The Christian Institute have highlighted further counter-extremism measures that are currently being proposed by the government. There is a consultation under way (details here) regarding the governmental proposal to allow OfSTED powers to investigate any out-of-school setting which offers teaching for more than 6 hours each week. As the Christian Institute rightly point out, this would “easily include holiday Bible clubs, church weekends and summer camps. In effect, Ofsted would become the state regulator of religion.” I would urge you to respond to the consultation, imploring the government not to push these measures through. To that end, I am publishing my response here:
Dear Sir or Madam,
I am writing in my capacity as senior minister of an independent evangelical church based in Oldham. The church is part of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC) and linked to the inter-denominational group The North West Partnership, which incorporates Anglican, denominational and independent churches. Our church is multi-cultural, including people from Britain, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.
I am highly concerned about the impact of your proposals to give OfSTED the power to investigate religious organisations. It is nothing short of totalitarian to allow the state to interfere in matters of faith and belief. It is only in authoritarian regimes, such as China, where churches and religious organisations must be state-registered and inspected by government agencies. It is, therefore, highly concerning that such moves are being proposed in a liberal democracy such as ours.
I am especially perturbed by the suggestion that “undesirable teaching”, which is incompatible with “British values”, will be prohibited. In short, the government have singularly failed to define British values. We are yet to hear a comprehensive definition of this term. Even were religious organisations inclined to defend and promote such things, it is impossible to do so without knowing what they are. Thus far, “British values” has been bandied around as an amorphous label which really means nothing at all.
The inclusion of such nebulous terms as “the harm caused by extremism”, including “emotional harm”, have been equally ill-defined. For example, Richard Dawkins has been vocal about the harm caused by any and all religious teaching. Is his definition of “emotional harm” and “the harm caused by extremism” going to be applied? If not, what harm are we discussing and what are we defining as extremism? Unless these terms are defined, there can be no reasonable policy. Even once these terms are defined, we would need further consultation as to whether the definition is reasonable.
I am particularly interested as to what the government are proposing to include within this policy. For example, is regular attendance at Sunday worship considered part of the 6-hours of instruction? Would church weekends away, youth groups and Sunday schools all be included within the remit of legislation? It is highly problematic to have the government involved in vetting precisely what can be said and taught concerning religious belief. There is a hard won right to freedom of religion without government interference in this country and this proposal would undermine that very right.
The reality of the matter is that all counter-extremism measures over the last decade and a half have been a response to a particular form of Islamist Jihadism borne out of wahabbi and salafi strains of Islam. It is simply ludicrous to apply counter-extremism measures to Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and other religious groups. We are not witnessing swathes of Orthodox Jews, Pentecostal Christians or Mahayana Buddhists blowing themselves up and committing mass atrocities throughout Britain. The problem lies within a particular strain of Islam (not even the majority position of most Muslims within Britain). This means the government is looking for “extremists” in all the wrong places.
In truth, it is surely the case in a liberal democracy that all views – mainstream or otherwise – are permitted to be held and expressed so long as they do not lead to the physical harm of another. This is why salafi/wahabbi-influenced jihadism is such a menace, for it is not always concerned with the well-being of its neighbours with whom it disagrees. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and others may all hold non-mainstream views but they are not usually concerned with causing physical harm and damage to wider society. It is, therefore, either an act of severe cowardice or theological/religious illiteracy to condemn all faith groups to such authoritarian measures as proposed in this consultation.
It constitutes theological/religious illiteracy in that the government seem incapable of either distinguishing between religions (and their respective danger to wider society) or between strains within Islam (and their respective danger to wider society) so as to impose blanket measures such as this upon all faith groups irrespective of their beliefs, practices and the likelihood of them committing any sort of terrorist activity. Alternatively, this is mere cowardice on the part of government. They are aware of the differences between faith groups but are not willing to impose counter-extremism measures in the one place where they are required. To avoid claims of Islamophobia, faith groups must be targeted across the board regardless of the pitifully small chance of any other faith group engaging in terrorist activity and causing harm to anybody in wider society.
And let’s be clear, it is not the salafi/wahabbi view of women, homosexuals, halal meat or any number of other views that cause terror in wider society (irrespective of whether we agree with those views or not). It is their view of apostasy, those who do not share their views and what should happen to them as a result that is at issue. Again, Orthodox Jews may share many of these views but they are not in the process of killing those with whom they disagree nor committing terrorist atrocities in order to make their point. Countering extremism “in all its forms” (which seems to mean prohibiting any but the most mainstream of views in all areas) in this way is to miss the primary target of those who wish to physically attack and harm others and to unnecessarily prohibit the freedoms of religion, thought and speech for everybody, including the vast majority of people who have no desire to harm anyone else.
I therefore cannot consent to the government proposal to allow OfSTED powers to investigate any out of school setting which provides instruction for more than 6 hours. The proposals are unnecessarily authoritarian, they miss the primary target of counter-extremism measures, they will inhibit basic freedoms that have been in place for centuries and it will lead to governmental interference in matters of private faith, contrary to article 9 of the Human Rights Act 1998. It is a draconian measure akin to the authoritarian regime of Communist China and should not be taken forward.
Stephen Kneale (minister, Oldham Bethel Church)