Britain is moving towards a secular state, complains former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, in response to the ruling by Lord Justice Laws that a Relate marriage counsellor who had refused gay clients had no grounds for appeal. “Brilliant”, I thought.
Outside City University on a Friday afternoon not so long ago I was confronted with a large group of men praying in long rows between where I was standing in front of the Tate Building and where I needed to get to in the College Building. When I studied there, this didn’t happen and I was disappointed to see this overspill of religion into a shared secular space. Organised worship belongs in a prayer room. The total absence of women in this large congregation made me even more uncomfortable – would it cause a scene for a woman to walk round them when they had only a narrow passage between the wall and their formation? But I decided I would walk round them and a small group of friends trailed uncomfortably after me. But I noticed other people were trudging the long way round the square.
I do not like organised mass prayer outside a university, or in any other public space. City University has a multi-faith prayer room which these men have decided not to use.
“Unfortunately, students have declared this room unfit for purpose due to both its size and for the fact that a number of Muslim scholars believe that it is impermissable for Muslims to share a prayer room where Allah is not the only god worshipped.
Students are campaigning for their previous room to be reopened, however the university has stated that it is acting in line with Equality and Diversity guidelines and in the interest of the safety of students. The new space has already been used by various Muslim students and the Great Hall at City is open to Muslim students for Friday prayer sessions, to accommodate large numbers.
The University has stated:
“As a public institution, the University is committed to creating as many opportunities for people of different faiths (and indeed of no faith) to meet and engage in honest and respectful dialogue. The move to shared space and the establishment of a Forum for Faith and Values will help to foster that need for dialogue.”
No doubt this is a highly sensitive issue, with clear religious and security related matters to grasp. The re-opening of the previous prayer room would certainly go towards mending relations between the University and the ISOC, however if security cannot be offered, surely the institution has a duty to its students to act in their interest, even if this may at first seem controversial.”
Paul Anderson reads the prayer room dispute as more widely significant:
“I’m not provoked, but I do care a great deal about preserving certain norms of liberal university life and of the liberal public sphere more generally. The most important is that of free debate, which to me means that all speaker meetings held on university premises should allow participation by all members of the university unconstrained except by the laws and university rules that prohibit hate-speech and incitement to violence.
Just as a Conservative Club – if we had one at City – would be required to allow members of a Labour Club – ditto – to make vigorously critical contributions from the floor, so the Islamic Society should be required at its speaker meetings to allow any member of the university – male, female, gay, straight, atheist, Jewish, Shia Muslim, Christian, Hindu, whatever – directly to contradict its speakers, to argue that its vision of Islam is narrow and small-minded, to question its apparent enthusiasm for some of the most extreme jihadists on the circuit.
This requires gender desegregation of ISoc meetings, so that male and female participants are treated equally, and an end to meetings set up as propagandist rallies at which no one critical of the demagogue on stage (or on video link) is allowed to speak.
As for facilities for worship, it is entirely reasonable for the university to provide rooms that are shared by different faith groups and timetabled so that all can use them whenever different religious observance rules apply. No faith group should be given privileged treatment, and the university should do nothing to encourage religious separatism.”
For these opinions he is accused by City’s passive-aggressive Islamic Society of hating the Islamic way of life. But what with his response and the blog tagline “democratic socialism with a libertarian punch”, he comes across like an impeccable universalist to me.
Lord Justice Laws ruling in the case of the Christian marriage counsellor is also impeccably universalist:
“We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion – any belief system – cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic.
“The law of a theocracy is dictated without option to the people, not made by their judges and governments. The individual conscience is free to accept such dictated law, but the state, if its people are to be free, has the burdensome duty of thinking for itself.”
The judge also said: “In a free constitution such as ours there is an important distinction to be drawn between the law’s protection of the right to hold and express a belief and the law’s protection of that belief’s substance or content.” While the Judaeo-Christian tradition had exerted a “profound influence” on the judgment of lawmakers, “the conferment of any legal protection of preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however long its culture, is deeply unprincipled.”
I’d stand up for people’s freedom of belief whatever the creed. I’d support any request for a multi-faith prayer room where I work, if there wasn’t one already. I’d even stand up, no matter how reluctantly, for people’s right to segregate themselves, if that right were threatened, along with the right not to have segregation imposed upon them. And if there were an attempt to prevent those men from demo-praying on the street outside City University, I would oppose it – they have the right to gather there. But like Paul Anderson and Harry’s Place I have no time for political variants of religion. I want religion back in its place.
Update: Sarah Annes Brown is lucid about this as usual early in the comments at Harry’s Place. She points out that there used to be a Muslim-only prayer space, and its closure must have been keenly felt. I dare say she is right. There is also the suggestion from the editor of City’s student newspaper that City students are broadly supportive of ISoc’s grievance, but this isn’t particularly apparent from other quarters. Also keenly felt are the invitations City University Islamic Society has extended to preachers of hate like Abu Usamah and Murtaza Kahn. So where does this leave us? If I were incoming VC at City I would do pretty much what has now been done to date, namely offer a multi-faith room, offer a bigger space like the main hall subject to availability, make the equality and diversity arguments against enforced segregation but avoid enforcing desegregation, acknowledge and oppose attacks on Muslims which are religiously or racially motivated, taken measures to protect Muslims from such attacks on and around campus, and take responsibility for refusing to host hate preachers.
Update 2: in the comments below Matt P points to Butterflies and Wheels where Ophelia Benson asks a lot of good questions about a man’s convicted of racially-aggravated harassment for leafleting a municipal airport prayer room with literature mocking god: “But there again – why are rooms being provided to allow people to feel comfortable practising their faith in a busy public building? Why is this seen as desirable or necessary? Why can’t people just “practice their faith” internally until they get home or to a mosque or church?”. I’m sympathetic to this point of view. I suppose I assumed that somewhere along the line a study found that a lack of place to pray is a factor in educational exclusion. At any rate, it has to be balanced with concerns like how long people spend in a given place, the pressures on them there, how much space there is for a room etc. I feel there’s a balance to be struck between my secularism on the one hand and avoiding exclusion on the other.
Update 3: Islamist tactics – somebody told me that City University Islamic Society bussed in many or perhaps most of the c. 200 men who are making a weekly scene in Northampton Square and they don’t even go to City.