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Newsline 12 April 2013

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Why so little openness in the establishment of these Sikh schools?

Why so little openness in the establishment of these Sikh schools?

Opinion | Tue, 09 Apr 2013

Guest post by John Hunt

Last month the local press reported that a Sikh free school "remains on course to open in Hounslow in September": but there has been no reporting of the secrecy and subterfuge surrounding its establishment.

Attendance at the only public meeting about it in December was completely unrepresentative. Wide-ranging questions put to the organisers by the few non-Sikhs were not answered. No offer was made to supply answers later. The local paper printed nothing.

In February the Department for Education alleged "wide support" for the school, but provided no evidence to support the claim. I was advised to write to the "Nishkam Trust" (the organisation behind the school), which responded: "Full demand figures and collection methods are supplied through the formal application process to the Department for Education for their assessment".

Another Sikh Trust also intends to open a school this September, in Stoke Poges (near Slough). The local council discovered this only in January, from a newspaper report. The school's recruitment drive had focused not in the local area, but on Sikh communities in neighbouring Slough, Southall and Harrow.

Did Nishkam use similar techniques? Is that why they refuse to disclose what support they have?

After the 2001 race riots, Home Secretary David Blunkett commissioned Professor Ted Cantle to produce a report into the causes. In 2009 an updated version expressed particular concern about schools being even "partly segregated on religious grounds", observing that segregation can perpetuate disadvantage, limiting choice and aspiration (becoming a dangerous vicious circle).

Later in 2009 the think-tank Ekklesia summarised an opinion poll by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission where 60% of the population considered religion more socially divisive than race, and another by YouGov, where 75% wanted all schools to teach a balanced syllabus about a wide range of religious and non-religious beliefs.

This year Professor Cantle affirms that school segregation still divides communities. Problems are becoming more acute. Imprisoning children in a limited world of their own like-minded communities is a recipe for disaster. He wrote: "All public services need to reconfigure services across communities and especially to avoid targeting and separating groups in the name of cultural sensitivity ...Separate provision also completely undermines opportunities to build shared purpose and to develop empathy and understanding of others. Perhaps the most difficult of service areas is education, where local authorities ... will need ... even to merge segregated schools together".

If further evidence is required, an apparently honest and well-written book by two Sikhs, (Sikhs in Britain: the making of a community, 2006, Gurharpal Singh & Darshan Singh Tatla), paints an extremely damning picture of Sikh ethos.

Local papers in Stoke Poges have printed much coverage: and the council, in keen opposition, has organised a public meeting with the local MP.

Hounslow Civic Centre, on the other hand, is meekly acceding to Nishkam's demands, refusing even to consider a similar meeting here, to determine public feeling about an issue on which consultation to date has been an utter sham.

Nishkam also propose to open a school in Leeds in 2014. But Leeds Council learnt about this only when I approached them.

I am deeply concerned that Hounslow's proposed school is being rubber stamped with no meaningful public consultation; that the Trust is ignoring bona fide public concerns; that Hounslow is refusing even to inform residents what is happening and why; and that the Department for Education, whatever their highly dubious role in this may be, are failing to ensure that the process is being managed with even lip service to elementary ethics. Democracy? Localism? Not a whiff!

Clearly there are related problems in Stoke Poges and Leeds. How widespread is this across the country? How many sectarian scandals are being deliberately concealed from public view? And how and when can we ensure that local and national government take heed of Professor Cantle's urgent recommendations to avert further segregation and violence?

Following the publication of this post, we received an objection from the Network of Sikh Organisations. We asked John Hunt to respond to this complaint and you can read both the complaint and John's subsequent reply here (pdf).

I’m grateful every day that I live in a secular society – and so should we all be

I’m grateful every day that I live in a secular society – and so should we all be

Opinion | Thu, 11 Apr 2013

By Anne Marie Waters

I've been hearing and reading a lot of debates recently about secularism; what it is, what it isn't.

There are several viewpoints flying around, lots of "militant" and other hyperbolic words; many designed, no doubt, to stir up trouble and discredit this increasingly popular political position.

There is a sophisticated conversation going on, and one with all sorts of philosophers and politicians and academics adding their tuppence worth. What is missing though, as is so often the case, is any description of what secularism really means to ordinary people's everyday lives – this is of course the most important argument of all. So I'll make it here.

Secularism simply means that our laws are based on our human experience, objective evidence, and human empathy and compassion, rather than anything written in a holy scripture. Our laws are created by MPs who are elected by popular vote and therefore representative of broad public thought (to a degree at least). But how does secularism impact on our day-to-day existence?

Let me give some examples.

1) Your marriage has broken down. You have grown apart and are no longer happy together. You don't have a great deal of money so divorce (which is expensive) can wait. For now, you'll separate and get on with your lives.

You start seeing somebody new – a new lease of life even. It's exciting and life is fun again. The idea that the police will knock on your door and ask questions about your new relationship is ludicrous. It's your own business. It's your private life. Your love life. Your sex life. The thought that the state should interfere and tell you who you can sleep with doesn't enter your mind.

That is because you live in a secular country. If you lived in a theocracy, not only are the police likely to knock on your door, but you may well be executed – by being buried up to your chest and having stones thrown at your head until you die. This is what happens in many Islamic states today (which are not secular) and it would also happen if the Bible were our legislator – this also demands death for adultery.

2) Your marriage has broken down. You have grown apart and are no longer happy together. You apply for divorce by mutual consent. You both realise that life is short, and it is time to move on and create a new reality.

But, there is no divorce. Divorce is a sin. Living apart is a sin. If you commit this sin, the police will come and you may well be sentenced to death. Ridiculous? That's because you live in a secular country. If you lived in a theocracy, divorce would be difficult to obtain (at least for women) and it would be at the discretion of religious authorities. End result: stay together and be miserable.

3) You are a woman. Your husband is violent. He rapes and hits you on a regular basis. You fear he will do the same to your daughters. You never agreed to marry him in the first place but you had no choice. You want out – you want a divorce. You want this fear to go away – you are tired of feeling nothing but fear from morning to night. You are tired of the humiliation. He treats you like a slave. He demeans and degrades you. He physically and sexually humiliates you. Your confidence is gone, you feel worthless.

There is only way to save yourself (and your daughters) and that is to get out. You need a divorce, but there is one problem. This can only happen if your husband agrees to it. Either that or a group of clerics who believe that he has every right to treat you the way he does agree to it. "You are trying to break up a family" they'll say (you are breaking up a family, not him). "You're so selfish" they'll say.

That's that – no divorce for you. You'll have to take the abuse because you are worthless anyway and it would be a sin for you to claim otherwise. Too cruel to be real? No. This is how sharia law works. It is also similar to how Catholicism worked when it had political power. Women in secular countries don't have to put up with this; because they live in secular countries.

4) You are a woman. You might like to get married one day but there are things you would like to do first. You think you might like to build your career, travel a bit, have a few relationships before you settle down. You eventually find someone you would like to settle down with and you get married (or not) but you're not quite ready to have children yet as your career – which you've worked incredibly hard for – is in a great place and you would like to put off pregnancy until you feel ready, both for your own sake and that of the child.

So you go to your doctor and have a coil fitted, or get a prescription for the pill. This will allow you to have a sex life with your new husband but also to control if and when you have children. The idea that the police would knock on your door and demand you hand over your contraceptives, have sex with your husband whenever he wants, and you've got no say whatsoever over any of it is completely ridiculous. That is because you live in a secular country. If you lived under religion, there would be no contraceptives, you'd be forced to have sex whether you liked it or not (because it is your duty), and you would be pregnant over and over again – whether you liked it or not.

5) You are homosexual and you know that only a same sex relationship will make you happy. You are free to have same sex relationships, you can have a civil partnership, your rights at work are protected and your right to equal access to goods and services also. The idea of the police knocking on your door to interfere in your relationship and question what you are doing with your partner is ridiculous. That is because you live in a secular country. If you lived in a theocracy, you would be murdered in the most appalling ways by the state. Just as happens in Islamic states (which are not secular) today, and as happened in Europe when religions held political power.

6) You grew up surrounded by religion but there's something in the back of your mind. It just doesn't sound plausible to you. You want to believe it because almost everyone else does and it is a huge burden on you to have these niggling doubts. You want to dissent, to ask questions at the very least. Some of the scripture seems contradictory to you. Some of it seems callous and cruel. Something isn't right. But you can't say that, you can't express this because if you do, the police will knock on your door and you may well be sentenced to death. This is what can happen in Islamic states today, just as it did in Europe when religion had control.

7) You're a scientist. You have discovered something that could change the course of human history, prevent mass suffering, and push humanity forward.

But there's a problem. Your discovery proves that holy scripture (or some of it) is false – a claim that will bring the police to your door and may well result in you being sentenced to death.

This is what happened in Europe when religion was in control. Declaring the Koran to be false can get you killed in Islamic states today. So, you decide to keep your discovery to yourself. Life can carry on as before.

There is no exaggeration in the above descriptions. They are an entirely accurate reflection of life under religious rule.

We need to remember this.

We need to remind ourselves over and over again.

As interesting and important as they are, academic and philosophical debates within university walls are not nearly as important as ordinary people truly understanding the value of secularism, and understanding what it would mean to them if it disappeared.

Some will argue that we are not a secular country because we have an established church of which the Queen is the head and there are bishops in the House of Lords.

I oppose these things and they do complicate matters. But the very fact that women are free, homosexuals are treated like human beings, and we are allowed to express our opinion on religion or dissent from it entirely, are solid signs that secularism has won; and it has done so to such a degree that we no longer even recognise it as secularism. It is simply a taken-for-granted part of everyday life.

Constitutions do not make a country. People make a country, and the people of this country are overwhelmingly secular – including the religious people.

I am genuinely grateful every day of my life for secularism; as a woman, even more so.

We need to remember and everyone needs to know and understand just how thankful we should be for secularism.

See also: Russian Patriarch says women should stay at home and do as they're told

Free transport to “faith schools” axed in Leicester & Bath

Free transport to “faith schools” axed in Leicester & Bath

News | Thu, 11 Apr 2013

Councillors on Leicester City Council have approved changes to 'home to school' transport that will see an end to subsidies for pupils attending "faith schools" in the City.

Appeal: Modernising Leicester Secular Hall

Appeal: Modernising Leicester Secular Hall

News | Thu, 11 Apr 2013

Leicester Secular Society has launched an appeal to raise funds for the modernisation of Leicester Secular Hall. Besides Conway Hall in London, the Secular Hall is the only remaining dedicated secular building in the country.

NSS Speaks Out

Keith Porteous Wood was quoted in the Sunday Times in a story about the Equality and Human Rights Commission's new guidelines for the workplace (subscription required).

The story (and quote) were subsequently taken up by the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, and International Business Times. Terry Sanderson was on BBC Radio Humberside talking about this. Keith was interviewed by Voice of Russia radio about it.

Terry was also on BBC Radio Sussex talking about the Girl Guide troop kicked out of a church hall because they wouldn't attend services.

Scottish spokesperson Alistair McBay was quoted in a story in Scotland on Sunday about a councillor who claims to be able to produce miracle cancer cures. The story was subsequently picked up elsewhere and Terry Sanderson was quoted on STV, in the Aberdeen Press & Journal (not online) and The Scottish Sun.

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