When will Labour stand up for secular values?

Wednesday 9 February 2011

In 2007 I shared a platform in London with Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain. Towards the end of the event I asked him to condemn the practice of stoning women and men to death for ‘offences’ such as adultery. He refused.

Bunglawala’s then boss at the MCB, Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, had been interviewed in the Daily Telegraph the previous weekend. Asked if he condemned stoning, he offered this extraordinary piece of equivocation: ‘It depends what sort of stoning and what circumstances’.

These are extreme views. They aren’t compatible with the idea of universal human rights, which allows adults to organise their own sexual lives and outlaws barbaric punishments. In the same newspaper interview, Bari stated his unequivocal opposition to homosexuality and sex outside marriage, both of which are regarded as unexceptional behaviour in secular democracies.

Despite promoting such extreme and intolerant views, the MCB was for years the first port of call for Government ministers when they wanted to discuss issues relating to Muslims in this country. Last weekend, when David Cameron signalled a shift in the Government’s relationship with organisations which don’t have a commitment to universal human rights, there was an outcry. Cameron’s choice of language was unfortunate, as Tom Sutcliffe argues in his excellent Independent column (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/columnists/thomas-sutcliffe/tom-sutcliffe-secularism-is-the-word-cameron-is-looking-for-2207507.html).

But the prime minister was right to insist that organisations which display hostility to liberal values such as equality should be confronted rather than cosseted. I hope Cameron realises that also means no public funds for, say, Christian groups who discriminate against gay couples.

Labour’s response to Cameron’s speech was lamentable, appearing to have more to do with electoral calculation than principle. As a secularist, I’m well aware that self-appointed representatives of ‘faith’ groups frequently complain about discrimination while displaying varying levels of misogyny, homophobia and intolerance. But the Party under Ed Miliband seems as unprepared as ever to acknowledge that people who are disadvantaged are not always shining examples of tolerance themselves, and that a willingness to condemn terrorism is not on its own proof of a commitment to universal human rights.

The ‘war on terror’ has a great deal to answer for. Successive British governments have been so preoccupied with the threat of religiously-motivated terror attacks that they’ve failed to acknowledge other forms of extremism in supposedly ‘moderate’ faith groups. They’ve listened to and funded religious groups which do little to further women’s equality in their communities, while at the same time condemning gay people, holding anti-Semitic views and trying to limit free expression.

We’ve ended up with the lunacy of British ministers condemning stoning in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan while Government departments hand over taxpayers’ money to ‘faith’ organisations in this country whose leaders refuse to condemn it. Labour’s record doesn’t bear much scrutiny in this respect and shadow ministers would be better occupied acknowledging past incoherence, such as support for publicly-funded ‘faith’ schools, than launching petulant attacks on Cameron. If the Party isn’t careful, the Tories could easily steal Labour’s clothes as the champion of liberal/secular values.

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