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Newsline 5 August 2016

We are very excited for our upcoming conference, and for the opportunity to hear from so many fascinating speakers. The fabulous Gala Dinner in the evening will be unmissable, with separate tickets for the dinner available for only £80, to include a three course meal and entertainment.

The conference theme – living better together – reflects the role secularism can play in building a society in which all of us, whether religious or not, can live together fairly and cohesively, as our campaigns director writes in the blog below.

For students the conference ticket price includes a 1 year NSS membership, all for just £10!

All of our members enjoy a discounted ticket price for the conference, so if you would like to join the National Secular Society before you get your ticket, or if you need to renew your membership, do so here.

We hope to see you at the conference, on Saturday 3rd September.

Living better together: secularism and cohesion

Living better together: secularism and cohesion

Opinion | Fri, 29 Jul 2016

Later this year the NSS will mark its 150th anniversary with a special conference around the theme of 'living better together'. Campaigns director Stephen Evans explains why the time has come for people of all faiths to stand together in supporting secularist principles.

In September this year we'll be marking the 150th anniversary of the National Secular Society with what's shaping up to be a very special conference. The theme – living better together – reflects the role secularism can play in building a society in which all of us, whether religious or not, can live together fairly, cohesively and peaceably.

A secular democracy guarantees religious freedom for all. It protects believers from religious persecution and nonbelievers from religious compulsion. When a clash of rights occurs, secularism performs a vital balancing act – one we need to get right if Britain is to stay free of the sort of sectarian conflict that has torn other societies apart. While Britain remains a tolerant country for many, we've seen sectarian conflict and a rise in hate crime – both within and against religious groups.

It should be painfully clear to everyone by now that universal support for fundamental freedoms and values cannot be taken for granted. Earlier this year a Channel 4 documentary about British Muslims, based on new research about their attitudes, painted a bleak picture for social cohesion in Britain.

The research highlighted some troubling views among British Muslims, revealing that significant numbers of, especially young, Muslims living in Britain do not share the values of their fellow citizens including liberal Muslims, with many wishing to lead separate lives under sharia law.

The recent spate of Islamist inspired terror attacks across the continent are a reminder, if any were needed, that these problems need to be addressed. But how?

Speaking to these points at the forthcoming Secularism 2016 conference will be two of Britain's foremost commentators on Islam and social cohesion. Maajid Nawaz and Douglas Murray will set out their view on whether Islam and secular liberal democracy can be reconciled. They'll be joined by Raheel Raza, President of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow, an organisation seeking to reform of Islam in order to nurture harmonious coexistence between people of all faiths and none.

Now, more than ever, sincere believers and non-believers must unite in defending the important principle of church state separation and stand up for the concept of liberté, egalité, fraternité and laïcité that the theocrats so savagely seek to undermine.

Another country where a long tradition of secularism is endangered is Turkey. Human rights there are in peril following the bloody failed coup attempt on 15 July and the subsequent crackdown on civil liberties by Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has long embraced Islamist-rooted politics.

Şafak Pavey, a leading Turkish opposition MP and former recipient of 'Secularist of the Year' will join the conference to explain the important role of secularism in safeguarding everybody's human rights by curtailing religion's theocratic tendencies.

There are of course, numerous ways in which secularism can be implemented. The French model of laicité, which has long been a pillar of France's political and cultural identity, may not be the perfect fit for Britain.

A 'soft secularism' that manifests itself as multi-faithism is also a path best resisted. While lived experiences of diversity have enriched many people's lives, multiculturalism as public policy has manifest failures, and in a country as religiously indifferent and diverse as ours it's a nonsensical and dangerously divisive to organise public policy around religious identities.

The American concept of separation is perhaps closer to the National Secular Society's vision, as codified in our Secular Charter.

With that in mind, keynote speaker at Secularism 2016 will be Jacques Berlinerblau, author of the internationally acclaimed How to Be Secular and Professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. He'll be highlighting the many virtues of America's hard-won secular tradition and reminding us of what secularism it is and what it protects.

Berlinerblau is brilliant thinker and Secularism2016 is a rare and not-to-be-missed opportunity to hear him speak in Britain.

Secularism then, can come in various shapes and sizes, and perhaps it's time to carve out a British model of secularism to chart a new course for the UK's religion and state relations. That's why it's so important for us, the National Secular Society, to articulate a principled and British interpretation of secularism – assertive, yet tolerant – a codification of 'live and let live' – but within limits.

Living better together: Muslims and active integration

Living better together: Muslims and active integration

Opinion | Mon, 25 Jul 2016

On the theme of living better together, Maajid Nawaz argues that identity policing has further marginalised Muslims and that Britain was wrong to not expect minorities to embrace liberal values.

For years in Britain there has been a pernicious trend to shy away from making a case for our liberal values among minority communities. As these values continued their march unabated among the mainstream, certain multiculturalists assumed that to assert them among minorities would be deemed offensive, perhaps racist, and in the Muslim context even Islamophobic.

The successful turnaround of the "Trojan horse" school Park View — now Rockwood Academy — couldn't have proved this view more wrong. Two years after the scandal, the school has surpassed expectations, with cadet recruitment, after-school drama classes, counterextremism workshops and trips to Wimbledon. Those who worried about a more active integration policy alienating the Birmingham school's predominantly Muslim students really needn't have. So why did they?

Our 1990s-era multiculturalism was intended to bring about diverse communities. Instead, it brought about monocultural ghettos that gave rise to state schools such as Park View broadcasting the Muslim call to prayer from their loudspeakers. Two complementary trends arose together that culturally disintegrated Britain. Within my own Muslim communities, Islamism, a theocratic ideology, which sought to impose a version of Islam over society, emerged practically unchallenged to insist that we were Muslims to the exclusion of every other identity. Meanwhile, among mainstream liberals, multiculturalism came to mean diversity between, rather than within, groups.

Due to these two trends, as a country we celebrated our cities as they self-segregated into isolated cultural ghettos. Division in areas such as Dewsbury and parts of Bradford was hailed as diversity. Self-segregation was supported as cultural tolerance. Disintegration was championed as integration. Those of my fellow liberals who promoted such policies believed they were doing so to help us Muslims. Yet this "help" couldn't have been more disempowering.

Failing to advocate for liberal values within groups and not merely between groups led to a stifling of creativity and a lack of diversity among Muslims. Rebel voices who needed our support inside these communities suffered the most, and feel betrayed by liberals to this day. I call these the minority within the minority: feminist Muslims, gay Muslims, ex-Muslims, secular Muslims and anyone else deemed to be heretical or not Muslim enough.

With progressive Muslim voices being abandoned by wider society, while simultaneously being stifled within by the Muslim "community leaders", it is no wonder that by 2015 a BBC survey of British Muslims found that 11 per cent expressed sympathy with fighting against the West. Twenty per cent said that a western liberal society could never be compatible with Islam, and a quarter sympathised with the Charlie Hebdo "blasphemy" attacks.

Meanwhile, Muslims in today's Britain find it difficult to gain employment, are falling behind educationally, are disproportionately represented in prisons and among terrorist groups, while also remaining behind the rest of the country in our attitudes to civil liberties. Instead of integrating with wider society, many Muslims in Britain turned in on themselves, integrating more with their co-religionists globally while pulling away from the society into which they were born. British Muslim attitudes on key cultural milestones such as homosexuality, blasphemy and religion in politics now have more in common with global Muslim opinion than with liberal Britain.

As a country we ended up living together, apart. By allowing minorities to isolate themselves, the very people my fellow liberals wanted to help were suffering the most. It is no surprise then that such disintegration created a breeding ground for Isis recruiters. The liberal values that we came to expect from everyone else we shied away from advocating among Muslims. It is as if we Muslims were simply incapable of embracing secularism. And as we weren't even expected to be liberal, or in many cases as our illiberalism was celebrated, we naturally grew further and further apart from wider society. I call this the bigotry of low expectations.

If mainstream society had woken up to this earlier, much more could have been done to prevent this polarised and incohesive state in our communities. And though I emphasise that it is not only Muslims who may be isolated in today's Britain, and obviously not all British Muslims live like this, too many do. Culture is never homogenous, and has always been a hybrid. Any artificial desire to preserve the past was not only bound to fail but was destined to fail minorities primarily. Instead of defining communities primarily by their religious identity, we must support policies that encourage diversity not only between groups but within and among groups too.

The success at Rockwood Academy highlights that it never had to be this way. Identities are by definition multiple. So yes I am a Muslim, but I am also English, a secular liberal democrat of Pakistani descent, I was born in Essex and I am British.

When a chance was given instead of denied, when aspiration was encouraged instead of withheld, when integration was expected instead of disparaged, and when social mobility was promised instead of rubbished, the children and parents at Rockwood Academy rushed to it, and excelled. They embraced it all. Indeed, why wouldn't they? There was finally an expectation that they could be just like anyone else.

This article first appeared in the Times and is reproduced here with the author's permission.

Maajid Nawaz is an NSS honorary associate, author and the founding chairman of Quilliam. He will be talking at the NSS conference Secularism 2016: living better together on Saturday 3 September. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and may not represent the views of the NSS.

@MaajidNawaz

What do pupils need to know about religion?

What do pupils need to know about religion?

Opinion | Tue, 02 Aug 2016

In recent years faith communities have amplified their demands for a better understanding of religion in the private and public sector. But what do pupils need to know about religion by the time they leave school?

In recent years faith communities have amplified their demands for a better understanding of religion in the private and public sector.

It is argued that a range of concerns from global conflict, to minor workplace religious spats and religious intolerance, can all be remedied with lessons in "religious literacy". For some it's also a remedy for the public's growing indifference towards religion and its reluctance to accommodate increasing religious demands. One of its earliest and keenest advocates was Tony Blair, who argues that religious literacy is a "vital skill" in a globalised and multicultural society.

Religious education is a confused subject in search of a purpose, and the engineered moral panic over religious literacy is providing a narrative for those seeking to justify the retention of religious education, or elevate its status, on the school curriculum.

In a new report on the subject, the All-Party Parliamentary group on Religious Education calls for a return of the 'minister for faith' position to the cabinet in order to address society's urgent need for greater "religious literacy".

Without providing any evidence that religious illiteracy is a problem of any significant importance, the APPG calls on the Government to promote religious literacy by "championing RE" and making its improvement an "important educational priority".

The problem is, when it comes to this highly contested area of the curriculum, there's very little in the way of consensus regarding what "improvement" actually means.

Religious education evolved out of religious schooling and has been part of the school curriculum since the Elementary Education Act 1870. The Education Act 1944 established religious instruction as a compulsory subject in order to "lay the basis for a morally stable society rooted in its common Christian heritage".

To this day, largely due to undue religious influence, this quasi-academic subject hasn't been able to shake off this legacy, and as a result its reputation has been severely damaged and the subject marginalised – treated by many as an irrelevance.

Making a brief appearance at the recent inaugural Youth Debate in Parliament on the role of religious education in schools, the (since dismissed) Education secretary Nicky Morgan described RE as "one of the hottest potatoes for a Secretary of State to handle". And therein lies the problem.

Faith schools account for a third of all state schools – making organised religion an incredibly powerful lobby within education. This lobby vigorously defends RE and stands in the way of a fundamental rethink about the way religion and belief is approached in schools. It's directly down to the influence of organised religion that schools are still required to provide worship and faith schools are still permitted to teach only about their own religion in RE – undermining young people's rights and any academic credibility the subject may otherwise have. Students' learning in this area must be undertaken with a critical and sophisticated analytical lens.

The students attending the before-mentioned debate seemed pretty clear in their own minds that RE certainly shouldn't be about faith formation or indoctrination – but about giving all students a basic understanding of religious and non-religious worldviews and their roles in human experience.

I wouldn't argue with that, but I do question whether this demands a specific subject, spanning the entirety of a pupil's education, dedicated to religion.

I'm all in favour of equipping young people with an appropriate level of knowledge and skills to engage effectively with religion and belief issues. But there's no reason why this should take place within the confines of a subject called 'religious education'. It could perhaps become a constituent part of another area of the curriculum, or perhaps we need a brand new Civics-style subject that covers a broad range of religious, nonreligious and philosophical worldviews?

Pupils' exploration of morality and ethics certainly shouldn't be carried out in an exclusively religious context. This is dishonest, divisive and risks failing to recognise the many overlapping values that both religious and non-religious people share.

A broad intercultural education will benefit young people and help them to challenge the sort of ignorance and bigotry that seems rampant in Britain right now, but the in-depth study of particular religions should be regarded as a parental or individual's responsibility, not the responsibility of state primary and secondary education.

So let's not blindly accept the premise that religious literacy is necessary pre-condition for a peaceful and tolerant society. Civility, a clear sense of citizenship and a respect for Human Rights are the values that nurture a more harmonious society – and these values should be should be promoted throughout state education.

Self-serving calls for more religion in schools also run the risk of eclipsing other educational priorities that don't have well-funded and well organised lobby groups fighting their corner.

Philosophy offers a way to open up children's learning through enquiry and the exploration of ideas but hardly gets a look in in schools. A petition to parliament calling for young people in Britain to be educated in politics and international relations has attracted almost 30,000 signatures– and given the shocking level of debate during the recent referendum campaign – it could be argued that this will do more to benefit young people and the Britain they'll inherit than anything they'll learn in Religious Studies.

So let's hope the new education secretary Justine Greening will be a little more willing to handle the hot potato of RE than her predecessor was. But given the unhealthy close relationship between churches and state that still persists, particularly within the Department for Education, I wouldn't hold your breath.

Stephen Evans is the campaigns director of the National Secular Society. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and may not represent the views of the NSS.

NSS Speaks Out

Our president Terry Sanderson spoke on LBC about a swimming pool in Luton that features sessions segregated by gender for "cultural reasons" with bathers required to cover themselves from "navel to knee". NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood spoke on BBC Three Counties about faith schools, and NSS vice president Alistair McBay was quoted in the Scotsman about threats to Human Rights.

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