'Faith bullying'? What’s that exactly?

Editorial by Terry Sanderson

When I first heard the term “faith bullying” I imagined it referred to groups like Christian Voice and their attacks on artists. But no, a report out this week seeks to convince us that “faith bullying” is now the big issue in schools. According to the findings, one in four kids has suffered dreadful bullying over their religious beliefs.

And you know what? I can’t help thinking the whole thing is grossly exaggerated. “Faith bullying” is a new concept invented by a Government-funded charity called BeatBullying (BB). And the trouble is, the cure it proposes is more dangerous than the disease it seeks to tackle.

Now don’t get me wrong, the NSS is against bullying of all kinds. It will support any reasonable initiative that seeks to stop bullying in schools, and BB appears to be doing some excellent work in other areas (although after this report, I’d need to take a closer look). Some of the anecdotes in the report are upsetting, and no-one would want children to have to endure that kind of intimidation at school on any issue – whether it’s because they wear glasses or because they wear a headscarf.

But reading the Beatbullying report on “faith bullying”, one gets the impression that there is a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters so that it is simply not clear what is being claimed.

The report says: “1 in 5 young people report friendships with people largely from the same religious background, arguably indicating a level of segregation and religious intolerance.”

What the report doesn’t say is how many of that number goes to a “faith school” and therefore never has the opportunity to make friends with people of other religions. Indeed, the report is further undermined by the fact that it doesn’t mention faith schools at all. Not once.

Could it be that this omission is a sop to the Government, which is under siege over its policy of expanding the number religious schools? If that is the case, then the report should be dismissed out of hand.

In asking the questions of young people about their experiences of being bullied over religion, the group deliberately did not ask what religion the respondents were. Once again, I feel manipulated. Why didn’t they ask? Surely it is relevant and important to know whether any particular religion is the main focus of or, indeed, the chief perpetrators of this alleged bullying, isn’t it? But again, it is Government policy not to single out Islam, even when relevant, or particularly when relevant. I have a strong suspicion this is why the question was not asked.

The headline figures sound alarming, but you quickly realise that in many instances in this report, race and religion have been conflated. What are obviously racist incidents are claimed to be based on religious hatred.

The report seeks to give the idea that religious belief and practice is widespread among young people and important to them. This goes against every other survey result of recent years. Sixty per cent said they didn’t practise any religion although 48% said they “subscribe to a religious belief”. The fact that 48% never talked about religion is seen by the report’s authors as something to worry about – it couldn’t possibly be because they aren’t interested in it, it must be because they’ve been bullied into silence. Similarly, “questioning faith” is seen as something to be discouraged. Being critical of other people’s religious beliefs was seen automatically as “bullying”.

I think we have to be very careful here. The impression is being created that simply having hostile feelings about religion (even when they are perfectly logical and expressed reasonably) is presented as the equivalent of being racist. The BB “Interfaith programme” (for which this report seems to be one long advertisement) is presented as the complete answer.

I’m not sure what they do on this course, but it claims spectacular results for its pilot programmes. “84% of young people graduating... were being bullied, harassed or abused because of their faith or race are now not being bullied.” “89.6% of participating young people say they have learned to stay safe and avoid trouble.”

The report is so obviously aimed at informing those handing out Government grants – it uses the Government’s favourite jargon word “cohesion” repeatedly, and puts the word “faith” in front of as many nouns as possible.

In fact, when read objectively, this report is entirely unconvincing. It has pumped up a problem that some young people undoubtedly suffer into something much bigger than it actually is. In doing so, it plays a dangerous game of putting ideas into children’s minds that weren’t there before. It risks introducing yet more religious aggravation into schools, and for what?

The Government must read the Beatbullying report very carefully and look at the reality behind the flim-flam. What is really best for cohesion? The answer is, of course, one that they don’t want to hear – an end to divisive single faith schools.

How long before we see the announcement that Beatbullying has received hundreds of thousands of pounds to roll out its “Interfaith programme” to every school in the country – even to the ones that didn’t even know they had a problem and have never heard of “faith bullying”?

21 November 2008