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Newsline 5 July 2013

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Have you remembered to renew this year? The renewal date is January 1st (unless you joined after September, in which case your subscription is good until the following January). If you haven't renewed by June, your membership automatically lapses.

We don't want to lose you, so please — why not renew now? You can do it quickly and securely online with your credit card or by post with a cheque to NSS, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. Or better still, why not take out a standing order — which will save you the trouble of renewing each year and saves us a lot of extra admin. Just write to and we'll be pleased to send you the necessary form.

The NSS is making waves on the issues that concern us all. But we can't do it without your support. Please renew your membership today or if you aren't already a member, please join. Together we can make a real difference to the creeping religionisation of our schools and to ensure that our society becomes secular and safe for everyone.

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BBC once more rejects non-religious voices on Thought for the Day

BBC once more rejects non-religious voices on Thought for the Day

News | Wed, 03 Jul 2013

The BBC has announced today that it will not "revisit" the issue of non-religious voices on Thought for the Day.

The announcement came in an Executive Response to a review conducted by the BBC Trust into the breadth of opinion that is permitted to be heard on the BBC. This included a review of the BBC's religious output.

The National Secular Society was invited to take part in this review and it raised once more the issue of the exclusion of non-religious voices from Thought for the Day."

The independent review was commissioned by the BBC Trust and led by former ITV chief Executive Stuart Prebble. Mr Prebble wrote in the report (pdf):

I asked for Thought for the Day on Radio 4 to be included in the remit for this review because it seemed absurd to examine the provision of range of voice within religion and ethics, without taking into account what must be one of the most listened-to places where religious range of voice is provided.

For my trouble I found myself involved in what has been a lengthy debate between the BBC and the National Secular Society, in which the NSS claims that Thought for the Day should not exist at all, and that if it does, it should include contributions from Humanists and Secularists. This is on the basis that to allocate over three minutes of airtime to a single voice, and to allow it to go unchallenged by interrogation or analysis, gives to religion a status which is not accorded to any other aspect of our lives, and which is unjustified.

However, if this argument fails, and Thought for the Day should continue, then Secularists and Humanists wish to be included among its contributors on the basis that theirs are "beliefs" just as other religions are — an argument which has been given weight by the law of the land.

This matter has been debated at length within the Editorial Standards Committee of the BBC Trust which has taken the view that it is a matter for BBC Management to decide whether Thought for the Day should include Humanists or Secular voices among its contributors.

However, it is not simply the BBC which thinks that it has to have belief as part of its output — it is required to do so by the Agreement with the Secretary of State which sets the BBC Trust the requirement to have regard "to the importance of reflecting different religions and other beliefs" as it sets the purpose remits which explain how the BBC should represent the UK, its nations, regions and communities.

Personally I see no difficulty in including a Humanist or Secular contribution within Thought for the Day if justified on editorial grounds. David Elstein agrees, but for slightly different reasons. He told us that: "On religion I am an agnostic and have long thought that BBC's commitment to religion can't be right. It is part of the polity and the BBC thinks it has to have belief as part of the output. I am one of those who think TFTD should have regular atheists in it to achieve a full range."

However, in response, the BBC Executive says that it is undertaking its own research into "the mix and flavour of its Religion and Ethics content", but "We do not propose to revisit the issue of atheists or humanists taking part in Thought for the Day.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, commented: "There is no doubt that the changing demographics of the UK — starkly shown in the 2011 Census — mean that the BBC's focus on Christianity is completely out of proportion. Our arguments about Thought for the Day have been frequently rehearsed and have the support even of the presenters of the Today programme, John Humphreys and Evan Davis. We simply cannot understand why the BBC resists this small change that would prove that it is serious about proper representation of all opinions on the airwaves."

Mr Sanderson said he was disappointed with the report which simply seemed to accept that to devote such a large amount of the of the BBC's resources to religious programming was legitimate.

"All the independent research shows that the number of people interested in religion in this country is very small. Why does the BBC put such an enormous focus on it?"

Three cheers for Channel 4 for trying to move Muslims into the mainstream

Three cheers for Channel 4 for trying to move Muslims into the mainstream

Opinion | Tue, 02 Jul 2013

Channel 4 has set the cat among the pigeons — as I suspect it intended to do — with its announcement that it will broadcast the Muslim call to prayer every day during the month of Ramadan.

If what the chief of Channel 4 says about the network's intention to create a more positive image of Muslims in Britain is true, then it is laudable. But if it is just another publicity stunt on the lines of the Alternative Queen's Speech (delivered by the likes of Ahmadinajad and Quentin Crisp) then it risks creating another anti-Muslim backlash for not much purpose.

We'll assume that the intentions are benign, in which case we should not object to the small amount of time (two minutes at 3am and three other twenty-second bursts during the day) devoted to a religion that is followed by nearly three million people in the UK.

When you think of the hundreds of hours that the BBC devotes to Christianity each year (and much of it of a directly proselytising nature, in the form of church services and Songs of Praise) then a few minutes for the second largest religion doesn't seem disproportionate.

Britain's main broadcasters — including ITV and Channel 4 — have a public service remit that obliges them to produce programmes that reflect the whole of society – and not just ones that will appeal to the biggest audience.

Because of this obligation, ITV used to have time set aside for religious programming. But it became increasingly clear that the audience for these programmes was minuscule. ITV couldn't get advertising for them, making them economically unsustainable. Eventually Ofcom took pity, and ITV was allowed to drop its religious programming altogether.

Channel 4 was set up with the intention of appealing directly to minority audiences, the ones that don't get a look in anywhere else. It has, in the main, fulfilled this remit brilliantly, producing some cutting edge programmes and drama covering topics that more conservative broadcasters wouldn't touch. It has been a trailblazer, breaking taboos and moving society on.

Naturally, controversy has dogged it, but the channel has been true to its foundation and we should be grateful for that. This latest innovation seems like a continuation of its provocative (and, some would say, progressive) history.

The hostility that is swirling round this decision to include Islam is understandable, given the events of the past few years. But there are millions of Muslims living quietly and productively in this country, who simply want to observe their religion in peace. They deserve to see their lives reflected on TV, just like everyone else's.

People who cleave to the Muslim religion are not all fanatics, and we must make a real effort to reach out and bring those people of good will into the mainstream of society.

In purely pragmatic terms we have to find a way to live together, and to overcome the fanatics together. The alternative — conflict, violence endless hatred — doesn't bear thinking about.

A more balanced reflection of the lives of Muslims on TV would help. This small acknowledgment of their religion is only one aspect. We must see other aspects of their lives that will humanise them, too.

The danger is that the Muslim population of this country will be seen as simply ciphers, who think of nothing but religion. That is certainly the impression we get from the Muslim Council of Britain and other "faith leaders" who purport to represent "the Muslim community". TV needs to allow a more balanced version.

There are Muslim women who don't wear headscarves, there are Muslim men who go down the pub, there are some Muslims who love bacon sandwiches.

The point is that not all are devout and obsessed with religion. TV needs to let us see these people, too, in dramas, soap operas, documentaries.

And in doing so it can help reduce the fear and show that not all Muslims are the alien fanatics that are so ubiquitous on the news and in the papers.

The “cutting season” and FGM in the UK: A national disgrace, a national shame

The “cutting season” and FGM in the UK: A national disgrace, a national shame

Opinion | Tue, 02 Jul 2013

Last month, a coalition of Egyptian NGOs launched a campaign, 'Kamla' (meaning 'complete' in Arabic), against female genital mutilation (FGM), after a botched operation resulted in the death of Egyptian teenager, Soheir Mohamed Al- Batea.

FGM is an intensely harmful practice that is endemic in a number of countries around the world, particularly in Africa. In Somalia, 97.9% of women aged between 15 and 49 are affected by it, in Guinea 95.6%, in Sierra Leone 94%, in Egypt 91.1%, in Eritrea 88.7%, and in Mali 85.2% of the female population undergo FGM. This practice cannot be tied to a specific religion; it should be seen in a wider context of 'culture' and 'tradition'. In Ethiopia, 74.3% of women have undergone FGM; 62.8% of the population there are Orthodox/Christian and 33.9% Muslim. Likewise, in Burkina Faso, where 72% of females have undergone FGM, 23% of the population is Christian and 60% Muslim.

In total, 140 million girls and women are living with the consequences of FGM across the world. Some of the long-term consequences include internal infections, complications in pregnancy and child birth, psychological damage, and sexual dysfunction. FGM ranges from cutting off a girl's clitoris to cutting off all of her external genitalia (sometimes with a shard of glass or razor blade). She might then get sewn up, with a tiny hole through which she can urinate, and later menstruate. It is seen in some cultures as a desirable proof of virginity and cleanliness. There is also a belief that FGM can reduce a woman's libido, and thus the chances of her having extra-marital sex.

As ever, it seems to derive from two places, both of them also common to traditional conservative religious culture: one is the compulsion to control the woman's sexuality, to undermine the ownership she has over her own body and sex; the other, is a simple disgust of women. From Eve the transgressor and the identification of the woman as the source of human original sin, to Orthodox Jewish men not touching their menstruating "ritually impure" wives (who then have to clean themselves in specific, designating bathing areas), to this, FGM.

Now, before you start thinking that this is some distasteful 'foreign' practice, beyond the comprehension of 'Western' values, you should know that not only are there 65,000 women living with the consequences of FGM in the UK, but 20,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of it here each year. And it doesn't end there. Women are actually being sent to the UK to be mutilated, from countries such as France. Makes you proud to be British, doesn't it?

So what is the UK government doing about it? Well, the practice has been illegal in the country since 1985. Despite this, there has never been a prosecution or conviction relating to FGM in the UK since it was criminalized. Between 2008 and 2009 almost 160 incidents were recorded. Still, no convictions. The practice has been illegal in France since the mid-eighties also. However, there they do prosecute people for it: some 100 parents and practitioners of FGM have been convicted in France since it was banned. Just last month in Spain, two Gambian parents were sentenced to six years in prison for having a clitoridectomy performed on both their daughters.

Young girls in the UK are sometimes taken to their countries of origin so that FGM can be carried out during their summer holidays, allowing them time to heal before they return to school. Apparently this is, rather gruesomely, called the "cutting season".

The idea that we implicitly help this practice happen by allowing families to take their girls abroad during the holidays is disgusting. The idea that we may even be allowing the practice on British soil is horrific. How can we as a society stand blind to this practice, on grounds of 'difference' or 'culture'?

A number of women speaking out against the practice in the UK are getting attacked for doing so.

There are those who argue that FGM represents a specific cultural heritage, that it is a misunderstood practice unique to a non-western culture. Where preventing FGM for females represents an imperialist denial of what it is to be a liberated woman within that culture.

These spurious claims of cultural autonomy immune from critique and intervention are offensive to those of the same culture who do not perpetrate such crimes against their young girls. This sort of cultural relativism also completely ignores the permanent context of the subjugation of woman within many of these communities.

Whilst FGM is not a strictly secular issue, in so far as it is not uniquely tied with religious doctrine or permission, its facilitation in the UK comes within the same sort of context that allows for the undermining of equality and human rights by religious practices such as Sharia law. Exceptionalism of this sort is unable to provide any rational basis for its legitimacy. Whether grounded within the religious context, the cultural context, or one based on mere tradition, it is not sufficient for practices like these to be defended simply on hazy and vague notions of culture and tradition that are particular to some, and apparently "incommensurate" with so-called "Western" values (for "Western values" read Human Rights - rights that have been agreed to by countries throughout the world in various UN conventions and resolutions). This type of defence, incapable of being grounded in reason or universalizable justification, and has no place within any secular legislative space seeking to uphold the basic human rights of women.

FGM is a despicable violation of a young girl's body; it is a hideous attempt to control her as a woman, her sexuality, her self. It is simply not enough for the government to state that FGM is illegal in the UK; what matters surely is how many cuttings are prevented. One of the most prescient and depressing comments on the situation comes from a question posed by Muna, a Somali-born schoolgirl living in Bristol, in a BBC article last year; she asks simply, "What would you do if the girl had blue eyes and blonde hair, would FGM still be carrying on in the UK?"

Would it?

US Catholics bishops condemned for trying to impose their dogmas through law

US Catholics bishops condemned for trying to impose their dogmas through law

News | Thu, 04 Jul 2013

An open letter issued by the American Catholic Bishops Conference which seeks legal restrictions on abortion and contraception has been condemned as "Orwellian" by the Catholics for Choice organisation.

Wirral latest council to cut free transport to religious schools

Wirral latest council to cut free transport to religious schools

News | Thu, 04 Jul 2013

Wirral council is the latest to make cuts to free transport for pupils attending religious schools.

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NSS Speaks Out

Terry Sanderson was on Radio 4's Broadcasting House, talking about the proliferation of prayer rooms – from shopping centres to airports.

He was also quoted about Channel 4's intention to broadcast an Islamic call to prayer in the Independent, Daily Mail, Huffington Post Daily Mirror Belfast Telegraph, BBC website, London Evening Standard Manchester Evening News, TNT Magazine and around the world including USA, France, Germany, Canada. On the same topic he did interviews on LBC Radio and BBC London, BBC Gloucester, BBC Leeds and Three Counties Radio. Keith Porteous Wood was also on LBC Radio.

The announcement that the Church is to take over community schools had quotes from Keith Porteous Wood on the Press Association wire, Daily Mail The Huffington Post Daily Telegraph and The Times (Subscription).

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