Government consultation on further counter-extremism measures will allow OfSTED to regulate religion

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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.

faithfully

Stephen Kneale (minister, Oldham Bethel Church)

13 comments

  1. A most excellent letter Stephen. You wonder how they could possibly argue against the points you have made here ….. but I daresay they will try !

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  2. I am very troubled by this subject. The problem Ms. May is trying to address is, that there are institutions in the UK today who are teaching children to hate people who follow other faiths than their own, and despise our liberties and democracy. Whilst I agree wholeheartedly on the questions about free speech when it comes to adults, do we not need to protect our children from such teachings?

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  3. Apologies I meant to also say, your argument re. who the real extremists are is all very well, but the government is trying to be even-handed and not seem to be targeting a particular religious group.

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  4. Thank you for your comment. Great to have some dissenting opinion so we can exchange views and ideas (it is, after all, why we blog).

    Nonetheless, I am afraid I don’t share your view of that which Theresa May is trying to prohibit. The government have been very clear that it is “extremism” they are interested in curtailing. Since the New Labour government began introducing similar anti-terror legislation and the like, which has since been picked up and continued with aplomb by the Cameron governments, legislation tabled as intended to deal with violent extremism – specifically in response to Islamist Jihadism – has been extended and used against those who peacefully dissent from mainstream orthodoxy across the political, social and religious spheres of public life. The definition of “extremism” has also been incrementally widened so as to include net so large that increasingly few people escape its definition.

    It is clear that Britain has happily functioned for several hundred years without the need for curbs on the language and words we are able to use. Anti-terror legislation was brought in specifically to tackle the problem of violent extremism propagated by those who subscribe to certain pernicious forms of Islamic thought. Sadly, such legislation has been increasingly used against those who – by any meaningful definition of the term – cannot be considered in the least bit violent and are dubiously dubbed extremist. The real mischief – as just about all agree – is violent extremism that threatens lives.

    As your rightly aver, the government is imposing such legislation across the board so as to appear even-handed rather than tackling one specific religion. My point is that such is highly unfair when we have never had problems in this country from violent Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh or Evangelical Christian
    extremists. The appearance of even-handedness is highly unfair when the freedoms of peaceful groups are being eroded because of the actions of one particular group who are incredibly easy to detect and target.

    Consider, for example, how fair it would be to put limits on the free speech on all politicians of all political parties purely because the BNP happen to voice unpalatable views. Leaving aside the issue of whether the BNP should have limits on what they are permitted to say, is it reasonable to inhibit the legitimate freedom of Labour, Conservative, SNP, Lib Dem, UKIP and other political parties because a problem has been identified within one particular party? I suspect most would see that as highly unreasonable but, apparently, when it comes to matters of religion there is no such consideration. Why should Christians, Buddhist, Sikhs, Jews and others all be subject to counter-extremism measures when they are aimed at a specific group of people who subscribe to a particular strain of thought within one religious group?

    The other issue here, if we are prepared to sell the principle of limiting what parents/schools are to teach their children, has to do with who determines what children can and should be taught. Is it central government, majority opinion, the media, or a particular religious (or non-religious) persuasion that should determine the boundaries of culturally acceptable speech? It is my view that we shouldn’t sell that principle at all and people should be allowed to raise their children according to their own beliefs. We have a long held principle in this country that we allow people to say and believe whatever they want so long as it doesn’t tend to lead to incite violence. I see no reason to sell that principle and even less to allow it to be defined by changeable governments, who always incline to the politically expedient, or by ever more fickle public opinion. To sell that principle would be to effectively declare any form of dissent against cultural orthodoxy illegal and would be to the detriment, not just of religious believers, but anybody who holds any view that is not mainstream in any sphere at all. It is a highly troubling move indeed.

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    1. Sorry for replying so slowly I only just noticed your reply.

      Ok, probably their stated intentions are not achievable anyway. What’s beyond doubt in my mind is that the out of hours instruction proposal is just ridiculous and unenforceable. Even trying to influence what goes on during in hours schooling is going to get just more and more impossible as the Muslim population of the UK continues to increase. Its just not realistic. The only real way to deal with the problem of “extremism” is to allow and actively encourage hard hitting debates. I very rarely, almost never, see anyone speaking honestly about the problems with the Islamic religion on the BBC for example.

      I’m not in any doubt about the wider problem that the government are trying to make it illegal to think outside the mainstream establishment group-think bubble, and I am totally opposed to, and have been campaigning against these EDOs/EBOs. Really I do not trust this government to govern at all, they can’t be trusted with just about anything, so why would I trust them with influencing children’s ideas. Fair point, you win.

      One thing that absolutely appalled me is hearing about non-Muslim children being forced to visit mosques in order to “learn about other cultures”. I am quite certain that they will not be receiving anything other than propaganda and misinformation on these visits.

      I do take issue with you on the question of “strains” of Islam, but that’s another subject so I will start another comment on that.

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  5. “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.”

    You seem to be suggesting that only salafi/wahabbi Islam incites violence. In Shia Iran the death penalty exists for blasphemy.

    According to this report there are 13 Muslim countries including Iran where “people who openly espouse atheism or reject the official state religion of Islam face execution under the law”:

    http://www.reuters.com/article/us-religion-atheists-idUSBRE9B900G20131210

    There are a number of bloodcurdling incitements in the Bukhari hadith (and other hadiths) such as this one:

    Bukhari (52:260) – “…The Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.’ ”

    In general the example of Mohammed’s actions is not very good. He massacred defenseless prisoners and enslaved their women and children (Banu Qurayza massacre, condoned by Allah apparently in Koran 33:26), taking one of them as his wife (Rayhana bint Zayd), his followers killed poets and critics, sometimes murdering them in their beds, he praised them for it, he “married” a six year old girl called Aisha. Mohammed’s actions and sayings are supposed to be a model for Muslims, but his example is essentially that of an autocratic ruler who did whatever he liked. The Koran condones wife beating (4:34). The Koran is supposed to be the unquestionable word of Allah.

    No, the problem is not “strains” of Islam, its a lot more mainstream than that. These are the things we need to talk about, and its only by open debate that extremism will be tackled, and frankly by encouraging Muslims to question their religion, although this can be punished by death apparently. Would the Almighty really choose to condone such terrible actions? If we can’t challenge these things then we have already lost our religious freedom, and Islam has already begun to dominate our society. If this is the situation when (officially) less than 5% of the UK population are Muslims, if we are already this cowed by fear that we dare not speak out, then what is it going to be like when they make up 10, 20% of the population? Several million more Muslims are on their way to Europe. We must speak up now with courage, its only going to get more dangerous to do so in the future. This is the only way to stop genuine extremism taking over our society.

    Note: Barack Obama said the future should not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam, but I am not slandering him, because all this is just what the Islamic texts tell us he did.

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  6. Let me make three brief points in response:

    First, I am not suggesting only Salafi/Wahabbi strains of Islam insist upon the death penalty and the like for things that I think shouldn’t even be illegal. However, that is specifically not what is meant by the terms ‘incite violence’. If the USA does not ‘incite violence’ when it puts folk to death for breaking the law, then neither do Islamic theocracies (irrespective of our views on the death penalty or the things to which it is applied). Incitement to violence is to do with private citizens encouraging one another to go and kill and/or maim others.

    Second, you seem to miss the actual point I was making. It is my view that Salafi/Wahabbi strains of Islam are the primary driver behind the modern terrorist Jihadism we are seeing. Whatever faults may exist within Iranian Shia Islam (and I am aware of many, pastoring as I do, a church full of Iranian asylum seekers fleeing that very government!) it is not primarily shi’ite Iranians seeking to kill the kafir by blowing themselves up on British buses and the like. More to the point, even if I concede that point and accept there is a wider problem, it is evidently true that not all Muslims are seeking to do this (so there certainly are strains, just as within Christianity). Even more to the point, I was trying to show that the things typically deemed ‘extremist’ or ‘non-mainstream’ do not provide any foundation for incitement to violence. There is no correlation between a refusal to eat pork and the desire to kill!

    Third, I don’t doubt that free debate should not be stifled. I have no problem if you choose to criticise Islam as a whole. I don’t share your view that Islam is fundamentally the problem, just as a Liberal Christian would be horrified that someone would dare suggest, as they are Christians, they in any way espouse the same views as Evangelicals (and vice versa). The mischief is not that some people are Muslim, the mischief is that some Muslims see fit to blow themselves up in a bid to kill others. Whether the one’s doing the blowing up, or the peaceable one’s, take the correct interpretation of Islam – or take Mohammad’s words most directly – is entirely besides the point. if a Muslim can theological justify a peaceable approach to Islam, and are happy to salve their conscience living that way, they should be free to live that out. The issue starts and ends with those who wish to destroy, kill and maim others due to their reading of Qur’an. To suggest that all Muslims believe this is simply to speak against the fact of the matter.

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    1. On your first point, perhaps I confused the issue by talking about states. Apostates can be threatened with death by their own relatives, this happens in the UK, I can provide some testimony if you don’t believe that. There was even a case where parents murdered their own daughter. As far as how widespread such threats are, its impossible to know, it is rarely publicized. What is not in any doubt in my mind is that the inspiration for this comes not from some obscure strain of Islam, but from the words of Mohammed himself, as I quoted. The Bukhari hadith is important in Sunni Islam. So in answer to your first point Islam is inciting violence between private citizens in this way, in the UK today, according to your own definition of incitement to violence. My point in mentioning Iran and the others was this is not just my interpretation, its widespread throughout the Islamic world.

      On your second paragraph the problems are not just limited to the Salafi/Wahabi movements. By the way, according to the Times in 2007, nearly half of the mosques in the UK are run by the Deobandi movement, which is not really very moderate either (I mince my words here), and the 2005 bombers came from that “strain” as I understand it. we are in total agreement about the government’s definition of extremism being far too wide and vague. I don’t think anybody is arguing that there is a correlation between a refusal to eat pork and the desire to kill. The important question is whether our government should try or even can have any effect on what parents teach their children, that is open to question, and I’m rather tending to think they should stop even trying and concentrate on defending free speech instead, rather than attacking free speech.

      On your third point I did not and would not ever suggest that “all Muslims believe this”. That’s actually a bit offensive to me. When I suggested there was going to be a problem as the Muslim population of the UK continues to increase however, that is another matter. It only took two Muslims to kill 12 people in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. If only a tiny proportion of the population are prepared to kill to silence the critics of Islam, that can still become significant when the population includes millions of people. How many media outlets will now dare to publish those cartoons? Almost none. Polls have suggested that there was a really large and significant amount of sympathy with those murderers, that’s not at all suggesting that every Muslim sympathized with them, of course not. I hope I am wrong, but I believe it is only a matter of time before one of the outspoken critics of Islam is murdered in the UK. There is already a chilling effect because people are afraid to speak up. Numbers matter. I am myself quite frightened, because I speak out, but my fear of a horrible future is even greater, so I continue.

      “The issue starts and ends with those who wish to destroy, kill and maim others due to their reading of Qur’an.”. We should not just talk about those trying to kill and maim, we should talk about child abuse, forced marriage, marital rape and wife beating as well, don’t you think?

      Finally where you say “Whether the one’s doing the blowing up, or the peaceable one’s, take the correct interpretation of Islam – or take Mohammad’s words most directly – is entirely besides the point.”, I have to disagree most strongly. Its not beside the point at all, Islam is threatening our way of life, Islam is threatening freedom of speech. Were there no Islam, this problem would not exist. What the texts say matters. Religions affect people’s behaviour, otherwise why would you preach?

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  7. I think you have misunderstood me.

    I don’t doubt that Islam as a whole has issues, nor do I assert that Shia Islam doesn’t do the things you state above. Nor, indeed, do I think “child abuse, forced marriage, marital rape and wife beating” are issues that don’t matter. My point was that these things are (a) outside the scope of my article and (b) are not the mischief the government are trying to prevent with this particular piece of legislation. Are those things a problem? Of course. Do we already have laws that deal with them? Yes we do. And the government is seeking to do *some* things to try and mitigate those issues. You may wish to debate whether they are doing enough or if they are being effective, that really wasn’t the point of my piece.

    The reason I land on the Salafi/Wahabbi strain of Islam is because it is this that specifically drives the Jihadist agenda and seeks to violently impose a modern Caliphate. It is primarily Sunni Salafis, funded by the Saudi Salafis, who are pressing ahead with the Islamic State. As for the 7/7 bombers, it is worth noting that in their video tapes they had become influenced, via the internet, by Al-Qaeda leaders who are the archetypal Sunni Wahabbis. From whatever stable they came from, it seems apparent the cause of their radicalisation was not simply Islam but coming under the influence of the most pernicious forms of Wahabbism. It is simply not true that the vast majority of Muslim devotees in this country subscribe to this form of belief. Nor is it true to say that the vast majority would support this form of violent Jihad. As such, just as it is unfair to attack Christians, Jews, Sikhs, etc with measured designed to stop people blowing up planes, buses and buildings so too one ought to focus on the virulent strains of Islam that inculcate this belief if that is the issue that needs to be addressed. Even as I concede the other points you make about other forms of violence, the police simply need to enforce the laws we already have to effectively deal with the problem.

    Forgive me for not being clear. When I say “all Muslims”, I was specifically referring to all strains of Muslim (not individual Muslims). That is, I do not believe many Sufis want to kill the kufir and install a violent caliphate. Most of them hold to a spiritual, not a physical, form of jihad. Their particular branch of Islam does nothing to dissuade this view.

    I continue to hold that Mohammad’s words are of no importance. It is the fundamental interpretative principles applied to his words that bother me. If certain branches of Islam and individual Muslims can claim to be true to the principles of Islam without killing and maiming folk, or demanding all convert to their belief, I don’t really care how they choose to justify that theologically. However they hold it in tension, and the vast majority of muslims in this country do hold a position that is peaceful towards others, is not really the issue. The issue is whether they want to live peaceably, not so much the justification they give for living this way.

    The reason Salafi/Wahabbi Islam is so pernicious is that it makes no such attempt. You may wish to argue they are closer to the words of Mohammad, take him more literally, or not. To me that shoots past the issue. The issue is that they interpret Mohammad as telling them to kill, damage and install a caliphate through violent means. I don’t really care whether they interpret Mohammad correctly or not, I just care that they believe it and act upon it. I have no interest in limiting the freedom of Muslims who, by whatever means they do so, interpret Mohammad in such a way as it doesn’t end up with them killing others. I am concerned by those who interpret Mohammad as saying such things and thus act upon it. Here is where government intervention should focus.

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    1. “It is simply not true that the vast majority of Muslim devotees in this country subscribe to this form of belief. Nor is it true to say that the vast majority would support this form of violent Jihad.”

      I think its dangerous to assume what a whole population of people think. I don’t assume they support jihad and I don’t assume they do not. All that I know is that they believe that their God chose Mohammed as his last messenger, and that Mohammed did an awful lot of things that I consider morally inexcusable, and that their God condoned most of those things or at least raised no objections to the others. As long as they are calling themselves Muslims therefore, I am going to be taking issue with their beliefs. The more so because they are not objecting loudly in large numbers to the kinds of things that are being preached in some mosques (who knows how many), as revealed for example by the Undercover Mosque program on channel 4.

      On the real point of your article, what should the government do about Islamic extremist teaching in schools and so on, I’ve reached the point where I don’t really believe they can do anything useful about it by direct interference anyway.

      I think we’ve probably exhausted this debate, but it was good discussing it with you, thanks for taking the time.

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