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Newsline 21 November 2014

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Parent's perspective: The Collective Worship dilemma

Parent's perspective: The Collective Worship dilemma

Opinion | Tue, 18 Nov 2014

One parent speaks out about the damaging impact of excluding her young child from mandatory collective worship in school, and how withdrawal isn't really an option at all.

My four year old son has just started primary school. Starting school was a very exciting time for our family, we were looking forward to becoming part of the school community, so we were taken aback when we learned about the school's practices regarding collective worship, including daily recital of prayers.

The school, which is not a faith school, has not been explicit about its religious practices to parents. By chance, we spotted a prayer on the wall in reception, and were told by the school secretary (ahead of us accepting a place at the school) that such things like reciting prayers do not happen in this school. On another occasion a child giving us a tour pointed to a prayer on a birthday cake, which the children recite to celebrate birthdays. At the new parent induction, the Head did not discuss praying. There was a sheet buried in the school starter pack about collective worship, but it was not explicit about making children pray regularly during the school day.

Praying directly conflicts with our beliefs, and with our desire for our son to make up his own mind about the existence of gods when he is old enough to reflect on these questions for himself.

Concerned at our lack of choice in this matter, we had a meeting with the Head in which she explained that all children had to pray and sing songs worshipping god in order to meet the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE) guidelines. She also said she does the minimum required to meet the guidance; as far as she reasonably can. I did some research and passed this on to her, including an offer from the National Secular Society to help the school reform their collective worship, with a view to being inclusive of people of no-faith (or of different religions).

This time the Head replied saying prayer and Christian worship in hymns was part of the ethos of the school. They made one concession; revising the wording of the daily prayer for our child's class in Year R to a reflective statement rather than a Christian prayer. The statement is inclusive and we are happy with it. She also made it clear that from next year this concession would be withdrawn.

We went to the board of governors and were turned down again. They said we had the right to exclude our child from collective worship; as though this was a reasonable choice. As a parent, this is not an easy route to take.

Last month the school had harvest festival; our son took food. We asked the school to not include the one song worshipping 'god, the father', but they wouldn't change their mind. So we decided to use the withdrawal they had offered us.

Our son was taken out of assembly and was left sobbing outside the school hall listening to the other children singing and begging to go back in. Two teachers were physically stopping him going back. He is not a particularly confident or assertive child so he must have been really upset and confused by it all. Luckily my husband was at the assembly and was able to calm him down and let him go back in. That evening he quietly told me that he's had a "sad" day because he'd wanted to join in the singing.

How can this be offered as a reasonable solution for a 4 ½ year old child who doesn't understand what is going on? It is cruel; in his eyes he's being punished. He is the only child excluded. We can't, and won't, do that to him again. But as parents, where does this leave us? We don't want him to pray in school, which should be a place of education, not a place of worship. How can a child tell the difference between fact (science, maths) and matters of opinion (religion) when both are delivered by the teachers they look up to?

As for the birthday celebrations, linking birthdays with prayers to god (which only some families believe in) during 'birthday assemblies' is not at all fair in my eyes. Considering we found out about these prayers by accident, many parents must be unaware that this even happens… or perhaps they just choose not to think about it.

I understand some schools do have more inclusive forms of collective worship, and our local authority, Herts, states that collective worship should be relevant to both those of faith and no-faith, it also says children should not be made to recite prayers. However when we spoke to them they said prefacing the prayer with 'for those of you that wish to you can join in the prayer' makes it inclusive.

I have argued that bringing prayer and religious worship into school is neither good for the cohesion of the school nor embracing of the community. Considering this is a publicly funded community school, we are left with no alternatives for our son's education.

The Parent Governors Association recently issued a policy statement calling for an end to Collective Worship. The governors of our school say it is not binding and that the Head is within her rights to decide as she wishes.

I was brought up a Muslim but left the faith 15 years ago. This makes it even more challenging to turn a blind eye to the school enforcing religion onto my son.

Where should families like ours go for an education where we are respected and welcomed on an equal footing as people of faith?

Mission creep in the anti-war left

Mission creep in the anti-war left

Opinion | Wed, 19 Nov 2014

Video has emerged of the Left Unity political party voting on whether to endorse the Islamic State. Although the amendment was easily defeated, Benjamin Jones argues that this is just the latest flirtation in a long courtship between elements of the British far left and the Islamist far right.

At a conference of Left Unity, which describes itself as the "new party of the left" in the United Kingdom, an amendment was proposed (and defeated) which would have called for an end to nation states in the Middle East and their "replacement by a Caliphate". The rejected amendment renounced the "claim" that most of the people under Islamic State occupation "only tolerate IS rule because of extreme coercion", and described the Caliphate as the result of Muslim "emancipatory, anti-imperialist aspirations."

The motion supported calls for a caliphate, "insofar" as that meant an "inclusive, diverse polity" and urged Left Unity to "distance itself" from the use of "intemperate" language like "terrorism", "evil", "fundamentalist", "murderous" and "genocidal" in discussions and reports about the Middle East. The amendment heralded the "internationalist potential" of an "authentic Islamic society".

Tabled on a motion called a "socialist response to ISIS", the draft motion also considered the "progressive" virtues of the caliphate and its potential benefits as a "stabilising force" in the region. The proposer and seconder claim that "ignorance" and "prejudice" of words like "caliphate", "sharia" and "jihad" are part of the Western world's "Islamophobic cultural baggage".

The real nub of the amendment's argument is the authors' claim that the Caliphate, "based initially on Salafist jihadist ideology and Sunni exclusionism", would "break the imperialist settlement of Versailles and threaten Western control of oil". This point about borders comes up again and again. The authors eagerly embrace the possibility (and indeed the reality) of the Islamic State smashing down the borders of Skyes-Picot and reshaping the 'Imperialist' settlement formed when the Ottoman Empire fell in the crucible of World War One.

This position is an extreme example of an all too common piece of reasoning that begins with a distaste for Western military adventurism abroad, before sliding into a hatred of 'the West' in general, culminating in some cases (as it has here) with an association or even sympathy for the West's enemies. George Galloway is exhibit A of this phenomenon. As Galloway himself put it, "I am not with the Syrian regime. I am against their enemies because their enemies are worse than them. I was not with Saddam Hussein, I was against his enemies because his enemies were worse than him".

A great many opposed the Iraq War (and military intervention in general) for important points of principle, but among a hardened core on the left (and some on the American isolationist right) this position has degenerated from a principled stand against war into a warped support for the enemies of the west. It is a self-destructive manifestation of the saying that 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'. Many have undergone this unlikely metamorphosis from opponents of war in principle, to (rhetorical) supporters of the West's adversaries.

For many, a lifetime opposing Western colonialism abroad and free market capitalism at home has led to such embitterment that they cannot recognise the far greater evil of Islamism (manifest in this case in the Islamic State) and make common cause with the centre-right to resist it. This slide from pacifism to anti-Western rhetoric and the embrace of the West's adversaries is a pernicious mission creep, as this hard left core jettisons its values in favour of its doctrines.

Sadly, this ideological strain is far more interested in denouncing the imperial efforts of long-dead Europeans than they are in resisting the current, ruthless imperialism of the caliphate-builders.

Since the Iraq War, many in this leftist fringe have suddenly discovered an intense love of stability. As noted above, the authors of the rejected amendment believe that a caliphate could "only be a stabilising force" for the region. We are told, and expected to believe, that a "political system based on Islam" would mean an "accountable executive, an organised judiciary, representative consultation, [and] the rule of law and citizenship". The most cursory examination of Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi's regime finds an executioner, not an executive, a judicial system which is organised only insofar as death squads require commanders, the rule of law where 'God's' law is absolute and man-made law is haram, and a doctrine of citizenship which rewards applicants with sex slaves.

As for "stability", this was also an argument against the removal of Saddam Hussein. It was in fashion for Baathist Iraq to be seen as a 'necessary evil' for the region, where Saddam Hussein was said to be, 'regrettably', the only thing 'holding Iraq together'. Coming from Henry Kissinger or the realpolitik crowd this line would be one thing, but it requires an extraordinary capacity for cognitive dissonance to seriously hear and accept Marxist revolutionaries espouse the virtues of "stability"- whatever one's own view on intervention is.

This fringe element is so desperate to oppose the west that they now clothe themselves in the language of "balance of power", "order" and "stability". Their ideology is as muddled as it was when the wall came down, and their political instincts as bewildered as their ideological predecessors were when Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

Another odious clause of the amendment tells us categorically that democracy is "nowhere near the agenda of any social forces in Iraq or Syria". The amendment makes quite clear that democracy is only to be the preserve of the West, that Muslims do not have democracy on their agenda, so therefore democracy ought not to have Muslims on its. On the contrary, 60% of Iraqis voted in the last presidential election earlier this year, in spite of the very real threat of terrorism; a percentage that should make us blush with embarrassment when our political analysts speak of rain 'depressing turnout'.

Many on the left have gone to great lengths to disown this type of capitulation in all its forms, whether it is student unions segregating events by gender, or universities obstructing discussion of inconvenient subjects, but there remains a stubborn rump that cannot – will not – ever side with the West. The infusion of identity politics into our political language has complicated matters even further, as criticism of Islam or Islamic law is seen (or knowingly mischaracterised) as 'Islamophobic'. In reality, the differences between the British left and the British right are insignificant compared with the theocracy metastasizing across Iraq and the Levant, I only wish that the brand of anti-imperialism would challenge the Caliphate in the same strident, unapologetic way it trashes the late British Empire.

The conference motions and amendments amounted to 65,000 words, and this document can be read in its entirety here.

In an another amendment, which saw broad support in the room and from the chair, the Left Unity conference voted in favour of text which recognised the rights of the Kurds to defend themselves against ISIS, though it begrudgingly noted that the weapons and air support needed to do this would have to "come from the likes of Britain."

Tower Hamlets and the Dangers of Communal Politics

Tower Hamlets and the Dangers of Communal Politics

Opinion | Thu, 20 Nov 2014

Last week, the accountancy firm PwC, in its audit of Tower Hamlets Council and its Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, catalogued very serious failings. The case sheds light on a troubling phenomenon: communal politics. We are well aware of the divisive, sectarian politics of Northern Ireland where voting on the basis of religious identity is the accepted norm and no mainstream party wishes to see it replicated in mainland Britain. However, with the embedding in of multiculturalism and its variant multifaithism, communal, sectarian politics are also becoming prevalent in many towns and cities with significant religious-ethnic minority communities. In other words, many candidates now seek votes from those of, and people vote on the basis of, their religion, ethnicity, and country of origin, rather than on political ideology.

This is precisely what has come to pass in Tower Hamlets. The bedrock of Mayor Lutfur Rahman's support comes from his fellow Muslim Bangladeshis who comprise about a third of the population of Tower Hamlets but about two-thirds of those who turned out to vote in the mayoral election were from his own Bangladeshi community, resulting in his victory. In accordance with the communal nature of his politics, all members of his cabinet have also been Bangladeshis. What he proceeded to do is a classic case of what Americans term 'pork barrel politics' where government funds are allocated to certain favoured sections of society in exchange for political support; which means that unfavoured groups lose out. It is a form of political corruption.

Panorama's investigation (confirmed by the PwC audit) showed that council officers had proposed that Bangladeshi and Somali (likewise Sunni Muslim) groups receive £1.5m but its review of 362 grants approved by the mayor found that he increased funding to these groups by nearly two-and-a-half times - to £3.6m. The additional £2.1m came from the council's reserves in combination with a 25 per cent reduction in grants to other organisations; a clear instance of communal, pork barrel politics. It transpires that £3m was granted for 'faith heritage', mostly to mosques. Whereas the previous Labour administration funded religious groups for social services - itself problematic - Mr Rahman makes no such demands. A grave consequence of such communal politics is that non-religious groups that cater for all sections of the borough are starved of funds or crowded out. This is quite contrary to the goal of achieving 'One Tower Hamlets', Mayor Rahman's slogan.

Lutfur Rahman's is indeed an egregious case but the phenomenon of pork barrel politics afflicts the major parties also. The embrace of 'multiculturalism' launched a divisive dynamic, particularly in local communities, whereby many urban councils began to channel funds and resources to various ethnic, national and, more recently, faith communities in return for votes. A by-product of this is the accentuation of tensions between different communities who increasingly identify themselves in terms of faith. Indeed both the present and previous governments have recognised communal strains, and all are agreed on the importance of 'community cohesion' yet they have increasingly allocated funds to various 'faith communities'; a natural corollary given their belief that Britain is a multi-faith society. But, by so doing, they are adding to the problem of 'divisive community politics' highlighted by Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, with respect to Tower Hamlets.

Given the rising proportion of religious-ethnic minorities, and the high levels of segregation along communal lines in neighbourhoods of many towns and cities, the results of many parliamentary seats are now determined by the communal vote. There is, then, naturally the temptation on the part of the major political parties to appeal to groups on the basis of their ethnicity or religion. But this would be a grave mistake as it would pull the country even more down the spiral of communal politics and against the goal of social cohesion.

The 'Trojan Horse' plot in Birmingham - where a number of schools have been targeted for takeover by Islamic extremists - is yet another instance of the problems now arising. But is this really surprising given the governments' stress of Britain being a multifaith society (with the imprimatur of a Minister for Faith and Communities) and its green light to more faith schools, and religious free schools? The very same Eric Pickles who is rightly concerned by divisive community politics in Tower Hamlets supports these deeply divisive and damaging schools and, moreover, continuously rails against secularism, the one principle that can forge together commonalities among disparate groups. As one Bangladeshi ex-Labour councillor Helal Rahman in the Panorama programme correctly stated, rather than uniting, faith divides people; especially so where identities based on faith trump all others.

This is a lesson that Mr Pickles and his government, as well as the opposition, needs to grasp with alacrity and start to work together to undo the harm that has already been done. Otherwise, we can expect communal, pork barrel politics to increasingly become the norm and so more of the likes of Luftur Rahman running councils and unwelcome Trojan Horses appearing in schools and elsewhere.

Rumy Hasan is a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex. This article first appeared in the Huffington Post and is reproduced here with the author's permission. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

NSS Speaks Out

NSS campaigns manager Stephen Evans was quoted by the Times Education Supplement story about the publicly funded Jewish school that encourages students not to answer GCSE exam questions on "inappropriate" topics such as evolution and homosexuality. Stephen was also quoted by Christian Today on the Church of England's divisive call for the secular ethic of reciprocity to be promoted in schools as a 'Christian commandment.'

NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood debated the issue of faith schools on Australia's ABC Counterpoint and discussed a Bible Society poll on LBC which found many schools aren't teaching sacred texts such as the Bible, Koran, and Torah.

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