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PLAYING CHESS WITH SALMAN: IN DEFENCE OF SECULARISM

by

Jan Kellett



At the height of the furore over the imposition of a ban on religious symbols in French state schools I happened to see an interview of a British Muslim woman who remarked how thousands of Muslims have rejected Western secularism. At the time I was working in Jordan where Islam is state religion, and trying to live (not always successfully) within the constraints of a respect of Jordanian culture. Perhaps this is why I was particularly though briefly -- and I must emphasise again that briefness -- offended by the idea that someone could live in Britain and yet reject the idea of secularism.

Though admittedly one of many views this suggests a huge divide exists between how some British Muslims and atheists see the future of the country. How exactly can we balance the demands of those of us who believe that no religion should influence how we live our lives and Iqbal Sacranie (the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain) who wants secular Britain to understand the esteem with which Muslims hold the prophet? Is a criticism of Islam to be made out of bounds?

It's not abnormal for someone who believes in the merits of liberal secularism to be concerned by the incitement to religious hatred clause. For us it's not a case of dressing up racist hatred in words of a religious nature in order to get around the law, (and its outrageous of proponents of the measure to suggest we are in league with the British National Party, Islamaphobes, and other weird and wonderful characters.) It is however about a profound concern about the role of religion in British society and how much influence it should have on the way we live our lives. That includes what legislation is passed and what is not.

It is after all only secularism, the break from religious forms and practices and the severing of narrowly focused religious influence on state and government, that has lead to the cultural and legal changes necessary to protect both those who believe something different from the majority and those who don't believe at all. Perhaps ironically it is only secularism that allows a space for a Muslim to say how Muslims are rejecting western secularism and at the same time allows a Western Secularist to strongly object to that rejection and yet both of us to stay out of the courts.

Britain is profoundly (if ignorantly) secular. The majority of people do not care about religion and most do not want it influencing any aspect of their life beyond the basic marriage and funeral set-up they currently use. It is not a coincidence that the Sun in its 'once more unto the breach dear friends' defence of what it saw as a British Christmas did not call upon our state religion, the Church of England. The Sun reader who also happens to visit a Church of England establishment on a Sunday morning must be a very rare individual indeed. If you happy to find one please make arrangements to have them stuffed and mounted in the Natural History Museum.

Perhaps what we really need is balance. I suggest adding another clause added to the work of dear departed Mr Blunkett: "Incitement to Contempt of Western Secularism." It's common these days both inside and outside of the Home Office and is getting out of hand.

***

If Satanic Verses had been published after the clause became law could Salman Rushdie be incarcerated? At the time of publication there was an attempt to use the ancient laws of blasphemy against Rushdie, failing because UK law only covers naughty things said about Christianity, not other religions. One imagines someone could now use this new legislation, prevent publication and send Mr Rushdie to jail, no doubt joined by the members of Monty Python ruing the day they came up with the phenomenal line: "Now you listen 'ere, he's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy."

Where the line is drawn between critiquing religious doctrine -- whether by serious philosophical doctrine or comedic parody -- and the incitement to religious hatred is not as easy as Guardian Opinion writers and the Home Office might suggest. Both are prone to glossing over the problem of semantics. The Home Office tries to get around this by first stating the Attorney General decides what is incitement and what is not. Secondly it lists those activities that will not be covered by the law -- telling jokes about religion, denying its veracity etc -- but then simply drops us back into the semantic mess by stating if someone tells a joke using 'threatening, abusive or insulting words, actions or materials with the intent or likely effect that hatred would be stirred up,' then those jokes and denials would be covered by the clause once more. 'Likely effect' seems a little vague to me. One imagines it could be applied to murder -- 'the defendant fired at his victim with the likely effect that they would be cease to be living' -- but hardly to a discussion on the role of religion in British society.

What cannot be criminalised (although Mr Blunkett might have tried) is hate itself and hatred is not something simply caused by something someone says about someone else. An educated well-informed individual can easily discern scurrilous and deliberately hurtful attacks on others and can throw the BNP material into the bin along with the other garbage. This legislation will do little in Oldham and other urban flashpoints where deprivation and unemployment are far better incitements than the silly words of the BNP. If we don't deal with underpinning reasons for extremism, the shoddy living environments and minimal hope for the future, and don't provide a decent education, then we may as well have kept our mouths firmly shut.

Defending secularism and defending religion can and should be compatible even if the goal of one is to limit the influence of the other. That is what debate, internal and external, private and public is all about. Furthermore the secular tradition demands we ask questions of religion and religious practice. Some questions may hurt, others may insult and as much as this should be avoided there may be a time when the question cannot be altered. Just because in Britain the grand battle was won several hundred years ago doesn't mean that secularism should take a back seat. Indeed Sikh outrage over the play 'Behzti', Christian complaints at the ridiculous Jerry Springer Opera, and the support given to censorship by supposedly liberal minded newspapers suggests there is a great need for vigilance.

***

As it is possible for religious people to be offended by me when I state their god is figment of literary imagination I have decided -- after consultation with others -- that it is possible to be insulted by something I don't believe in. The reason I mention this is that there is a further downside of the operation of the clause: it will never be fairly applied to the atheist.

I may well go to court for telling someone their religion is about control and limitation, intolerance and misery; they consider it as incitement to hatred and we must await the wise words of the Attorney General. However it will always be the right (not privilege) of this person to tell me I will go to hell. To non-believers it can be quite 'threatening, abusive or insulting' for someone to come up to them in a shopping centre and tell them they are damned for eternity if they don't repent. I don't know if this is incitement to hatred in the modern context but it certainly has been in the past, used by religion and religious people for centuries to justify various nasty acts against others. Even the idea of hell where devils and other chaps stick pitchforks into private bodily zones is a lot more violent than me telling someone they won't be going anywhere but six feet under when the grim reaper arrives with his scythe.

Following this logic I look forward to presenting the Attorney General with my case that all religions are inherently abusive, threatening and insulting and should be banned forthwith under the very act that might hope to protect those who are religious.

What a mess.

***

The first and it must be said only other time I heard the story of Mohammed and his last wife was from a Kurdish Muslim working with me in Afghanistan. In his story Aisha was eleven. Similar to Charles Moore writing in the Telegraph he also used 'paedophilia' to describe the relationship between Mohammed and Aisha but he was a bitter and vocal ex-Muslim so at the time it was something I half-expected.

The problem with Moore's article was not his for defence of the right of secular contempt for religion and its influence, or even for the way he highlighted the contrasting current conditions of Muslims in Britain to Christians in some parts the Muslim World. (Amnesty has highlighted such cases in Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Yemen.) These two concerns are valid for those who believe religion does not have a place in a modern society, the former defending the right to criticise, the second highlighting the way in which religion even in modern times is used as an excuse to destroy the lives of individuals and their families.

What caught everyone's attention was the way Moore introduced the subject through the suggestion that people might actually like to question if Mohammed was a paedophile. There are many questions I would like to ask, have asked of Islam, but I have to say this is not one that sprang to mind. Mr Moore added fuel to the already towering inferno by stating how Mohammed and his 'society were much more tribal and dynastic than our own.' In actual fact it was this neat but unnecessary trick that was the scandalous part of his article. It suggested on the one hand that we (true Brits) should understand that the marriage was just part of normal traditions for Mohammed and his kind but, on the other hand, my god, thank the Lord we have never condoned such barbarity in our lovely Britain.

In Britain in the sixteenth century it was still legal to for a girl to wed if she was twelve years of age. In 1583 Bishop Chaderton married off his only daughter. She was nine.

There are of course better ways to promote secularism and better ways to introduce an argument but that's where it ends. Charles Moore may have been insulting, he may have been crude and insensitive but he's not a criminal and shouldn't be criminalised. Asking for him to be sacked is another thing and it certainly can and should be demanded by those who think it right; but in the end it's up the Telegraph to make that decision. There should be no higher authority.

***

And so I imagine the scene, myself and Salman sharing a cell whilst on remand, both of us waiting for the Attorney General decision courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary and which lobby group he believes the most.

He offers me a game of chess.

'Black or white?'

His reply: 'I see you're a bloody racist as well.'

Note:
English PEN is running a campaign, OFFENCE, against the government's proposals to outlaw freedom of expression on religion contained in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill currently before Parliament. A letter of protest signed by nearly 300 members (including Hari Kunzru, Toby Litt, Martin Rowson and Zadie Smith) of PEN was sent to the Home Secretary on January 10. 3:AM naturally supports this campaign. You can also read the National Secularism Society's Submission To Home Affairs Select Committee On Incitement To Religious Hatred Law, Blasphemy And Religious Discrimination Law (PDF) here.







ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jan Kellett was born in Northern Ireland and brought up in Wales. He spent most of his summer holidays back in Ireland with hardly a thought of bombs and bullets, spending much of the time like parents and grandparents before him, climbing around Carrickfergus castle and trying not to break a bone or get his feet wet. He didn't go to university straight away but got a job in a bank and now admits it was not exactly the best decision he has ever made.

After spending five years waiting for five o'clock so he could do what he wanted to do - to write and act - he finally left for university. A Media Arts degree at Royal Holloway University of London was followed by an MA in European Intellectual History at Queen Mary and Westfield. Whilst wandering around London thinking what to do next he was invited by a tiny non-governmental organisation to work in post-conflict Kosovo as a volunteer, helping children to find their own voice through film. Planning to stay three months he was there for nearly two years, later employed by the United Nations. His next UN mission took him to Afghanistan where he ran a field office in the region where our heroine originates, and where small explosions and inter-clan fighting were normal, danger quickly becoming tedium. From there he left for Iraq just after the latest war, working in and around the now-famous Mosul, his time there cut drastically short by the attack on UN Headquarters, spending the next nine months watching from the sidelines in Jordan. He is somewhat worried about the impression this UN work makes: following the US army around the world fixing things they've recently blown up. Jan has now returned to the nascent writing career, one of his first projects recounting these last five years.




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