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When those men went into a Paris workplace and gunned down the staff, they committed a crime against humanity. Yes, in that they reduced human beings to mere messages, they were terrorists but it was also a crime against humanity – an act so vile that no talk of war, blasphemy, recent or ancient wrongs can be allowed into consideration.

Too much of the subsequent discussion focussed on freedom of expression, its defence and its limits in a democracy. Part of the discussion revealed some sympathy if not for the gunmen themselves, then for their perspective. This part was anxious to talk about the level of abuse a well-off elite might be permitted to direct at a minority or to what extent religion might be permitted to put topics beyond public discourse or ridicule. With all this in full spate there was little explicit mention of the chasm between expression and blood soaked flooring but at an intuitive level that seems to have been grasped and made clear in the willingness of people who would never utter an offensive word, to express themselves, “Je suis Charlie!”

In other words, faced with a crime against humanity, decent people were prepared to side with vulgarity, insult and profanity. It may not be discussed very often but the majority of people know that there are transgressions so heinous as to offend humanity, so heinous as to exclude nationality, race, religion, conflict and even war from consideration.

Robert Fisk wrote that he knew from the outset that Algeria would figure in this atrocity.* However, he called it for what it was, a crime against humanity, a crime beyond justification but linked to the Franco Algerian War of the 50s and 60s and the Algerian civil war of the 80s. While he emphasises the struggle with imperialism, he reminds the reader that those years were marked by crimes against humanity including the French bombardment of villages. Many of the perpetrators and their associates are likely still living and not on anyone’s wanted list.

There’s been a considerable amount of “whataboutery” too from those either supportive of the murderers in France or anxious to characterise media and people in the developed west as selective in their condemnation. While this is a familiar tactic of those anxious to spread the blame, make light of the offence by pointing to something worse or undermine the hunt for perpetrators and their accomplices, it does highlight something that needs to be addressed.

Many crimes against humanity are not covered by world media. That does not mean, however, that humanity has no interest in pursuing the guilty. What it does is point to the need for an international institution to which a citizen of any country can bring for investigation a crime against humanity.

Far too often the victims of crimes against humanity are forced back into festering resentment in local identity or religion. This will be their only course unless humanity can intervene to make it clear that the crime was against every living, breathing person and that the perpetrators, their commanders and supporters will be hunted for the rest of their lives. They may be protected within their country or by a peace agreement but humanity – as represented by the wider world – wants them in the dock and when possible will have them arrested.

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* http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/charlie-hebdo-paris-attack-brothers-campaign-of-terror-can-be-traced-back-to-algeria-in-1954-9969184.html?origin=internalSearch

A news report in Saturday’s Irish Times has prompted me to return to the question of schools having a religious ethos *. While of course this applies to all religious schools in Ireland, the campaign in favour of fostering ethos ** is led by the Catholic Church.

The difficulty with addressing “ethos” is that it is never clear what is meant. If it means that any doctrine can be taught to children as long as it is said to be a feature of a religion, then ethos must be rejected. No responsible citizen would approve a rule saying that anything can be taught to a child as long as it is cloaked in religion. That would be a parody of religious tolerance.

In the short newspaper report a number of features of ethos – or more accurately Catholic ethos – appear. It is surprising, however, that no doctrines which appear regularly in public controversy are mentioned.

This news report suggests i) that teaching the existence of God and life after death is now threatened, ii) that if religious education is removed from the “public sphere” it could develop “in a more fundamentalist way”, and iii) that religious education is a part of the humanities and like other “creative subjects” is threatened by vocational/professional training as opposed to education.

Looking at these in order, it should be said at the outset that while there are those who oppose teaching about God and an afterlife to children – and they offer cogent argument against it – it doesn’t cause anything like the concern about teaching contentious opinion as fact. Ireland is a free and open society in which anyone may argue. However, teaching young children and arguing one’s case are entirely separate activities. All Irish children should be protected from noxious opinion presented as truth to be learned. To be blunt, any Catholic can and should argue the Church’s position on homosexuality, gay marriage, contraception, abortion etc. but all children must be protected from being taught those arguments as fact. It hardly needs to be added that this applies to all other religions which might want to teach in such a way.***

On the second point, it is accepted that there are many religious people who fear that their ordinary decency is threatened by extremists who wish to portray a particular understanding as the real or only interpretation. However, the fears of decent people for the future of their religion cannot be relieved at the expense of children.

The third point wants to pitch religious teaching in the camp of creative thought. It is true that religion and religious thinkers have contributed to the development, spread and maintenance of humane, decent values but to go on then to suggest that teaching a fixed doctrine to children is compatible with open debate and creative thinking is self-serving.

We want children to emerge into adulthood as thoughtful, iconoclastic and creative. We certainly don’t want them lumbered with cruel, divisive opinions held as doctrine. On the contrary, we want citizens ready and eager to debate the future of the republic. Whenever ethos is mentioned in relation to teaching children, the package must be opened and if necessary the bearer told that some of its contents relate to adult debate and not to children.
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* http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/catholic-schools-should-remain-true-to-ethos-despite-challenges-1.1708941

** I tried to find a plural for “ethos” and discovered a controversy. I was attracted to the view that it is a word that doesn’t have/need a plural but you might like to anglicise and use “ethoses”, “ethosses” or stick with the Greek and use “ethe” but if you opt for “ethoi”, it would appear that Greek scholars will be annoyed.

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/faith-schools-and-the-teaching-of-values/

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.

Dr. Katherine Astbury, a consultant obstetrician to Savita Halappanavar, told the inquest into Ms. Halappanvar’s death, “The law in Ireland does not permit termination even if there is no prospect of viability [for the foetus]. That would be my understanding of the legal position based on the legal judgement in the X-case and the Medical Council guidelines.” http://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/midwife-manager-regrets-using-catholic-country-remark-to-savita-halappanavar-1.1355895?page=1

That is my understanding too. If we continue to give a foetus a right to life until the mother’s life is threatened, this will be the situation and no amount of clarification will change it.

The position in Ireland is that abortion is not a permissible part of the treatment/management of miscarriage. Now, I’ve no information on how often abortion might be considered in the treatment of miscarriage but it does seem to be an issue for Catholic hospitals outside Ireland.

“The experiences of physicians in our study indicate that uterine evacuation may not be approved during miscarriage by the hospital ethics committee if foetal heart tones are present and the pregnant woman is not yet ill, in effect delaying care until foetal heart tones cease, the pregnant woman becomes ill, or the patient is transported to a non–Catholic-owned facility for the procedure.” Freedman, L.R. et al “When There’s a Heartbeat: Miscarriage Management in Catholic-Owned Hospitals” in American Journal of Public Health. 2008 October; 98(10): 1774–1778. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2636458/

All the indications are that the McAleese report on the Magdalen Laundries is a disgrace. Criminals are hiding behind the familiar device of highlighting the formal responsibility of the state. Moreover, discussion of this awful report is diverted into guff about whether or not the Taoiseach should apologise now or next week.

Look at and listen to the woman at 08.30 here: http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/show/10108232/ She is owed wages and pension contributions by people who hid her from factory inspectors. She was kept away from school. She was beaten. She is not old. It is certain that at least some of the perpetrators of the crimes against her are still alive. The state has a responsibility alright: to investigate these crimes and to apprehend the perps. There is a role too for the Criminal Assets Bureau.

In day to day conversations and on Facebook I’ve been avoiding speculation and talking instead about a range of possibilities as to what could have gone so wrong in Galway University hospital which has an excellent record. It is however time now to speculate for a very good reason.

Speculation on the events leading to the death of Savita Halappanavar has for some time now been fuelling arguments for and against the enactment of legislation – as recommended by the Supreme Court a full two decades ago – to regulate and clarify the Irish constitutional position: that an abortion is permissible to protect the life of the mother. It needs to be emphasised that the only circumstance in which this young woman’s death has relevance to the debate on the need to move on such legislation is if there is any scenario in which the medical staff weighed the baby’s life against the mother’s and favoured the baby.

The reason I am about to speculate is that the most likely happenings in Galway are being ignored in favour of accounts which can be used to engage in the current debate. However, the most likely account has enormous significance for the abortion debate beyond the rare cases of risk to a mother’s life but a long way short of anything that could be described as liberal abortion law, never mind abortion on demand.

Incidentally, while I’m attracted in principle to the view that there should be no speculation and therefore no debate until an enquiry has established the facts of what happened, in practice holding such a line was never possible and is completely irrelevant now after weeks of comment.

The following is most likely what happened. I can only assume that it is ignored by media because it is irrelevant to the current spectacular row over the need for legislation to protect the life of a mother.

The death of Mrs. Halappanavar was the first maternal death at Galway University Hospital in 17 years. [i] We are not, therefore, talking about a hospital with a poor record. Moreover, despite all the allegations about “Catholic country” comments and missing notes – both of which need thorough investigation – it doesn’t seem remotely likely that the hospital staff were unaware of the legal or Catholic church position but for some unexplained reason decided to favour the baby’s life over the mother’s life. On the contrary it is, I think, safe to assume that the staff involved were caring, experienced and familiar with law and Catholic doctrine.

It is virtually certain that if at any moment from her first entering the hospital, it became clear that Mrs. Halappanavar’s life was in danger, these staff would have performed an abortion. So what happened? Here is the most likely explanation.

Mrs. Halappanavar was miscarrying, i.e. the baby at that age was doomed to die. However, Mrs. Halappanavar was not yet in mortal danger and there were no indications that she might die. Because, Catholic teaching and Irish law give an equal right to life to mother and to baby until the mother’s life is threatened, an unfortunate baby with just a short time to live would be monitored and allowed to die naturally. A mother’s distress, discomfort or illness would be irrelevant. Threat to life is the sole criterion for legal abortion in Ireland.

The truth that Irish media have been neglecting is that Mrs. Halappanavar’s treatment and death have very likely got nothing whatsoever to do with clarifying a mother’s superior right to life when her life is threatened but a great deal to do with the treatment/management of miscarriage. The position in Ireland is that abortion is not a permissible part of that treatment/management.

I’ve no information on how often abortion might be considered in the treatment of miscarriage but it does seem to be an issue for Catholic hospitals outside Ireland.

“The experiences of physicians in our study indicate that uterine evacuation may not be approved during miscarriage by the hospital ethics committee if foetal heart tones are present and the pregnant woman is not yet ill, in effect delaying care until foetal heart tones cease, the pregnant woman becomes ill, or the patient is transported to a non–Catholic-owned facility for the procedure.”[ii]

If in Ireland we are using the death of a young woman to inform or fuel an important public controversy, it is vital that the full controversy be aired or that the relevant controversy be aired or at the very least that the relevant controversy not be ignored.


[ii] Freedman, L.R. et al “When There’s a Heartbeat: Miscarriage Management in Catholic-Owned Hospitals” in American Journal of Public Health. 2008 October; 98(10): 1774–1778. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2636458/

David Black, a prison officer, a public servant, was murdered this week. [i] It was an appalling crime but it’s just not plausible to say so without saying the same of earlier similar acts. No doubt the perps. will say that that they are “fighting” for Irish freedom from Britain or for Irish “unification” and that what they did was part of a continuing struggle dating back to the early 20th century or earlier. [ii] In Ireland over the years we’ve adopted a number of pivotal moments, glorifying violence before a moment and condemning violence after it, just as SF and others now treat the Good Friday agreement and the peace “process”. They seek to portray themselves as unlike today’s killers. They want to do what has been done before: be part of a new establishment which condemns the latest political murders. It’s a depressing pattern. As the various claimants to be the heirs polish their boots for centenary marches, [iii] it might do some good if a few of them at least realised that they had plausibility problems.

The following is quite different to the now routine media treatment of clerical sex abuse in Ireland. It’s not entirely clear if the journalist realises the significance of these 170 or so words.

 

“But how widespread was this abuse? Did senior clergy or other students know what was happening? Those who attended Holy Ghost schools describe their contrasting experiences.

Maurice Manning, a former Fine Gael senator, recalls that while there may have been rumours about a handful of priests when he was a student at Rockwell, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, most of the teachers were well liked.

‘Maybe there were one or two you wouldn’t want to get caught alone with . . . There were kids who were more vulnerable than others. But I wasn’t aware of anyone being abused. And I think that was the honest view of most of my classmates.’

Gerald Montague, a philosopher who lives and works in Germany, was a student at St Mary’s College during the late 1950s and early 1960s. ‘I didn’t recall anything of a sexual nature until I discussed it recently with some friends,’ he says. ‘They reminded me of a father we used to call ‘Fr Fiddly Fingers’. It seems I just didn’t want to know.’”

Carl O’Brien, Sex abuse in private schools, Weekend with The Irish Times – Saturday, September 8, 2012 http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2012/0908/1224323728889.html

 

The words attributed to Maurice Manning are curious and he needs to clarify. He seems to be saying that while he was aware that some of his teachers were likely to abuse and that some of his classmates were at risk, he wasn’t aware of any particular incidence of abuse. That’s chilling.

Though I didn’t attend an expensive school, my experience is more similar to that of Gerald Montague but with the significant difference that at our school we laughed and joked about the sexual nature of the abuse.

By including this material in his article Carl O’Brien is lending support to my deepening conviction that what has happened in Irish schools was mass sexual abuse.

Before continuing to talk about sexual abuse in Irish schools I want to make it absolutely clear that it is quite unusual for me to disconnect sexual from violent abuse[i]. I consider them parts of one whole and I talk of sexual abuse here because others have isolated it.

I attended James St CBS for my secondary education in the mid-1960s. As we developed sexual awareness all of my peers knew full well the difference between affection and sexual contact. (Indeed the very idea that affection would feature in such a school is ridiculous.) Being felt-up, leered over and told vaguely homo-erotic stories were routine. It became central to our slagging and jokes. If anyone had been left with one of the touchers, he could expect jokes along the lines of, “Did he get you? Did ‘Touche’ queer you?”

There was sport on Wednesday afternoons in the Civil Service grounds beside the Memorial Park, Islandbridge. Everyone who took part had to squeeze past a Christian Brother who placed himself in the doorway of the changing room and tried to check for “tight tummy muscles”. Avoiding him became part of the sport.

There are other examples but enough said to make three points. Firstly, all of the pupils knew precisely what the touchers were up to. Secondly, joking was how they coped with it. Thirdly, it is highly improbable that anyone who attended that school at that time avoided this type of abuse.

Having spoken casually over the years to very many people who attended other schools, I formed the view that the carry-on in my school was not exceptional. The piece above from the Irish Times lends support.

As mature adults and aware of dreadful sexual assaults, I had a number of conversations with former classmates. We were concerned that we might have failed to notice much worse than touching-up. We wondered had there been someone quiet and not part of our immediate close gang who could have been isolated and used terribly. We could think of none. This is remarkably similar to Maurice Manning’s reported comment.

The next step in the thinking is vital and this is where there will be disagreement. It is at this point that we enter into the business of defining sex crime to include touching up a child. There may be three positions on this. Firstly, that while it is sexual and it is unacceptable behaviour, it is too minor to warrant a fuss. Secondly, that it is very wrong but falls short of criminal behaviour. Thirdly, that it is very serious, most definitely criminal and should be investigated.

The debate very likely turns on gender inequality. The touching up mentioned here has been male adult on male child. There is not the slightest doubt that had it been male adult on female child, there would be universal condemnation and a call for Garda action. Moreover, I began to view what had happened to me and to my friends as not merely sexual abuse but criminal when I read the details of what a priest had done to a girl. The actions were identical and the man was in the dock. The label of criminal can be withheld from our abusers only if it can be successfully argued that it is less wrong for a man to touch up a male child as opposed to a female child.

The alarming proposition is this: if touching up male children is sexual abuse and if the practice was universal in schools or even widespread, then the scale of the Irish scandal has changed considerably. It would seem that we have so far looked only at the horrors behind which lies the routine. It is that word “mass” that disturbs, the likelihood that in Ireland we have to face up to, discuss and decide what to do about mass sexual abuse.

 

 

Here is an article by Eileen O’Brien in The Irish Times of May 22nd 2012. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/features/2012/0522/1224316501691.html

She is a teacher troubled by her past, “To every child I struck when I was teacher … sorry.” She invites victims to contact her so that she might offer individual apologies and “to open some sort of dialogue on the subject.” The intention here is not to make little of her public contrition. What she has done is brave and sadly unprecedented. There is, however, a problem with what she says.

The article could be naively accepted as a decent woman apologising for her participation in brutal behaviour which was permitted by the state. She is claiming not only that she regrets what she did but that what she did was permitted. The truth is that in this article she admits violating the rules governing her performance as a teacher and she should face sanction.

Firstly, she refers to her activities in the 70s and 80s. It needs to be established just how far into the 80s she went because corporal punishment has been prohibited in schools since 1982. Interestingly, teachers’ immunity from criminal prosecution was not removed until the passing  of the Offences Against the Person (Non-Fatal) Act in 1997, article 24 of which states: “The rule of law under which teachers are immune from criminal liability in respect of physical chastisement of pupils is hereby abolished.”

Secondly and on this there is certainty, she explicitly admits to breaching Department of Education rules. She describes keeping her stick available as a threat and for use on children. This despite a clear Department rule: “No teacher should carry about a cane or other instrument of punishment.” (The other rules re corporal punishment can be found here: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/rewarding-guilty-teachers/)

It is usual for teachers who beat children to offer in their defence that it was common and approved at the time. It was certainly common but equally certainly it was highly regulated and those regulations were violated. It would be preposterous to accept by way of explanation that teachers weren’t aware of the rules; anyone in any job has an obligation to be aware of the regulations governing their post.

It is unacceptable that any public servant who flouted state rules should remain in employment or remain in receipt of any pension attaching to their job.

 

The concept of “groupthink” appears as evasive psychobabble in the BAI report on the Primetime libel of Fr. Kevin Reynolds. It is proposed that the critical faculties of journalists and managers at RTE were overwhelmed or blunted by “groupthink”.  Both Breda O’Brien* and John Waters** make effective use of the notion by locating an endemic anti-Catholicism within the RTE “groupthink”.  They are not entirely wrong but they are being selective both in focussing on anti-Catholicism and on RTE.

With a few exceptions journalists reflect the dominant views in society and don’t see their role as fostering public controversy. When journalists hold anti-Catholic views as fact or common sense, it can result in great personal harm but tends not to have significant political effect. However, that is not true of all the hardened beliefs common to most journalists. One such belief is in what Philip Bobbitt termed the “market state”.***

Irish journalists day in, day out promote the belief that the function of the state is to promote choice by way of increasing financial competitiveness in all aspects of life. That may be a plausible argument and it certainly deserves to be heard but it does not enjoy anything remotely like universal acceptance. It is a highly controversial position. The public discourse which relies on journalism demands that this and a wide range of contestable assertions be presented as controversy rather than as a matter of fact.

*http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0512/1224315982407.html

**http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0511/1224315906809.html

*** Bobbitt, P. (2002) The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (Alfred A. Knopf):  213-242.

Regardless of the number of seats won, coalition will mean negotiation.

By definition, a precondition would not strengthen Labour’s hand in negotiation as it would have to be conceded before negotiations could begin. Indeed, it might – if one were not skillful – weaken the negotiating position in that something would already have been given and one’s antagonists/future partners would try constantly to bend negotiations in their favour by referring to it.

I’m not arguing for preconditions as such; I’m arguing for a tiny number – even one – of socialist preconditions. (My suggestion can be found here: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/labour-in-government-a-radical-but-modest-proposal-to-reduce-inequality/ )

There are a number of reasons for going down this path. Here are a few and in NO sense are they in order of importance:

i) The lie that the Labour Party is the same as every party or at least not particularly different to a humane liberal party, or – as even some of our own members allege – is not socialist at all, needs to be addressed. This can be done by laying down one or two fundamental demands/preconditions which a liberal party by virtue of its principles or ideology cannot concede without doing itself damage.

ii) It gives voters who are serious about changing the very direction of Irish development something for which to vote.

 iii) It puts a leftist demand right at the heart of public controversy in the run up to the election. (Without this the media will of necessity be attracted to liberal controversies like, say, abortion law.) 

iv) It delivers a basic return for coalition no matter how bad circumstances are or become.

v) It steals a march on the fantasists who need to injure Labour as the voice of Socialism. They know that they must undermine socialism as a contemporary hope and ambition so that their “religion” can be THE left. Their “project” necessarily is about defining socialism in terms of the unachievable or – similar, really – the 19th century.

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.

 http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2010/0807/1224276368541.html

http://www.nwci.ie/publications/fulllist/making-our-voices-heard/

I watched last night’s Dispatches doc. on Channel 4 about the dreadful outcomes of close-relative marriages. http://www.channel4.com/programmes/dispatches/episode-guide/series-68/episode-1

It surprised me that such marriages are commonplace in some cultures which have become part of British society. By coincidence this morning I read Samira Shackle’s article “The mosques aren’t working in Bradistan” in New Statesman (20th August 2010) which mentions the problem of first-cousin marriage among Mirpuris and others whose culture values clan loyalty.  http://www.newstatesman.com/society/2010/08/bradford-british-pakistan

She writes,

Other Pakistanis frequently accuse Mirpuris of confusing culture with religion. Stemming from a lack of education, this manifests itself in cultural norms – such as the primacy of honour, or the mistreatment of women – being accorded religious significance. I speak to Khadijah, 18, in an empty playground as she looks after her younger sister. She hopes to enter Bradford University this year. “I can make the distinction between Islam and patriarchal culture,” she says. “But your average lad on the street won’t worry about which bit comes from scripture. It’s loaded in his favour.”

The implication is that norms based in religion should have a higher status than those based in culture. Odd!

Most people will express the need for tolerance towards the religion and customs of others. However, it is very easy to insert the wedge that is genital mutilation. Other barbaric practices can then be used as hammer blows to drive home the wedge. At some point there will be mild resistance. It might be on circumcision or ritual slaughter, perhaps because these are not thought too bad or because they are coming closer to home.

Having lots of nationalities, cultures and religions is great; they bring new tastes, colour, expression and other positives. Religion is interesting when it’s a matter of colourful ritual. Then they go and ruin the fun by wanting to be cruel and nasty. But, we have home grown nastiness too.

Would a majority of people be prepared to say the following?

“I don’t care where you are from or what God says, you are not teaching children that homosexual behaviour is a grave sin or that men and women have different roles, you are not going to cut a child or deny medical treatment and you are not marrying your cousin!”

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.

Years ago when all concerned people in these islands were trying to figure out how we might devise a democratic response to the reality of a ferociously divided Northern Ireland, I tried to excite interest in what I thought to be a sound proposal. I should have tried harder!

You see, it was always relatively simple to state the problem. We have two antagonistic viewpoints: nationalist/catholic and unionist/protestant. Now, how do we elect regional parliamentarians who can claim the support of both tribes?

Unfortunately, when an electoral system was restored, its design was part of the deal to secure peace rather than having an ambition to bridge the divide. The solution offered by the Irish and British governments has delivered dominance in their opposing camps to SF and the DUP.

There is a democratic way to ensure cross community support for all members of the Assembly. A by-product would be the likely failure at the polls of all extremists. Now that peace has been achieved, it might be time to revisit the electoral system.

My suggestion is to hold two sets of primary elections, followed by run-offs between winning candidates. The central idea is to recognise the divided society at the voting stage rather than at the stage of creating a government. There would be a Nationalist Primary Election and a Unionist Primary Election. Crucially, however, the entire electorate – nationalist and unionist – would vote in both primaries. In order to win a primary and an opportunity to contest the run-off, a nationalist would have to appeal to unionist voters and vice versa. In short, everyone seeking election would need cross-community support and it would be very unlikely that an extremist could be elected.

Yes, of course I can see the technical problems – particularly the fate of a non-sectarian party and how to deal with the predictable antics of the wreckers – but as a contribution to creating a more integrated society it might be worth solving these problems.

Unfortunately it’s often necessary to establish some credentials before contributing to this debate. Ok, here goes: I’m a 59 year-old Irish socialist who is thoroughly enjoying the arrival of large numbers of immigrants here. They contribute to an established process of opening up what was a relatively closed society.

 

If all cultures, religions, races etc. had progressive or at least benign values and practices, it would be grand. They don’t and when they don’t, good people (Yes, “good”!) are obliged to challenge and to argue.

 

I could waffle on here about relativism and different notions of equality but let’s be clear: what’s really exercising me about Islam in Ireland is that I don’t want to have to go over old ground. A degree of gender equality is still quite new here and, for example, I don’t want a return to little Irish citizens covering their heads because of bizarre views about modesty or to see again places of worship where women are separated from men. Tolerance is much improved here and, for example, I don’t want again to have to get stroppy in defence of gay friends. Blasphemy is no longer a censoring power here and God has told me that She has a sense of humour and wants me to make fun of priests and prophets.

 

In short, the public face of Islam looks very like 1950s Irish Catholicism. Most Catholics no longer hold such views and I’m sure most Muslims no longer hold such views either. However, there are people who would like a return to what was essentially an oppressive society. They can expect to be opposed by disrespectful jokes and arguments.