How To Really Screw Up A Child

Today’s Guardian reports that…

The plans to make personal, social and health education (PSHE) compulsory from the age of five, published yesterday, include a clause allowing schools to apply their “values” to the lessons and another allowing parents to opt their children out on religious grounds.

It means that all state secondaries in England – including faith schools – will for the first time have to teach a core curriculum about sex and contraception in the context of teenagers’ relationships, but teachers in religious schools will also be free to tell them that sex outside marriage, homosexuality or using contraception are wrong. Sexual health campaigners warned that such an approach could confuse teenagers, but Catholic schools welcomed the move.

Let’s think about this for a second. At the kind of age we’re talking about here (secondary school), some may be starting to feel a bit confused about their own sexuality, and questioning whether they might be gay (or, indeed, already feeling pretty certain about it). I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of many things that you can more easily do to them at that point to really fuck them up, potentially for years into the future, than to tell them, as part of the lesson that is supposed to be telling them how to deal with these developments in a mature way, that there is something wrong with them, that to act on their thoughts and feelings would be “sinful”.

If their parents have sent them to a faith school, then they might not be likely to find much sympathy at home. What they are taught and what their friends think about these issues is enormously important. In that situation, what these plans are likely to produce is a whole load of unhappy and repressed young people.

Of course, we all know this; society has increasingly recognised the importance of being supportive of people finding their true sexuality, and the damage that some parents can do by rejecting their children in this situation.

But of course, religion is special. Belief in the sky-fairy entitles you to abuse your children without reproach; indeed, the government will go out of its way to allow you to fucking well INSTITUTIONALISE this abuse. (Am I succesfully expressing how angry this makes me?…)

Amazingly enough, as Costigan remarked this morning, the Daily Mail has managed to take precisely the opposite tack. This is what passes for an argument on the other side of this debate:

Simon Calvert, of the Christian Institute, said that ‘pressing the virtues of homosexuality’ could lead to more experimentation, which could be ‘harmful’ to children.

He said: ‘What we don’t want to see is vulnerable young people being exploited by outside groups which want to normalise homosexuality.

‘If this guidance purports to force faith schools to teach things which go against their faith then it is profoundly illiberal and must be resisted at all costs.’

It reminds me of Al Franken’s line about the US religious right’s argument that gay marriage “undermines” traditional marriage, as if he was going to be walking down the street one day, see a gay couple who’d just got married, and think “Well, gee, that does look pretty good, I shall leave my wife immediately.”

I mean, come on, “pressing the virtues of homosexuality”? As in, “not telling people that being gay means they’re sinners”? How many of our “vulnerable young people” are these “outside groups” (read: filthy homos seeking more recruits) really going to turn gay by simply not filling their heads with bigotry handed down by the sky-fairy?

Oh, and a pre-emptive warning to any nice religious types who want me to make more effort to separate them from “the Christian Institute”: go and give Simon Calvert a fucking great slap from me, and I’ll consider it.

Policy Exchange on GP&U, and Nick Clegg: A Fisking

Lib Dem Voice has already noted Nick Clegg’s attack on Policy Exchange’s document (.doc) profiling certain speakers and exhibitors at this year’s Global Peace and Unity event. The discussion on LDV included several people suggesting that Policy Exchange might have a point, so I thought I’d have a look into this. To my mind there are several questions here that should not be confused, so I will deal with them separately.

1. Are Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes lending credibility to cranks by going to this event?

Well, only if they are equally endorsing the views of Tony Benn, Ian Blair, Dominic Grieve, Tony McNulty and a host of others by doing so.

Here’s a list of the attendees Policy Exchange have issues with:

Director:
Mohamed Ali Harrath

Speakers:
Sheikh Yusuf Estes
Sheikh Yasir Qadhi
Sheikh Muhammad Alshareef
Rt Rev Riah Abu El-Assal
Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss
Mohammad Ijaz ul Haq
Ebrahim Rasool
William Rodriguez

Here’s a list of the people they don’t mention who are also speaking:

Yusuf Islam
Abdul Wahid Pedersen
Sheikh Tawfique Chowdhury
Jermaine Jackson
Reverend Jesse Jackson
Tony McNulty MP
Jack Straw
Simon Hughes MP
Nick Clegg
Sir Ian Blair
William Ernest “Bill” Rammell
Moazzam Begg
Sir Iqbal Sacranie OBE
Lord Sheikh
Shahid Malik MP
Dominic Grieve MP
Ahmed Zakayev
Zareen Roohi Ahmed
Salma Yaqoob
Tony Benn
John Rees
Lord Nazir Ahmed
Sadiq Khan
Stephen Timms
Richard Barnes
Imran Khan
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari

Obviously, many on the latter list are also muslims, but Policy Exchange aren’t lauding the event for encouraging dialogue with moderate Islam, they are trying to pick out those people with allegedly reprehensible views. This is legitimate, certainly, but somewhat divisive and negative of them. More importantly, the presence of other politicians at the event, including from Labour, Conservative and Respect, serves usefully to underline the point that in no way do speakers at this event think they are endorsing the views of other speakers at the event, any more than MPs who speak in the House of Commons are endorsing the views of everyone else present in the chamber at the time.

2. If we believe in free speech, do we have a responsibility to challenge people saying bad things?

I mention this only because Geoffrey Payne seems to think we do:

Well I do not see the point in allowing free speech and then not taking the opportunity to challenge the opinions you disagree with. [ie. boycotting the event]
Free speech allows debate, but you do not want a debate, and so you will leave these opinions to go unchallenged. How is that useful to anyone?

I have to say, one reading of the above seems a bit odd. Surely we cannot, as liberals, be expected to be responsible for rebutting all things which we disagree with that are ever said, wherever they are said, just because we are in favour of people’s right to say them?

However, there is rather more of a case that since Nick (and Simon) are there, they do indeed have a responsibility to speak up against views they disagree with. There doesn’t seem to be much point in their being there if they don’t.

3. Is Nick right to criticise the dossier Policy Exchange have produced?

Well, the specific criticism he makes is that the dossier “seeks to raise alarm over a number of the speakers planning to attend the conference. The accuracy of the allegations is variable, with a notable lack of evidence to support many of the claims.”

Of those assertions for which sources are quoted in the footnotes, the sources are as follows:

Probably Reliable:

  • Companies House documents
  • Interpol
  • The Guardian
  • The BBC
  • South African Broadcasting Corporation News
  • Muslim Council of Britain
  • The Washington Post
  • A Youtube video of Sheikh Yasir Qadhi speaking for himself
  • The Houston Chronicle
  • The BBC
  • Court Documents from Pennsylvania

Not sufficiently well known to me that I’d consider them an authority, but nothing I can find wrong with them:

Dubious:

  • Insight Magazine (a controversy over the specific article cited is noted on Wikipedia; this is the citation of evidence from SANE to which Nick refers. Policy Exchange’s quote from David Gaubatz takes on a rather different sense when you bear in mind that SANE believe Sharia is treasonous)
  • The Investigative Project on Terrorism (whose founder showed some prescience of the threat from Osama bin Laden, but has not gone without criticism, and looks to be something of an alarmist)
  • Frontpage Magazine (edited by git-wizard David Horowitz)
  • Open letter printed on Al Manar TV‘s website (Al Manar being a Lebanese Hezbollah mouthpiece likely to present things in a way that reflects well on Hezbollah)

So Nick seems to be on reasonable ground to point out that some of the people cited are equally biased as the people they are quoted in criticism of, but that’s by no means true of all of them. Now, lets look properly at the claims themselves. All of Policy Exchange’s dossier is quoted below, in this colour. Anyone else’s material will not be coloured, to make it easier not to get confused.

Director

According to Companies House, the director of Global Peace and Unity PLC is Mohamed Ali Harrath. Mr. Harrath is also the CEO of Islam Channel. He is a Tunisian national for whom there is currently a red notice on the Interpol website. According to the notice, the Tunisian Government has issued an arrest warrant for offences including: counterfeiting, forgery, crimes involving the use of weapons and explosives and terrorism. His date of birth and nationality provided in the red notice match the details given by Companies House. It must be noted however that the Interpol red notice is not an arrest warrant, but indicates that the Tunisian Government has requested he return to the country to face charges.

Fair enough. Director of the company in charge seems to have a dodgy past, at least according to the Tunisian government.

Sheikh Muhammad Alshareef

Mr. Alshareef is the Canadian born founder of the Al Maghrib Institute and a graduate of the University of Medinah. He graduated in 1999 with a degree in Sharia.
He has written an article entitled Why the Jews Were Cursed, in which he explains that Allah has punished the Jews because of the way in which they responded to his blessings. He concludes by saying that Muslims “should not take them (the Jews) as our close allies…should not imitate them…(and) a Muslimah may never marry a Jewish or Christian man that remains in his beliefs.”

Well, yes, but the article in question appears to be more or less a survey of all mentions of Jews in the Quran, and interestingly, Policy Exchange don’t quote the following from straight after the bit that they do quote:

Is all this a death sentence on the Jews? Nay, Allâh’s infinite Mercy has left the gate open for ANYONE who wishes to come back to him.

[And if only the People of the Scripture had believed and feared Allâh, We would have removed from them their misdeeds and admitted them to joyful Gardens] – Ma’idah 5/65

So we are left with an impression of Muhammad Alshareef as maybe more bigoted than he is. Whilst the views they quote from him are unpleasant, that is in the nature of religion and in particular the notoriously cherry-pickable Quran. I don’t see a reason to single out Alshareef over this.

Mohammad Ijaz ul-Haq

Mr. ul-Haq is the son of former Pakistani president Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. He is a Pakistani MP and former Federal Minister for Religious Affairs.

As such one might argue that this alone qualifies him to be at the conference. No matter what awful views they might attribute to him, he is a valid choice to invite to an event aimed at promoting useful dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims from around the world, in the interests of peace.

In June 2007, after Salman Rushdie was awarded a Knighthood, Mr ul-Haq, who was at the time Religious Affairs Minister, suggested this was a justification for Muslims to carry out suicide bombings. He was reported by a number of UK newspapers to have said: “This is an occasion for the 1.5 billion Muslims to look at the seriousness of this decision…The west is accusing Muslims of extremism and terrorism. If someone exploded a bomb on his body he would be right to do so unless the British government apologises and withdraws the ‘sir’ title.”

One might almost suspect that this controversial pronouncement was one of the reasons he was considered an interesting choice to invite to the event. There is absolutely no point inviting people with views we can all agree with to an event to promote dialogue and understanding. By definition, there has to be something to understand and reach accomodations over. Bridging (somehow) the gap between the more fundamentalist demands of Islam and the tenets of liberal democracy (including freedom of speech) are central to promoting peace. No?

According to online Pakistani news portal, The Daily Times – translating an article in an Urdu newspaper called Daily Jang – during a controversy over the sexual abuse of children by ulema (Islamic scholars) at Islamic seminaries in Pakistan, Mr ul-Haq urged that the reporting of such incidents should be concealed so as not to blemish the reputation of the scholars.

Well, again, this just emphasizes that this is a man who is not from the liberal democratic tradition, and who sees his role as to some extent a religious one. The Catholic church has arguably spent years keeping similar issues quiet for the same reasons. That doesn’t make either right, but lets not get ahead of ourselves in our condemnation of other people’s extremists.

Rt Reverend Riah Abu El-Assal

Until 2007 Mr. El Assal was the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem.

Again, as much as we might disagree with his views, this somewhat justifies his invitation in and of itself.

According to a Christian website based in Nazareth called Come and See, Mr. El Assal gave a lecture in Ramallah in February 2003 where he said: “Greetings of appreciation to all martyrs that were killed on the Land of Palestine.” He also added that all martyrs receive eternal life and they “live in the Kingdom of Heaven”. In order to support his statement he quoted the following Koranic verse: “Do not consider those that were killed for the sake of God as dead, but alive with their Lord”. When he was questioned about these remarks during an August 2006 BBC Hardtalk interview, he did not deny the comments attributed to him by Come and See, though he did claim that he was referring to “worldwide martyrs” and not Palestinians.

As bizarre as the quoting of Koranic verse by an Anglican minister seems, none of this seems all that outlandish to me. We don’t know what he means by “martyrs” without more context – he may not mean suicide bombers, which is what we are supposed to assume. We oughtn’t to forget, of course, that Christianity has its own hall of fame of martyrs. I might be wrong, but I suspect in the eyes of Policy Exchange, Ijaz-ul-Haq’s real crime is failure to fall in line slavishly behind Israel.

Ebrahim Rasool

Mr. Rasool is a member of the South African ANC party and a former Premier of the Western Cape Province.

In May 2007, Mr. Rasool, in his capacity as Premier of the Western Cape Province, received a Hamas delegation to South Africa for discussions.

In June 2007 he addressed the MCB, and according to the MCB press release: “He commended the MCB for serving as a ‘point of coherence’, ‘a point of articulation’ and a ‘point of focus’ for British Muslims and their religious identity. He noted that Government cannot pick and choose with whom it seeks to speak to – the only credible dialogue will be with the institution that represents the community and has its trust.”

Errr… and? I don’t even see what it is this guy is supposed to have done wrong, other than talking to Hamas. If Policy Exchange want to take the McCain-Palin side of the “talking to people we don’t like” argument, fine, but I don’t agree with them on that, so to me this seems a rather pathetic attack.

Sheikh Yusuf Estes

Sheikh Estes is a convert to Islam and director of the Islamic Mission Foundation International in the United States.

In an October 2006 Washington Post article, the author Asra Q. Nomani reports that she heard an audio sermon by Estes where he advises men on how to deal with disobedient wives:

First, “tell them.” Second, “leave the bed.” Finally: “Roll up a newspaper and give her a crack. Or take a yardstick, something like this, and you can hit.”

Ms. Nomani then writes that she contacted Mr. Estes to ask him for a clarification of his position and he said he was attempting to limit how and when men hit their wives.

OK, I’ll give them this one, he doesn’t seem like a very nice person, and if he’s based in the US he doesn’t even have the cultural relativist defense, he has every opportunity to know better. I would just add, however, that the Quran is arguably on his side (ridiculously interpretable book that it is), and that by the sound of Nomani’s article, this view is pretty widespread in Islam, even in the US, so again, the central point that you have to talk to the people you disagree with if you aren’t wasting your time.

Sheikh Yasir Qadhi

Sheikh Qadhi is an instructor at the Al-Maghrib Institute and the Al Kauthar Institute.

In a March 2008 lecture on the Islam Channel he refers to the original Channel 4 Undercover Mosque Programme. In this talk he claims that the Wahhabi cult is a group invented by non Muslims in order to “divide and conquer” the Muslims. He also states that “we are loyal to our countries insofar as it does not conflict with our religion of Islam”, and that homosexuality is an “aberration against God.”

In the Houston Chronicle, Qadhi has mentioned that he is on the US Department of Homeland Security terrorist watch list.

Yes, he does. Specifically, he says:

“The main problem the Muslim community has … is the presumption of guilt,” said Yasir Qadhi, a Houston imam and a doctoral candidate at Yale University. “It is the singling out of people just because of their looks or their identity.”

Muslims are routinely detained and questioned at airports and other ports of entry, he said. Qadhi also protested the denial of visas to imams and other religious leaders who are invited to this country to speak.

Sutherland said his office was empowered to investigate any complaints over discrimination and urged Muslims to report any incidents and problems.

Qadhi said he was detained for five hours, along with his wife and three small children, about four months ago when he drove back from Canada through Niagara Falls. He said he is routinely detained whenever he enters the country.

Qadhi said his name is on a terrorist watch list. He said he has no idea how he got on the list.

Anyway, back to Policy Exchange:

According to David Horowitz’s Frontpage magazine, during a 2006 lecture on the Koran’s Surah Yusuf, Mr. Qadhi denies that Hitler’s aim was the genocide of the Jewish people:

“All of these Polish Jews which Hitler was supposedly trying to exterminate, that’s another point, by the way, Hitler never intended to mass-destroy the Jews.”

As I’ve already mentioned, I’m going to take Frontpage with a pinch of salt for now. I don’t have any reason to specifically disbelieve this, though, so I’ll give Policy Exchange that this guy probably isn’t very nice either.

Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss

Rabbi Weiss is an activist and spokesman for Neturei Karta International, an anti-Zionist group of orthodox Haredi Jews. This group is known to actively support both Hamas and Hezbollah.

Meaning what, exactly? No source quoted.

In March 2008 Rabbi Weiss was a co-signatory to a Neturei Karta open letter to Hezbollah leader, Hasan Nasrallah. Much of the letter praises Nasrallah and his work:

We now turn to Your Excellency, Sayyed Nasrallah ever so humbly, and ask you to accept our words and to convey these words with the following message to the citizens of Lebanon and to the Palestinian people in refugee camps in your country.
May we reiterate that we speak to you as the voice and messengers of true Jewry — the Jewish people, true to the Almighty’s Torah, from around the world.

Although we are limited in the means of expressing our deepest and true feelings, by the barriers of words, nevertheless, the Jewish people humbly offer to you and all of Lebanon, Gaza and the entire Palestine, a few words, to attempt to convey our support, deepest sorrow and heartfelt sympathy that we all feel for you, in this present tragic and traumatic time.

Once again may we state it would be only proper and fitting, that we personally write to and address each and everyone who has fallen victim of the Zionist state of “Israel”. Unfortunately and how tragic, the list of victims is daunting.
May our few and humble words be a message of consolation, friendship, loyalty and support to you, the people of Lebanon, and to the people of Gaza and the entire Palestine.

Doesn’t look all that supportive of Nasrallah to me. Yes, they express support for “the citizens of Lebanon and to the Palestinian people in refugee camps in your country”, and later, “you, the people of Lebanon, and to the people of Gaza and the entire Palestine”, but they say nothing in the quoted section of the letter in support of Hezbollah’s actions. It’s a pretty standard anti-zionist statement of regret about the grievances that people in Lebanon and the occupied territories have towards Israel, which they are understandably keen to separate from Judaism per se. Nothing especially reprehensible on display here, other than opposition to the state of Israel (NB. Not to the people who live there).

Naturei Karta also attended a December 2006 conference in Iran informally known as the ‘Holocaust denial’ conference, which questions the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Though they do not deny the Holocaust, the group believe that it was and still is being used by Jewish people as “tool of commercial, military and media power”.

As Jews, they have some right to say this, and they are free to go where they want and talk to who they want.

Imam Johari Abdul-Malik

Imam Johari Abdul Malik is the Director of Outreach at the Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Centre in Virginia, USA.

There is a recording of Imam Abdul-Malik giving a sermon at the Dar al Hijrah in 2004, in this lecture he spoke of how Islam shall become the primary religion in the United States:

“People even under the pressures that you and I know about, the deen of Islam is growing because people see even within all of this struggle it is better to be a Muslim under these conditions than to be a kaffir under any conditions… before Allah closes our eyes for the last time you will see Islam move from being the second largest religion in America-that’s where we are now – to being the first religion in America.

Um… this seems like a pretty standard aspiration from any evangelical religion. Why are we supposed to think this makes him an extremist?

William Rodriguez

Mr. Rodriguez was a janitor at the World Trade Centre and survived the 9/11 attack on the North Tower.

In October 2004 he filed charges against 156 parties including: The President of the United States, The Vice President, The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), claiming their complicity in the 9/11 attacks. Among his allegations were that the Twin Towers were brought down through the use of controlled explosions, and the Pentagon was in fact struck by a missile and not by American Airlines flight 77.

Uh-huh. A 9/11 truther. Well, yes, it is disappointing that such a person is invited to this event, when there are all sorts of 9/11 survivors they could have invited if they wanted one. But I’m not convinced this is evidence that this man is a dangerous extremist. There are any number of slightly naive teenage rebels who are convinced of the same arguments, widely available from websites and films like Loose Change. People can think what they want. In this case, they’d be wrong. But it’s a good thing that Rodriguez tried to bring the issue to wider attention in a forum where evidence could be properly presented etc., and rather more laudable than just spreading silly rumours online, claiming anyone who argues with you is obviously drinking the Kool-Aid.

I can’t be arsed to look at stallholders, I’m sure that out of a whole bunch of stallholders, Policy Exchange will have managed to dig up two dodgy ones. Big whoop.

So, to sum up:

Director:
Mohamed Ali Harrath – criminal record in Tunisia, seems fair enough.

Speakers:

  • Sheikh Yusuf Estes – wife beater
  • Sheikh Yasir Qadhi – David Horowitz says he’s a holocaust denier, and he thinks Channel 4 are trying to “divide and conquer” Islam
  • Sheikh Muhammad Alshareef – provides a roundup of what the Quran says about Jews
  • Imam Johari Abdul-Malik – wants to convert people
  • Rt Rev Riah Abu El-Assal – quotes a Quran verse about “martyrs”, whatever he might have meant by that
  • Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss – anti-Zionist
  • Mohammad Ijaz ul Haq – supports bombers over Rushdie award and wanted to cover up child abuse
  • Ebrahim Rasool – spoke to Hamas
  • William Rodriguez – 9/11 truther

So, it’s fair to say that there is a mixture of some fairly unsavoury and some relatively innocent people in Policy Exchange’s list. They are right to say that some of them hold some pretty unpleasant views, but in other cases their dossier is rather slippery and unfounded.

Anyway, are Nick’s criticisms justified? Well, we’ve got this far, so let’s just go a bit further, and take his criticisms bit by bit:

I am writing to ask you to retract an offensive dossier that Policy Exchange has been privately circulating condemning the Global Peace & Unity Event scheduled for the coming weekend in London.

This is the fourth year of this conference. It will be attended by 30,000 people and is geared towards promoting harmony and dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims.

The Policy Exchange briefing I have seen seeks to raise alarm over a number of the speakers planning to attend the conference. The accuracy of the allegations is variable, with a notable lack of evidence to support many of the claims.

Maybe overstating his case a bit here, but some justification for this. What he also could have mentioned is that some of the “evidence” is quoted as if it amounts to rather more than it actually does, which is a subtler accusation, so maybe he was wise to steer clear of it.

In particular I was appalled to see ‘evidence’ quoted from the Society for American National Existence, an organisation which seeks to make the practice of Islam illegal, punishable by 20 years in prison. I need hardly point out how illogical it is to attempt to criticise one set of extreme views by citing another.

Fair enough, with the elaboration that by “the practice of Islam”, SANE mean signing up to Sharia law in its totality, a divisive but not unreasonable position.

My concern is not limited to the facts in the document, however. Your attempt to raise a boycott of this event by privately briefing against it is bizarre, and underhand behaviour for a think-tank supposedly interested in open public debate. The information you are disseminating is extremely narrow in focus and as a result tars with the brush of extremism the tens of thousands of Muslims who will be in attendance.

Yes, and not only this, but it also attempts to tar the majority of speakers at the event, whose existence Policy Exchange doesn’t even let on.

Of course, no-one should condone violence or bigotry. But neither must we allow the repugnant acts of a minority of dangerous individuals to be a reason to deny the one million British Muslims – and indeed all other members of British society – the right to meet together to celebrate faith and discuss the importance of peace. The sad truth is you play into the hands of the men you seek to discredit, driving further the alienation of the majority of Muslims who see themselves mischaracterised everywhere they turn as would-be terrorists.

That a think-tank professing to promote ‘a free society based on strong communities [and] personal freedom’ would act to undermine tolerance across our society worries me greatly.

The space for debate is currently filled with few voices, a fact that extremists capitalise on. If we are to truly achieve a society in which all peaceful members are free and equal, that space must be filled with reasoned and principled debate. That is why I shall be speaking at the conference, not hiding from open discussion. We must challenge publicly the ideas of those who propagate terrorism and instead promote the cause of peace and freedom in Britain for all citizens.

All very true, and I can only say that for Nick to follow through on this, he does indeed have to challenge the few genuinely objectionable views that Policy Exchange highlight.

I therefore urge you to withdraw this briefing and to call off any plans to circulate it further. I also suggest that if you want to make a positive contribution to this debate that you step out of the shadows and make yourself heard.

Eminently fair.

So, all in all, I’m not quite sure what the LDV commenters are up in arms about. Yes, if I was Nick I might have reworded this slightly, but in its general thrust, the letter is entirely correct.

I will finish, if I may, with a reiteration of this point: To urge a boycott of an event just because there are people with dodgy views at it is bonkers. What Policy Exchange are arguing here is that we shouldn’t talk to people with views we disagree with. They are just opposed to the whole idea of the event, but they choose to hide this in favour of attacking some of the specific people who happen to have been invited. This is a cowardly way to make an argument. They would have done much better to make a proper case for no-platforming (which is what they are arguing for, really), and to have made it publicly. That they didn’t is underhanded of them, and Clegg is quite right to have called them out on it. Meanwhile, by going to this event, Clegg and Hughes (and various other MPs) are making an explicit stand against no-platforming. Good for them.

Agnostic Bus Campaign?

There is still an annoying confusion doing the rounds that any statement less strong than “I am absolutely certain there is no God” is not atheism but agnosticism. We can see it today in the faux surprise (expressed by religious sites like Ekklesia) at the wording of the Atheist Bus Campaign:

The slogan on the buses will read: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

This appears to be a tactful retreat from Professor Dawkins’ previous claims that God “almost certainly” does not exist – but commentators are already pointing out that it is closer to agnosticism (uncertainty about whether God can be known as a reality or not) rather than atheism (outright denial).

This is a wedge that the religious like to drive between two positions that, typically, have more in common than they want people to think. After all, if you think atheists believe they can be absolutely certain there is no God, then there are almost no atheists in the world, and Richard Dawkins would, on that definition, be an agnostic. Here, for instance, is what Dawkins wrote on HuffPo two years ago:

Accepting, then, that the God Hypothesis is a proper scientific hypothesis whose truth or falsehood is hidden from us only by lack of evidence, what should be our best estimate of the probability that God exists, given the evidence now available? Pretty low I think, and here’s why. […]

That sounds, to me, entirely compatible with what the Atheist Bus Campaign is proposing to put on buses. The difference is one of degrees, between “probably” and “almost certainly”, both phrases which acknowledge uncertainty. I would argue that the Atheist Bus Campaign chose the wording it did mostly because it was trying to be pithy, not because they wanted to water down the atheist position. They are, after all, calling themselves the Atheist Bus Campaign.

Similarly, Bill Maher recently went on the Daily Show to promote his new film Religulous, which is, to all intents and purposes, advancing atheist arguments. Nonetheless, Maher claims for himself not atheism, but agnosticism. Now, an agnostic is “someone who does not know, or believes that it is impossible to know, whether a god exists“. If that is the case, then why argue, as Maher (correctly) does, that the beliefs of religious people are preposterous? If you’re agnostic, you are allowing that there is a reasonable case to be made both for and against the existence of a particular God, or at least that there is no robust case to be made against their existence. So why try?

I think the problem here comes from the wide range of definitions claimed for atheism in common parlance. Atheism can be “either the affirmation of the nonexistence of gods, or the rejection of theism. It is also defined more broadly as an absence of belief in deities, or nontheism.” Thing is, most atheists aren’t “affirming the nonexistence of gods”, they are “rejecting theism”. Religious apologists want you to believe that I believe there is definitely no God. I don’t. I just think the claims of religions are bonkers, and as such the burden of proof is on them, not me. But don’t call me agnostic. The only uncertainty I have is the technical kind of uncertainty that I also hold about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Russell’s Teapot, both equally bonkers propositions.

Are "religious rights" special?

Today’s Wail contains a typically sensational report on the case of Lillian Ladele, a bigot whose sky-fairy told her to do it. So many points to be made here that I don’t quite know where to start. Perhaps a quick rewrite is in order. The following should strike everyone the way a story like this strikes me:

Victory for Pastafarian registrar bullied for refusing to perform ‘sinful’ inter-racial weddings

A Pastafarian registrar who refused to carry out interracial ‘weddings’ won a landmark legal battle yesterday.

A. N. Other, 45, was threatened with the sack, bullied and ‘thrown before the lions’ after asking to be excused from conducting civil partnerships for mixed-race couples because of his religious beliefs.

But yesterday a tribunal agreed that his faith had been ridden roughshod over by equalities-obsessed Islington Council, which had sought to ‘trump one set of rights with another’.

The groundbreaking decision could lead to firms facing ‘conscience claims’ from staff who say their own beliefs prevent them carrying out part of their job.

Yesterday’s ruling found that Liberal Democrat-run Islington Council in North London cared too much about the ‘rights of the black, white, asian and oriental communities’.

It also found that the council – which gave Mr. Other an ultimatum to choose between his beliefs and his £31,000-a-year job – showed no respect for his rights as a Pastafarian.

Speaking afterwards, Mr. Other said: ‘It is a victory for religious liberty, not just for myself but for others in a similar position to mine.

‘Civil rights should not be used as an excuse to bully or harass people over their religious beliefs.’

Mr. Other, who is single, said he was treated like a pariah by colleagues and left in an ‘intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’.

He had wept as he told the tribunal how his employers gave him an ultimatum to perform the ceremonies or face dismissal for gross misconduct.

‘I was being picked on a daily basis,’ he said. He said he felt like he was being ‘thrown before the lions’, explaining: ‘I hold the orthodox Pastafarian view that marriage is the union of two people of the same race for life and this is the Flying Spaghetti Monster-ordained place for sexual relations.

‘It creates a problem for any Pastafarian if they are expected to do or condone something that they see as sinful.’

His nightmare began in 2004, when he realised that legislation permitting civil partnerships at town halls between gays or lesbians would require him to preside over the ceremonies.

Mr. Other raised his concerns, but was ridiculed. His boss, Helen Mendez-Child, said his stance was akin to a registrar refusing to marry a gay person.

In 2006 Mr. Other and another, unnamed, Pastafarian colleague were accused of ‘discriminating against the homosexual community’.

In May 2007, the council launched an internal disciplinary inquiry into Mr. Other.

Four months later, he was told if he did not co-operate he would be sacked. He took the council to an employment tribunal, claiming discrimination, harassment and victimisation on the grounds of religion or beliefs.

Yesterday the Central London tribunal agreed he had been unfairly treated.

In its ruling, which could have implications for the administration of the 18,000 same-sex ceremonies conducted every year, the tribunal said: ‘This is a situation where there is a conflict between two rights or freedoms. It is an important case, which may have a wider impact than the dispute between the parties.

‘The tribunal accepts that it would be wrong for one set of rights to trump another.

‘The evidence before the tribunal was that Islington Council rightly considered the importance of the right of the interracial community not to be discriminated against but did not consider the right of Mr. Other as a member of a religious group.

‘Islington Council decided that the service it provided was secular and that the rights of the interracial community must be protected.

‘In so acting, it took no notice of the rights of Mr. Other by virtue of his orthodox Pastafarian beliefs.’

Compensation will be decided in September. There is no limit to the amount that can be awarded for religious discrimination.

Last night employment lawyer Lisa Mayhew, of Jones Day, said: ‘It is a bit of a wake-up call for employers.

‘They need to think about whether their instructions and the tasks expected of staff might cause people with religious beliefs more problems than others.

‘It does not have to be religion – this could apply across the spectrum in terms of race, gender or sexual orientation.’

But Bert Winterknack, of interracial rights campaign group Brickwall, said: ‘Public servants are paid by taxpayers to deliver public services.

‘They shouldn’t be able to pick and choose who they deliver those services to.’

Now, before we get down to it, there are a few pragmatic points I have seen raised on this. Sure, the argument goes, she couldn’t expect to be employed if she lived, say, in the highlands, and was the only registrar for miles around, but she wasn’t. She worked in a busy registrar’s office, and there were other registrars who could do the ceremonies she objected to, why couldn’t Islington council just be a sport and allow her to duck out of those ceremonies she didn’t want anything to do with. Of course, they could have done that, and, as I understand it, this is the ad hoc arrangement that she came to for some time.

Like any employee who continually demands special treatment in the way their tasks are assigned in a workplace that employs many people, it doesn’t surprise me that this didn’t exactly make her popular in the office. I don’t know how far the alleged “lions” went, but since the article in the Mail, which is pretty sympathetically worded, mentions no specifics at all, I doubt it was especially bad. Besides which, this isn’t what she is complaining about – the employment tribunal are there only to consider the rights and wrongs of her being faced with an ultimatum playing her beliefs against her continued employment.

The main point, really, is that to say the council (and I couldn’t care less that it’s a Lib Dem council, it may as well be a BNP council for all I care, they’d still be right) have wrongly allowed gay rights to trump religious ones is bizarre. The gay people in question are not employees, the religious person in question is, and an employee of a secular, state organisation, at that. Her job description now requires her to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies (which, by the way, were only introduced in the first place to get around the fact that religious twats were so bothered about the idea of the word “marriage” being applied to gay relationships, so I’m not even sure what she’s bothered about; she’s isn’t being asked to “marry” gay people), and she is refusing to do her job. Why should a secular state pay her to only do, say, nine tenths of her job? How about four fifths of her job? Half? A quarter?

Why is there even confusion about people’s right to be employed even if they say they mustn’t do part of the job description, not because they are incapable of doing it, but because they don’t believe in it? Could I demand work as a bricklayer but say I was ideologically opposed to physical work? No? Why not?

But as soon as you attach the magic word “religion” to things, people lose sight of the point. This is a problem for soft-secular states like Britain, who like to think they are essentially secular now but who still have a state religion, a requirement for a daily act of worship in all state schools, and laws against religious discrimination but no similar protections for atheists. An atheist who acted as Lillian Ladele has would, quite rightly, be told to fucking well belt up and get on with their job or find another one. Like she was. And nobody would think they had a leg to stand on.

Of course, nobody should be forced to do something they don’t want to do. And Miss Ladele wasn’t, she was given a choice: officiate in these ceremonies, or find another job which was compatible with her beliefs. She chose instead to throw her toys out of the pram and assert her right to stay on the public purse whilst discriminating against a section of the public who she is employed by. That an employment tribunal thinks that this right exists is the scary part. Because what it means is that, in the minds of the tribunal at least, “religious” rights are in some way special. Belief in a supernatural order to the world does, it seems, qualify you to hold attitudes which unreasonably affect your performance of your job without fear of reproach. In this sense, the state has a long way to go before it can genuinely call itself secular.

People who call Dawkins, Hitchens, Grayling et al. “militant”, who claim they are just being mean and picking a fight with mostly inoffensive religious people, can shove it up their arse. Because until stories like this one seem to everyone as obviously absurd as they do to atheists, they have a very important role.