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Newsline 13 September 2013

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Birmingham college drops ban on face veils

Birmingham college drops ban on face veils

News | Tue, 10 Sep 2013

Birmingham Metropolitan College, which earlier this week issued a ban on all face coverings on college premises, has now modified the policy to permit the wearing of niqabs or Muslim face veils.

Can we please stop wasting money on these endless surveys that just tell us what we already know?

Can we please stop wasting money on these endless surveys that just tell us what we already know?

Opinion | Thu, 12 Sep 2013

Professor Paul Weller of Derby University seems to have cornered the market in research into perceived discrimination against religious groups. He seems to bring out a new report on it every year — all saying basically the same thing. We have also had occasion to question his methodology in the past.

All this is done at considerable taxpayers' expense.

The latest is 'Religion and Belief: Discrimination and Equality in England and Wales. A Decade of Continuity and Change'

The results are based on elaborate consultations around the country and basically boil down to the fact that complaints about unfair treatment on grounds of religion have declined since the Equality Act was brought in.

Those conflicts that do occur are usually the result of the prejudice of individuals rather than because of workplace policies. As the report puts it: "the experience of unfair treatment is more often reported to be occasional than frequent."

When asked, some religious groups still gripe that they are singled out for unfair treatment. Muslims, particularly, think they get a hard deal. Jews say that anti-Semitism is still present in this country (although they don't say which other "faith group" practises it most) and Pagans find it difficult to get people to take them seriously.

And where religious groups have institutional power — such as in schools — non-believers feel at a distinct disadvantage. At the same time, Christians are fed up with Muslims getting more attention than they do.

But it's all rather low-key and unalarming.

Most of us recognise the situation from our day-to-day lives. We don't need Professor Weller spending all that public money to tell us that some religious people are annoyed that other people aren't interested in their beliefs.

Professor Weller labels this "religion or belief naivety" and defines it as:

"A lack of basic religion or belief literacy that sometimes leads to actions that can be seen as and/or result in unfair treatment. It may not have any apparent directly negative impact on the lives of individuals or groups other than (the effects of which should not itself be underestimated) perpetuating a status quo where not enough is known about these religions.

"We have adopted the terminology of 'religion or belief naivety' in preference to that of 'religion or belief ignorance' because what is identified here is not a more settled state of 'ignorance' in relation to which some individuals/ organizations do not wish to be challenged or to change their attitudes or behaviour, or policies and practises. Rather, 'religion or belief naivety' can also encompass the effects that occur even where there is an intention to be inclusive.

"Thus the key aspect of 'religion or belief naivety' is to be seen not in the intentions of those whose actions might be characterized in this way, but rather in the effects that this naivety can have on others. Some of these effects can be similar to those of 'religion or belief prejudice'."

So, it seems, Professor Weller — a Baptist Minister for 13 years before his academic career — is concerned that not everybody is totally fascinated with and respectful of religious views. Some people are simply indifferent and don't want to spend valuable time being "re-educated" in a way that will force them to change their opinions.

Personally, I'm not fascinated by Ramadan and don't particularly want to know anything about it. I don't want to know what Whitsuntide means, either, or why Sikhs have to wear a dagger. So long as they follow the law and don't impinge on the rights of others I'm happy for enthusiasts to believe whatever they want.

But it seems some believers are annoyed when non-believing co-workers have the temerity to eat their packed lunch during the "holy month" or occasionally blurt out an expletive that they regard as "blasphemous". They want them to stop because it offends their religious sensibilities.

But if someone in the office likes train spotting, and other people think its "geeky" (see the hatred that trainspotters have to endure here — please include them in your next report, Dr Weller), you wouldn't expect him to complain to the boss that his feelings had been hurt because others don't share his interest.

Why should our religious colleagues be any different simply because we can't be bothered with their precious beliefs, either?

It seems to me Professor Weller is making a mountain out of a molehill and simply encouraging religious people to look for offence where otherwise they might just shrug it off as part of life's rough and tumble.

Discrimination, however, is different. I would join a strike to defend any colleague who was being disadvantaged because of their religion. If they were denied promotion, for instance, or faced the sack simply because of what they believed, I'd be on the front line with them.

Professor Weller's report is also strangely out of date. Religious complaints that seek to gain preferential treatment rather than equality have been dealt a killer blow in Europe in the judgments on Ladele, Chaplin and the others. We hope that such self-seeking legal actions are now a thing of the past.

The law is there to protect individuals from injustice, not to bring advantage to particular religious beliefs.

Most religious people have come to terms with the fact that they are not special in the workplace, they only have the same rights as everyone else. Agitating to have every Friday or Saturday or Sunday off because of your religion, while your colleagues have to work on, is simply not fair.

Employers should try to accommodate all reasonable requests from their workers, of course — whether it's for holidays, a change in hours to take in the school run or time off to go to prayers. But if it can't be done without adversely affecting the business, then most employees will accept that "no" is a reasonable answer. Religious people should accept it, too.

Professor Weller's report is long, convoluted, strangely behind the times — and expensive.

We must call time on any more of them.

Yes, we can talk about this

Yes, we can talk about this

Opinion | Tue, 03 Sep 2013

London's National Theatre recently hosted a debate about freedom of speech, multiculturalism and Islam called Can we talk about this? The opening line was a question to the audience, "Are you morally superior to the Taliban?"

Anne Marie Waters, who was present, wrote in a blog that "very few people in the audience raised their hand to say they were."

This response, demonstrates a misconceived attempt to be seen as tolerant and 'multiculturalist'. People could not bring themselves to say their views are morally preferable to a group that, Waters points out, "denies women medical treatment, imprisons them in their homes, allows domestic violence, and executes people by stoning for having a private life or the audacity to not believe in God."

They fear being labelled, racist, 'Islamophobic', or discriminating against religion. Rather, they adopt a stance that treats all moral views generated by culture or religion as equally valid ('cultural relativism'). They confuse the distinction between the right to think as you want, and the right to act as you want.

It is generally disregarded that a global code of moral values has been established, and accepted by almost every nation in the world — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). By acceding to this Declaration, over 190 nations have agreed to honour the principles of individual autonomy, equality, security, freedom of thought, belief, expression and association, subject to the norms of democratic government. In its statement of rights that apply, regardless of nationality, race, gender and social standing, the Declaration sets a morally accepted standard of behaviour for all individuals.

It has no place for cultural relativism, which leads to tolerance of cruel and inhumane practice in the name of 'culture', as if culture is the single source of moral acceptability.

Over 170 nations have signed the International Convention on Human Rights (ICCPR), turning the political rights set out in the UDHR into a binding agreement.

While individuals may practice their internal, illiberal beliefs in private, governments have undertaken to ensure their recognition of the political rights of everyone else, even within the same family, church or any other organisation. The trouble is, not one of these nations fully accedes to their promise.

Why were the UDHR and ICCPR adopted? Because it was globally agreed that the principles they enshrine are the most effective (albeit imperfect) means of promoting the well-being of humankind. They were considered superior to other moral and political principles, and therefore superior to cultural mores that did not work for the same ends.

At the very least, this is what has been formally decreed by the nations of the world. So holding that moral and political practices that promote this end are superior to others is neither unduly discriminatory or racist, but invokes a globally accepted 'superior' standard of living.

There is now a global inter-connectedness to the extent that indigenous people themselves often resort to the language of human rights to protect their culture from further unwanted encroachment.

Cultural relativism is a flawed basis for acceptance of others' values, as acceptance is based solely on the expression of those values by others, rather than on the worth of the values themselves. If, for example, clerics justify (or condone) certain action, say, female 'circumcision' (which is in effect genital mutilation) because it is tradition, or simply decreed by some 'authority' as mandated or acceptable, this reasoning is not sufficient to establish a general moral value that cannot be criticised.

However, if their reason is to prevent some harm to society in general, regardless of its religious beliefs, the argument goes to the content of the value espoused. We must be able to "address whatever reservations, doubts, and objections there are about our positions out there, in the real world, no matter what society or culture or religious tradition they come from". It is the effect of a value on society, not its source, that is the relevant consideration.

Evidence is coming to light of many instances in Western countries (including Australia) that women and girls are subjected to abuse, through restrictions, demands and physical attacks including honour killing, female genital mutilation (FGM) and childhood or forced marriage. Authorities are aware of this, but are not forthright in criticising and dealing with this. Approaches range from 'sensitive treatment' to acceptance.

FGM, for example is carried out on millions of women worldwide for cultural or religious reasons. Although it is proscribed in many countries, including developed nations, few prosecutions take place. FGM results in increased maternal and infant mortality and infection, extreme pain and psychological harm. It does not enhance the woman's childbearing capacity, her physical or mental well-being, or the communal good. All it does is satisfy patriarchal notions involving sexual repression, harming, rather than promoting human well-being overall, and blatantly breaching the victim's human rights. The practice can be legitimately questioned on the basis that its rejection is based on superior moral and political values.

Recent publicity over FGM in Australia has resulted in a Government crackdown, despite awareness of the practice and its prohibition in the early 1990s. But, like other cultural practices that result in harm to women through denial of their moral and political rights, authorities are habitually loathe to confront the practices head-on, despite their illegality, very often because of 'cultural sensitivity' (i.e. the fear of being labelled not 'politically correct').

Compare the UK and France: "The laws which made FGM illegal were introduced in France and England at about the same time, in the mid-1980s. But whereas some 100 parents and practitioners of FGM have been convicted in France, there has never been a single prosecution in the UK". The French explain that their priority is the welfare of children.

Humanists have a moral compass. It is enshrined in a globally accepted Declaration that, globally, governments have said they will follow. It is not arrogance or cultural imperialism to consider its ethical principles superior to other cultural beliefs, as the nations of the world have declared them as such. We must talk about this, pressure society to accept these principles, and demand that governments deliver on their promise.

Meg Wallace is a writer and Human Rights activist based in Australia. This blog was originally published here, and was reproduced with the permission of the author. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

Fiji’s new constitution may be secular, but it still undermines human rights, says Amnesty

Fiji’s new constitution may be secular, but it still undermines human rights, says Amnesty

News | Mon, 09 Sep 2013

Fiji's new constitution — which was ratified on 6 September 2013 — may be secular but it "falls far short of international standards of human rights law," says Amnesty International.

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NSS Speaks Out

Scottish spokesman Alistair McBay had this letter in the Scotsman "Schools are for teaching, not preaching"

Terry Sanderson was on BBC WM talking about the ban on head coverings in a Birmingham College that has sparked outrage among Muslim students.

The NSS was quoted in the Economist in a piece about the French secular charter in schools.

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