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Newsline 1 August 2014

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There should be no embarrassment over challenging Muslim treatment of women, says Justice Minister

There should be no embarrassment over challenging Muslim treatment of women, says Justice Minister

News | Thu, 31 Jul 2014

Justice Minister Simon Hughes has said Britain should not be "culturally embarrassed" about challenging Muslims over the wearing of the veil or the segregation of women.

Kerry County Council crucifix a challenge to religious diversity

Kerry County Council crucifix a challenge to religious diversity

Opinion | Tue, 29 Jul 2014

Following the erection of a crucifix in the newly renovated Kerry County Council chambers, Dr Ronan McCrea argues that the values of a particular faith should not be given predominance in State institutions.

The decision to erect a crucifix in Kerry County Council's chamber recently should worry all concerned about the future of Irish public life.

Supporters of councillor John-Joe Culloty's move argued that they were "tired of apologising" for their religion and passed a motion that called for the erection of the crucifix "in light of our Christian faith and the strong Christian values contained within our Constitution".

Has serious harm has been done? After all, no objections have yet been received from council employees and some suggest local Muslims are actually in favour.

No one has the right to go about their business shielded from any symbol with which they may disagree, and the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Lautsi v Italy in 2011 that the presence of a crucifix in a state school does not violate the European Convention, provided its overall effect is not oppressive.

However, this decision raises broader issues about the relationship between religion and public life. The problem of enabling diverse religious believers to share a single political system is centuries old. In Europe, the destruction caused by the wars of religion following the reformation brought about what American historian Mark Lilla called "the great separation" involving recognition of political matters as distinct from religious questions, which allowed states to avoid highly-destructive religious contests for political power.

That requires a degree of self-discipline – individuals must differentiate between what their faith and the law may require. In western liberal democracies we are well accustomed to this habit and can treat it as inevitable and universal. It is anything but.

In large parts of the world, notably but not exclusively in many Muslim-majority societies, religion exercises a dominant influence and obedience to religious commands in matters such as sex, free speech or apostasy is enforced by law.

Subservient State

For decades following independence the Irish State had an unhealthily subservient relationship to the predominant religion. A high degree of religious homogeneity meant the arrangement did not produce political instability though it had large costs in terms of individual rights.

Immigration and the rapid rise in the number of those of no religion has meant that in the future our institutions will have to obtain the allegiance of a religiously diverse population. They cannot be seen, symbolically or substantively, to be the preserve of one faith.

The republican tradition of Wolfe Tone means that when we enter the political arena we are not Catholic, Protestant or dissenter (or Jew, Muslim or Hindu) but citizens exercising collective democratic self-government for a population that will always be divided on religious matters.

Recognising that life in such a society means we must all refrain from seeking to use politics and law to promote our particular faith will be difficult for some – and particularly for those with origins in parts of the world where religion dominates political life.

It would be entirely unreasonable to ask Muslim citizens to place religious teachings advocating criminalisation of alcohol, apostasy or homosexuality to one side when they participate in public life when Christian fellow citizens refuse to separate their religious claims from their political activities.

Culture and history

This does not mean losing contact with our culture or history. Christianity's long influence means that, inevitably, some communal arrangements will bear its marks.

The status of Christmas and Saint Patrick's Day as national holidays is a case in point, an inevitable consequence of the need to have holidays and festivals that have historical resonance.

Indeed, in the Lautsi case the ECHR upheld the display of the cross in Italian schools because the decision was merely perpetuating a pre-existing cultural tradition. Kerry County Council's decision is different. It decided to erect for the first time in its history a religious symbol in its chamber to ensure that the values of a particular faith would have predominance in an institution meant to make rules for all the people of Kerry.

This has nothing to do with tradition or identity, but with the promotion of a particular faith by a State institution.

State bodies should not promote Catholicism, Islam or atheism, but be committed to co-existence and equal respect for those of all faiths and none.

Culloty's move undermines this. It is utterly inconsistent with the republican ethos his party claims to espouse and a threat to the development of a stable political order that can command the loyalty of all in diversifying Ireland.

Dr Ronan McCrea is an an Irish barrister and lectures in constitutional and European law at University College London. This article was originally published in the Irish Times and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author.

Talking to God: the corporate religious challenge to a pluralist, progressive Europe

Talking to God: the corporate religious challenge to a pluralist, progressive Europe

Opinion | Fri, 01 Aug 2014

EU and UN 'dialogue' with civil society gives disproportionate weight to conservative religious voices at the expense of moderate and secular opinion, argues Kenneth Houston.

Corporate religion needs to hear the word 'no' more often from our politicians.

An erroneous and damaging assumption has taken root within late modern democracy. It is the notion that close and regular consultation with religious associations and interests invariably contributes to the benefit of society as a whole. Increasingly, however, where corporate religion has exerted an influence over policy decisions, it has tended to result in controversy at best and, at worst, a regressive policy decision.

In 2006 an article in the UK Lancet highlighted stalled progress in achieving greater empowerment for women, particularly those identified as the Millennium Development Goals. The authors, outlining the impact on women's health, pointed to the resurgence of conservative religious forces as the primary reason behind this flagging progress.

In November 2013, the UN General Assembly Third Committee passed an anaemic resolution on violence against women, which was but a shadow of its original self. Religious forces had mobilised to push back against full equality for women. The Vatican, majority Muslim countries and African nations cooperated to reduce the force and potency of the resolution on the basis that it undermined women's 'traditional' familial and societal role.

Also in 2013, at the heart of twenty first century Europe, conservative religious forces successfully undermined European-wide efforts to entrench greater gender equality and a framework for reproductive health policy. A European Parliamentary report and resolution on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights was voted down after strenuous lobbying efforts by the religious right.

Paralleling the increasing density of interstate cooperation in Europe, the EU dramatically increased the role of civil society associations – including religious organizations – in supranational governance. They did so principally on the basis that such inclusion would help narrow the so-called 'democratic deficit' between Brussels and the elusive European citizen. Through various phases from 1997 onwards, from the Amsterdam Treaty through to the abandoned Draft Constitution, the EU gradually institutionalised a formal church-EU dialogue mechanism, which finds its ultimate formulation in article 17.3 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). This treaty provision compels the EU, through its various institutions, to hold "open, regular and transparent dialogue" with religious and non-confessional bodies

Lending weight to this structured dialogue between political decision-makers and corporate religious elites was the expanding influence of various strains of communitarian thinking fashionable within political thought. The idea, grounded in the post-Rawlsian assumption that we are all members of 'groups', was that in order to reach the citizen, Europe's institutions should engage more openly with religious 'leaders' in order to bring the spiritual dimension into politics and connect the European project with its distant citizenry.

A former President of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Pöttering, went so far as to invoke a quasi-Habermasian justification for this dialogue provision: "true dialogue means each component of society is able to express its point of view with respect for the other. Consensus can then emerge from the truth about particular values or goals." It was a nice idea, but it never reflected reality. After nearly a decade of this dialogue interesting patterns have emerged which reveal how this process is actually executed.

The arrangement quickly morphed into a highly fragmented and largely bilateral engagement framework between the EU's main political institutions and conventional corporate religious bodies. It does not embody the plenary format of its nascent beginnings before 2005. This has resulted in the consolidation of the privileged position of the two main Christian traditions (Roman Catholic and Reformist) that have always had a strong connection to the European Commission since the time of Jacques Delors. Only very recently, and ironically after the intervention of humanist groups, did the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist representatives actually get included in the main dialogue event held every spring. The fate of the secular humanist groups, who had originally chaired informal events in the late 1990s, was a salutary lesson in lobby politics. The humanists were completely relegated to a separate discussion forum, held on a separate date and only with officials, not the Presidents of the main EU institutions.

There is, in short, a two-tier system in operation: one is an effective lobbying platform for high profile and institutionalized monotheistic religious interest groups and the other a far from satisfactory arrangement for less traditional voices, which are in reality granted only token status. This should be concerning, given that significant chunks of the European populace profess no religion, and even more profess only a weak faith at best. What is more concerning is the deviation of the dialogue praxis from the principles of fairness and equality supposedly underpinning it, particularly in the areas of mutual interaction, mutual respect and transparency. In sum, transparency is in relatively short supply and mutual interaction is a chimera. The decisions made about who is selected for dialogue events and what is to be discussed at them is largely opaque.

Other problems that emerge include question marks over how the agenda for discussion is decided. Issues that would actually be useful discussion points with corporate religious bodies have not appeared on the agenda thus far. As far back as 2007 a European Parliamentary Working Group on religion and politics proposed to the presidents of the main institutions that issues such as intolerance of minorities, intolerance of LGBT citizens, gender equality, and freedom of speech, expression and conscience among others should all be up for discussion. None of these issues ever formed the basis of the high level talks between religious groups and political actors. In fact, what emerges on the agenda for discussion is decidedly tame and does not confront conservative religious voices with the real consequences of their ideological commitments.

This state of affairs may well be perfectly legitimate in the world of lobbying, but it does not reflect the spirit of inclusive dialogue between the EU and civil society mooted by the religious leaders. It has not been expanded to be more inclusive, and more meaningful. The result of the failure to embody real dialogue, and the result of this lack of vigilance on the part of many observers, is now clearly visible in the emasculation of international organizations such as the UN and the EU as forces for progressive social policy relative to gender issues. It is not just that religious lobbyists are pushing an anti-secular and anti-progressive agenda. It is that politicians appear to be listening.

Dr Kenneth Houston is Head of the Department of Arts and Sciences at Webster University Thailand. He has published on the subjects of religion, politics and power sharing. This article first appeared on Open Democracy and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons attribution non-commercial 3.0 licence.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

Talking to God: the corporate religious challenge to a pluralist, progressive Europe

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