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Newsline 19 August 2016

The debate about integration and religion this week in Europe has centred on the 'burkini'. Several French towns have instituted bans on the garment, women have reportedly been fined for wearing it, and opinion has been split around the world – with the French Prime Minister supporting towns who do want to institute bans, but many comparing it to the policing of women's clothing in Islamic countries.

Debates about Islam, social cohesion and what role religion should have in wider society aren't going away. We'll be tackling all of these issues head-on at our conference next month, on Saturday 3rd September. We have a panel of distinguished guest speakers, and some tickets are still available, so make sure you buy your ticket today. Tickets to the gala dinner can be purchased separately.

We look forward to seeing you there and celebrating our 150th anniversary. You can help us continue our vital work by joining the National Secular Society today – and benefit from our discounted conference ticket price.

There will be no issue of Newsline next week. The next edition of Newsline will be on Friday 2nd September.

Last chance to buy tickets for Secularism 2016 conference

Last chance to buy tickets for Secularism 2016 conference

News | Fri, 19 Aug 2016

Our conference – 'Secularism 2016: Living better together' – is fast approaching, and it's your last chance to buy tickets for the day and for the evening gala dinner.

Conflating abuse with criticism of Islam risks a return to a UK blasphemy law

Conflating abuse with criticism of Islam risks a return to a UK blasphemy law

Opinion | Thu, 18 Aug 2016

The BBC and Demos have published an accidental case-study in why we should all stop using the meaningless and sinister word 'Islamophobia'.

The BBC has made much of a report from Demos warning that thousands of 'Islamophobic' tweets are sent in English every day. But the researchers, like everybody else who uses the term, have totally failed to define what 'Islamophobia' actually means.

The research by Demos into 'Islamophobia' was reported by the BBC under the headline "Islamophobic tweets 'peaked in July'". From reading the BBC report you might imagine that 7,000 bigoted and anti-Muslim tweets were sent every day in July.

In fact, Demos have inadvertently set out what has been warned of for many years; that 'Islamophobia' is a nonsense word with sinister implications.

On reading the report it is clear that the Demos research isn't just focused on anti-Muslim tweets, or bigotry against Muslims, but, as they define it in their research paper, "anti-Islamic ideas".

In their report Demos selects some tweets it included in the study, which they presumably think are good examples of their methodology in action. A tweet stating "Morocco deletes a whole section of the Koran from school curriculum as it's full of jihad incitement and violence The Religion of peace" is treated the same way as a tweet saying "I fucking hate pakis" in their methodology.

One of these tweets criticises an idea. The other is racist. One describes and mocks a belief system, the other (verbally) attacks people. Demos' methodology treats both of these tweets in the same way.

I have read (an English translation of) the Koran. Saying it contains violence (it does) is in no way comparable to using racist language.

This is an appalling conflation, which creates a false moral equivalence between racism and criticising a set of ideas.

Another tweet Demos offer as an example reads: "Priest killed in #Normandy today by a Radical Islamic Terrorist yet Hillary says that Islam is peaceful! 1274 attacks this year=peaceful? Ok."

Is asserting that Islam doesn't seem to be conducive to peace really 'Islamophobic'?

The BBC apes Demos' dangerous line, referring not to anti-Muslim, but explicitly to "anti-Islamic" tweets as 'Islamophobic'.

The Demos research says that anti-Islamic ideas are "possibly socially problematic and damaging."

Wanting to jail homosexuals might also be "socially problematic", but pointing out that half of British Muslims do want to criminalise homosexuality and most think it is immoral would have me labelled an 'Islamophobe' under Demos' methodology.

And just what are "anti-Islamic ideas"? For many orthodox Muslims and the overwhelming majority of Muslim states, anti-Islamic ideas include apostasy, equality for women and the right to be gay.

Demos is being foolish in including such a vague concept in their methodology. Under their methodology a Pakistani ex-Muslim living in fear for their life who tweeted in English (for instance) "Islam is oppressive" would be labelled an 'Islamophobe'.

And how subjective is Demos' research?

In the methodology section of their paper Demos say "An Islamophobic expression was defined as the illegitimate and prejudicial dislike of Muslims because of their faith." I would prefer that was labelled 'anti-Muslim bigotry', but this alone would be among the least bad definitions of 'Islamophobia' you could devise. But Demos go on: "Islamophobia can take on a very large number of different forms, and its identification, especially within Twitter research, was often challenging."

Here we get to the nub of the Islamophobia con. It is "challenging" to identify and takes a "very large number of different forms" because 'Islamophobia' is a nonsense term which accumulates bigotry and threats of violence, with criticism of a religion and a set of ideas; ideas which have no rights whatsoever and which must never be protected in law and ought not to be protected by social convention.

Anti-Muslim bigotry and criticism of Islam are separate phenomenon, they may overlap, there are some who engage in both, but it is methodologically meaningless to consider both of these things in one term. That is why Demos' researchers found 'Islamophobia' "challenging" to define.

What they have produced is therefore subjective, as Demos admit: "Ultimately, this research comes down to the judgement of the researchers involved."

Demos argue that Islamic terror attacks drive 'Islamophobic' tweets. Perhaps challenging Islamism would therefore be a good place to start if you want to cut anti-Muslim bigotry off at the source?

The implications of this term's use are very unsettling. The moral equivalence that is being drawn, increasingly, between abuse against Muslims, and the robust criticism of an idea (Islam), poses an immense threat to freedom of speech.

Muslims and Islam are not the same thing. Hating all Muslims is bigotry; criticising Islam is not. You can say whatever you like, however sharp, rude or inaccurate about an idea. There is no such thing as libel against an idea.

The National Secular Society was instrumental in abolishing the vestigial blasphemy law in this country, but now I fear that our culture is returning to the legal protection of ideas, and Islam specifically. Ideas have no rights, nor any entitlement to be treated with respect. Yet influenced by American campuses and elite sensitivity to something called 'Islamophobia', that is the way our wider culture moves.

Benjamin Jones is the communications officer of the National Secular Society. Follow him on Twitter @BenJones1707. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and may not represent the views of the NSS.

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Governor’s perspective: beware an increasingly assertive religious ethos in ‘Church schools’

Governor’s perspective: beware an increasingly assertive religious ethos in ‘Church schools’

Opinion | Tue, 16 Aug 2016

The NSS is regularly contacted by governors and staff at Church of England schools who are pressured by their diocese to promote a more rigorous 'Christian ethos' - whether or not it's suitable for their school community. Here's one governor's account of increasing religiosity at their local school.

In our village, like hundreds of others dotted over the English countryside, the church stands at one end of the village and the stone-built Victorian school at the other. Built in the 1870s by the vicar to serve the children of the village, the school is now Church of England Voluntary Aided.

While the congregation of the church dwindles, the population of the school – outstanding in its Ofsted inspection and popular with parents – has increased to full capacity. Little wonder, then, that the Parish sees its school population as securing the church members of the future.

A previous headteacher had recognised only too well that a C of E school holds in careful balance its church heritage with the need to serve local children with diverse religious (and non-religious) backgrounds. She had held the religiosity of the school in careful check.

Around 2-3 years ago new foundation governors and a new headteacher arrived. Subtle changes started to occur. Bibles were handed out to new children in reception class, Bible Society leaflets distributed to mark special occasions, an Open the Book team arrived to give weekly sessions. The law on collective worship was enforced more rigorously and children were 'told off' if they did not prayer properly and say 'amen'. Children wrote letters for an evangelical mission in Africa. Many are small changes, but they have accumulated to create an increasing religiosity in the school that has become very noticeable.

Those parents who did not want their children to be schooled in the Christian faith, but had selected the school as their only practical local, village school became increasingly concerned. Some met with the headteacher, as small groups or individually with requests for specific actions that would free their children from the more overt practices of the Christian faith and dogma. An important change was that rather than actively agree to tokens of the Christian faith that are over and above the daily act of worship and religious education - such as Bibles being given out - the parents have to make a special request for these to be withdrawn. Thus the overall approach has shifted to one which expects to impose the trappings of Christianity – irrespective of the children's faith or not – and parents have no choice but to monitor, intervene and opt out. There are many parents who are reluctant to intervene, concerned that they may be branded as trouble-makers or it may reflect negatively on their children.

As a longstanding co-opted governor, humanist in my outlook, the new foundation governor team asserted sole responsibility for the religious dimension of the school. Repeated requests that decisions be brought to the full governing body to be ratified were met with a frosty refusal. Oversight of the curriculum and worship in all schools, irrespective of governor role, is supposed to be the responsibility of the full governing body. As with the parents, persistently trying to monitor and check what was being decided by the Foundation governors was an ongoing task.

Open the Book sessions, given once weekly by a visiting group, were causing increasing concern among parents because, although the evangelical purpose is carefully masked, scratching the surface quickly reveals this to be so. A report by the Foundation Governor most involved in Open the Book made clear its mission to bring the Bible to children whose parents do not read it to them, or take them to church. God speaks through the Bible, the website states. My comment that this interventionist approach was not welcome to all parents, was again rebutted.

A few parents started to remove their children from Open the Book sessions – as is their right by law – finding that their children were starting to be influenced by beliefs in an all-powerful deity, quite against their family's secular outlook. However, my proposition to more parents that they might also wish to remove their children, as is their statutory right, if they did not agree with the approach of Open the Book reached the notice of one of the Foundation Governors snooping on social media. In response, I was sent an aggressive and abusive email, copied into governor colleagues, which referred to my humanist beliefs as 'Dawkins delusion' and implied that I was in league with troublesome parents and intent on undermining the Christian ethos of the school.

A final threat was that a Diocesan representative will be summoned to the school to 'read the riot act' to the out-of-line parents and governor and warning that 'if they don't like what they hear, they should choose another school'. In a rural region such as ours, taking children to a non-faith community school would necessitate a drive of several miles – assuming that a family has the resources of car and time. Village children who gain much from being part of a close-knit community of children would be divided according to religious belief. The threat is plainly unworkable, divisive and discriminatory. Besides, if all the non-Christian families did choose to go elsewhere, numbers in the school would be seriously depleted and the school in dire straits financially. The reality is that the non-Christian families sustain a school that fits with the Christian ethos preferred by only a proportion of the families. While this situation is plainly unfair, most are willing to put up with it, as long as the Christian dimension remains low-key and not doctrinaire – and, importantly, as long as they and their children are not made to feel in some way morally inferior or second best.

In the reconstitution of governing bodies, the then-Education Secretary, Michael Gove, called for smaller, more streamlined teams of governors selected primarily for their skills and no longer representative of certain constituencies or stakeholders. Yet, contrarily, voluntary aided schools still appoint foundation governors who must outnumber any other category of governor by 2. In a small village such as ours, finding church-goers ready to serve as governors means that in reality they are selected on the basis of their religious affiliation and not for the skills required by the governing body; thereby focussing their role even more on the religious dimension of the school. In the case of the Governor organising Open the Book sessions, he has transgressed one rule of governing – that governors should not actively engage in working with pupils, but should stand apart, impartial and dispassionate. His direct involvement has removed his ability to hear the view of the whole parent body and to appreciate that there are some parents for whom this is not wanted. He sees his position as serving the Parish and Diocese and in his zeal to carry out this calling he fails to recognise that his first commitment is, even-handedly, to serve ALL the children of the school of Christian faith, no-faith or other faiths.

In their day-to-day lives, busy at school among their friends, children are facing a myriad of small decisions about what is right or wrong and how their actions may impact on others. What they need are secular classes in ethics that teach them how to make those decisions with empathy for others, to never wittingly cause harm to any others and to understand and apply concepts of fairness. Even the simplest lesson in ethics would reveal the inequities of village schools tied by an anachronistic trust deed almost 150 years old – and, what's more, using public, tax payers' money to enforce a religiosity in their education to all children irrespective of their family's religious – or non-religious - upbringing.

Britain is unusually irreligious, and becoming more so. That calls for a national debate

Britain is unusually irreligious, and becoming more so. That calls for a national debate

The monarch is the head of the Church of England. Bishops sit in the House of Lords to provide "an independent voice and spiritual insight". Church figures enjoy media pulpits for their views on ethical matters. Should these conventions be upheld for the sake of tradition and continuity? Britain is farther down the road to a post-religious society than most. It must lead the way.

Britain blasted over tour by Pakistani hate preachers

Britain blasted over tour by Pakistani hate preachers

Shahbaz Taseer, son of the murdered Pakistani Governor Salman Taseer, has angrily responded to reports that two Muslim clerics who praised his father's assassination are currently on a lecture tour of the UK.

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