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Newsline 16 January 2015

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Charlie Hebdo Editorial: Je Suis Charlie Means Je Suis Secularism

Charlie Hebdo Editorial: Je Suis Charlie Means Je Suis Secularism

Opinion | Thu, 15 Jan 2015

This is a translation of the editorial from the first Charlie Hebdo published since the Paris attacks. It is reproduced here in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.

For a week now, Charlie, an atheist magazine, has accomplished more miracles than all the saints and prophets together. That of which we are the most proud is that you have in your hands the magazine that we have always produced, in the company of those who have always produced it.

What made us laugh the most, is that the bells of Notre Dame rang in our honor ... for a week now, Charlie has been moving far more than mountains across the world. For a week now, as Willem has shown us so magnificently in his drawing, Charlie has many new friends. Some anonymous, and some global celebrities. Some humble and some affluent. Some miscreants and some religious leaders. Some sincere and some akin to jesuits. Some who will be with us for the rest of our lives, and some who are just passing by.

We take them all on board today, we have neither the time nor the heart to separate them out. But that doesn't mean that we are fooled. We wholeheartedly thank those in their millions whether simple citizens or embodying institutions who are truly at our sides, who deeply and sincerely "are Charlie." They will know who they are. Pissing off the others who don't give a fuck anyway.

There is however a question which still gnaws away at us: Are we finally going to see the foul expression "secular fundamentalist" disappear from political and intellectual lexicon?

Are we finally going to stop devising learned semantic expressions describing equally assassins and their victims?

In recent years, we have felt rather lonely, trying to push back with our pencils straightforward bullshit and pseudo-intellectual subtleties that they were throwing at our faces and that of our friends who were strongly defending secularism: Islamophobes, Christianophobes, troublemakers, people assuming no responsibility, those who throw oil on the fire, racists, you-asked-for-it ... yes we condemn terrorism, but. Yes it is not good to threaten cartoonists with death, but. Yes, setting fire to a magazine's headquarters is wrong, but.

We've heard it all, as have our friends. We've often tried to laugh it off, because that's what we're best at.

But now, really, we'd like to laugh at something else. Because it's already starting again.

Cabu, Charb, Honore, Tignous, Wolinski, Elsa Cayat, Bernard Maris, Moustapha Ourrad, Michel Renaud, Franck Brinsolaro, Frederic Boisseau, Ahmed Merabet, Clarissa Jean-Philippe, Philippe Braham, Yohan Cohen, Yoav Hattab, Francois-Michel Saada, their blood was not yet dry and Thierry Meyssan was explaining to his Facebook fans that this was obviously a Judeo-western-American conspiracy.

Who were the victims?

We were already hearing, here and there, these delicate people put on airs and graces on witnessing last Sunday's gathering, dribbling endless pettiness, seeking to justify, openly or in whispers, terrorism and religious fascism, expressing indignation at the fact that we can say police = SS, among other things.

No, in this massacre, no one death is less unjust than another. Franck, who died in Charlie's premises, and all his [police] colleagues killed during this barbaric week, died to defend ideas which may not even have been their own.

Nevertheless we are going to try to be optimistic, even though it is out of season.

We will hope that as of this January 7, 2015, strongly defending secularism will be second nature for everyone.

That we will finally stop posturing for electoral reasons or through cowardice, legitimizing or even tolerating community separatism and cultural relativism, which lead to but one thing: Religious totalitarianism.

Yes, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a fact, yes, international geopolitics is a succession of manoeuvres and underhand blows, yes, the social situation of "populations of Islamic origin" in France, as people say, is deeply unjust, yes, we must fight unremittingly against racism and all types of discrimination.

Fortunately there are several instruments with which we can try to solve these serious problems but they are all inoperative if one of them is missing: Secularism. Not affirmative secularism, not inclusive secularism, not I-don't-know-what-kind-of-secularism. Secularism full stop.

Pushing for universal rights, it alone, allows for equality, liberty, brotherhood and sisterhood. It alone allows for total freedom of conscience which all religions, as soon as they move from the arena of the strictly intimate into the political arena, deny, more or less openly according to their marketing position. Oddly enough, it alone allows believers and others to live in peace. All those who claim to defend Muslims, while accepting the totalitarian religious rhetoric, are in fact defending their executioners. The first victims of Islamic fascism are the Muslims.

The millions of anonymous people, all the institutions, all the heads of state and government, all the political, intellectual and media celebrities, all the religious dignitaries who this week proclaimed "Je Suis Charlie" should know that also means "I am secularism." We are convinced that as far as most of our supporters are concerned, that goes without saying. The others can do what they like with it.

Last but not least. We would like to send a message to Pope Francis, who this week, he as well, "is Charlie": We will only accept that the bells of Notre Dame are ringing in our honour when it is the Femen who are ringing them.

MPs want God at centre of local democracy

MPs want God at centre of local democracy

Opinion | Thu, 15 Jan 2015

When Conservative councillor Imran Khan opted out of Christian prayers at council meetings he was subject to ostracization, abuse and deselection. He's urging MPs to keep sectarianism out of local politics by voting against the Local Government (Religious Etc. Observances) Bill.

Tory MP Jake Berry's Private Member's Bill, which seeks to put God back at the centre of local democracy reaches the Report Stage on Friday. MPs are seeking to overturn a 2012 High Court ruling that the law does not give councils the power to introduce a religious dimension to meetings. As anyone who has attended a formal council meeting where prayers are taking place knows, council business proceedings begin with a vicar reading the Lord's Prayer, usually accompanied by prayers asking for God to ensure councillors make decisions based on his holy guidance, and asks God to kindly ensure councillors don't act corruptly. Importantly, the prayers are recognized as a formal part of council business, everyone in the room is upstanding, looking downwards, and many will chant out the words aloud.

Following a successful campaign led by the National Secular Society in 2012 and a High Court judgment, this embarrassing anachronism should have been kicked out of councils forever. However, religionists responded as expected and their chief cheerleader in the Commons, Eric Pickles MP, pleaded with councils to carry on as normal, promising to lobby for the legislation being discussed on Friday.

The Local Government (Religious Etc. Observances) Bill seeks to make provision for the inclusion of prayers or "other religious observance" or "observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief" at local authority meetings. Back in 2012, the High Court ruled that "The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a Council is not lawful under s111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue."

Mr Justice Ouseley, the lead judge of the Administrative Court at the Royal Courts of Justice, stated in his ruling that the 1972 Local Government Act did not give councils the power to introduce a religious dimension to their meetings, commenting:

"I do not think that the 1972 Act, dealing with the organisation, management and decision-making of local Councils, should be interpreted as permitting the religious views of one group of Councillors, however sincere or large in number, to exclude or, even to a modest extent, to impose burdens on or even to mark out those who do not share their views and do not wish to participate in their expression of them. They are all equally elected Councillors."

Local authorities have a statutory duty to advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not. Many councillors and residents attending meetings are not Christian or do not belong to any other faith, but are being forced to sit through Christian, and in rare cases, other religions' prayers. As a former Tory councillor, I found this experience to be wholly alienating.

As someone who does not wish to recite Christian prayers, I had to wait outside the room while the prayers were taking place. This clearly set me apart as being different from all the other councillors, several of whom suggested to me that not only was I being "difficult" as this was such a trivial issue, but that I had no right to exempt myself from the meetings. Since I had to walk across the floor afterwards, bumping past the mainly elderly white audience, people thought I was either purposely trying to be disrespectful to their beliefs, or I was late to the meeting – something taken very seriously by other councillors.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy read out my statement to Eric Pickles on Channel 4 News, who responded by saying that Britain was a "Christian country" and that "An act of Christian worship has been part of our cultural heritage and this is a fundamental attack on that. It does seem to me that it's been part of our culture to do so, and I think there's nothing wrong in standing up for part of British, traditional Christian culture."

Senior Tory councillors at the time advised me that if I did not like how things were being done, then I should consider leaving the country. I received an email (which I have retained) from an executive member of council - copied to the rest of the Conservative group – that read: "As far as I am concerned the most basic gift we can offer the minorities is the one we all enjoy and that is freedom. Freedom to not attend, walk away, or go somewhere else if you don't like the way we live." This view was shared widely by the other Conservative members at Reigate and Banstead Borough Council.

Being told to consider leaving the country if I do not agree with a Tory culturally chauvinist view of society – one at odds with the judgment of a High Court Judge – certainly sits uneasily with my need to participate as an active citizen who believes in liberal democratic freedoms. However, it is not just local councillors calling for the prioritisation of Christianity above other communities in councils. Tory MP, Sir Edward Leigh hopes to amend the bill so that it is not just religion that will be formalised in councils but specifically Christianity. He hopes to move the following amendment:

"Judaeo-Christian tradition - In observing the provisions in this Act, councils shall keep in mind the preeminence of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as the historical foundation of the United Kingdom."

Labour's Lyn Brown MP (Shadow Communities Minister) also called the 2012 High Court ruling "perverse" in Parliament at Committee stage. Bearing in mind the adverse impact on political participation, it is hard to believe the Bill has received serious scrutiny or consideration in parliament, with MPs on this Public Bill Committee failing to properly consider the implications of the divisive legislation.

Supporters of this Bill claim it increases 'religious freedom'. In fact, democracy requires freedom to participate in public proceedings on an equal footing with everyone else. Councillors who want to pray before meetings should not be stopped from doing so. But, including prayers as part of formal council business prevents me and many others like me up and down the country from participating in active political life. This Friday, I hope parliamentarians on all sides of the House recognise that an essential feature of being British is the equal opportunity to participate in local democracy.

The NSS briefing on the Bill can be read here

See also: Muslim councillor deselected from Horley after prayer row

Imran Khan is a former Conservative member of Reigate and Banstead Borough Council. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

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