This excellent event brought together Boyd Sleator, Chair of Atheist Northern Ireland, and Tehmina Kazi, the Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy.
Tehmina began by speaking of her liberal Muslim upbringing, her strong rejection of conservative and intolerant views within Muslim communities, and her pleasure in discovering like-minded progressive Muslims with whom she has found common ground. She spoke warmly of several positive projects, including the Inclusive Mosque Initiative and Muslim outreach efforts, such as those aimed at helping victims of flooding. She also explained some of the challenges she faces – as a secular Muslim activist Tehmina has come in for criticism not just (predictably) from Islamists, but also from elements of the far left.
Boyd spent much of his childhood abroad, and found the sectarianism of Northern Ireland alien compared to the more cosmopolitan environment he had been used to. He spoke of the frustrating lack of communication between Protestants and Catholics, the reasons for continuing suspicions, and the need to do more to encourage friendship between the two communities. We were reminded of some of the differences between NI and the rest of the UK. For example same sex marriage is still illegal in NI; despite strong popular support for its introduction, the DUP has used a ‘petition of concern’ to block legislation.
Dialogue, not surprisingly, was something both speakers warmly supported. Boyd described how much easier it is to understand another’s perspective when you meet face to face – by contrast with online encounters which soon descend into defensive sparring. Both speakers were keen for school Religious Studies curriculums to reflect the diversity within and outside faith communities. More progressive strands in Islam are rarely taken into account, and in Northern Ireland’s schools Christianity dominates the syllabus at the expense of other traditions. Boyd expressed concern at the way RS can shade into indoctrination rather than education.
Another topic of discussion was the Prevent programme. Tehmina explained that she had had reservations about some earlier decisions, such as a move to install CCTV cameras in parts of Birmingham with a sizeable Muslim population. However now she thinks that the suspicion it attracts is misplaced, and particularly praised the work of Inspire, which helps deliver Prevent training and has been responsible for other positive counter-terrorism initiatives.
Audience members raised further interesting questions. The recent legal controversy surrounding Pastor McConnell was discussed, with concerns expressed by both speakers about the way in which some Muslims in NI wanted to invoke the country’s blasphemy laws (which are no longer in force in the rest of the UK) in connection with this case.
Recent reports of exam timetables being adjusted to help students fasting for Ramadan have troubled some secularists. Tehmina pointed out that these reports were apparently driven by a misunderstanding, but said she would not support any change, making her rather less ‘accommodationist’ than Keith Porteous Wood of the NSS.
The elevated status of the Qur’an in Islam was raised as a source of potential difficulty for Muslim secularists – because of the greater challenge facing reformist, modernising impulses when a holy book is seen as divinely written, not simply divinely inspired. Tehmina introduced the concept of ‘agnostic Muslims’ who don’t think the Qur’an infallible.
Finally, it was good to be reminded that secularist battles are worth fighting – because they can be won. Both the UUK guidelines on segregation and the Law Society’s practice note on Sharia wills were overturned following strong campaigns and well made arguments.
Thank you to all involved for a good-humoured and stimulating event.