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Newsline 18 April 2014

Newsline is a weekly round-up of news and opinion from the NSS website. If you're not already a member, becoming one is the most tangible way of supporting our work. Our campaigning is wholly supported by our members, people like you who share our belief that secularism is an essential element in promoting equality between all citizens. Please join today.

NSS welcomes investigation into “extremist schools”

NSS welcomes investigation into “extremist schools”

News | Mon, 14 Apr 2014

The National Secular Society has welcomed reports that Ofsted inspectors are to be sent to schools amid concerns that children are being radicalised and exposed to extremist ideologies.

Religious schools are the problem, not the answer

Religious schools are the problem, not the answer

Opinion | Mon, 14 Apr 2014

One could almost be tempted to say "Hallelujah" to the news that Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has at last recognised that there is a problem with dangerous religious proselytising in schools – particularly, but certainly not only, in Muslim-dominated schools.

The latest news is that he has sent "teams of inspectors" into various community schools in Birmingham and Manchester to find out the extent to which they have been hijacked by Islamist extremists who are intent on using the schools as religious recruiting grounds rather than places of general education.

Meanwhile, reports suggest that some schools with a Muslim ethos have become little more than madrassas paid for by the taxpayer, with the emphasis on religion so extreme that there is little time for anything else.

In February the NSS found that one Muslim school, the Madani High School in Leicester, was advertising for a specifically male science teacher which we argued is against the equality laws. The Department for Education agreed and the school was told to change the way it advertised for staff.

However, the head of governors decided that it was not against the law and said that he would continue to recruit teachers on the basis of their gender. A report into the school by Channel 4 News has the chair of governors saying that "faith schools" have an exemption from the Equality Act that permits them to recruit on Islamic lines. However, this exemption is very narrowly drawn and quite clearly does not apply to science teachers.

The NSS has been arguing for decades that these schools are divisive. How can they be anything else when they separate children on religious grounds? And yet still our political classes persistent in praising them to the rooftops.

The latest was Ed Miliband who, in a confused statement about his personal beliefs ("I am an atheist who has faith") lauded the "incredible job" done by "faith schools".

We all know that politicians feel they have to walk on eggshells so as not to upset "faith leaders" but taken together with Cameron's own sudden public embrace of evangelical Christianity, and Nick Clegg's decision to send his children to a strict Catholic school, it is clear that the prospect of any serious political challenge to religion-based education is nowhere in sight.

When the NSS exposed an Orthodox Jewish school for crossing out questions on exam papers that didn't fit with the school's "religious ethos" it became clear that more and more schools are being governed by extremists. And the Government is funding them with public money.

The Church of England and the Catholic Church on the other hand, insist that we mustn't lump all "faith schools" together. Maybe some minority religious schools are abusing the system, they will say, but the good old, moderate Church of England (which has around a quarter of our school system under its control) and the traditional Catholics aren't like that.

But they are rapidly becoming like that.

Taking advantage of the Government's open cheque book, the CofE has set about establishing hundreds of new schools. They may provide a good education (not all of them do) but they are now seen by the Church primarily as recruiting grounds. Not only do they allow the Church to corner the generation of children who have little interest in religion, but some also force their parents into the pews in order to get the all-important vicar's letter that provides entrance to the state school.

We need to ask: How have we reached the point where the local vicar decides who gets a place at a state-funded school?

The Church of England's education supremo, the Bishop of Oxford, has said: "The clergy ought to have a camp bed in [schools] for heaven's sake! We don't have to bemoan the fact that our Sunday school has collapsed if there are 200 children at the local church school. The first big challenge is truly owning the centrality of our church schools in our mission..."

The Chair of the Catholic Education Service similarly says: "The Catholic ethos...should be incarnate in all aspects of school life, so that they may be effective instruments of the New Evangelisation."

And even in community schools there is a danger from determined evangelists who seem to be welcomed with open arms by headteachers in so many schools.

There are almost daily complaints arriving in the NSS's email box from parents angered by some of the extremist Christian groups that are invited – without their knowledge – into their children's schools. The Department for Education's response to the NSS's report into religious visitors in schools was simply to absolve itself of any responsibility for what evangelism is occurring.

Surely the time has come for a much more rigorous and fundamental consideration of the whole concept of "faith schools".

They are rapidly becoming a danger to the country and present a completely unjustifiable imposition on our children and their education.

The argument that they provide a "superior education" which excuses everything does not stand up. Would the excellent teachers that they employ suddenly disappear if the "faith" element was removed? Would the community be better served if these schools were truly community schools, open to all, and not just gathering places for the sharp-elbowed middle classes?

The arguments about "faith schools" have been rehearsed over and over. A solution to the problems and dangers they pose is no nearer. A few Islamic schools may be closed or re-staffed, but after that it will be business as usual.

I don't think Mr Gove has yet grasped just how determined and persistent these religious proselytisers are. Once he has patted himself on the back for kicking out a few extremists and he looks away for a moment, it will all start again.

And the system of academies and free schools that he has implemented is surely making the problem worse. It is presenting more opportunities for extremists to move in once the school is established, free from the scrutiny of local authorities.

While "faith schools" remain, the fanatics will always find a way to take advantage. After all, gaining access to the malleable minds of children is a primary motivation and even the CofE admits that.

'Trojan horses' in Birmingham schools should come as no surprise

'Trojan horses' in Birmingham schools should come as no surprise

Opinion | Wed, 16 Apr 2014

With powerful religious agendas which reach far beyond faith schools and insufficient protections for community schools, Rumy Hasan argues, the so called 'Operation Trojan Horse' should come as no surprise.

The 'Trojan Horse' plot in Birmingham - where some 25 schools have apparently been targeted for takeover by Islamic extremists - is yet another instance of the problems now rising as a consequence of Britain supposedly being a multi-faith society; a view shared by all the three main political parties. Accordingly, a green light has been given to more faith schools, religious Free Schools and academies, which are allowed to run on the basis of a religious ethos. A laissez faire approach to culture and religion has contributed to significant levels of self-segregation, isolation, and lack of integration among some religious-ethnic minorities, not least Muslims. This is highlighted by the fact the Muslim population in which these 25 schools are located is more than 90 per cent. It is worrying that it took a maverick politician such as Nigel Farage to point out the reality when he described parts of Britain as being 'unrecognisable'; a view that most of the population would agree with.

Since the 'Trojan Horse' letter came to light, some 200 reports have been received by Birmingham City Council, including claims that boys and girls are being segregated in classrooms and assemblies, pressure on girls to cover their hair, sex education being banned, the prevention of the teaching of non-Islamic faiths in religious education classes, and non-Muslim staff being bullied. Yet all this is precisely what has been happening in Free Schools such as Al Madinah in Derby (which Education Minister Lord Nash found dysfunctional) and the Madani faith school in Leicester. But none of this should be surprising: on the contrary, it is entirely to be expected that leaders of faith communities wish to impose values and practices in schools in their neighbourhoods that are in accordance with their religion. The reason for this is that the emphasis on a multifaith society facilitates the primary identity of some minorities being on the basis of their faith.

In Birmingham, and elsewhere, community leaders and parents with strong religious identities seek to 'protect' their children - especially girls - from Western secular influences which, quite frankly, they find immoral. Such protection is indeed likely to be on offer as schools in segregated communities and faith-based schools vigorously police the behaviour of pupils strictly in line with their religious doctrines and cultural mores. An inescapable outcome is the accentuation of divisions along religious lines, so that there is a plethora of 'monofaith' neighbourhoods. This is not only profoundly harmful to schoolchildren who are seen as no more than properties of their parents, but flies in the face of the stated goal of increasing integration and social cohesion.

A pointer to the dangers ahead was provided a decade ago at the Muslim Islamia School, one of the first to be granted voluntary aided status. In regard to the teaching of evolution, the school's view was 'we approach Darwinism theory [sic] in a phenomenological way. We say, 'there is a theory believed by some, that we are descended from apes. It's just one idea among many'. In regard to the teaching of other faiths, the head teacher stated 'we can practice any religion we like. We pray five times a day, we learn the Koran in the traditional manner ... One thing we never do is celebrate Christmas'. The oft-quoted quip 'schools are for teaching and not for preaching' is inverted - indeed preaching and brazen indoctrination is the order of the day - with values that are widely at variance with those obtaining in modern Europe.

The push to expand faith schools and religious free schools and academies in Britain is particularly odd for it suggests wilful neglect or disregard of the sobering example of Northern Ireland where state schools are divided on the basis of faith; as such they are sectarian in character and have long been a powerful incubator of the schism between Catholics and Protestants. An educational policy whose aim is cohesion and inclusion would take serious note of this tragic, divisive phenomenon, learn the lessons, and ensure that it is not repeated in any other part of the country. But evidence shows that the lessons have sadly not been learned.

Education Secretary Michael Gove has appointed Peter Clark to review the evidence of the Trojan Horse plot. But, as has rightfully been pointed out by key people in Birmingham, Mr Clark is the wrong candidate given his earlier role as National Co-ordinator for Counter Terrorism. This highlights a key problem with government thinking: their only real concern is the potential for Islamist terrorism but little regard for the damage to schoolchildren and for community cohesion from those serious about ensuring that members of their communities rigidly adhere to their faith. Bob Jones, the elected West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner, is correct to state that 'My main concern is that the Secretary of State is attempting to divert attention away from the governance and diversity issues that might be embarrassing to his policies and approach to school governance'. Indeed they should be embarrassing and it really is high time that the both the government and the opposition grasped the nettle that a firm commitment to a rounded secular education is what is needed for the benefit of children and for society at large, and act accordingly.

Rumy Hasan is a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex and writes for the Huffington Post, where this article first appeared. You can follow him on Twitter @RumyHasan. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

Religion as a human rights liability

Religion as a human rights liability

Opinion | Wed, 16 Apr 2014

While human rights movements must engage people of all religions and none, Nida Kirmani argues that explicitly linking religion to human rights can lead to the exclusion and persecution of minority groups and undermine human rights' claims to universality.

It is no secret that many human rights have an inherently religious dimension, as Larry Cox recently argued on Open Global Rights. But do religion and human rights really need each other, as he suggests? While many of history's greatest human rights movements have been inspired by religious ideals of justice and equality, the explicit linking of religion and human rights can be highly problematic for particular people groups, especially women and sexual and religious minorities.

Although Cox argues that faith-based action is an important force in undermining repressive political regimes, women's movements in the Indian and Pakistani contexts have generally operated from a secular platform, arguing for a clear distinction between religion and matters of the state. In fact, women's movements in both countries are acutely aware of the dangers of combining religion and government, precisely because the interpretations adopted usually favor the interests of powerful (male) groups. In India, an officially secular state, religious pluralism provides a separate set of family laws for each religious "community," an approach that is itself problematic because it denies the complexity, divisions, and hierarchy within religious communities. In the case of Muslim personal law, women are at a particular disadvantage in matters related to divorce and maintenance. For sexual minorities, the recent reinstatement of Section 377, which essentially criminalizes homosexuality, was at least partially due to pressure from religious conservative groups, who came together in a rare case of multi-religious cooperation.

In the Pakistani context, where Islam is the official state religion, a host of religiously justified laws were introduced under the regime of Zia-ul-Haq. These laws included the Hudood Ordinances, which made it nearly impossible for women to prove a rape in court without the testimony of four male witnesses. Also included was the Law of Evidence, which reduced the testimony of all women and non-Muslim men to half that of a Muslim man. While the Hudood Ordinances have since been somewhat reformed, women's rights continue to stand on shaky ground largely because religious conservative groups have significant lawmaking power. For example, despite years of struggle, the Domestic Violence Bill has not been passed because some religious groups see it as an assault on their conception of the family. Even less progress has been made in terms of sexual minority rights in Pakistan, as no LGBT movement has yet emerged. In fact, in June 2011, as an indication of what such a movement would incite, several religious groups vocally protested the US embassy's "gay pride" event as an attack of "cultural terrorism."

The amalgamation of religion and the state has also been extremely detrimental to religious minority groups in both India and Pakistan. In India, the rise of the Hindu Right, which views India as an essentially Hindu nation, has had exceptionally negative consequences for members of minority communities, including Muslims and Christians. This movement has led to horrific episodes of communal violence, from the riots across India in 1992-1993 following the destruction of the Babri Masjid, to the pogroms in Gujarat against Muslims in 2002, to the violent clashes in Muzaffarnagar in August and September 2013.

In Pakistan, the blending of religion with the nation-state has had even more explicit negative consequences for members of religious minority groups. The official identification of the Pakistani state as 'Islamic' in 1949 has led to all non-Muslims being automatically given second-class status as citizens. This political marginalization has also provided tacit justification for countless episodes of violence against religious minority communities. Because blasphemy is a crime punishable by death, Christians have been attacked both as individuals and as a community, with entire neighbourhoods, such as Badami Bagh in Lahore, being burned to the ground. Both the state and Islamic groups have also developed a progressively narrow definition of "Muslim," which began with the Ahmadi community being legally declared "non-Muslim" in 1974. This quest to define the "true Muslim" has led to a steady increase in sectarian violence across the country. The targeted killings of Shia professionals across the country, and the attacks on the Hazara community in Quetta, are some of the worst examples of such violence in recent years.

In both the Indian and Pakistani contexts, then, the dangers of not taking a secular approach to human rights are all too clear. Cox argues that human rights movements should harness the power of religion in order to build support. Yet the question remains, which religion will be harnessed and whose version of that religion will be preferred? In multi-religious societies, an explicit use of religion as a mobilizing force means the exclusion of minority religious communities, as well as a denial of internal hierarchies and tensions within religious communities. In India, where Hindus are the majority, any attempt by the women's movement to use Hindu religious symbols, such as the goddess Kali, has alienated non-Hindu women. In Pakistan, where Muslims are the vast majority, an appeal to Islamic ideas of justice and equality also means an exclusion of women from minority communities.

While one cannot deny that ideas about dignity, equality, and justice are enshrined in all of the world's religions, the interpretation of these terms differs greatly amongst and within religious traditions. In addition, all of the world's religions contain strands that are clearly unsupportive of human rights. Even the most progressive interpretations of most major religions eventually hit a brick wall with certain rights, particularly regarding gender and sexuality. Therefore, while it is tempting to pick and choose aspects of religion that support human rights, the complications and risks that arise from doing so are simply too great.

At the same time, we should not ignore the importance of religion as a motivating force to achieve human rights, and we should not deny people the right to express their religious beliefs, provided that such expression does not also deny the rights of others. However, there is a difference between being personally motivated by religion, which can be a powerful driver, and religiously identifying as a movement, which can exclude non-believers and provide space for more fundamentalist religious interpretations to thrive.

For human rights activists, it is important to remember that protection of human rights is the bottom line. Bringing religion back into human rights can be appealing, particularly at a time when the human rights movement seems to be lacking "soul" as Cox implies, but including religion in the debate is also dangerous. For women and other minorities, it can quite literally become a matter of life and death.

This article was originally published on Open Democracy as part of their Open Global Rights debate,"Religion and Human Rights".Nida Kirmani is an assistant professor of sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) in Pakistan, in the Mushtaq Ahmad Gurmani School of Humanities and Social Sciences. You can follow her on Twitter @nidkirm

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

Government funding to creationist nurseries has to stop

Government funding to creationist nurseries has to stop

Opinion | Mon, 14 Apr 2014

The Government may prohibit schools from teaching creationism as scientific theory, but as Jonny Scaramanga argues, public funds are still being used to introduce pre-school children to religious pseudoscience.

The Government has a clear policy on teaching creationism as science; schools receiving public funds can't do it. This is a wholly sensible approach. Whatever else it may be, creationism is not science, and it's dishonest to tell children otherwise. It is concerning, then, that current policy enables children below compulsory school age to receive public funds to attend creationist institutions.

The Government's "free early education" scheme gives all children aged three and four, and some two-year-olds, 15 hours per week of nursery education. Previously known as the nursery voucher scheme, local authorities can make this funding available to private institutions as long as they have acceptable inspection reports. In the last four years, large numbers of creationist and otherwise extremist religious groups have received funding in this way.

The Department for Education has in general been robust on religious pseudoscience, announcing that Michael Gove is "crystal clear that teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact". As a result, Free Schools are not allowed to teach creationism, and all creationist Free School applications have been blocked. This nursery funding, then, is a strange loophole at odds with the general trend of government policy.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has identified 67 'nurseries of concern' that have received funding since 2010. According to the BHA 40 are either creationist or have associations with extremist religious groups. Two are from the Islamic Shakhsiyah Foundation, which David Cameron called a "front" for Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamist group. Thirteen are Charedim, a strictly Orthodox stream of Judaism.

The Christian Schools Trust, an evangelical association which issued a statement in 2009 affirming its support for creationism, has 16 schools which have received funding. Research published in the same year found that 78% of CST secondary school students agreed with the statement "God made the world as described in the Bible" while just 10% agreed "I accept the idea that living things were made by a process of evolution".

Nine of the schools named use the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, noted for its emphasis on the most extreme form of young-Earth creationism and famed, until 2013, for teaching in science that the existence of the Loch Ness monster was evidence against evolution.

It is inconceivable that such pseudoscience would be tolerated from a non-religious group. If anyone suggested that astrology should be taught as science, the idea would never get off the ground. This can only be an instance of religious privilege.

Teaching creationism to very young children is harmful for two reasons. First of all, it implants misconceptions about the nature of science just as the child is forming their first ideas about the world. Changing those preconceptions later is far more difficult than continuing an education that started on the right foot. If public money is going to go to nursery education, it must go to giving children a head start, not a millstone around their necks.

Second, belief in creationism is used to buttress a literal belief in holy texts. Accelerated Christian Education is also known for teaching as science that homosexuality is 'a learned behaviour' and that women must submit to their husbands. The ACE preschool curriculum teaches children that "Mama's roles" include "helper, cook, cleans house, washes and irons clothes", while "Daddy's roles" include "protector, provider, leader, hero". For example, this cartoon from an ACE workbook is indicative of their approach to gender issues and use of religion throughout the curriculum.

In a state-funded institution, teachings like these would violate the Equality Act 2010, and there is no reason they should be excused when public funds go to a religious nursery. Teaching creationism is directly tied to these beliefs in Christianity. Creationism, it is claimed, validates a literal reading of every letter of the Bible as God's Word. Verses condemning homosexuality or supporting gender inequality are supported by the same logic which rejects the theory of evolution. Charedi Jews, too, are known for strict gender separation. In UK law, women and girls have the right to equality; funding must go to nurseries that respect this.

A further concern is that in a number of cases the nurseries receiving funding are attached to schools for older children. For example, Carmel Christian School in Bristol, one of the BHA's nurseries of concern, takes pupils "ages three to eighteen". In cases such as this, where the nursery is not a distinct entity from the rest of the school, it is possible that the funds could also be used to prop up the entire institution. Indeed, the BHA notes that one prospective parent at Carmel was told the nursery funding had enabled them to lower tuition fees for the whole school.

Adults are free to hold creationist beliefs in Britain. Indeed, it is vital that their right to do so is protected. But when the state provides education to children, its duty is to ensure that the child's rights to be free of discrimination and receive a sound education are upheld.

Please write to your MP to ask them to ensure that local authorities are instructed not to offer Early Years funds to creationist groups. You can also respond to the government's consultation on early education and childcare.

Jonny Scaramanga is a PhD student at the Institute of Education, University of London. He blogs about fundamentalist schools and his experience as an evangelical Christian at Leaving Fundamentalism. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

NSS Speaks Out

Following the Prime Minister's assertions that the UK is a Christian Nation Keith Porteous Wood, Terry Sanderson and Stephen Evans were all quoted in various national and local media; including the Telegraphs' front page, Stephen also appeared on Sky News and NSS honorary associate Dr Evan Harris took part in a discussion on BBC Radio 4 on the same subject.

Stephen Evans was also on the BBC Asian Network to discuss Stoke Poges, where children from Christian and non-religious families have been assigned to a local Sikh faith school against their parent's wishes.

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