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Newsline 7 November 2014

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Remembrance Sunday should not be dominated by religion

Remembrance Sunday should not be dominated by religion

Opinion | Thu, 06 Nov 2014

Historian, broadcaster and NSS honorary associate Dan Snow on the need for an inclusive and secular remembrance ceremony that better reflects the society it serves.

It is one of the most important events of the year. I remember my dad taking me when I was a boy. Pressed against the temporary railings, overwhelmed by the power of the British state's simplest yet most moving ritual. On the nearest Sunday to 11 November, the eyes of the UK and many in the Commonwealth are focused on Whitehall and the Cenotaph.

It is unique. The leaders of the political parties stand side by side, their bickering stilled for an hour, the Queen in jet black, alone, bows her head with a mournful gratitude and then the veterans march past, obviously enjoying the chance to meet old friends and grieve for old comrades. If people choose just one event to engage with from all the ceremony and theatre of the British calendar, it should be Remembrance.

There is no greater sacrifice than giving one's life for one's fellow citizens, and, correspondingly, there is no greater responsibility we have as voters than to send our armed forces into harm's way on our behalf.

Yet for many of us in today's Britain, this important ceremony is diminished by the dominance of a religion that fewer and fewer people follow. An Anglican bishop presides over a portion of the ceremony. His fellow imams, priests, patriarchs and primates stand by like also-rans and there is no sign of a secular representative.

We live in a country where about half the population say they have no religion. Fewer of us than ever are active believers in the Christianity of the Church of England. There is a great danger that by letting a bishop dominate and refusing to admit a secular presence at the ceremony it will be diminished or even ignored by modern Britons.

There is nothing new in this desire to better reflect the world in which we live. After the first world war the Cenotaph was designed by Edwin Lutyens as a secular memorial because the war dead were from a dizzying array of peoples, nations and creeds. The prime minister, David Lloyd George, backed him up. He insisted on a secular monument and he rejected an alternative proposal for a huge cross at Admiralty Arch. The government also rejected Church of England proposals that it should have Christian inscriptions on it or a cross on top of it. At its dedication on 11 November 1919, the King simply unveiled it, after which were two minutes silence. Many in the church were appalled by the lack of ritual.

The Cenotaph is a state monument. It is not a religious one. About 26,000 serving members of the armed forces today describe themselves as having no religion, which makes the non-religious the second-largest belief group (after Christianity). We cannot continue to exclude a representative of these serving men and women, not to mention the tens of thousands of people of no religion who served in the world wars – men such as my grandpa, and many of his comrades.

Remembrance is one of our most important duties as citizens. The act itself must reflect changing times. The event at the Cenotaph every November must feel as relevant and profound today as it was when it was first conceived. It must reflect the society it serves. If people switch off, they will forget. And when we forget, we repeat.

Dan Snow is an honorary associate of the NSS and has presented many history programmes for the BBC. This article first appeared in the Autumn edition of the NSS Bulletin and was also published by the Guardian on Comment is Free.

Transport to faith schools: Local authorities shouldn't be subsidising religious segregation

Transport to faith schools: Local authorities shouldn't be subsidising religious segregation

Opinion | Thu, 06 Nov 2014

A "hideous form of discrimination" or the justifiable removal of a religious privilege? NSS campaigns manager Stephen Evans takes on Conservative MP Nigel Evans over the removal of transport subsidies to faith schools.

Last week, during Education Questions in the House of Commons, the Conservative MP Nigel Evans raised what he described as a "hideous form of discrimination" concerning faith schools.

He wasn't objecting to some publicly funded schools discriminating against pupils in admissions on the basis of their parents' beliefs or religious activities. Nor to some such schools refusing to employ teachers that can't prove their piety.

No, instead he singled out as a "hideous form of discrimination" some local authorities exercising their discretion not to spend public money transporting children to faith schools when other suitable schools are available closer to home.

The law already requires local authorities to make arrangements for pupils from low income backgrounds to attend the nearest school preferred on grounds of religion or belief, where that school is between two and 15 miles from their home.

However, for many years, local authorities have been more than generous, and where parents have chosen to send their child to a faith school rather than the nearest available school, local authorities have provided free or subsidised transport on a "discretionary" basis to all pupils.

Families wishing to send their children to schools further afield that specialise in other areas, such as sport, mathematics, drama, science, art or technology have to meet the total cost of transport themselves. Only parents choosing a school on the basis of religion receive special treatment.

The costs are considerable - in the tens of millions of pounds when surveyed some years ago. In recent years a number of local authorities have decided they can no longer afford this, and must instead prioritise protecting services that look after the most vulnerable members of society.

One such council is Lancashire, home to Nigel Evans' constituency of Ribble Valley where the Council currently spends £8.5 million on providing home to school transport. About half of that sum is spent on 'discretionary' provision - primarily paying for pupils to attend a Church of England or Roman Catholic faith school which is not their nearest school.

Despite having to slash public services to find £3.5m savings over two years, Lancashire Council has rather generously agreed to continue subsidising the cost, but has said that it will in future ask parents to pay a greater contribution to the costs associated with transporting their children to religious schools.

But that's not good enough for some parents. They are up in arms, and have prompted their MP to start lobbying to ensure that the taxpayer picks up the bill for their children's bus passes. In a well-crafted piece of Orwellian doublespeak, Evans has launched a campaign to 'stop the discrimination'.

With the Government providing the funds for faith schools and politicians constantly waxing lyrical about the 'importance of faith', it is hardly surprising that parents have come to believe they have some sort of 'right' to send their child to a religious school at the state's expense.

No such right exists.

Under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), there is no specific right to have your children educated at a faith school. Yes, local authorities need to respect parents' religious and philosophical convictions as to the education to be provided for their children, but that's not the same as the state having to provide a faith-based education. It does not and it should not. This has simply become an unreasonable - and potentially divisive - parental demand that no politician seems prepared to challenge.

What is perfectly reasonable is for parents of all faiths and none to expect a state education that doesn't run completely counter to their beliefs. Therefore, if the nearest state school with available places is, let's say, a Sikh faith school, non-Sikhs shouldn't be expected to send their child there, or be penalised in any way for not doing so.

The same applies to every religion and belief combination you can come up with. Therefore, if the nearest appropriate school that doesn't run counter to a parent's beliefs is further away, then it seem fair that the state should pick up the bill for having to travel further for an appropriate school.

This is yet another reason why it would be better all round for the state to ensure that all publicly-funded schools are strictly neutral when it comes to matters of religion. The schools we all share should be inclusive and secular - where all beliefs are respected, but none are actively promoted. Parents that want to give their child a religious upbringing are at liberty to do so (via the home and wherever they worship), but it's not a reasonable demand of state education.

As councils up and down the country have realised that discretionary spending on transport to faith schools is no longer affordable, we've seen all sorts of distorted rhetoric concerning the cutbacks. Catholic activist Lord Alton suggested expecting parents to pay for their choice was a "faith tax". Conservative Assembly Member for South Wales Suzy Davies even claimed that by not providing free transport to faith schools local authorities "could be denying a child's right to manifest a religion".

This is nonsense. Not providing free buses to faith schools in no way interferes with anyone's right to manifest a religion. In fact, it's the provision of free transport to those choosing schools on the basis of their religious convictions that introduces the disadvantage.

Take for example the situation in Flintshire where only children who can "prove" their religion qualify for free school buses, whilst those who can't have to pay their own way - and may not even be allowed on the 'Catholic' bus. This means children who live next door to each other, and travel to the same school, can be treated unequally, purely on the basis of their parents' religious beliefs.

You might have thought that anti-discrimination laws would have put paid to this - but Equality Act exemptions mean local authorities can't be touched for applying such discriminatory policies.

During its scrutiny of the legislation, the Joint Committee on Human Rights expressed concern that "maintaining this exemption from the Equality Act duty may encourage local authorities to continue to treat those with religious and those with non-religious beliefs differently in the provision of school transport."

The Committee concluded: "In our view, the Government has not demonstrated the necessity for this exception from the prohibition on discrimination on grounds of religion or belief for school transport."

Nevertheless, the exemption remains and in some areas, religious families continue to receive more favourable treatment.

Where discretionary free transport to faith schools has been phased out it has simply resulted in parents and pupils being treated equally by their local councils. Only someone who thinks being religious should bring with it entitlement to civil privileges could possibly describe this as a "hideous form of discrimination".

But what's even more worrying is that the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan told Parliament that she understood the parents' frustrations and "will perhaps look at this again".

Rather than further entrenching religious privilege in education, Nicky Morgan should be stressing the importance of local authorities avoiding discrimination in the provision of transport and insisting upon equitable policies, free from religious favouritism, fair for families and taxpayers alike.

The Government may not have the courage or even the conviction to question the wisdom of faith schools, but it certainly shouldn't be entertaining the idea of dictating to local authorities that they must subsidise religious segregation in the form of free transport to faith schools.

The rise of political Islam in Turkey: how the West got it wrong

The rise of political Islam in Turkey: how the West got it wrong

Opinion | Tue, 04 Nov 2014

Political Islamism has undermined the Turkish Republic's secular social order, education and legal systems and Western pundits manifestly failed to see this coming, argues Turkish opposition MP, Safak Pavey.

The end of the Cold War did not free the world of polarised ideologies. Once the Berlin Wall fell, we hoped a new world would finally move beyond the conflict ridden past. Yet, not only did we face continuous conflicts but with the revival of religious traditions, God's role in politics was rekindled. We thought that the time for belief systems and politics which derive their legitimacy from God was over. But we were wrong. The current administration of Turkey, which was lauded as an example of a modern Islamic democracy, derives a considerable part of its mandate from the belief that they are carrying out God's mission of revenge against the godless secular system.

Islamism has hijacked my country, the Middle East and the 'Arab Spring', not only politically, but culturally as well.

Let us take the case of ISIS. It gave the Christians of Rakka three options: convert to Islam, remain Christian and pay the protection tax of the non-Muslim believers and submit to strict rules, or be prepared to die. The protection tax amounts to 14 grams of pure gold per capita. Some of the rules include prohibitions on making repairs to churches, wearing the cross or other religious symbols outside church and ringing the church bell.

Turkey's Islamists have not implemented these restrictive practices and rules formally because this would still require a major overhaul of the legal system, and they see ISIS as "uncivilized". But in everyday life social pressure is exercised in more subtle ways and people are intimidated through quiet repression on the street.

Our current situation is explained away by Western intellectuals who had nothing but praise for Erdogan ten years ago, and now claim he has transformed into a tyrant. The latest conclusion of these international commentators who sing the praises of Islamic democracy is that democracy befits our culture, but that the problem is with Erdogan's personality.

It would be a mistake to underestimate Erdogan. Ever since he entered politics at a young age, he aimed to become head of state because he believed only he could abolish the 'infidel / heretic' social system; that is how the secular state is perceived by political Islamists. But attributing the Islamic transformation of Turkey only to him, would be paying him too generous a compliment.

It would also be wrong to explain this turn of events with reference to differences between right and left, since these distinctions are far more complex in Turkey. The biggest chasm between left and right in our politics now is religion; it all hinges on whether "you are pious or not."

The cosmetic reforms that have been attributed to Erdogan and his Government, bringing him high repute, turned out to be window dressing to impress the West. Indeed, they all melted away swiftly within the repressive structure of emerging political Islam. Law came at the top the list of casualties. Government supporters are granted privileges and are above the law, while opponents are meted out the harshest sentences. Formal law is no longer implemented with the purpose of delivering justice but rather as a tool to deliver punishments to detractors.

It was only his Western counterparts and pundits who were hoping that someone with strong loyalties to Sharia would abide by secular law. By now, they must be amazed at how wrong they got it.

AKP has transformed Sunni identity into the dominant one in Turkey through religious references. Addressing the West, the AKP claimed that it was waging war on deeply rooted nationalism, but all the while it was spreading a far more insidious ideology. In fact, any scholar who works on Turkey knows that Middle Eastern style nationalism has always relied on religious pillars to survive.

In the course of Turkey's republican history we had the best attempts at democracy that could have come out of Islamic countries, despite stumbling, interruptions and the tests of perseverance we had to endure. AKP has been calling this political system the regime of secular elites who think it is their right to govern the republic. Yet political Islamists have been involved in various centre-right organizations and parties, and have been the recipients of many privileges - strengthening their presence progressively. For example, some of the staff who have served Erdogan include ministers and high level bureaucrats who have held these positions ever since they became civil servants decades ago.

However, Turkey's political Islamists were not content with the symbiotic relations they had created with the centre-right parties. They worked diligently to take over the host organization and reached managerial positions with a perseverance that is praised and advised in Islam through the act of taqiyya (a form of religious dissimulation that permits believers to conceal the truth in pursuit of their goals).

So we have come to this situation. The system that protected social rights and liberties, and was supported by a considerable number of citizens, has been destroyed by an invisible bulldozer, and the political Islamists now claim absolute victory. In their eyes, 'the infidel, heretic' secular republic has been defeated.

The most significant fallout of political Islam is its destruction of secular education.

This issue is so important to Erdogan that he did not trust even his most loyal advisors, and instead put his own son in charge of the Islamization of education. In 2002, the number of pupils studying and graduating from the imam-hatip schools set up to train clerics was seventy thousand, now their number is one million. This number does not include the pupils who attend schools known as "hidden" cleric schools that are functioning under the guise of being regular public schools.

According to legal judicial investigation tapes, Bilal Erdoğan has himself stated that the handful of "the remaining pupils in the secular secondary education" have been integrated into the hidden imam-hatip cleric schools in order for them not to pose a threat to the Islamic regime in the future.

This aim has been achieved by assigning eleven hours of the forty hour week of lessons to Sunni religious education in state schools and prep schools. This is because the future generation cannot be left to the guidance of science; it must be conditioned to collective obedience through religion as the political Islamists demand.

Yet another policy devised by Erdogan's son has been the creation of a fraudulent demand for imam-hatip cleric schools through mosques and the media.

Women's behaviour, the laughter of a young woman, how much beer a young man drinks, who shares a house with whom and what kind of toilet they use (whether traditional or modern), all have to be under their surveillance. Living arrangements outside the prescriptions of the Holy Book are not crimes, but are considered to be sins to be eradicated. For instance, AKP politicians have destroyed as many modern toilets as modern sculptures. Tradition dismisses the comforts of modern life far too easily and readily.

Islamists define the morality of society in terms of woman's virtue and her relations with the opposite sex. This is why, in their eyes, girls and boys have to be segregated. Boys and girls cannot be on the same school grounds, and this includes university dorms. Students of different gender cannot be taught in the same building prior to university. Most school grounds have been gender-segregated in the past ten years.

My cousin has been a physics teacher for twenty years. During the last five years she was made to hand over her physics classes to a member of an Islamic tariqat (order). She was told to remain at the teacher's common room during her class periods, so that it looked as if physics was being taught at that hour as stated in the curriculum. For five years those pupils learned nothing about physics - and all about jihad. She felt incapable of changing the situation and therefore she resigned.

Unfortunately this hidden policy has been implemented surreptitiously and frequently over the past ten years, and is now being implemented openly. Boys are pushed to attend boarding schools, and thus kept away from their families, and girls are being encouraged to marry young and become housewives.

Now that Turkey has gone off the rails from its journey towards modernity, where does that leave us?

The Islamists in Turkey are at the zenith of their power. They can be a difficult partner and even threaten to become an enemy to the West. Indeed, hostility towards the West is part of the conspiracy discourse that is widespread all over the Middle East.

Nonetheless there are significant numbers of people in Turkey who are resisting, and who struggle for the survival of civility and modern life. And the outcome of our struggle for survival will have much broader global repercussions than Western policy makers would like to think. Can you imagine a Turkey without its secularists? It would lead to a Europe that is confined to its continent, and it would turn it into a prison for us.

"No one can leave this woeful story with their head held high" said Dani Rodrik, an academic at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton. Not the so-called secular-military elite that governed the country harshly for years, that scorned and yet used the Islamists and thus almost single-handedly guaranteed their reactionary attitudes; not Turkey's Western friends who pretended not to see the colossal infringements of social liberty; and certainly not the pseudo-intellectuals with their egregious interpretations of the events that legitimised the butchering of secular law in the hope that political Islam will produce democracy.

Those who ten years ago expected an Islamic reform from Turkey that would serve as a model for the world are, at this point, striving to prevent Turkey from turning into a hostile country model.

To conclude with a sentence from Turkey's political Islamists: "Those who expect Islam to reform want us to give up our religion. We will not rise to the bait of the infidel." If this is a clear statement of intent, so too is the resolve of those of us who intend to resist and struggle in defence of our freedoms and our Human Rights.

This article is based on a presentation given by the author at theSecularism 2014 Conference held on 11-12 October, 2014 in London. It was originally published on Open Democracy and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3. 0 licence.

The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

NSS Speaks Out

Keith Porteous Wood was quoted in the Telegraph, commenting on government plans for new Extremism Disruption Orders. Keith raised concerns about secularists being labelled 'Islamophobic' or racist because of "high profile campaigns against the advance of Sharia law in the UK".

Our call for the Welsh government to end compulsory collective worship in schools was covered by the Daily Wales.

A piece written for the NSS on remembrance by honorary associate Dan Snow was published by the Guardian, attracting over 800 comments in just five hours.

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