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[Image] Professor the Baroness Haleh Afshar

Faith and Policy - Session 6, Friend or Foe?

01 July 10

Listen to extracts of the conference: scroll down the page to access podcasts.

Disgust doesn’t work any more

Andrew Brown [Editor, Comment is Free, Belief, The Guardian] chaired the final session and opened with a personal observation. There had been a shift in the language of moral condemnation. “Faith in the City” had been a last gasp of shared disgust: “You can’t do that!” He went on to recall the case of the headteacher Ray Honeyford, dismissed in the 1980s from his post in Bradford. Then it was all about race; now it would be seen as all about religion. At the close of the session he spoke of the end of the old face of establishment, and how the rage of the atheist movement today expresses anger at the collapse of a consensus which appeared invulnerable to challenge.

Listen to a conversation with Andrew Brown recorded at the conference, in which he talks about changes in religion’s place in public life over three decades. He reflects too on the problems surrounding press coverage of religion in a secular and struggling newspaper industry.Listen here

Protesting one’s identity Listen here

Baroness Haleh Afshar [University of York] departed from her prepared notes and spoke in her characteristically spirited way about the extreme difficulty she as a Muslim woman encountered in being seen and heard as herself. There were forces at work amongst Muslim men and in civil society which ascribed an identity upon her, and no deviation from that identity appeared to be allowed.

“The worry that I have about the emergence of Islam as a political identity is the way the identity “Muslim women” has been ossified. It’s absolutely been contained within a very tight framework of dress code, of particular kinds of behaviour or non-behaviour, and a particular understanding of culture, submissiveness and how they behave.” – Haleh Afshar

Women are used to a fluid identity, she said. She was herself in turn a mother, teacher, shopper and so on. The imposition of a stereotype upon Muslim women meant they could not function without being condemned. How, she asked, can we break through?

The public arena has not got room for women who are both feminists and Muslims” – Haleh Afshar

Unsettling the settlement Listen here

Lord Bhikhu Parekh is a political theorist who has also played a significant role in UK race relations, serving for a period as deputy chair of the Council for Racial Equality, and as Chairman of the Runnymede Trust Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain [2000]. He addressed in his presentation a central question “What is the role of religion in public life?”

“In recent years faith groups, especially and mainly Christians, have been mounting an attack on the secular state of this country.” - Bhikhu Parekh

He said there was a grave danger in concentrating on Muslims and getting a skewed perspective on this question. But the secularist settlement of the 18th and 19th century had been disturbed over the last three years; it was now time to unsettle the settlement.

He cited the recent threats of civil disobedience by Bishop Nazir-Ali and Lord Carey. Their concerns were that the state was now biased towards minority religions, had an anti-Christian bias, and ignored the privileged and influential place of Christianity based on history. In addition, there were accusations that in law other rights trump the right to religion. For instance, equality legislation had intruded into the internal employment policies of religious bodies. Lord Carey had called for the appointment to certain cases of religiously-sensitive judges, after a recent ruling by one judge that religious belief is not rational.

Lord Parekh proposed 3 questions needing to be addressed:

• In the name of equality, are all religions equal, or can one be privileged?

• Is the state right to cooperate with religious bodies in the delivery of services?

• What is the proper relationship between religion and education, and can we continue publicly to fund religious schools?

Listen also to a conversation with Bhikhu Parekh recorded at the conference, in which he talks about his commitment to multiculturalism, and possible constitutional reform to give due recognition to all religions. Listen here

Debate Listen here

Mazin Zeki [National Secular Society] said that elevating faiths within the public sphere creates conflicts, for example in Lord Parekh’s country of origin, India. Faith was now being conflated with identity, religious people were embracing victimhood, and we had heard this all day as a demand for resources. Jim Beckford [University of Warwick] observed that one area of law, charity law, had re-defined religion as needing to be of public benefit. Robert Morris [University College London] asked if the present establishment could or should survive. Both platform speakers indicated an approval for some new shaping of the state’s relationship with religion.

Report and podcasts compiled by Norman Winter. Recordings of conference sessions have been internally edited.

Click here for the full conference summary.

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