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Newsline 12 August 2016

The sentencing this week of Tanveer Ahmed for the murder of Ahmadiyya Muslim shopkeeper Asad Shah has shown again how our freedoms and values must be actively defended. In the aftermath of the sentencing a spokesman from the Council of Mosques in Bradford called for a UK blasphemy law. It is hard to imagine a more sinister reaction to a religiously-motivated killing. The support for the killer seen in the courtroom, and sympathy among his local community for the killer's motives, shows that debates we would wish long settled - the right to blaspheme, to cause offence, to think freely, to have or leave a religion - are being contested once again.

We will be discussing and debating these immense challenges to secularism at our conference next month, with panels covering Islam, social cohesion, human rights and equality. Buy your tickets today.

After the conference ends we'll be gathering for our gala dinner. Tickets are available separately for the dinner.

If you are not already a member, please consider showing your support for our work by joining the National Secular Society today. We rely entirely on the generous donations and support of our members and receive no public funding.

Sharia, security and the church: dangers of the British Home Office inquiry

Sharia, security and the church: dangers of the British Home Office inquiry

Opinion | Tue, 09 Aug 2016

Feminist campaigners from minority women's organisations in Britain, backed by prominent women human rights advocates from all over the world, wrote an Open Letter to Theresa May, then Home Secretary, criticising the way she was intending to carry out a long-awaited review of sharia in Britain. May was forced to defend 'one law for all' when she became Prime Minister.

An investigation shows that the concerns of campaigners such as myself were well-founded. The Home Office has established a panel which is fit for the purpose of a theological exercise rather than a human rights investigation. The appointment of a theologian to chair it and imams as advisors to the Review Panel, was a thoroughly bad sign as far as feminists were concerned. It is a basic tenet of human rights that procedures should ensure impartiality, and that those involved in an institution should not be investigating themselves – that is, assuming that the panel actually intends to conduct a thorough investigation. If the Sharia Review Panel is examined as an outcome of counter-extremist measures, as well as the battle of the Church of England to create religious exemptions from secular law, then its composition makes perfect sense. That probably explains why the Home Office and the panel Chair, the theologian Mona Siddiqui, have remained unmoved as evidence of discrimination on the panel emerges.

The One Law for All campaign looked into the backgrounds of the imams. One of them, Said Ali Abbas Razawi, has a disturbing tendency to talk about end times in apocalyptic and very sexist terms:

"Homosexuality will increase, zinaa [adultery] will increase in society; illegitimacy will increase in society. Men will look like women; women will look like men. What does that mean? What does that mean? That means men won't be manly anymore... Heralding the last days… they will be wearing clothes which are tight and will be see through. They will have clothes but they won't have clothes on."

Mona Siddiqui, Chair of the Reveiew Panel, told the Independent that imams are on the panel because they 'have the ear of the community'; a remark that lead to such outrage, that we decided to call for a boycott of the inquiry.

But the same Imam. Said Ali Abbas Razawi, leads delegations to Iran, and attacks ISIS. His apocalyptic views on the end times are simply not alarming to officials dealing in counter-extremism. The dominant view of counter-extremist officials is that fundamentalists or what they like to call 'non-violent extremists' or sometimes 'moderates' are part of the solution.

When questioned about the suitability of imams as advisors, the Home Office insisted on providing the same pro forma answer again and again, that stated that the Imams were 'recognised, credible experts chosen for their 'full and thorough understanding of the religious and theological issues pertaining to specific aspects of Sharia Law'.

The government has carefully restricted what the independent panel is supposed to do. Rather than examine the dangers of legal pluralism, as campaigners had suggested, it endorsed 'sharia law' as 'a source of guidance to many Muslims, 'and limited the panel to 'assessing whether Sharia may be being misused, or exploited, in a way that may discriminate against certain groups, undermine shared values or cause social harms.' The focus on group rights and social cohesion gives the game away. Harms to women are to be investigated, but only in the most limited way.

Even before the start of the review, it was clear that the battle was half lost. Survivors of church abuse are as aghast as we are. Sue Cox of Survivors Voice Europe, an organisation for survivors of Catholic church abuse said, "I am equally horrified at the inclusion of Imams in this enquiry. This can NEVER be independent or impartial, and the very presence of a member of the organisation being investigated as advisors to this panel is ludicrous, a bit like putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank."

But it is not simply imams and theologians who are of concern. The campaigners had called for a Judge-led inquiry which would be able to compel evidence. The British Home Office said that a public inquiry would not be appropriate in this case because they were held about an event. However, they did oblige by appointing a Judge to the Review Panel. You could say he was a perfect choice.

Sir Mark Hedley is a former Judge of the family division. He is an active Christian in the Church of England, the Deputy Chair of the Clergy Discipline Commission, Deputy President of Tribunals and is associated with the Lawyers Christian Fellowship. His knowledge of ecclesiastical courts, and the values of a fundamentalist organisation makes him the closest thing to a sharia court judge that it is possible to find in the English judiciary.

The Lawyers Christian Fellowship says that 'our vision. to resource, unite and equip Christian lawyers and law students in their witness to Christ. In a world where Christians all over the world are suffering greatly from very serious persecution, 'witness to Christ' could include standing up to the fanatics who persecute Christians including recent converts, and working to protect Christians (and indeed others faced with persecution). In England, Christians from minorities suffer threats and bullying.

Lawyers associated with the Fellowship vigorously oppose equality legislation. They vocally oppose the removal of religious privilege, and are vitriolic about 'the homosexual lobby'. They have fought hard to exempt religious individuals or groups from complying with legislation on same sex marriage, adoption by single sex couples and other issues important to Christian fundamentalists. The National Secular Society accuses them of bullying tactics. Their recent campaigns have largely failed, but not before both Anglican and Catholic Churches threatened to withdraw their services from vulnerable individuals and teamed up with Muslim groups to try and defeat the proposals which they claimed would force them to 'actively condone and promote homosexuality.'

In 2012, attention was drawn to the Lawyers Christian Fellowship after an extraordinarily harsh judgement, when a woman was jailed for eight years under an 1861 law for inducing her own miscarriage. The Judge, Justice Cook, was a member of the Fellowship, as was Mark Hedley who was named as the most senior Judge who was part of it.

Hedley's presence on the Review Panel as a highly respected senior Judge who is also associated with Christian fundamentalists is a consistent with the Church of England's long held support for sharia law being recognised in Britain as a supplementary law. The former Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that Britain should regulate sharia matters, in a notorious speech, when he argued for a higher law than secular law and called for sharia to be recognised. Justice Hedley has argued that he acts on faith but upholds secular law. Why then belong to a group that has opposed every single progressive reform?

The Church of England seems to be dealing with the loss of religious belief and loss of congregations by claiming a larger role for faith in public life through its inter-faith work. Although some Christian groups oppose Sharia raging it is outside a Judeo-Christian framework. For others the assertion that secular law is not all powerful is of prime importance. When marriage equality (that is same-sex marriage) was being negotiated, the Church of England succeeded in making an exception of its duty to marry its parishioners. It asserted its right under canon law to define marriage as a single man with a single woman. Whereas other churches can opt in to perform single sex marriage ceremony, priests of the Church of England may not do so. Bishops sit in the House of Lords and are part of the legislature. They enjoy enormous power as the state religion, but they feel no obligation to live under the laws of the country. It seems absurd to have an established Church that does not abide by the will of Parliament.

The new Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, is a Conservative MP who promoted women's rights in Parliament. Will she change course? Not, it seems, if her officials can help it. They failed to answer my questions about whether they had any plans to present our open letter to their minister. Finally, the plug was pulled when I asked if the Home Office had done any assessment in planning the Sharia Review. This could have been an equality impact assessment, or consideration of safeguarding concerns, or the protection of vulnerable witnesses in the light of sharia experts being advisors. I was told, 'I've spoken to colleagues on this and we're not going to go further than the lines we've already issued. We've answered questions extensively and it should be enough for your piece.'

They told me to go direct to inquiries to find out whether there was any precedent for having priests as advisors. When I rang IICSA (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse), the press office sounded quite bewildered. They said " we are dealing with institutional failures'. Sue Cox of Survivors Voice, Europe expanded on that, 'when giving evidence to the UN committee against the holy see, we asked that ANYONE with affiliations to the church should recuse themselves from that process." That advice should surely apply to Sir Mark Hedley as well.

At the end of this back and forth, all the organisations which had called for the boycott received letters from the Sharia Review. There was no acknowledgement of any of the criticisms made. The campaigners were blandly asked to give evidence at the Review on August 9th, 'As well as speaking to yourself, the review team are keen to hear from people with first hand experience of the application of Sharia law. '

Not a single mention was made of the Open Letter, the boycott, or any of the concerns raised.

As it stands, the Home Office and the Review Panel fail to meet the most basic standards on impartiality, equality impact and safeguarding. It is an exercise in sharia-compliance and a dangerous tool of the government's counter-extremism strategy.

This article was originally published on OpenDemocracy and is reproduced here with permission. Image credit: BBC Victoria Derbyshire programme.

Gita Sahgal is a founder of the Centre for Secular Space. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and may not represent the views of the NSS.

Baroness Thornton joins the NSS as an honorary associate

Baroness Thornton joins the NSS as an honorary associate

News | Thu, 11 Aug 2016

The National Secular Society is delighted to welcome Baroness Thornton as a new honorary associate.

The House of Lords and religion

The House of Lords and religion

Opinion | Fri, 12 Aug 2016

The Parliamentary recess provides welcome respite from the frenetic activity of the political battles being fought out in the chamber and corridors, allowing us to stand back and have a wry look at the institution itself, writes Keith Porteous Wood.

With the Parliamentarians on holiday, tourists are queueing around the block to walk through the chambers and other parts of the Palace of Westminster that are for the rest of the year completely off limits. Some at least must be struck by just how much the House of Lords in particular is imbued with religion.

The building itself, particularly inside, resembles a gothic cathedral. And visitors pass through the very heart of Parliament, from where the broadcasts are filmed, Central Lobby. It is dominated (apart from the chandelier, press the upward arrow in the photo) by depictions of the patron saints of the four countries of the UK.

The monarch, on the other hand, arrives by the Sovereign's entrance and proceeds to the Robing Room, in which a throne has been thoughtfully provided. But what huge picture, that clearly takes pride of place, does the monarch see facing them when sitting on the throne? One simply called "Religion" (see virtual tour). Playing second fiddle are paintings depicting the other chivalric virtues of hospitality, generosity, mercy, and courtesy. Third fiddle were fidelity and courage; they were planned but never executed.

An even larger painting totally dominates the Lords subsidiary chamber, unsurprisingly called the Moses Room. It is called "Moses bringing down the tables of the law from Mount Sinai".

In the Lords main chamber (which you can also tour virtually) the bench on the left has arm rests, the only bench to have them in the chamber. So, obviously therefore the Government front bench. Wrong! It is the bishops' bench, which – symbolically – is located between the Government front bench and the throne where the monarch sits at the state opening. And when during the Conservative/LibDem coalition there was insufficient space on the Government side for both parties, did the bishops courteously yield to requests to move to the other side of the Chamber? Of course not.

History

Until the suppression of the monasteries in 1539, the so-called Lords Spiritual, swelled by abbots and priors, formed the majority of the Lords. Despite the name, they were there largely because they were huge landowners. We will not explore in this blog the secularist questions of how they came to own so much land and the power – including the imposition of taxes such as tithes – which this gave them. After 1539 the lords spiritual were limited to the bishops.

The Civil War heralded the removal of bishops from 1642, but this lasted only until the Clergy Act 1661.

Particularly with the growth of cities with the industrial revolution, the number of bishoprics started to multiply out of control and a stop had to be called to their representation in the Lords. This came with the Bishopric of Manchester Act 1847 with the number capped at 26, all from English dioceses. There were never Scottish bishops as its "established" Church of Scotland does not have any. Irish and Welsh bishops were excluded following disestablishment in 1869 and 1914 respectively.

Current position

The 26 (out of 43 bishoprics) comprise the arch/bishops of Canterbury, York, London, Durham and Winchester with the rest going to the longest serving, although some changes have had to be made to fast track women. Bishops retire automatically at the age of 70 but some are given life peerages thereafter. Therefore, although there are only 26 "official" bishops, there are many more on the other benches as well as other religious figures such as former chief rabbis and what seems like an endless procession of self-declared Christian peers and those from other religions.

So, shockingly, by historic standards the current proportion of Lords Spiritual as they are referred to, 3% of the total, is as low as it has ever been, apart from the brief period when there were none at all. Having said that, The House of Lords is the only Parliament in a western democracy to grant any ex officio seats to clerics.

Prayers

There is a duty bishop to say prayers at the start of every session, and before the Supreme Court was established, the duty bishop even opened the deliberations of the Law Lords with prayers, too.

The saying of prayers is done in secret, with non-parliamentarians excluded from the chamber, every entrance barred and cameras turned off. Prayers are said with the members kneeling on the benches with their backs to the centre, which is apparently ideal for those carrying swords.

The prayers have remained unchanged for centuries, for example "Almighty God, by whom alone Kings reign, and Princes decree justice; and from whom alone cometh all counsel, wisdom, and understanding; we thine unworthy servants …"

Our recently deceased and much-missed Honorary Associate, Lord Avebury, never attended prayers, always standing along with many others outside the chamber until they were finished. He always maintained the principle that prayers should not form part of official business; any if there were any they should be said in a different place. He also objected to the practical consequence: those who pray always getting the best seats, or even a seat at all – some even go to prayers for this reason. With his solution of any prayers being held elsewhere, those that wished to pray and those that didn't could all enter the chamber at the same time - after which official business could commence.

The invited guests at his memorial meeting included scores of parliamentarians, including two party leaders and the Lords Speaker. Such an opportunity could not be, and wasn't, missed to remind them all what Lord Avebury thought about Parliamentary prayers, and indeed bishops.

Conclusion

Of course, much of this rigmarole is the result of the establishment of the Church of England. But as the CofE has withered away and become a tiny, tiny denomination of a shrinking religion, not to mention the bishops' views on key social issues even being at odds with Anglicans, far less the country, we ask again – why does it continue to have such privilege?

Living better together: What role do Muslims have in building a secular UK?

Living better together: What role do Muslims have in building a secular UK?

Opinion | Tue, 09 Aug 2016

When people learn I run a secularist charity, many are confused about what secularism means and its consequences for non-Christians in the UK, writes Tehmina Kazi of British Muslims for Secular Democracy.

For the last seven years, I have been the director of a registered charity named British Muslims for Secular Democracy. When I tell other people what I do at networking events and dinner parties, most are delighted; a small proportion give me funny looks, and the rest remain abjectly confused about what secularism actually means, and its attendant implications for religious minorities in the UK.

Hence, I was pleased to find out that Jacques Berlinerblau, author of "How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom" would be speaking at the Secularism conference on 3rd September 2016, alongside myself and other secular activists. While the book was written from an American perspective, it also provided a rigorously-researched blueprint for addressing some of these issues in the UK. As Berlinerblau summarises, "So everyone uses the term (secularism), but its definition remains vague…if there's ever going to be a coherent secular movement… there will have to be clear articulation of its core values and principles."

The associate professor says his definition of secularism does not in any way denigrate religion, but rather stresses a core secular goal of "enabling citizens to live peaceably with other citizens whose creed is different than their own." While many political scientists have articulated pluralistic visions of a secular society, Berlinerblau goes several notches further by embracing the symbiotic relationship between religious communities and secularists.

He describes how their respective success as civic actors is often dependent on each other, and outlines a 12-step programme to revive secularism, which actively includes and empowers people of faith. For example, he states, "Either secularism and Catholicism, whose relations have often been strained, must have this peace pipe moment or secularism in America isn't going to go very far."

How does all of this apply to a British context, particularly to Muslims? Very well, as it happens. In Contextualising Islam in Britain, a ground-breaking research project conducted by Cambridge University, a diverse group of Muslim participants were asked "What does it mean to live faithfully as a Muslim in Britain today?" An overwhelming majority of them affirmed their support for the British model of procedural secularism (which means that it is theoretically possible for all voices, whether religious or not, to access the public sphere equally). The participants observed that procedural secularism provides many benefits for British Muslims, including religious freedom.

As British Muslims we are able, for the most part, to practise our faith in an atmosphere of respect and security, with recourse to established anti-discrimination provisions if this is not the case. Many public sector workplaces now have multi-faith prayer rooms, and halal food options (notwithstanding occasional pork DNA scares!) are available in school canteens and prisons.

Secularism in the UK can only thrive on the basis of specific pacts that different communities make with each other. Non-religious groups and individuals must accept the fact that some people view their faith as the most important part of their identities, even if this may seem perplexing. The onus is also on religious groups and individuals to forge common ground on contentious issues such as women's rights, LGBT rights, freedom of expression and the establishment of good inter-faith – and, crucially, intra-faith – relations.

While certain commentators have argued that these issues have become a stick with which to beat religious minorities, I don't think we should be encouraging the victim mentality and "Get out of jail" card that this analysis engenders.

First, we should be putting our "equalities hats" on – and keeping them there. This means acknowledging the six protected equality grounds – gender, age, disability, race, religion and sexual orientation – and respecting their rights, but also insisting that each group upholds their responsibilities. For example, this means that a religious group who believes gay marriage to be sinful is entitled to hold such a view, but never entitled to prevent other religious organisations from holding such ceremonies if they so wish. They should also expect to be robustly challenged on those views.

Gender segregation in public universities is another prime example. British Muslims for Secular Democracy and a coalition of other secular organisations – both Muslim and non-Muslim – challenged the Universities UK guidance which endorsed this. The guidance was later withdrawn, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission affirmed that gender segregation in public universities was indeed unlawful.

I am saddened and appalled that our successors at various universities seem to have prioritised cultural relativism above equality and human rights. Whether they realise it or not, they are doing a tremendous disservice to dissenters within minority religious communities. We must be very clear: when it comes to university events that fall outside the (narrow) Equality Act exemptions, separate is never equal.

By the same token, an employer who finds Islam repugnant should never be empowered – either by tacit acceptance or active collusion – to bully their Muslim employees.

Thankfully, there are many wonderful initiatives like the Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks project (Tell MAMA) which provide support to people who have been treated badly due to their "Muslimness," or even perceived "Muslimness".

Second, we should create and promote publications that speak of civic engagement in positive terms. Within a procedural secular state such as Britain, Muslims have rights and responsibilities that are in keeping with Islamic teachings. Far from advocating withdrawal from society, mainstream Islamic scholarship regards civic engagement as highly desirable for Muslim citizens. Understanding that being a religious Muslim in Britain today also means living a full life as a citizen – with all the rights and responsibilities that entails – is a crucial step towards becoming well-integrated citizens in today's Britain.

British Muslims for Secular Democracy's revised Advice for schools clarifies this point, and gives much needed guidance on cultural and religious issues affecting Muslim pupils. It will be out later in 2016.

Tehmina Kazi is the director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and may not represent the views of the National Secular Society.

This blog was originally published by Profexus and is reproduced here with permission. You can 'like' Profexus on Facebook here.

Asad Shah murder: the disturbing support for ‘blasphemy’ killing in a British courtroom

Asad Shah murder: the disturbing support for ‘blasphemy’ killing in a British courtroom

Stephen Knight writes following the murder of Asad Shah: "Apologists for Islamic violence have long been able to convince people that a conservative, Islamist interpretation of Islam is adhered to only by a fringe minority, a minority which we are told is also loathed by the general Muslim population. That may be true of course, but it's fast becoming an unconvincing narrative given the data."

NSS Speaks Out

President Terry Sanderson spoke on Three Counties Radio about halal meat and non-stun slaughter. Executive director Keith Porteous Wood was quoted in Mediapart on the case of Philippe Barbarin and in the Morning Star on historical child abuse at a Church of England children's home.

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