice — a pale pink edifice of granite and glass that squats over the center of the city. Part mall, part hospital in appearance and with 326 courtrooms, it opened in August as — it is said — Europe’s largest courthouse. The irony was not lost on those gathered on Tuesday. “They’ll need all those hearing rooms if they keep on detaining people,” quipped one journalist. (See pictures of homelessness in Istanbul.)

Turkey aspires to become an E.U. member, yet its penal code is in urgent need of reform. There are currently 68 journalists in jail — more than in China, according to the International Press Institute. They are frequently detained under vague antiterrorism legislation and then wait for months before seeing a judge. “We clearly have a situation which needs to be solved to help Turkey move forward,” said Jagland. In addition to Sener and Sik, the defendants in this most recent case include editors of Oda TV, a hard-line secularist Internet news portal critical of Erdogan.

I have known Sik for many years — we worked together at Reuters. A passionate leftist who has spent his career working for human rights — and being harassed for that work — he is being accused of belonging to, of all things, a far-right nationalist network called Ergenekon that sought to stage a military coup and overthrow the government. (Read “Why Syria and Turkey Are Suddenly Far Apart on Arab Spring Protests.”)

Sik was arrested in March, shortly before he was due to publish a book called The Imam’s Army, an account of the allegedly increasing influence wielded by the Pennsylvania-based imam Fethullah Gulen among Turkey’s security forces. Gulen is an elderly Muslim preacher who has millions of followers in Turkey — depending on whom you talk to, he is seen either as a moderate voice for tolerance or a secretive and sinister figure seeking to Islamicize the country. Police seized and banned The Imam’s Army, but it was circulated on the Internet, and a group of intellectuals and journalists recently reissued it under a collective moniker as an act of civil disobedience.

Hundreds of people, including several former generals, are currently behind bars pending trial in Ergenekon-related proceedings. The glacial pace of Turkey’s judicial process means that it can take months before a hearing. On Tuesday, the judge rejected a request that the 13 defendants be released, and then adjourned until mid-December. Any requests made by lawyers could result in similar delays, possibly dragging the trial out for months. (Watch TIME’s video “Turkey’s Unconventional Muslim Minority.”)

Separately, hundreds of people — mostly pro-Kurdish activists — have been jailed in recent months on charges of belonging to the KCK, allegedly an offshoot of the separatist Kurdish PKK. In October, prominent publisher and free-speech activist Ragip Zarakolu and a well-known Istanbul-based political-science professor were among those arrested, prompting criticism from Europe and the U.S. Erdogan has thus far shrugged off criticism of the detentions — but as his aspirations to international leadership grow, he may find such practices less and less tenable.

See photos of the Kurdish rebels.

Should Recep Tayyip Erdogan be TIME’s Person of the Year 2011? Cast your vote here.

Time World | Pelin Turgut | 24 November 2011

Spain: Bishops rub their hands with glee at election of right-wing Government

Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s new Prime Minister

The president of the Spanish bishops’ conference sees “a new political era in Spain,” with the election that brought Mariano Rajoy to power as the nation’s prime minister.

Speaking at a plenary meeting of the episcopal conference, which took place in the wake of the elections, Cardinal Antonio María Rouco Varela of Madrid acknowledged that the new government would be preoccupied with the country’s economic crisis. However, the cardinal said, it is important to “look at the deep-rooted causes” of that crisis.

Antonio Cardinal Rouco Varela, Archbishop of Madrid

Echoing the analysis that Pope Benedict XVI offered in his encyclicalDeus Caritas Est, Cardinal Rouco Varela said that the economic collapse can be linked to a loss of moral vision. The main task for the Church is to restore moral principles, he said. Today, the cardinal said, the people of Spain—and especially the young people—are suffering the damaging effects of “moral relativism, spiritual and religious skepticism, and because of a selfish and individualist conception of man and life.”

The landslide victory for Rajoy and his Parti Populaire opens new possibilities for the Spanish hierarchy, which had clashed repeatedly with the leadership of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. While the ousted Socialist government had pushed through a more liberal abortion law and legal recognition of same-sex marriage, Rajoy opposed both measures.

Catholic World News | 23rd November 2011

Sorry, Mr Gul, but Turkey won’t be joining the EU any time soon

It’s not going to happen. That’s what everyone says who knows anything about the subject that we’re going to be hearing quite a bit about this week: Turkey’s membership of the EU.  I’ve heard it from someone who works for William Hague, from a political editor, from a diplomat. Which makes this week’s state visit by the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, on his three-day state visit to Britain seem pretty well beside the point.

The British government is right behind Turkey’s bid for EU membership, no country more so. David Cameron and William Hague have if anything been even more effusive in their support than Tony Blair and Jack Straw before them — the duo who managed to ensure that Turkey became officially a candidate nation for EU membership. But get the back office boys talking and this is what they’ll tell you: France will veto it. The French have mooted the idea of a referendum on Turkey joining, which is tantamount to saying they’ll say no, by a huge margin — and Germany won’t wear it. At least not while Angela Merkel’s alive. (During a visit to Croatia recently, she hinted strongly that after its accession, that would be the end of EU expansion for the time being.) So why is the British government so much in favour? And why shouldn’t it be?

To answer the first one first, favouring Turkey’s membership of the EU has an awful lot to recommend it for a government which has engaged in conflict in Islamic countries. It’s a cheap way of showing you’re pro-Islamic or, rather, pro-moderate Islam, even if you backed the US in Afghanistan. The gist of that argument, as expressed by the Prime Minister repeatedly, is that Turkey is a moderate Islamic country and we want to encourage moderate Islam as opposed to the other sort. So, you get brownie points for being positive about Muslims in Europe, which obviously plays well with your own constituency here. And that argument holds despite disturbing evidence that Turkey’s moderation in terms of Islam isn’t by any means a given, including under Mr Gul’s Islamist AKP, Justice and Development party. A poll conducted this summer by Istanbul’s Bahçe?ehir university suggested that 48 per cent of Turks wouldn’t want a Christian as a neighbour; more than half wouldn’t want Jews.

Added to which, there is no doubt that Turkey is strategically important; it’s a player in the Syrian conflict and has exercised real influence there recently. Its economy is growing, though before we get too excited about the growth rate of 6.6 per cent, we would do well to remember that Ireland’s was seven per cent during the boom years — which were followed by the crash.

But the argument against Turkish membership isn’t that it’s Islamic, it’s that it’s not European. Three per cent of its land mass is on the European side of the Bosphorus, which means that 97 per cent of it is geographically in Asia. That’s an awful lot of Asia getting into Europe on the back of Turkey’s European tail. And unless you’re someone like Denis MacShane, the former Europe minister, who thinks geography is neither here nor there when it comes to EU membership, that’s the decisive consideration. If you’re keen on including countries with large or majority Muslim populations in the EU, by the way, there are some bona fide states which are squarely in Europe and have a large percentage of Muslims, chiefly Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia. Get them into Europe if you like. I did raise this issue when a Turkish government delegation was at Chatham House; one woman responded that these things were fluid and Turkey could qualify by dint of its former imperial reach. By that logic, Britain should be a member of the Arab League.

The other argument, to my mind decisive, is Turkey’s size. Just now its population is 76 million, and it could reach 97 million, according to the UN, by 2050. Just let those numbers sink in. EU membership means the citizens of member states have the right to work and live anywhere within the EU. In other words, 76 million people could gravitate anywhere they liked within the EU, including Britain, within seven years of joining. There is a Turkish community of about half a million people here, including Turkish Cypriots; naturally people gravitate towards countries where they can live with others from the same culture. The effect on Germany would be catastrophic, obviously, which doesn’t seem to worry the Brits a jot, but the influx of an unknown number of Turks here would have a profoundly destabilising effect. There’s already a petition before parliament, which got 120,000 signatures, arguing that the population shouldn’t be allowed to reach 70 million as a consequence of immigration: well you can kiss goodbye to that aspiration if you include in the EU a country potentially larger than Germany.

Of course Turkey’s a strategically and economically important country. It just doesn’t belong in the EU, which doesn’t preclude giving it something like a first-cousin status within the European Economic Area in terms of trade. But the arguments against aren’t enough to dent the extraordinary coalition behind its accession: everyone from the Telegraph to the Tablet, from Boris Johnson to Harriet Harman. What they’ve all got in common as I say, is a commitment to looking good in terms of outreach to Islam — with the honourable exception of Mr Johnson who may be influenced by his Turkish forebears.

But so far as the government is concerned, they’ve got their fingers crossed behind their backs even while they’re talking loudest about really wanting Turkey in, not out. They know it’s safe to talk, because so long as there’s a chance the issue will be put to the French people, it hasn’t a prayer. Which makes, I’d say, their position that much worse: not just wrong but hypocritical.

The Spectator | Melanie McDonagh  | 21st November 2011

Turkey is an example to the Muslim world, Mr Gul claims

Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, is to visit Mr Cameron in Downing Street Photo: PAUL GROVER

The arrival in Britain of Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, for a three-day state visit provides a welcome opportunity to strengthen our ties with a country that acts as a bridge between the West and the Middle East. At a time when so many Arab states are experiencing severe political unrest, Turkey’s potential to act as a force for stability in the region should not be underestimated.

While it has experienced political turbulence of its own in the past – the country’s military staging a coup d’etat in 1980 – in recent years Turkey has made giant strides towards becoming a modern democratic state. Its ruling Justice and Development Party has sought to strike the right balance between the competing claims of its proud Islamic heritage and the desire of its youthful, secular-minded population to achieve social and economic progress. There has also been a dramatic turnaround in Turkey’s economic fortunes, with the country experiencing a growth rate of nearly 7 per cent so far this year, far higher than any of its neighbours in Europe. Some analysts predict it will be one of the world’s top 10 economies by 2050. The success of this moderate Islamic state in achieving rapid economic growth, and in proving the compatibility of Islam with democracy, should certainly serve as a model for pro-democracy campaigners elsewhere in the Muslim world.

These achievements undoubtedly strengthen the case for Turkey’s membership of the European Union, an issue which will top Mr Gul’s agenda when he visits Downing Street for talks with David Cameron today. Although Mr Gul first submitted Turkey’s EU membership application in 2005, it has stalled in the face of strong opposition from France and Germany, which argue that admitting such a large country of 79 million people would upset the Union’s balance.

Even though there is unlikely to be further serious discussion of accession until the crisis in the eurozone has been resolved, it is very much in the West’s interests to reassure Turkey that it remains a highly valued ally. It was not so long ago that, frustrated by Western indifference, the Turks appeared to be strengthening their ties with the virulently anti-Western regimes in power in neighbouring Iran and Syria.

But the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown against anti-government protests in Syria has brought that initiative to an abrupt halt, and has forced Ankara to undertake a serious review of its regional alliances. On that front, Mr Cameron should push Mr Gul to repair his country’s strained relations with Israel, a democratic nation with whom it shares many mutual interests.

The Telegraph | 21 Nov 2011

UK, London: Children’s rights – seminar

22 November 2011, Seminar on Sharia and the Children Act

Seminar on Sharia Law and the Children Act
22 November 2011
18.30-20.30 hours
Brockway Room, Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL

One Law for All will host a seminar to explore the terms of the Children Act and whether these are compatible with the tenets and practice of sharia law. It will look at the protections provided to children by the provisions of the Children Act and ask if children in Britain, by virtue of their parents’ religion or culture, are at risk of being denied these protections. In addition, One Law for All will provide information on Catholic Canon Law and how this has been used to facilitate the continued abuse of children in Catholic institutions. Speakers include: Sue Cox, Survivors Voice Europe; Anne Marie Hutchinson, Dawson Cornwell Solicitors; Maryam Namazie, One Law for All; Diana Nammi, Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation; and Yasmin Rehman, Chair of the Board of Trustees of Domestic Violence Intervention Project. The seminar will be chaired by Anne Marie Waters, One Law for All.

Entry fee: £8 Statutory organisations; £5 individuals; £2.50 student/unwaged

Please complete the below booking form in block letters and post back or email to the address below along with payment before conference. If you are sending a cheque after 10 November, please also email the form to us so that we can add you to the registration list. Please note that registration can also be done on the day from 18.00 hours but pre-registration is preferable.

For a booking form, click here.

One Law for All | 21 November 2011

 

 

No, Mr Blair – for all our sakes, pulpits and parliament must remain separate

Is Tony Blair — the man who converted to Catholicism when he left the office of Prime Minister and went on to establish the Tony Blair Faith Foundation — a secularist?

I ask after Mr Blair gave a speech in Milan in which he listed ten do’s and don’ts for democracies to protect religious freedom. Here is the list:

1. DO have democracy-friendly religion and religion-friendly democracies.

2. DON’T think you understand democracy if you think it’s only about elections: it’s about a culture and mindset which includes freedom of thought, freedom of expression, political and religious pluralism, and human rights.

3. DO maintain equality of treatment for different religions within the law as a core element of the secular state.

4. DON’T duck difficult conflicts involving religious and secular ideas: discuss them openly.

5. DON’T rush to legislation to solve religious conflict; instead seek first to resolve it by discussion and accommodations.

6. DON’T allow religious schools to opt out of the same national standards and core curriculum that you expect of everyone else.

7. DO listen to religious voices on social, political and economic issues, and allow people to justify their views on explicitly religious grounds if they want.

8. DO insist on religious leaders making their case by reasoned argument not by bald assertion or authoritarian claims. Insist on that for atheists and secular leaders too.

9. DO NOT allow religious voices to have dominance in the public sphere if they cannot achieve majority support through democratic means.

10. DO ensure, whether the overwhelming democratic choice is either an atheist state or one dominant religion, that the voices of religious minorities and those who have no faith are protected.

Remember that none of us are qualified to state with certainty the will of God – so humility, openness to others, and interfaith dialogue are all essential for a healthy society.

We recognise that Mr Blair had an international audience in mind when he made his list. Some of this stuff would be particularly apposite to the theocratic nations of the Middle East, but much of it applies in Europe, too.

During his premiership he encouraged religious participation in politics and unleashed, in some ways, the noisy, arrogant and demanding religious voices that we have to endure today in the political arena. We now know why his government also opened the way to the explosion in numbers of religious schools.

But maybe he has learned something from experience. And maybe he hasn’t. His speech in Italy centred on the idea that religions should meet and talk and share so as to understand each other better. Maybe then they would cease struggling — sometimes violently — for power over each other. Then in Canada this week, he said: “Not only are there tensions between different faiths, but there is also an ‘aggressive secularism’ that can prevent people from seeing the positive aspects of religion. We need to advocate faith in a way that is not threatening to others.”

He acknowledges that those who are persecuted because of their religion are generally persecuted by other people who are religious – not by secularists, aggressive or otherwise. But he feels this could be curbed if all believers got together and were educated about the other’s religion. He wants lots of religious education in schools, he wants much more “inter-faith” talking. Naturally he doesn’t agree that encouraging people to abandon religion entirely is the way forward.

He imagines that one day —when we all properly understand each other — religion would stop its murderous rampage. He says that if religion was seen as rational — at least to the extent that it could recognise that destructive warfare was not the way to settle differences — then those who are repulsed and unconvinced by “faith” might come to embrace it.

This is where I have to part company with the Blair philosophy.

Each religion is convinced of its own absolute truth. Islam and Christianity feel that it is their godly duty to bring everyone (but everyone) into their fold, by force if necessary. They have come to regard each other — and every other religion — as heretical. Most of the time they try to keep this inconvenience under wraps, but it is increasingly finding its way into politics.

You don’t have to look very far to see that there are people who will never be convincedthat their religion is anything other than the divine truth that must dominate the world – even the Pope doesn’t think that other Christian denominations are authentic.

The declaration Dominus Iesus, written by the present Pope when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, dismisses all other Christian denominations as being wrong and illegitimate.

That said, there are people of good will from different religious traditions who have always longed for the day when all “persons of faith” can rub along together under the umbrella of democracy. These are the sensible people who don’t want to live in a state of constant war. Such good people would do that anyway without needing the exploding “interfaith” industry to prompt or motivate them.

The problem comes not from people of good will but from those who will never acknowledge that another faith could be equal to theirs and will violently make the point with bombs and guns. We see this in action in the Middle Easton a daily basis. And as the Arab Spring morphs into Arab Winter, the totalitarians of Islam will seek to eliminate Christians from their nations.

Big words about interfaith harmony are a delusion. Though I accept his sincerity and share his desire to end religious conflict, Mr Blair’s Faith Foundation is doomed to failure and his philosophy is misguided and, ultimately, dangerous. See a recent example, Also here: and here.

Blair’s secularism is of a different stripe to the version that the NSS would like to see.

We accept that religious people as individuals have the right to participate in democracy — just as everyone else has — but we do not accept that religious organisations have any intrinsic right to a special hearing. Let them speak, by all means, but let them do it from their pulpits, not from the benches of our parliament.

If they want to speak in the public square, then let them do it from the same platform that everyone else uses, without special amplification and with no exemption from criticism.

We accept, as Mr Blair points out, that religion in some parts of the world has a disproportionate and destructive influence. Religion with temporal power is always bad news. But organised religion has always sought privilege and, when it can manage it, control. That isn’t going to change.

The only real way to tame it is to ensure that the business of the state is conducted exclusively by elected representatives. Let priests, bishops and imams be satisfied with that.

National Secular Society | Terry Sanderson | 18 November 2011

Sweden: Please help Pakistani atheist!

Khalid Saeed is a Pakistani and he is also an atheist.  He fled from Pakistan in 2009 to Sweden, where his brother has lived for many years.  His request for asylum has just been rejected by the Swedish authorities.

The European Humanist Federation (EHF), together with the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has joined Humanisterna, our Swedish member organisation, in asking the Swedish authorities to reverse their decision.  Our letter (in Swedish) is here; an English version is here.

There is a website with up-to-date news about his case here with Khalid’s own introduction:

My name is Khalid. I am 36 years old. I have a family: Asia, my wife, and three kids, Iman (10), Momin (6) and Rafay (4). We have left Islam!

We are from Pakistan. In Islamabad we had our own business. I was a car dealer. We did OK for several years. Then, in February 2009 things got out of control. We became outlaws!

In June 2009 we luckily escaped to Sweden. We thought we were safe from our pursuers. Unfortunately we were wrong. Asylum, obviously is nothing for haunted non-muslims in Sweden.

Please take action to help Khalid!

  • Please sign the petition here.
  • Please write to the Swedish Migration Board at this address:

Migrationsverket
Asylprövningsenheten
428 80 Kållered
Sweden

and please cut and paste into your letter their reference:

“Angående ärende nr 10-345219, 11-187362, 11-187373, 11-187393 samt 11-187401, Khalid Saeed m.fl, angående uppehållstillstånd”

You can copy your letters by email to migrationsverket@migrationsverket.se but the Migration Board tend to disregard email communications so do not fail to write by ordinary post.

Use the material in our letter and on his website – but a short letter is all that is needed!

European Humanist Federation | 19 November 2011

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