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Tag Archives: Islam

While there are no details as yet as to the motivations of the murderers of the English soldier at Woolwich, the web is already alive with opponents and defenders of Islam. More significantly for those of us who value public discourse, many thoughtful and tolerant people are taking the position that Islam – and by extension all religion – is not a problem. Paradoxically it is this kind of blanket tolerance that can lead to trouble.

For as long as religion is “respected” in public discourse, particular religions will be attacked because of the actions and statements of their most extreme adherents.

When we discuss values and matters concerning values, religion has to be ignored and certainly cannot be allowed become a trump card. For example, debates about abortion cannot be side-tracked by stuff about respect for catholic beliefs and nastiness to gays cannot be permitted because the speaker believes in Islam. When a society takes seriously claims that something should be or not be because God or a prophet said so, it encourages belief as opposed to argument. Every single cruel, divisive and – yes! – inegalitarian belief should be hauled out from under religious cloaks and tackled.

When that has been established, we can say with some confidence that an act of barbarity had nothing to do with religion.


A sensible and democratic approach is to treat Islamic dress as public argument. It can then be defended as free speech which invites counter argument, and it can be banned in schools to shelter children until they mature as citizens.

It is very hard to find a plausible argument as to why an adult cannot dress any way they like. Comparisons with motor cycle helmets, balaclavas and hoodies make no sense. Yes, it’s true that if you search, you’ll find that a male criminal evaded the police by dressing as a woman but that’s a world away from claiming that these masks make the control of criminality more difficult.

When journalists have bothered to ask women why they dress in this way, four reasons seem to emerge. Firstly, they are forced to do so. Secondly, they just like it. Thirdly, they believe it to be a command from God or that it pleases God. Fourthly, they are expressing a belief about the nature of people – especially men – which is determined by gender.

If a woman can be forced to dress against her will, it is likely that she is oppressed and unfree in many unpleasant ways but there is no way of knowing by dress alone what is going on.

If a woman simply prefers to dress in this way, nothing can or should be done. She’ll have to expect ordinary respect; the same as that due to any style minority, say, Goths.

However, if she is saying that God wants women covered up either because of divine petulance or because God shares the sexist views of some of Her followers, then the dress is an argument. The term “sexist” is used to refer to a belief that one’s character, behaviour etc. are determined by gender.

Now, at the extreme this is akin to wearing a sandwich board or carrying a placard saying that all men are rapists or the familiar, all men are bastards. At its mildest it is saying that men are driven exclusively or primarily by sexual desire prompted by the sight of a woman’s body, face or hair and that a woman is responsible for controlling this lust by covering up.

The question now arises as to whether the clothes, sandwich board or placard should be permitted? Of course, they should. It is a matter of free speech. However, fellow citizens who disagree are duty bound to engage them in argument. Leaving public order issues to one side, this suggests that anyone dressing in this way in public should expect to be confronted by argument in public in the same way as if they had mounted a soapbox and presented a speech or carried a controversial placard.

Very few people argue for unqualified freedom of expression and most people become conservative when it comes to children. Adults can and must make informed judgements based on argument and information. Children develop and need to be protected from noxious doctrines until they are mature enough to examine them, hear counter arguments and make decisions. If sexism (and, its consequent inequality) is considered a noxious doctrine, its expression in dress should not be allowed in a school.

In Ireland no one minds very much whether one believes in God or the form one’s God takes. Everyone has spent time trying to find a transcendent anchor for being and meaning. While it is certainly true that many – perhaps most – people find it difficult to argue that universal human values can exist without God, they are more than uncomfortable with the notion that different gods and different groups of religious adherents seem far too frequently to permit or encourage unkindness, cruelty or brutality. Some people avoid confrontation by taking refuge in “culture”; anything is permitted as long as it is sufficiently foreign. Leaving aside the question of abandoning suffering millions to their culture, Ireland’s relatively recent move to a multicultural society has brought the issue close to home. However, the problem lurks too in the folds of the controversy over faith schools.

The problem with religion is not God. It’s revelation. Finding God or feeling it necessary to crucify one’s reason does not lead to cruelty. That path starts at the feet of those who claim to be messengers; that God has told them what people must do, that God has inspired them or that they are particularly capable of interpreting the mind of God. Here is authoritarianism, the erection and maintenance of rules which are not subject to continuous argument – in short, savage certainty.

There are two debates:  i) the existence and nature of God; and ii) the creation of political values and rules to support those values. The two debates can of course be linked but not when the purpose is to avoid argument or to claim that noxious doctrines should be taught to school children.

In Ireland, as the Catholic Church declines, there are many who argue that it is essential to maintain schools with a “Catholic ethos”. Behind the Catholic stance are smaller but growing religions – like Islam – which are happy with their power to run a school according to a particular “ethos”. However, what is meant by “ethos” is not exactly public.

As long as great care is taken to avoid frightening them, there is little to be said against teaching children about, say, God, saints and sacraments. Moreover, religious schooling often features preparation for popular family events like first communion. Debate, therefore, about school ownership and management structures tends to emphasise the harmless and the happy. The contentious power to teach values is seldom mentioned and a thorough exploration of what might be taught is avoided. Most opponents of religious schooling either fall for this or are just as myopic; they charge off into today’s variant of the age-old debate over the existence of God.

The problem with faith schools is not management structures or ownership. The problem is not even God. The problem is the teaching of values. A post from “Anne Marie” in an Irish Times on-line discussion is typical of the confusion. (The discussion followed on from the article by Breda O’Brien, “Time for parents to ask the primary question” in The Irish Times of Saturday, August 7, 2010.) “Anne Marie” – making no distinction between religion and ethics – wrote approvingly of a school in Brussels: the choices available are “Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Islamic religion or non-religious ethics”. So far, so tolerant but when someone wants to teach a child, say, that God sees different roles for men and women or that homosexual behaviour is wrong, it must be PREVENTED in schools. This is not denial of freedom. Everyone is encouraged to argue among adult citizens but children must be protected. It is crazy to allow any doctrine – no matter how nasty – to be taught to children as long as it can be claimed to be religion.

Now, most values taught in religious schools are either positive and progressive or at worst do no harm but some are daft and/or cruel, and – no matter what their parents want – little Irish citizens should be protected while at school from malicious nonsense about, say, equality, family, homosexuality etc. Anyone using the term “ethos’ should be required to say what it means in practice and if it includes cruel doctrines which decent people hope have been consigned to history, then it must be made clear that freedom means arguing with adults.