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Newsline 14 October 2016

Theresa May's plan to generate a new wave of religiously selective faith schools was dealt a blow this week when the former schools minister Jim Knight warned that relaxing faith schools admissions rules would risk the "divisive ghettoisation of education". His article appears below. We agree that this country is divided enough right now - it is not the time to encourage more segregation of children by faith. That's why we're opposing the Government's plans to open more faith schools and hope you will too. Visit our campaign page to find out how you can help.

Meanwhile, Britain's de facto blasphemy law was in evidence again this week with the hounding of British Olympic gymnast Louis Smith, after a private video of him and his friends 'mocking Islam' ended up on the internet. Louis has since received death threats and faces expulsion from British Gymnastics. Below, our campaigns director argues that the demonization of Louis Smith is illustrative of a troubling return of blasphemy to Britain.

Freedom of expression is a cornerstone to any thriving democracy. At the NSS we campaign for a secular democracy where people's rights and freedoms are respected, but their beliefs are always open to criticism, mockery and ridicule.

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The demonisation of Louis Smith: This is how a de facto blasphemy law works

The demonisation of Louis Smith: This is how a de facto blasphemy law works

Opinion | Tue, 11 Oct 2016

The castigation of a British gymnast for 'mocking Islam' is illustrative of a troubling return of blasphemy, argues Stephen Evans.

If you've been following the hounding of British Olympic gymnast Louis Smith this week, you'd be forgiven for forgetting that blasphemy laws were abolished in England back in 2008.

The very public castigation of the British gymnast is illustrative of the troubling return of blasphemy. As the former Strictly Come Dancing winner has discovered – and to his immense cost – Britain's bourgeoning 'culture of offence' is ensuring that any action deemed likely to offend religious sensibilities, but particularly Muslim sensibilities, is strictly taboo.

The 'offending' footage, published by The Sun shows him with fellow gymnast Luke Carson drunkenly goofing around yelling "Allahu Akbar" and mocking aspects of Islamic belief.

Condemnation came swiftly from Mohammed Shafiq, the chief executive of the Ramadan Foundation, who asserted "our faith is not to be mocked" and called on Smith to "apologise immediately".

Or else what? One wonders. Because Mohammed Shafiq has form when it comes to whipping up hostility against people lawfully exercising their right to free expression. Back in 2014 when Maajid Nawaz tweeted a Jesus & Mo cartoon with a message saying he wasn't offended by the depiction of Mohammad, Shafiq threatened to "notify all Muslim organisations in the UK of his despicable behaviour and also notify Islamic countries."

Following Shafiq's lead, other condemnation soon followed. A Muslim councillor in Peterborough withdrew his support for the four-time Olympic medallist to receive the Freedom of the City. Sponsors distanced themselves from the athlete. British Gymnastics, the official governing body for the sport, threatened Smith with expulsion. "British Gymnastics does not condone the mocking of any faith or religion", said a spokesperson.

For his part, Smith issued a swift apology and a statement in which he recognised the "severity" of his mistake.

And for those accused of mocking or insulting Islam, there are indeed "severe" consequences.

Just ask Asia Bibi, the Christian woman currently facing execution in Pakistan for blasphemy. Or Raif Badawi, who, after receiving 50 lashes outside a Jeddah mosque in January for "insulting Islam" is still languishing in a Saudi prison.

There are others you could ask, apart from the fact that they're dead. Take for example Asad Shah, the Ahmadiyya Muslim shopkeeper from Glasgow who was stabbed to death in March by a Sunni Muslim for "disrespecting Islam". Or the polytechnic student recently lynched and beaten to a pulp by an angry mob in Nigeria over an allegation of blasphemy. Or of course those killed in the attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. I could go on and on and on listing the countless names of people murdered for the 'crime' of "disrespecting Islam".

Inevitably, Louis Smith has himself now received death threats.

Britain has a pedigree to be proud of when it comes to poking fun at religion. It certainly makes Britain a better place to live than some other states where religion demands complete 'respect'. Would those insisting that religion must not to be mocked do away with British comedy classics like Monty Python's Life of Brian and Father Ted?

I accept that Louis Smith's drunken foolery wasn't exactly 'comedy gold', but that's beside the point. There's much more at stake than our ability to laugh at religion.

For Christopher Hitchens, mockery of religion wasn't just acceptable, it was essential. "One of the beginnings of human emancipation is the ability to laugh at authority", he observed.

A similar view was articulated in the Council of Europe's 2016 Resolution on 'freedom of expression and respect for religious beliefs', which stated:

"There cannot be a democratic society without the fundamental right to freedom of expression. The progress of society and the development of every individual depend on the possibility of receiving and imparting information and ideas. This freedom is not only applicable to expressions that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive but also to those that may shock, offend or disturb the state or any sector of the population".

Britain's tendency to tread carefully around Islam can be traced back to the Rushdie Affair in 1988, which saw angry and frequently violent reaction from Muslims to the publication of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses. Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini accused Rushdie of blasphemy and issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill him. Since then we've seen the emergence of a de facto blasphemy law, enforced by the ever-present threat of violence.

Then there's the often employed and effective weapon of the 'islamophobia' accusation, which seeks to equate criticism of Islam with racism, often with disastrous consequences for those being accused.

Like many people, Muslims included, I long to see a more modern, human rights compliant version of Islam take hold. One that embraces Enlightenment secular values, such as freedom of speech, gender equality, the separation of religion and state, and so on.

Muslims are hardly likely to realise this ambition if the rest of us mindlessly pander to the lunatic fringe of Muslim society which insists that Islam must never, under any circumstances, be defamed. Wrapping Islam in a protective blanket and insulating it from criticism and ridicule will do nothing to help it mature, as other religions have done.

However well-intentioned, over-reactions like those we've seen this week to Louis Smith's mockery of religion have a disastrously chilling effect on free speech. It plays into the hands of the Islamic world's professional offence takers who would like nothing more than to see all criticism of Islam silenced once and for all.

Being offended from time to time is the price we all pay for living in a free country. If religion expects to be tolerated it needs to be tolerant and robust enough to withstand mockery. Let's insist on respect for people's rights, but not their beliefs. Bigotry and hatred need to be called out, but there should be no shame in mocking religion. So let's be assertive in defending our liberal values and in doing so cut Louis Smith some slack.

Advice for parents wanting to give the evangelical Operation Christmas Child shoebox scheme a wide berth

Advice for parents wanting to give the evangelical Operation Christmas Child shoebox scheme a wide berth

Opinion | Wed, 12 Oct 2016

Alastair Lichten looks at the ethical, educational and efficiency case against the Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child shoebox scheme.

It gets earlier every year. Despite the unseasonable sunshine this September we've already started to receive the usual messages from exasperated parents about their school or community group supporting the Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child shoebox scheme.

While every year we could add new examples of this charity's unsuitability (last year it was their President's latest homophobic tirade praise for Russia's anti-gay laws) the fact is that the concerns over their inappropriate proselytization and anti-Muslim bigotry have been around for years.

I've no desire to rehash all of these here, but I do want to provide a little help and support to those wanting to challenge a decision to use this scheme in their schools or anywhere else. There are ethical, educational and effective alternatives, a selection of links below provide more background on these.

The scheme started in the nineties, perhaps Samaritan's Purse was too busy in the eighties supporting the murderous Nicaragua Contra. We began to draw attention to the scheme a number of years ago and as result the scheme has been dropped by many schools and companies. As a result of the criticism of proselytization materials being placed inside the shoeboxes after donation, Samaritan's Purse stopped this practice and started delivering their evangelical booklets alongside the boxes.

During the traditional festive many people will be looking to engage in charitable activity supporting a range of religious and secular charities. If your school or community group wants to get involved and is considering supporting the scheme you should challenge them to do some due diligence and ask themselves three questions: Is it ethical? Is it educational? Is it effective?

While Operation Christmas Child may fail all three tests, there are a number of good alternatives out there.

Is it ethical?

While the vast majority of those involved in Operation Christmas Child are likely acting with good intentions, the scheme is highly problematic ­- not only on account of the organisations aforementioned bigotry - but because of the way it seeks to use poverty and humanitarian tragedies to evangelise to children.

The biggest concern that parents raise with us is the scheme's underhanded nature. When working with schools Samaritan's Purse often downplay or don't mention the scheme's evangelical mission or the materials included in the packs or that children receiving the 'no strings attached gifts' are encouraged to attend Bible courses.

In 2001 Samaritan's Purse was under contract to deliver US aid to the victims of the El Salvador earthquake. Residents of several villages reported that they needed to sit through a half hour prayer meeting before receiving assistance.

Following such criticisms Samaritan's Purse claim that such practices no longer happen, but even when explicit links aren't made between the aid and conversion / religious participation, the link is strongly implied and a social pressure is created.

Almost all schools and community groups will have a statement of values. Ask them if Operation Christmas Child is consistent with these.

Last year Girlguiding UK confirmed to the NSS that it didn't support the Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child initiative, and that it would be encouraging Girlguiding groups to only support fundraising initiatives that are in accordance with their values of "inclusive, fun, caring, empowering, challenging and inspiring".

Is it educational?

Many schools naïvely get involved in the scheme because they want their pupils to learn about charitable giving and the wider world. Most reputable aid agencies and development charities are able to provide schools with educational materials about their work.

By comparison, Samaritan's Purse often deliver collective worship, assemblies or even RE classes on the 'true meaning of Christmas' and their view of the Christian nature of charity.

Is it effective?

While it may make you feel good, filling shoeboxes with plastic trinkets to send overseas is an horrendously inefficient way to give to charity. Reputable charities usually seek to convert physical donations into money, because money can be used far more efficiently. Shoebox schemes are a bad idea and no major aid agency supports them. They are the charitable equivalent of untrained volunteers turning up in disaster areas, even if well intentioned they mostly just get in the way of professionals who would have far rather have the price of a plane ticket to spend on supplies.

Personally on all these tests I would support Oxfam Unwrapped or Good Gifts who provide practical help directly to those in need. Both websites and Oxfam's materials for schools are a good way of learning how different donations can make a direct difference in the UK and developing countries. Other members have suggested Plan UK, who work with the world's poorest children and Save the Children, who carry out vital work saving children's lives across the world.

See also:

Our campaigns director Stephen Evans on challenging the scheme and finding more effective ways to give Operation Christmas Child: Christian fundamentalism, gift-wrapped

An overview of many of the scheme's problems, 'no strings attached' proselytizing and neo-colonialism Operation Christmas Child

A parent's perspective on learning of the scheme's underhanded nature and successfully challenging it in their school Enticing children to evangelism with toys: Samaritan's Purse shoebox scheme.

7 reasons not to participate in Operation Christmas Child

Is Operation Christmas Child's shoebox campaign just a propaganda tool for Christianity?

Why parents shouldn't support 'Operation Christmas Child'

Operation Christmas Child Alert UK – campaign site

'Relaxing faith schools admissions rules risks the divisive ghettoisation of education'

'Relaxing faith schools admissions rules risks the divisive ghettoisation of education'

In an increasingly divided nation, the last thing we should be doing is exacerbating that by dividing our children, says a former schools minister

Exposure: Islam's Non-Believers

Exposure: Islam's Non-Believers

Award-winning filmmaker Deeyah Khan follows the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, a volunteer support group, and investigates the lives of people who have left Islam as they face discrimination from within their own communities.

Watch on ITV player.

The problem of 'faith schools' in Britain

The problem of 'faith schools' in Britain

On Conatus News, Scott Douglas Jacobsen and Angelos Sofocleous look at the human rights arguments against faith schools and in favour of moving to a secular education system.

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