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Newsline 11 August 2017

This week we learnt that Newcastle had joined a growing list of British cities blighted by widespread sexual abuse, committed by gangs of mainly Muslim men. Too often when crimes like these happen, our policy makers mouth platitudes and take the easy way out: they turn to faith groups or 'community leaders' for a solution.

The fear of bigots exploiting the news to push an anti-Muslim agenda is understandable. But we should not accept the bigotry of low expectations, or invest effort and resources in people who have minimal expertise in child protection and represent nobody but themselves. These responses simply worsen the divide and suspicions between different social groups.

As Yasmin Rehman writes in our blog, this thorny issue requires a clear-headed, secular response. There is no need for faith to play a part in tackling sex abuse. The point is to protect our children and our free, tolerant society – not to indulge or demonise groups of people, and not to make ourselves feel good.

We have also been reminded of religion's unearned power in Northern Ireland and the USA. Many British people took new interest in the DUP in June, when it made a deal with the Conservatives. But in Northern Ireland their policies continue to restrict the choices of many women and LGBT+ people. Similarly, in the US, the religious right continues to promote the freedom of believers over those of non-believers.

This week we also have coverage of Malaysia's clampdown on ex-Muslims; three setbacks for the lobbyists trying to play the victim to undermine counter-radicalisation measures; and a tongue-in-cheek blog from a parent in Australia, who uses food to critique a school's policy on collective worship.

Please support the NSS today and join thousands of other people like you in standing up for a secular Britain.

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Newcastle: what's faith got to do with it?

Newcastle: what's faith got to do with it?

Opinion | Thu, 10 Aug 2017

A group of mainly Muslim men has been convicted for sexual abuse in another British city. Amid a predictable response, Yasmin Rehman says child protection does not require the involvement of faith groups or 'community leaders'.

Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford, Aylesbury, Barking, Peterborough, Telford and now Newcastle. Like many, I listened to the roll call of British cities where yet again, Asian, largely Muslim men have been convicted for the rape, exploitation and abuse of young women and girls.

I listened knowing that more reports of the same abuses taking place in towns and cities across the country are yet to be reported, that thousands of girls have been abused and that men from my community background have been perpetrating these crimes for decades with impunity.

The media and airwaves have been dominated by discussions about the paying of a convicted child sex offender to spy on the grooming gangs in Newcastle. Sarah Champion MP, in a number of media interviews, has demanded the need to acknowledge that the majority of perpetrators, in all of the above cases, are from a Pakistani background and has called for something to be done about this. But what is to be done?

The response of shock and horror at the abuse follows a well-worn path. Calls for more to be done to support survivors of child sexual exploitation, serious case reviews to learn lessons, concerns about the far-right exploiting the situation and feeding anti-Muslim hatred, calls for the Asian community to do more, more debates about integration and cohesion of Asians/Muslims in British society and political correctness. Then there is the letter signed by faith and community leaders to condemn the abuse which also follows news of such cases.

And as always there is the oft-heard statement that these cases have nothing to do with religion - and, at the same time, statements that religion is a key tool in tackling such abuses. Councillor Dipu Apad, a prominent Tyneside Muslim, has stated that the abuse goes against everything Islam stands for; and yet in an interview with Channel 4 News, he called for faith groups to be included in addressing such crimes.

I am never quite sure what role faith has in these debates unless of course faith is being used to justify the abuse of young girls. But even then, irrespective of religion or culture all of us know, including these men, that drugging, plying young girls with alcohol and drugs and sexually assaulting them is simply wrong. 'Do not rape and abuse' is not hard to understand, is it?

It is interesting that in Britain every time there is a case involving Asian/Muslim men there are calls for greater engagement with faith communities and community leaders. This is in stark contrast to what I have been told is happening in Pakistan, where discussions about child sexual abuse are now beginning to take place.

In 2000, Javed Iqbal was sentenced to death for the murder and abuse of more than 100 children. At that time, much of the debate focused on the sentence issued by the judge in the case and not on the abuse. However, the taboo surrounding child sexual abuse was highlighted in a ground breaking drama series Udaari (To Fly), broadcast in 2016, and has finally created a space for public debate about these issues. The drama series was produced by Hum TV in partnership with the Kashf Foundation, an NGO working on gender empowerment and talking poverty in Pakistan.

I was struck by the bravery of all those involved in making Udaari for taking on such a taboo and controversial subject in Pakistan. I know of many courageous activists and NGOs, such as Sahil, working in Pakistan to tackle child sexual abuse and child trafficking. In addition to the courage to work on such abuses in Pakistan, what really struck me about Udaari and these NGOs is that at no point do they suggest or recommend working with faith communities, religious leaders or using faith based education to tackle these crimes.

In contrast, Kashf Foundation, Sahil and others in Pakistan call for politicians and lawmakers to make child protection a priority. They want to raise awareness of child sexual abuse and remove the stigma attached to victims and survivors. They would like to see better funded support for organisations supporting survivors and their families. They want to see the abusers exposed and an end to the impunity under which they can continue to abuse and violate children. And finally, they want to see the police and criminal justice system hold perpetrators to account through the civil laws of the land.

At no point is religion part of this call. This was clearly shown in the television drama and the calls repeated several times by the various characters in the story.

I think there is much that can be learned from the work in Pakistan in addressing the grooming gangs here in Britain. The survivors deserve a response that will deliver justice through conviction of the perpetrators and ongoing support to move forward from their experiences. This will not and cannot be delivered by a religiously sanctioned rejection of child sexual exploitation.

DUP vows to resist calls to legalise abortion and same-sex marriage

DUP vows to resist calls to legalise abortion and same-sex marriage

News | Fri, 11 Aug 2017

DUP leader Arlene Foster has said her party will retain Northern Ireland's restrictions on abortion and same-sex marriage, despite growing pressure for reform.

Sam Brownback: Trump’s new man is no fan of religious freedom

Sam Brownback: Trump’s new man is no fan of religious freedom

Opinion | Wed, 09 Aug 2017

The record of President Trump's new nominee exposes the hypocrisy of the US religious right. Chris Sloggett argues that its opponents must challenge the ingrained assumption that faith is a good thing.

"Religious freedom is the first freedom. The choice of what you do with your own soul. I am honoured to serve such an important cause."

This was how Sam Brownback responded to his nomination as the US's new ambassador at large for international religious freedom on Twitter last week. His advocates said he would be ideally suited to the role. Some pointed to his rare perfect score on the International Religious Freedom Congressional Scorecard. And his words were certainly reasonable.

But the following day he returned to Twitter – and gave away the catch.

"Kansas is my home," he wrote the day after his appointment. "Here, we are free to live in faith. Religion is where we live our inner life. All people ought to live that in freedom."

We are free to live "in faith". Religion is where we live our inner life. This was a 140-character summary of the hypocrisy of America's religious right on religious freedom. This group is very happy to remind us that people have the freedom to believe what they want. But they are predictably reluctant to accept that with freedom of belief comes freedom from belief.

Brownback's record in his current role as governor of Kansas reflects this. He granted a religious objection order which allowed taxpayer-funded services to discriminate in their provision. He rescinded an executive order which protected state employees from discrimination. These measures meant state employees could refuse to serve or hire gay people. And in March 2016, he signed a bill which required public colleges and universities to recognise and fund religious student associations.

He has also proved intensely hostile to gay marriage. Even after the US supreme court made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 US states in 2015, he opposed it so strongly that a federal judge put his state on probation and monitored its implementation of the ruling. So Brownback is no champion of "the choice of what you do with your own soul".

Freedom of religion defends people from encroachment into their personal affairs. It grants you freedom of speech: you can think and say what you like, short of inciting violence. It grants you the right to associate with others who share your religious outlook freely and privately.

But your freedoms end when other people's freedoms begin. Religious liberty does not grant you the right to withhold state services from people who would otherwise get them. It does not give you a right to sack someone who has done nothing wrong. It does not give you the right to spend taxpayers' money promoting your views.

Brownback does not appear to appreciate that non-believers' interests are as important as those of believers. So if he is confirmed in his new role, we can expect him to fund dubious religious programmes, promote fringe groups who undermine secular ideals and turn a blind eye to discriminatory laws.

In theory, secularists in the UK should aspire to make their country more like America. But in reality secularism is not just about the formal separation of church and state. It is about resisting theocracy in all its forms; my personal view is that it should be part of a broader effort against the power of certainty, arrogance and fanaticism.

In the US, the religious lobby has not gained influence through state-funded faith schools or an established church. It has done so by claiming a special social and moral status. This is why Brownback's appointment was partly welcomed on the grounds that he "brings his personal faith to the table". It is why one of the tasks on his desk if he takes office will be to hold "programmes of outreach to American religious communities".

The special status of religious ideas mean non-belief is still a taboo in America. No open atheist has ever risen to the presidency. There are 535 lawmakers in Congress. More than nine out of ten of them are Christians. None of them have openly declared themselves as atheists. Just one describes herself as religiously "unaffiliated".

Even those who have little record of personal faith before entering politics have embraced it. When Mark Zuckerberg renounced his atheism, it was taken as a sign that he was lining up a presidential bid. Trump's personal religious convictions are dubious, but he has won votes by playing them up; just two weeks ago he tweeted: "In America we don't worship government, we worship God!"

American candidates do this because it plays well. Last year Pew found that 51% of Americans would be less likely to vote for a candidate who did not believe in God. Being an atheist was a bigger electoral liability than being Mormon, Muslim or gay; having a history of drug use, financial problems or extramarital affairs; or even having extensive experience in Washington, DC. But there was hardly a stir when Trump chose Mike Pence, who has advocated the teaching of creationism in public schools, as his vice-presidential nominee last year.

When such a double standard is ingrained, believers' freedoms will trump those of non-believers. Only yesterday a study showed that people around the world assume atheists are more likely to be serial killers than believers are. Reliable research does not appear to back up their preconceptions.

And this deferential attitude to faith is not confined to staunch believers. Perhaps this is why so many opponents of the religious right take great pleasure in comparing American evangelicals to American Muslims, as if one "beating" the other in a poll (when all other groups surveyed got a better score than either of them) is cause for celebration.

Perhaps also it helps to explain the embrace parts of the US left give to the likes of Linda Sarsour, who has defended sharia 'law' and the hijab and berated ex-Muslim freethinkers. Whether on the right or the left, believers enjoy an unearned, elevated position. But taking on the religious right does not mean shrugging our shoulders at other forms of theocracy, or indulging the bigotry of low expectations.

It requires defending people's right to practise their faith, while also defending others who choose to reject them and believe what they like. It requires declaring confidently that unchecked religious fervour has done great harm throughout history – and continues to do so, as world events show us on a depressingly regular basis. It requires a root-and-branch challenge to the narrative that religious belief is an inherent good.

Picture credit: © Gage Skidmore

Food for thought! Imposing worship in Australian schools

Food for thought! Imposing worship in Australian schools

Opinion | Thu, 10 Aug 2017

Blinkers go on when the topic is religion. So one parent in a Queensland school thought she would use food to explain the impact of the school's version of 'inclusiveness', which involves telling them her child can go somewhere else while the prayer is being said. The picture is of the prayer recited at the regular assembly.

Mary is a new student at the school, having just started Prep. She has now been attending for about six months. She is enjoying the new experience and is a kind and capable student.

One week, one of her parents came to the school to meet her for the weekly ritual Friday lunch, which parents are encouraged to attend. Mary's parents had been unable to attend previously.

Each week the school runs a programme which includes a free snack for all the children. Each week it is the same snack. Each week the entire student body is invited by the student council, under the supervision of the teachers, to take part in the small meal. The meal is a hotdog. Now, Mary's family are vegetarians, and this was clearly indicated on her enrolment by her parents.

Each week Mary had been invited to eat meat with her peers, and being 5 and inexperienced, she had not realised that she was in fact eating meat. Mary's parents had thought that as they were the custodians of their child, and provided food for her each day, she was in no way at risk of ingesting non-vegetarian food, especially since they had notified the school of their views on food.

Mary loved the vegetarian hotdogs served in her home and was completely unaware that she was being fed something that was contrary to her parents' wishes. Needless to say when Mary's parents found out they felt upset, angry, and betrayed by the school. This was not something they had been consulted about, and when they questioned the principal and the education department, the response was, although policy says that all schools must be inclusive of all students, where a school has a tradition it is acceptable to maintain it at the expense of inclusivity. They said, 'Mary doesn't have to eat the hotdog; we can have her sit outside with a teacher while the other children eat their hotdogs.'

When asked why a snack that would be suitable for all children, so none had to miss out, could not be substituted, Mary's parents were told that it has been the same snack every week for 30 years, and this is the first complaint they'd had, and that if the majority voted to keep the hotdogs there would be no changes to the ritual.

They were told that Mary could opt out, and it wasn't mandatory, that Mary could sit to the side and not join in. Don't forget: Mary is just five and it's her very first year at school.

The odd things is, while looking into this matter, Mary's parents found out that around 70% of parents had also said their child was vegetarian, and the school had been feeding their children something that was not in line with those families' views.

Neither the principal nor the education department were prepared to set a standard of inclusiveness; instead, they agreed the way to be inclusive was to exclude Mary.

It would be so very simple to remove the first and last lines of the prayer the children recite and call it the School Creed, which would be inclusive of all parents, teachers and children. From 2016 enrolment data, only 27% of children at this school have been identified as Christian. Even if the majority were Christian, we would expect state schools to be a model for inclusiveness rather than mob rules.

This article and picture were originally published by Queensland Parents for Secular State Schools and are reproduced here with their permission. QPSSS is a movement of parents who believe Queensland state schools should be inclusive of all pupils regardless of their religious or belief background. They challenge segregated and biased religious instruction and advocate for professional school counsellors to replace state funded religious chaplains.

Abolish the oath: moral prejudice against atheists may bias courtroom decisions

Abolish the oath: moral prejudice against atheists may bias courtroom decisions

By Ryan McKay and Colin Davis, for The Conversation

Moral suspicion of atheists is widespread and deeply entrenched – and has important implications in the judicial system. This means the religious oath taken in court is in need of reform.

Islam, race and interracial marriage

Islam, race and interracial marriage

By Tehmina Kazi, for Sedaa

The former director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy asks why has there been a taboo on interracial marriage within Islam, and looks at efforts being made to tackle it.

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