This lecture was reprinted in the Newman Association’s journal.
Firstly, I’d like to thank the Newman Association for inviting me to speak this evening on this important topic.
Edward Said, the Arab academic used to say “I’m Christian, but I’m culturally Muslim”. Inversely, I would say “I’m Muslim, but I’m culturally Christian”. Christian festivities and holidays are built into my life, whether I choose to incorporate them or not. I recently returned from Paris with a traditional cake we eat in France for the epiphany, called “La Galette des rois” – I explained to my children its religious significance for Christians, which although not an event marked in the Muslim calendar, I’m happy to incorporate into our hybrid home culture, where I always emphasise the importance of gleaning the wisdom of other Divine traditions. I mention the cake story because I’m always reminded when I return to the fatherland (my mother being irish), that France despite all its protestations over secularism, is also a deeply traditional country in many ways, where Christianity, although arguably marginalised from the political sphere, continues to hold tremendous importance in national culture. It dictates the holidays, the patisseries we eat and when, but it is also the unspoken language of birth, marriage and death, an unconscious backdrop for many, but a backdrop all the same. And I often consider how much poorer French culture would be without a Christmas “buche” or the cathedral of Notre Dame or the philosophy of St Augustine.
And so reflecting on the topic of secularism, I can’t help but start by considering the good intentions which underpinned the secularist trend in France, the hope of ending ecclesiastical privileges and affirming universal principles including the freedom of conscience and equal rights expressed through the Declaration of Human Rights. The initial objective was to make the church a source of public morals and not the basis for politics, to guarantee that religious practises should be permitted, but with no preference given to any outlook and no one should be stopped from exercising their religion. To ensure as Rajeev Bhargava describes it, that the plurality of society is meet by a type of state neutrality he defines as “principled distance”. Of course today, this aspiration seems far removed from arguments about crosses or headscarves in schools or the right for women who wear face veils to move around freely.
In my earlier days investigating Islam, I came upon the writings of a British diplomat, Charles Gai Eaton who had himself converted to the faith. Discussing religion in general, he spoke of religious wisdom as a type of inheritance, a form of knowledge which we’d acquired from previous generations but failed to recognise the value of. The wholesale dismissal of religion, he compared to a young person who receives an inheritance but dismisses it without examining it more closely. He or she could, he speculated, inadvertently be overlooking immense wealth.
My own evolving view of such matters is indeed that a very specific socio-historical juncture , namely the enlightenment, has led too many of us to often wholesale dismiss religion, without examining the rich heritage which religionS (plural) offer us. Could we actually be overlooking centuries of wisdom in so doing?
Quite understandably, the excesses of the church and abuses of institutionalised religious authorities, the conflict between science and religion, as well as some of religion’s most literal readings, gave rise to a movement, the enlightenment, which associated religion and religious people with hypocrisy, a deficiency in reason and discrimination. Many of the critiques which emerged during this period were valid and contributed to purging religion, but specifically institutionalised religion, of some of its worst excesses. But my own examination of religious philosophy has led me to conclude that we mistakenly threw out the baby with the bathwater. Or to quote Charles Taylor, the counterview to the suggestion that the enlightenment was a move from darkness into light is the view that is was “an unqualified move into error, a massive forgetting of salutary and necessary truths about the human condition.”
Today, largely as a consequence of this massive reassessment of religion, its place within modern secular societies is socially contested and politically divisive.
For people of faith, what exactly is the concern? It is that religion becomes merely tolerated, no longer a moral compass and a social glue, but a quirky eccentricity, derided at best, and often denounced as a form of intolerance and close mindedness. The fears of religious folk also vary to some extent as a consequence of their place within broader society. C of E folk may feel rather differently than Hindus about secularism and the opportunities, or restrictions, secularism is deemed to afford. And of course, across the world, secularism takes many different forms. In the Middle East for example, secularism is associated with brutal dictatorships and religion with people power. Even within Europe, France’s intrusive approach to secularism differs greatly from our experience of secularism here in the UK.
I recently debated the issue of secularism with a Christian colleague from Ekklesia for the BBC, examining the question as to whether we need greater or lesser secularism here in the UK. My friend, a committed Christian himself, argued that the presence of bishops in the house of Lords, the fact the monarch promises to uphold Christianity and the selectiveness permitted in recruitment in religious schools are all examples suggesting that secularism has not gone far enough in the UK. In his words, Jesus (pbuh) “reserved his harshest words for the rich and powerful and for religious hypocrites. In contrast, the monarchy and House of Lords represent privilege and inequality.”
My main concern with a desire to do away entirely with Christian symbolism is that those symbols contribute to fostering a sense of national identity and culture. Nations need common values and perhaps more than that, common symbols of the sacred. Like the academic Tariq Modood, I believe it is “quite possible in a country like Britain to treat the claims of all religions in accordance with multicultural equality without having to abolish the established status of the Church of England, given that it has come to be a very “weak” form of establishment and that the church has come to play a positive ecumenical and multi-faith role.”
Prince Charles’s suggestion that he seems himself as “defender of Faith” rather than defender of ’the’ Faith is one such example of this. His commitment to highlighting and cultivating the rich traditions of a variety of faith communities is another such example. But moreover, free, democratic societies require a high level of commitment and participation which can only be achieved with a strong sense of collective identity. It seems to me that Christianity very much ought to play a part in that collective identity, both in terms of its historical significance but also in terms of the contribution of Christians to modern Britain, alongside that of other faith and non-faith communities. All modern societies must and will undergo a redefinition of their historical identity and it is essential for societal cohesion that all members of society are included in and reflected in this redefinition.
But also, my concern with marginalising Christian symbolism stems from the fact this inadvertently lends legitimacy to the view that religion ought to have no presence or voice in the public sphere.
This is problematic to me on a number of fronts, not least in terms of the loss of invaluable wisdom offered by diverse religious traditions, but also the potential impotency subsequently imposed on religious organisations who time and time again are shown to be an invaluable element of our social tapestry, supporting the most deprived, offering an inclusive space for the elderly, the disabled, those often marginalised by the mainstream. Just today, a survey from Manchester University found a direct correlation between higher visits to religious places and lower crime figures, especially in relation to shoplifting, drug use and music piracy. The findings suggest this is because religion not only teaches people about ‘moral and behavioural norms’, but also spending time with like-minded people makes it less likely they’ll get mixed up with the ‘wrong crowd’.”
The largest network of food banks in the UK, the Trussell Trust, is a Christian charity, which has doubled the number of people it feeds over the past year. Similar intiatives are run by other faith groups, including Muslim organisations like Rumi’s Cave which runs a soup kitchen for the homeless every Thursday. Although it is my view that the state should in fact be providing sufficiently for its citizens so that none have to rely on charity in order to survive, it remains deeply reassuring that where the state fails, religion steps in to fill the gaps. Studies show time and time again that the social networks developed by religions are stronger, deeper and more effective and areligious equivalents. This is not a matter of who’s better than whom, but rather a testament to the deep social wealth contributed by religion to society and sadly often overlooked.
Interestingly, studies also suggest that people of faith are general more content. According to Gallup- Healthways data (that has surveyed 1,000 people a day for several years).
“Americans who attend a church, synagogue, or mosque frequently report experiencing more positive emotions and fewer negative ones in general than do those who attend less often or not at all. This relationship holds true even when controlling for key demographic variables like age, education, and income.”
Of course, this isn’t to say people of no faith don’t also do good, volunteering and donating, but as I regularly argue, religion, as opposed to faith, is all about the social, the societal, it is about the meta-narrative which drives how we perceive the world and our place within it and a totally secular public sphere, with all the good will of the Alain de Botton’s of the world, lacks an overarching coherent narrative to drive citizens to do good. Good becomes alleatory, the product of, as all things increasingly are, individualised and individualistic decisions about one’s own relationship to the world. At the risk of reducing religion to a cost/benefit ratio, the connection between doing good and salvation cannot be reproduced by a focus on the “feel good factor” or an overly optimistic (in my view) hope that people will do the right thing.
How can these injunctions possibly be compared with the depth of religious traditions which teach that our worth as human beings is inherently tied to the good we spread in the world. To centuries of teachings about charity and selflessness, about concern for the meek and the disenfranchised – to structures and habits which orient all of our actions towards concern for the welfare of others and awareness of the impact of our choices on society.
And so, the push for greater secularisation must be approached cautiously. In some ways, the attempt to create a neutral public sphere, one which might prove blind to religion or its absence, could help to foster greater tolerance, insure that the diverse nation which is modern Britain is reflected at all levels and that the privileges of a historically rooted religious group do not supersede the right of each and every citizen, whatever their faith or lack thereof, to be represented in and influence the public sphere. Like the academic Charles Taylor, it seems clear to me that secularism should not be about religion per say, but about managing diversity, not favouring any basic position be it religious or not. Rather than focusing on the separation of church and state, or the notion of removing religion from the public sphere a la French republican model, Taylor argues that we should focus on the objectives of secularism – which he lists inline with the french revolutionary trinity as “liberty, equality and fraternity” as well as harmony of relations – and derive the concrete arrangements from there – in other words, what are the objectives of secularism? To defend plurality – therefore how can the state best achieve this.
Like many people of faith, I have profound reservations about the radical secularism being pushed from some quarters which seek to depict religious views as antiquated and outmoded at best, and archaic and discriminatory at worst. Such currents pose a significant challenge to religious communities because of the intransigent assumptions concerning the assumed universality and immutability of liberal norms, some of which are anti-religious arguments masquerading as ‘liberal’ principles. Most recently, the Grand Mufti of Atheism himself waged his own mini war against the Times for referring to “Muslim babies” in an article, contending that babies are not Muslim or Christian or otherwise. Tim Stanley has written a rather brilliant response to him in the Telegraph today pointing out that this ignores how religion and culture work. He states that Muslim or Christian or Hindu parents are adherents of a narrative which includes their loves ones within it and that ignoring the ways in which cultures transmit beliefs, including religious beliefs, is in this instance, a case of selective outrage. Of course Muslim parents have Muslim babies because that’s how Muslim parents perceive things. The issue of course is a much deeper one, the idea pushed by radical secularists that rather than creating a neutral public sphere in which all religious views can coexist, that the state must impose a pseudo-neutrality which banishes any trace of religion from our midst. And of course, this is a worry. Not least because, as fully fledged, tax paying citizens, religious folk have as much right as anyone to see their views respected by the state and expect accommodation of their perspective, within of course the given boundaries of not harming others.
In academia, Modernization theory, although widely discredited in theory, continues to influence how many of us perceive the world. It holds that all societies are evolving according to a linear model, with Western industrialised societies as the epitome of human development and so-called primitive, i.e. preindustrial cultures, viewed as backward and doomed. This outlook continues to underpin much of how we view the rest of the world. We assume that technological development is concurrent with human, social and ethical development. Inline with modernization theory, there is a widespread assumption that progress means becoming more secular. Here in Britain, Half of those brought up in a religion say they have abandoned it. We often assume that our economic success and relative wealth are tied to this secularisation, noting as many do how much of the third world remains deeply religious, evidence some claim, of their economic and moral backwardness. And yet, the somewhat large exception to the secularisation and development rule is the US, which was and continues to be very religious and also very modern. In the US, 92% of adults believe in the existence of God or some kind of universal spirit, 70% are “absolutely” certain of God’s existence.
In their book “God Is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith Is Changing the World”, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, both of the Economist magazine, trace how in the 19th century, the most influential thinkers predicted that modernity and secularization would go hand in hand. Throughout most of the 20th century, it seemed this was the case. But by the late 1960s and 1970s religion began to reappear in the public square and in the people’s lives, confounding modernisation theorists who couldn’t understand how we could be DE evolving!
In this sense, not only does the period in which religion disappeared from the European public and private spheres appear to represent a small blip in an otherwise consistent presence of religion throughout human history, but that blip is a distinctly European phenomena which is at odds with the manifestation of religion globally.
Globally, it is our societies in Europe that are the anomaly.
While just half of Britons say that faith is important to their life (only 44% identify as Christian), according to Ipsos Mori, almost everyone in Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and India say faith is important to theirs.
If, as some theorists speculate religion is not only not disappearing, but is actually reshaping, re-emerging in new shapes and forms, less institutional, more individualistic and personalised, the question of secularism, how we define it and how it relates to the religious becomes ever more pressing. As people of faith, I believe secularism contains in principle important elements for managing a diverse society, values which we might even recognise as part of our moral lexicon, and I would urge you not to allow the term to be hijacked and reframed by those who wish to use it as a means of marginalising faith and its adherents from the public sphere. Secularism contains both opportunities to better express the plurality of religious traditions, and a threat that religion could be increasingly evicted from public life – it is my hope that people of faith will recognise the value of a moderate, accomodationist secularism and help to redress the imbalance in the perception of secularism and its goals.
Thanks for your time. God bless.
(co-authored with Ryan J. Reilly and Ryan Grim, both from HuffPost US)
WASHINGTON — The mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks now says that the use of violence to spread Islam is forbidden by the Quran, a major shift away from the more militaristic view he had put forward previously.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s thinking is detailed in a first-of-its-kind 36-page manifesto obtained by The Huffington Post. In a departure from his previous stance, which led the Guantanamo Bay prisoner to tell a military commission, “it would have been the greatest religious duty to fight you over your infidelity,” KSM, as he’s known in intelligence circles, instead seeks to convert the court to Islam through persuasion and theological reflection, going so far as to argue that “The Holy Quran forbids us to use force as a means of converting” and that reaching “truth and reality never comes by muscles and force but by using the mind and wisdom.”
“Don’t believe the media that the Mujahedeen believe that Islam spread in the past and will prevail in the future with the sword,” writes KSM, who has previously admitted to his role in the 9/11 attacks that killed thousands of Americans. He uses the bulk of the manifesto to put his newfound principle into practice, attempting to persuade his captors, prosecutors and lawyers that the path to true happiness lies in Islam.
KSM, who grew up in Kuwait and attended college in North Carolina, turns 50 this year. He has been held at the Guantanamo prison camp since 2006, after several years of being tortured by the CIA at “black sites” in undisclosed locations, and faces the death penalty for his 9/11 crimes. He also claims to have personally beheaded American journalist Daniel Pearl with his “blessed right hand,” as he said at a 2007 military commission hearing — a claim that subsequent investigative reporting has backed up. According to The Hunt for KSM, by former Los Angeles Times reporters Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer, an FBI agent who tracked KSM long before he was a household name described him as the type of guy you could have a beer with, if he wasn’t one of the worst mass murderers in American history.
In his new writing, while contending that he does not believe Islam should be instituted by force, KSM justifies the terrorist attacks for which he claims credit as acts of “self defense sanctioned by every constitution and international laws as the right of everyone whose land is occupied and whose people are attacked.”
KSM seeks to clarify one particular critique of al-Qaeda: He and the organization do not hate American freedoms.
“Do not believe those who claim that the Mujahedeen fight infidels to turn them to Islam or that we are fighting you because you practice democracy, freedom or claim that you uphold human rights,” he says, instead repeating the al-Qaeda narrative of a “jihad” or cosmic war against America in retaliation for attacking and oppressing Muslims and supporting Israel. He singles out the media and the intelligence services as responsible for misleading the public, claiming that “They hide from them why the Mujahedeen carried out 9/11 and what the truth is about the War on Terror.”
Although Western freedoms may not justify violence for KSM, that doesn’t mean he finds the values appealing. “Happiness is not found only in money, in hearing music, in dancing, or in living a so-called ‘free life,’” he says in one illustrative passage. Those who live in the Western world have “missed the right path to happiness” and are “like a fisherman who went to the desert searching for fish or a hunter diving to the depths of the sea trying to catch a deer.”
In the manifesto, KSM — who asserted at a military commission hearing in 2007 that he had planned the Sept. 11 attacks “from A to Z” — touches on a wide array of other issues, from video game consoles to marriage equality, military suicides, U.S. prison overcrowding, AIDS, the military-industrial complex, scientific evidence of evolution, the Catholic Church’s sex scandal, former President Richard Nixon’s views, and then-President George W. Bush’s embrace of the word “crusade.”
Mohammed, the highest-value al-Qaeda operative in U.S. custody, wrote his “Statement to the Crusaders of the Military Commissions in Guantanamo” in October, addressing a copy to each member of the military court. The military judge overseeing the commissions process ruled last month that the experiences of “high-value detainees” being held in military custody at Guantanamo are no longer presumed to be classified — a decision that enabled HuffPost to obtain a copy of KSM’s manifesto, which is being published in collaboration with Great Britain’s Channel 4 News.
* * * * *
The October document, KSM’s first significant communication with the outside world since 2009, is presented as the first of three chapters. His next section, yet to be completed, will lay out “why the Mujahedeen carried out 9/11 and whether it was a terrorist operation or an act of self-defense,” and a final chapter will delve into “the truth about the so-called ‘War on Terror’.”
“For whose benefits or interests were these wars fought?” KSM writes in previewing that final chapter. “Did these wars take place to defend the American people and their interests? Were they fought to defend freedom and human rights? Women’s rights? Or were they fought for the benefits and interests of individuals and corporations? Who are those individuals and corporations? What are their interests and benefits? Isn’t it true that they work for the weapons industry lobbies, security contractors or Halliburton sister companies etc.?”
In chapter one, he gives further hints as to the direction he’ll take, quoting George W. Bush repeatedly using the word “crusade” to describe the global war on terror and even highlighting an interview from the 1990s with Nixon, who said that the American people held those from the Middle East in very low regard.
KSM writes that he originally began drafting his essay back in 2009 with the aid of a laptop that he, like other Guantanamo defendants, was given to work on his defense. Those laptops were later seized, though there has recently been some discussion about returning them to the defendants.
Despite his long detention, KSM insists that he feels free at heart, writing that he is “very happy” in his cell “because my spirit is free even while my body is being held captive.” He says he has been “neither sad nor distressed” in his confinement “because I have been with the Only One True God.” His manifesto aims to convince the members of his military tribunal that they, too, could find such happiness if they adopted Islam.
“It is my religious duty in dealing with any non-Muslims such as the people in the court (the Judge, the prosecution, attorneys, etc.) to invite them to embrace Islam. I realize very well that you have heard about Islam and know much about it. But it is my own belief that Allah will ask me on the Day of Judgment why I did not invite these people to Islam?” he writes.
KSM also takes shots at the U.S. military’s suicide rate. “[H]undreds of American crusader soldier men and women join the U.S. army, wear the latest military gear, eat the best food in Iraq and Afghanistan, and play with their play stations while their enemies, the poor Muslim can’t find their daily bread or jacket to protect themselves from the harsh snowstorms over Afghanistan mountains, but at the end, the American soldiers go home and commit suicide but the poor man still with his dry bread and black tea lives with his poor wife in their humble muddy house but with happy hearts and souls.”
The rapid advance of same-sex marriage is further evidence for KSM of the collapse of Western civilization. “If God said no adultery or no sexual contact without a marriage contract between man and woman, the Westerner’s God says men and women are free to do whatever they want to do,” he says. “A mother can even lie with her son and they can issue a marriage certificate for them if the majority in Congress or Parliament agrees to such a thing. Or a man can marry a man or a woman can marry a woman, but by God’s laws, these acts are considered social crimes and it will cause unhappiness in their life, it breaks their families and at the end it will break the whole society.”
He cites social ills as evidence of Western moral bankruptcy. “Their communities have been destroyed by the high rates of divorce, rape, robbery, killing, suicide, AIDS, and often depression, bankruptcies, abortion, drugs, homosexuals, homelessness, psychological disorders, mental illnesses and most of the U.S. prisons are over capacity and crime is everywhere among all races and states,” he says.
* * * * *
KSM’s statement is certainly not the first time the public has heard from a Guantanamo detainee, but so far such communications have come from within Camp 5 and Camp 6, which house lower-value detainees. The high-value detainees at Camp 7 have so far been allowed only extremely limited contact with the outside world, and rules regulating the communication of detainees are notoriously murky and shifting. Military officials initially denied the very existence of Camp 7 and still refuse to speak about it to members of the media who visit Guantanamo. While a view of Camp 7 is available on Google Maps, it has only been visited in person by government representatives. On a recent congressional delegation trip, lawmakers were told that the high-value detainees there loved the erotic series Fifty Shades of Grey – a contention later disputed by at least one detainee.
Despite his years of confinement, KSM’s trial before a military commission has barely gotten off the ground, having been marred by repeated delays and questions about the legitimacy of such a relatively untested forum. Defense arguments that would have almost certainly been laughed out of a civilian court are given ample time, and unexpected issues constantly arise, like the revelation of a mysterious censor who could cut off the courtroom’s delayed audio feed unbeknownst even to the military judge running the court.
The Obama administration had planned to transfer KSM and several co-defendants to the continental United States and allow their case to proceed in federal court, but that effort was thwarted by political opposition from members of Congress, especially those in the New York City area, where KSM was to be tried. Attorney General Eric Holder recently suggested that, had the Sept. 11 case proceeded in federal court as he announced it would in 2009, KSM and his co-defendants “would be on death row as we speak.”
The bulk of those still held at Guantanamo aren’t high-value detainees like KSM. Dozens of them engaged in a hunger strike last year and successfully pushed Guantanamo back into the headlines. More than half of the 158 who remain have been cleared for transfer, and the Obama administration has had some limited success over the past year with moving those detainees. The lingering question is what the administration plans to do about those individuals who land somewhere between KSM and the detainees who aren’t deemed a threat — that is, the detainees whom the U.S. does not plan to put on trial but still wants to imprison indefinitely.
The last declassified significant communication from KSM came in 2009 when he addressed the court as part of his own defense in a document entitled “The Islamic Response to the Government’s Nine Accusations.” In that six-page document, KSM reaffirmed his commitment to fighting the U.S. and railed against the country that has detained him since his capture in Pakistan in 2003, referring to America as “first class war criminals.”
The latest manifesto hints at KSM’s awareness of his own importance in the eyes of the authorities. In an almost comical reference to his struggles with the English language, it reads, “When the CIA said ‘KSM is a big fish,’ I know that I am neither a whale nor a fish.” Elsewhere, he alludes to the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used against him: “Perhaps a poor detainee may be happy while being water-boarded or tortured or even in solitary confinement …”
Guantanamo insiders describe KSM as reveling in his high media profile, with CBS News senior correspondent John Miller once dubbing him a “media junkie.” He is said to be a keen Harry Potter fan and famously asked to build a vacuum cleaner from scratch as a means of preserving his sanity following his exposure to torture techniques.
He appears to have spent at least some of his time reading the Bible, dedicating 11 pages of his latest statement to that book and Christianity in his effort to convince readers to abandon the former faith in favor of Islam. KSM is reverential toward Jesus Christ while hostile toward the clergy, whom he says adulterated Christ’s message in the third and fourth centuries.
He also mistakenly suggests that Roman Catholics have “already solemnized marriages between homosexuals” and criticizes the authors of the Bible for failing to use “polite language.” And he takes the expected swipes at Jews, declaring that the “sexual stories” in the Bible were “written by corrupt Rabbis of certain times to make their holy book a ‘best seller’ to get more money.”
“If I am a Christian, how can I read this chapter in front of my children or recite these verses during a Sunday mass in front of my worshippers?” he writes. “If the young boys and girls are reading these stories, and are also in church drinking their holy wine, what do you think the result will be? I will leave the answer for the honest people to understand the real reason behind the sexual scandals from time to time in the Catholic churches.”
As for his trial, KSM has consistently sought to present himself as outside the process: He initially rejected his lawyer, frequently refers to the military commission as a “kangaroo court” and dismisses the authority of man-made laws. In 2012, he won the right to wear a camouflage field jacket and turban in court — items customarily worn by members of a militia — arguing that it was his right as a soldier. A short man, he has lost a significant amount of weight since he was photographed by the CIA looking disheveled shortly after his capture and has dyed his graying beard an orange-reddish color for his court appearances using fruit juice and crushed berries. He once objected to a courtroom artist’s sketch, saying his nose had been drawn too big.
The tone of his manifesto is such that, at times, it can be easy to forget its author has admitted to his role in murdering thousands of people.
But that’s exactly the way KSM wants it. “Before you start reading, forget and neglect the writer or author’s name,” he asks toward the beginning of the document.
The Independent: “I oppose gender segregation in universities. But its advocates have every right to their opinion”
Original article can be read here
In March this year, University College London hit the headlines after a Muslim organisation hosted a debate in which audience members were offered one of three options – male-only, female-only or mixed seating. Following the publication of a report by Universities UK which advised that if the segregation represented the “genuinely held religious beliefs” of the hosts, separate seating could be upheld, a number of journalists decried that “the sexist eccentricities of some religions” were being given “priority over women’s rights” and protests erupted outside the London headquarters of Universities UK.
I am not personally in favour of segregating talks at universities – as a Muslim, I don’t see the rationale for it. The logic behind the spatial distinction between male and female spaces during prayer doesn’t extend beyond those ritual acts and rigidly enforcing it outside of that context is – to my mind – unnecessary.
But the discussion of this issue has been troubling. The two main arguments appear to be an opposition to religious segregation in public spaces and an argument over equality.
Firstly, separating men and women cannot necessarily be assumed to reflect a statement of male supremacy. It can reflect personal preferences, as in women-only gyms, etiquette concerning behaviour in sacred spaces, as in orthodox synagogues or mosques, or feminist calls for “autonomous women’s space”. Like some feminists, some conservative Muslim women argue for their right to female-only spaces. Why should such requests be ignored simply because their purveyors are Muslim rather than radical secularists?
The fact that some Islamic societies are run or dominated by ultra-conservatives is undeniable and I share concerns that such individuals limit female participation, either as speakers or as members. Separate seating can reflect an idealisation of a Saudi-style system where men and women hardly interact outside of a familial setting. This de-facto disempowers women who are reduced to existing in a male universe. This is neither desirable, nor Islamic. But prohibiting separate seating doesn’t resolve underlying sexism, it merely forces its advocates off campus where the views expressed are less likely to be challenged. And what does it say of more progressive interpretations if the only way to encourage them is through legal imposition?
The Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee and others have argued that “whatever is segregated by diktat is rarely equal”, but separate seating spaces, like single sex schools can hardly be compared to Apartheid South Africa, convenient as the rhetorical device may be. Racial segregation was the reflection of a belief in white supremacy. Schools don’t separate children because girls are assumed to be inferior, but because it is believed by some educationalists that girls and boys perform better in single sex environments. Similarly to those who believe students of the opposite sex can be a distraction in co-ed classrooms, some Muslim groups believe this applies in lecture halls. One doesn’t have to condone this view (which I don’t) to accept its right to exist.
If secularism means anything, it means the neutrality of the state on religious matters. Separate but equal access to a lecture is no more or less discriminatory than separate but equal access to education more broadly. As Baroness Warsi quite rightly points out, “there are certain boys in our political system who have spent their whole life being segregated from girls as they were educated, some of the best schools in our country are segregated.”
The question does arise, why – when some of the UK’s leading schools, including some state schools – continue to offer separate educational facilities without encountering mass protests, why Muslims organising separate seating in an educational facility, does.
The assumption is clear – any differences in the treatment of men and women by religious folk is indicative of assumed male superiority and can therefore be denounced as an affront to women’s rights. This ignores the fact that feminists, both secular and religious, hold a variety of views on the manifestation of true equality, some preferring the notion of equality in difference, the not-particularly- religious notion, advanced by Aristotle among others, that “justice consists not only in treating like cases alike but also in treating different cases differently”.
Treating men and women identically doesn’t always mean treating them equally, since each might have specific needs. One Muslim scholar of the Quran, Asma Barlas, argues that “sexual equality in procedure often may ensure rather than obliterate sexual inequality in outcome” and believes the Quran advocates a model of equality which can be conceptualised not as blindness to sexual difference but rather as responsiveness to it.
Don’t ban segregation
It is entirely possible, as some Muslim feminists do, to argue that spatial separation of men and women in the context of prayer or ritual acts, is underpinned not by an assumed male superiority, but by conventions which seek to ensure men and women reach full and holistic emancipation on their own terms.
Universities UK’s guidance was not about the rights or wrongs of segregating an event by gender, rightfully steering clear of this important discussion in order to allow, as a free society should, the full expression of a range of distasteful, illiberal and even offensive views. It’s a lesson Muslims are regularly lambasted with. This means that although as a Muslim, I oppose the segregation of lectures along gender lines, even side by side, I’m glad British universities have upheld their commitment to securing free speech and promoting debate, which is exactly what university is about. It is now up to Muslims internally to push forward with greater gender equity, increase female representation and challenge sexist views which bend theological interpretations to fit their patriarchal desires. Banning segregated seating will do nothing to resolve the misogyny which at times underpins it.
More worrying to me is that this kerfuffle over segregation actually masks far more concerning issues, namely the erosion of freedom of expression and the policing of political and religious expression on British campuses. No distinction is currently being made, even in the UK Universities publication, about academic freedom verses the use of university premises for third party or student events, for instance. Even guest speakers to academic events may now be vetted. Segregation is surely a side issue in the face of the picture emerging from this document of our universities, our bastions of free thinking and free expression, in flight on the back of increasing securitization and deprivitization. Our universities are undergoing profound changes which will have long term implications for academic freedom and free speech – that, not segregation is the real story.
BBC London 94.9 with Vanessa Feltz – 17/09/2013 – Listen here
BBC Five Live with Stephan Nolan – 15/09/2013, 11h30PM: Listen here
BBC Radio 2 - 16/09/2013, with Jeremy Vine, 12h05PM: Listen here
and to Dermot Murnaghan at Sky News at 10h45 AM, in discussion with Lib Dem candidate Maajid Nawaz
I discuss a private member’s bill outlawing burkas, niqabs and other face coverings which is on the list of motions to be discussed in Parliament today – Should Britain ban the veil?
With Nicky Campbell, Angela Epstein, Mohamed Ansar and MP proposing the bill, Philip Hollobone.
Listen to the discussion here