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Newsline 12 September 2014

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Secularists query decision to reinstate registrar who refused to conduct same-sex weddings

Secularists query decision to reinstate registrar who refused to conduct same-sex weddings

News | Tue, 09 Sep 2014

The National Secular Society has criticised a decision by Central Bedfordshire Council to reinstate a Christian registrar who was previously dismissed after refusing to conduct same-sex weddings.

The Chancel Repairs Bill 2014 (more interesting than you might imagine)

The Chancel Repairs Bill 2014 (more interesting than you might imagine)

Opinion | Thu, 04 Sep 2014

Michael Hall reflects on the importance of Lord Avebury's bill to abolish chancel repair liability and places it in the context of privilege and inequality.

I am delighted that Lord Eric Avebury has moved the first reading in the House of Lords of the Chancel Repairs Bill. Eric (the former MP, Eric Lubbock – the famous Orpington Man) must be our longest serving Parliamentarian. Having been elected as MP for Orpington in 1962, with a massive swing from the Conservatives, he succeeded to the Peerage as Baron Avebury in 1971, and has held his seat as one of the 93 elected hereditary peers.

Over the years he has continued as a keen and active supporter of the Liberal Democrats in Orpington, and one of our most hard working peers.

He has also published an Explanatory Note with the Bill.

This Bill should end the practice of Church of England churches registering notices against people's titles at the Land Registry, which prevent them selling or mortgaging their house without making a payment to the Church.

It should be given a second reading without delay, and I suggest we all should support it as it is one of the founding principles of our Party enshrined in the Preamble to our Constitution that we oppose all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality.

Many notices have been registered against people's titles, notably in Lytham St Anne's and Gorleston and communities affected have been in uproar.

Chancel repair liability is an odd survival of the medieval system of tithes (one tenth of the arable crops of certain 'tithe fields' had to be handed over to the Rector of the Parish). The Rector was responsible for repairing the Chancel, as it belonged to him, and the rest of the Church belonged to the parishioners.

This should have been fully abolished in 1936. Under the Tithe Act 1936, the vast majority of chancel repair liability was transferred either to Parochial Church Councils or to the Church Commissioners, and the Government paid huge sums in compensation stock to the church authorities for the extinguishment of tithe rent charges, and that was more than adequate compensation for the total abolition of chancel repair liability.

The Law Commission recommended abolition in its 1985 Report , which successive governments have refused to implement, for no good reason. This was despite the fact that the reform had been initiated by the Church of England through its General Synod debate in 1982 on its Standing Committee Report.

This was fully accepted by the Church of England General Synod after a debate.

If you can't wait to read even more about this fascinating subject, I can only refer to my submission.

If enough people write to their MPs about this I hope it will get a second reading soon.

Michael Hall is a Solicitor, and Liberal Democrat Conference Representative from Orpington. This article first appeared on Liberal Democrat Voice and is reproduced here with the author's permission. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

Religion “mustn't cause violence”

Religion “mustn't cause violence”

Opinion | Wed, 10 Sep 2014

Both media commentators and politicians seem keen to claim religion as a cause for good deeds but determined not to acknowledge it as a contributing factor to bad ones, argues Alistair McBay.

An article in the Scotsman in May by Joyce McMillan ran with the headline "Religion mustn't cause violence".

It reviewed the plight of the Christian girls in Nigeria captured by Boko Haram and sought an explanation for the "pseudo-Islamic" rationale the terrorists used to justify their violence and "ferocious misogyny". McMillan claimed this rationale tried "to make itself strange and fearful by calling on invented gods and twisting religious language to serve its own deepest impulses of violence, resentment, and hate."

Religion, she claimed, could not be the cause of their violence or abuse "otherwise there would be no accounting for the millions of religious believers worldwide who quietly get on with the work of peace, community-building and social justice, co-operating with those of other faiths, and none."

So if we can't blame religion as a cause of bad deeds, can believers lay claim to it as the cause of good deeds, and good deeds only? Our Prime Minister and Minister for Faith do just that. They believe religion imbues a sense of moral purpose and want to infuse our politics with religious ideals and values, albeit notionally Judeo-Christian in origin and practice. Yet anyone who has read the Bible or the Koran knows there is nothing 'pseudo' or 'twisted' about interpretations of scriptures that lead to conflict rather than peace. "Invented gods" may be invoked to justify both, as centuries of experience attest.

McMillan claims attributing violence and abuse to religious belief is a lazy way of distancing "us", the rational modernists from "them", the faraway zealots, and renders us militant atheists inspired by Richard Dawkins and "avid for proof that religion causes conflict wherever it goes." Evidence tends to suggest religion does just that, but McMillan says blame something else – usually that means culture, or tribalism, or economic deprivation, or a lack of education or a clash of political philosophies – anything but religion.

That "religion mustn't cause violence" was refreshed in the Guardian last week, in an interview with Nazir Afzal who leads the Crown Prosecution Service action against child abuse and violence against women and young girls. Afzal said of the recent Rotherham child abuse case: "It is not the abusers' race that defines them. It is their attitude to women that defines them."

Neither race nor religion were factors in the abuse, he claimed, saying the Rotherham men were not religious and in any case substance abuse and rape are forbidden in Islam. Forbidden they may be, but that didn't stop two of those convicted of similar crimes in Derby in 2010, both devout Muslims and family men with children of their own, becoming "vodka-swilling, cocaine-binging paedophiles who spent every available moment randomly targeting young girls on the street, befriending them, and then horrifically abusing them." According to Afzal, the abuse in Rotherham and presumably elsewhere (Derby and Rochdale, for example) was all about "male power". So, having ruled out race and religion as components of male power, what did he rule in? He didn't say. So where and in what cultural setting is this 'male power' developed and then expressed in this abusive attitude to women?

Channel 4's 'Pakistan's Hidden Shame' broadcast on 1 September claimed a third of men in Pakistan condone child sex abuse. In the documentary, the abuse of boys is rife. One man who said he had raped 12 boys claimed he was "deeply religious because I am a Muslim" but "we are helpless against our desire." The documentary records that psychologists claim the child abuse of young boys in Pakistan stems from the segregation of the sexes, where women are perceived as the inferior gender, rarely seen in public and with very few rights. It references a 2014 World Health Organisation report which places this gender inequality in the country at the very top of the causes of child abuse, and a Unicef report from 2010 which suggests Pakistan's "traditional cultural values" of purity and protection of women have contributed to Pakistani men using boys as the outlet for sexual frustration.

It is difficult to believe that religious belief and teachings have nothing to do with creating "traditional cultural values".

Afzal also blamed a deficit of leadership in some parts of the UK Muslim community, saying "They could be much more challenging of certain behaviours." But if as he says the Rotherham men weren't religious, then surely they were not part of that Muslim community and not subject to any influence from it. Can you still be a part of a religious community if you are not religious? What does he think a more outspoken Muslim leadership would achieve?

On that subject Mehmood Naqshbandi, who has advised the Metropolitan police on Muslims in Britain, told the Times on 8 September that most imams "know nothing much of Isis" and "would struggle to find Syria on a map". They communicated mainly in their mother tongue or "cringingly bad English" and were equipped only to argue about factional squabbles from the mid-19th century. Muslim youths grappling with their identity and beliefs were "left entirely to their own devices".

Labour MP Simon Danczuk, who helped expose a pattern of grooming of white teenage girls by men from a Pakistani background in Rochdale, said a culture of intimidation and closing of ranks within parts of the Asian community had been a problem for years and pointed to the way in which two Muslim councillors in Rochdale had provided character references for one of the perpetrators of the Rochdale abuse. Are these the same Muslim leaders of whom Nazir Afzal demands better leadership in the Muslim community to combat FGM, misogyny and child abuse?

These comments by Afzal and Naqshbandi beg a question about consulting community leaders, in this case almost exclusively male, for moral guidance. The very notion of a community leader promotes the belief that ethnic or religious identity defines an individual's views on all other matters, and the community leader speaks for all. One response to the Rotherham report identifies the serious under-representation of women in leadership positions as a key challenge. Sara Khan is the director of women's human rights group Inspire, which has been working closely with Muslim organisations. She criticised the traditional hierarchies that still govern many Muslim organisations: "In terms of dealing with issues around grooming, around violence, you fundamentally need far more women representation. The fact that these girls (in Rotherham) weren't believed demonstrates a culture of disbelief that I think comes from a male perspective."

We know that when religion is taken out of the private sphere and into the public arena, it immediately becomes political – how could it be otherwise? But is it right to suggest that any violence religious believers then perpetrate is faith-free and attributable to any factor but religion? Joyce McMillan and Nazir Afzal would have us believe that religion was neither cause nor contributor to the murder of Lee Rigby, or attacks in Bali, Madrid, London, Glasgow, Stockholm, Jakarta, New York, Nairobi and Boston, or the motivation of Isis, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram for their atrocities, or for the abuse of women and girls in Rotherham, Rochdale and Derby, or for the abuse of boys in Pakistan. Why not? Because that wouldn't explain why many other Muslims are peaceful and law-abiding, or because their religious texts forbid such behaviour. Presumably the Inquisition had nothing to do with religion either.

Even Prime Ministers can't decide how to front up to this question. Tony Blair commented in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that they had been carried out by "terrorists pure and simple", drawing fulsome praise from the Muslim Council of Britain for recognising these acts were not the work of "Islamic terrorists" or "Muslim terrorists", just plain terrorists.

Then came more atrocities committed by "terrorists pure and simple", and by the time London was attacked in July 2005 Tony Blair had changed his tune. In a speech to a Labour Party conference, recounting 26 violent Al-Qaeda episodes, he said the terrorists' motivation was "a religious ideology, a strain within the world-wide religion of Islam, as far removed from its essential decency and truth as Protestant gunmen who kill Catholics or vice versa, are from Christianity. But do not let us underestimate it or dismiss it. Those who kill in its name believe genuinely that in doing it, they do God's work; they go to paradise."

But in September 2013, David Cameron turned the clock back to mimic the Blair of 2001, stating of the Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya and all the others before: "These appalling terrorist attacks that take place where the perpetrators claim they do it in the name of a religion – they don't. They do it in the name of terror, violence and extremism and their warped view of the world. They don't represent Islam or Muslims in Britain or anywhere else in the world".

Of course the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Isis and their violence, or the actions of Pakistani child abusers in Rotherham, Derby or Pakistan, no more represent Islam than the late Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church represent Christianity. But does that mean religion isn't a significant contributing factor to their "warped view of the world"?

Alistair McBay is the NSS's spokesperson in Scotland. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

25 years: women working against fundamentalism in the UK

25 years: women working against fundamentalism in the UK

Opinion | Wed, 10 Sep 2014

An interview with Nira Yuval-Davis and Sukhwant Dhaliwal, co-editors of the new book telling the story of Women Against Fundamentalism, an organisation set up in 1989 by women of many faiths and none to work at the interface of feminism and anti-racism. The book also features a chapter by NSS honorary associate Gita Sahgal.

Deniz Kandiyoti: You have put together a book that commemorates and celebrates 25 years of Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF). What prompted you to form the collective?

Nira Yuval-Davis: Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF) was formed during the height of the Rushdie Affair in 1989, soon after the publication of The Satanic Verses when Muslim fundamentalist organisations, through their transnational networks, attempted to get the book banned, staging demonstrations and book burnings, including in the UK. Ayatollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a fatwa authorizing the killing of Salman Rushdie.

The initial push to form WAF came from members of Southall Black Sisters (SBS) who recognised these anti-Rushdie mobilisations as the sign of a global resurgence in religious fundamentalism. They understood that the polarised responses - both the portrayals of Muslims as inherently barbaric and the support for the anti-Rushdie demonstrators on grounds of cultural sensitivity and anti-racism – were also manifestations of the problems of multiculturalist policy and practice in the UK. They also saw resurgent religion as a direct threat to the rights of women and girls. So at an International Women's Day meeting in Southall on 8th March 1989, SBS raised these concerns and issued a statement in support of Rushdie, the right to freedom of expression and the right to dissent and doubt.

SBS joined forces with Voices for Rushdie, the Iranian Women's Organisation, and Brent Asian Women's Refuge, and WAF was then founded as a feminist coalition of women from a diverse range of ethnic, national, class, professional, and religious backgrounds. We were united by our shared political values as feminists, and as dissenters within our communities and their political circles.

WAF defined fundamentalism as modern day religious political movements that made use of state machinery to consolidate their power and to impose their version of religion. WAF members wanted to make clear to the public at large that those mobilising against Salman Rushdie were not representative of the range of voices within their communities. At their founding meeting WAF decided to organise a counter protest to the planned anti-Rushdie demonstration through central London on 27th May 1989. Images of that event provide strong visual representations of WAF's political location.

Sukhwant Dhaliwal: WAF started its campaigning work by responding to civil society mobilisations against Rushdie but quickly made the connections between this event and the state's response and the institutional position of Christianity, which came out very clearly during the Rushdie Affair as a discussion about the protection of Christianity through blasphemy legislation and the criminalisation of dissent. We were dealing with the contradictory impulses of the State. At the centre, Margaret Thatcher challenged the traditionalism of the Church of England, but reinforced the Christian character of British nationalism. In London, Ken Livingstone's Greater London Council created resources for a whole new wave of secular, left, anti-racist and feminist projects that opened out political possibilities. But at the same time, Livingstone was bolstering right wing religious groups that slipped through funding streams by projecting themselves as 'cultural projects'. Right wing groups also worked through anti-racist circles, demanding equality of provision, and attached themselves to Thatcher's neo-liberal politics by, for instance, using privatisation of education to make bids for minority faith schools.

DK: How have the challenges that initially stimulated the creation of WAF evolved through time?

SD: Even before 9/11 we saw that the use of religion became more and more critical to state policies. Many of us noted that multiculturalism was mutating into multifaithism. Paradoxically, when New Labour responded to the 2001 riots and 9/11 through the combined force of Community Cohesion policies, these were channelled through strengthened state relations with religious groups. Multiculturalism was being denigrated and assimilationism was revived, while class differences were also played down in a context where new layers of religious leaderships became the beneficiaries of a New Labour policy. The issues that we had raised in our critique of multiculturalism became accentuated as the number of 'religious leaders' and representatives increased exponentially. They became a critical part of New Labour's neo liberal instrumentalisation of 'community' and they were given additional spaces within which to manoeuvre.

But New Labour was also a paradoxical project. After the Thatcherite onslaught on civil society, it attempted to bring back a concern with human rights, equalities and social democracy. Many activists moved from a clear oppositional stance to joining forces with government departments to work on a social democracy agenda. The 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda suicide attacks on the Twin Towers polarized discussion within the UK between on the one hand, Bush and Blair's catastrophic war mongering and the projection of Muslims as dangerous fifth columnists and, on the other, an anti-racist defensiveness against any critique of Islam or Muslim political activism.

When the agenda of the New Labour government became clear, WAF opposed Blair's imperialist agenda dressed up as a bid for 'freedom' and 'democracy', but we also opposed the way in which the Stop the War Coalition responded to this new security state by building an alliance with factions of right wing Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami networks in Britain. At the time, there was little scrutiny of global fundamentalist networks by either anti-racist or feminist academics and activists. In WAF we were keen to distance ourselves from a neo imperial paternalism dressed up as liberation discourse, but we also wanted to highlight the limits of the anti-war response. We also insisted on the importance of challenging fundamentalism across all religions, not just Muslim fundamentalism. For instance, several WAF women were key in critiquing the Hindu Right and its attacks on Muslims and other minorities in India, but also their relationship with New Labour in the UK.

NYD: Questions around universalism versus relativism of rights also persisted but took different forms. The new discourse around community cohesion lay claim to such a thing as 'British values' and, as we see now with David Cameron, attempted to claim human rights struggles as specifically British, indeed a form of British superiority. Our submission to the Commission on Cohesion and Integration in 2007 questioned this claim, but also defended the values that had emerged from the Enlightenment tradition, particularly the universality of human rights as an important basis for challenging discrimination and inequality. But the 'war on terror' that led to the bombing of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq also tarnished the value of international law and frameworks and fanned the flames of cultural and religious relativism that milked the flaws of European governance to justify their own authoritarian projects.

SD: In the late 90s WAF had to react to the proliferation of religious groups within civil society – whether as faith-based welfare providers or religious political organisations. WAF members interacted with these new discourses and spaces in different ways. Some became involved in trying to draw religious frameworks over to more radical, left, feminist positions while others stayed on the outside and asserted a secular basis for organising out of a concern that engaging with religious frameworks would both undercut secularism and compromise the principle of universality. Challenging multifaithism and safeguarding secular spaces became key aspects of WAF's work.

NYD: Some members felt that while focusing on the state's multifaithist policies we neglected the forensic analysis of fundamentalist organisations and actors themselves. The balance between anti-fundamentalist and anti-racist feminism was always precarious but this became much more complex to maintain due to two shifts in public policy. Firstly, the scope and scale of the securitarian agenda complicated the task of challenging Muslim fundamentalism without colluding with stereotypical racist 'common sense'. Secondly, fundamentalist movements, including Christian Right, the Jamaat-e-Islami, Salfist factions and Khalistani fronts in the UK, had become far more sophisticated in their operations, articulating their concerns in human rights and civil liberties idioms and becoming more careful with their public language. Using the multifaithist agenda and funding policies, fundamentalist organisations became embedded in various facets of mainstream state and civil society – in education, the law, health, and as general consultants on the development of public policy. So it became much more difficult to challenge them without sounding racist to those with a shallow knowledge of the organizations and their policies and principles.

DK: If WAF occupies a distinctive place in the landscape of feminist activism in the UK how would you define that place?

NYD: Feminism, like all significant social movements and ideologies, is more a cluster of positions than one homogeneous body of principles, perspectives and practices. The feminist slogan 'sisterhood is global' has been challenged by particular groupings of women – working class, Black, lesbian, disabled to reflect multiple identities. WAF's sense of feminism was slightly different – the ethnic, national or religious origins of the women involved were diverse but were not the focus of their activism. Rather WAF activism was defined by shared political values and an intersectional analysis, we sought to challenge multiple axes of power and oppression (race, class, gender, ethnicity) simultaneously. We viewed these multiple axes not as additive (i.e. 'racism plus sexism plus disability equals double or triple oppression') but as constitutive of each other. WAF was also critical of identity politics and the ways in which these essentialised political positions were more concerned with closing and policing the borders of their groups. We focused, instead, on building solidarities across differences.

SD: WAF was determined to show that fundamentalism is a concern for anti-racist feminists and endeavoured to locate a feminist response to fundamentalism within a left political and civil liberties frame. It was unique in its ability to make the connections between seemingly different types of struggle without concealing their nuances and contradictions. It is difficult to find organisations nowadays offering analyses of fundamentalism that bring together an understanding of gender, class, racism, Christian privilege in the UK, and critiques of imperialism as well as the facilitating role that both state and civil society have played in fundamentalist mobilisations. Together with a demand for secularism, a robust welfare state, and Disestablishment these characterize WAF's politics - an orientation that is sorely missing from the current political landscape.

DK: How do you see continuing challenges for the future?

SD: The challenges are immense! At a normative level there has been a huge swing to the right both in terms of entrenched neo-liberalism and the growth of authoritarian religious movements. We now have an overtly neo-liberal state with no regard for social democratic principles – slashing funding and decimating the welfare state, closing borders and returning to 1970s jingoism about immigrants, assimilationist in its assertion of British superiority and the resurgence of a narrative about Britain as a Christian country despite declining Church attendance. Faith based provision in the UK has become so embedded in areas of social policy that the idea of removing all state funding of faith schools, for instance, carries little resonance as a pragmatic response to the problem of religion within the education system. Globally, we are seeing the exponential growth and power of right wing religious movements, from the electoral victory of Narendra Modi in India placing the Hindu Right at the centre of a growing world economic power, to the unencumbered Zionist assault on Palestine, and the heinous actions of the Islamic State (ISIS). Forms of oppression based on gender and sexuality continue as critical features of all these movements.

NYD: One can group key challenges into three types. First, the need to adjust and expand our political-ideological analyses to encompass both global and UK-based developments since WAF first became active. The bi-annual CMRB-SOAS seminars are an attempt to encourage such a discussion. The second challenge is organisational. WAF disbanded in June 2012 because its members were active in groups and campaigns against domestic violence, against immigration policies, on the environment, and campaigning for secularism. Having resisted NGO-isation, WAF could not sustain itself on an entirely voluntary basis. The question remains as to whether it is possible or desirable to resurrect WAF. How do we reproduce WAF messages and activities for and with new generations and constituencies? We feel that WAF's agenda should be at the forefront of feminist and anti-racist activism and interwoven with critiques of neo-liberalism and militarism. However, there has been an entrenchment of religious identity politics – something we spent decades contesting.

Asserting that rights need not be justified by religious texts or frameworks, but must simply be available to everyone, requires new struggles. Individually and collectively, we need to find a way of keeping a politics of hope alive while avoiding the all too easy sense of paralysis and despair induced by the vast local and global challenges facing anti-fundamentalist anti-racist feminism.

Nira Yuval-Davis the Director of the Research Centre on Migration, Refugees and Belonging (CMRB) at the University of East London, is an Israeli dissident and a founder member of Women Against Fundamentalism and Women In Black.

Sukhwant Dhaliwal is a Research Fellow at The International Centre: Researching Child Sexual Exploitation, Violence and Trafficking, at the University of Bedfordshire and co-editor of the book.

This article first appeared on Open Democracy and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence. Cover image © Rob Kenyon.

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

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