Picture credit: Rights Info
At a recent IQ² debate on Brexit, Ian Paisley Jr MP, explained why the DUP was so against the backstop. He was a British citizen entitled to the same rights as all British citizens. This brought the inevitable retort from a certain Jess Phillips about Northern Irish women and gays not having the same rights as other British citizens.
Paisley’s answer smoothly placed the blame elsewhere: Westminster had devolved certain social matters to Stormont and therefore accepted that in respect of those matters British citizens in NI might enjoy different (i.e. fewer) rights than their fellow citizens on the mainland.
The audience’s reaction showed that many did not accept the idea that there could be such a derogation from fundamental rights, devolution or not, for British citizens. Why should a citizen’s rights be contingent on geography? A fundamental right which a British person can only exercise if they live in Barrow rather than Belfast is, some might say, a nonsense. Well, no doubt the courts will have to opine on this before long. But for the moment, under devolution, this is the position.
So we come to Parkfield School, Birmingham where Muslim parents have successfully lobbied to stop their children being taught about LGBTQ issues on the grounds that this is incompatible with Islam (though this has been carefully wrapped up as concerns about age appropriateness), the parents presenting themselves and their children as victims of a bullying secular state.
But let’s be blunt. These parents – and Orthodox Jewish and other Christian parents – are not really bothered about the age at which this is taught or about how it is taught. They don’t want it taught at all, let alone by a gay teacher, because they believe that their religion should trump all other considerations.
Regardless of the fact that homosexuality and gay marriage are lawful, some religious people consider that this fact and its implications, and even gay people, should be kept away from them and their children. They claim that this interferes with their rights, even though nothing is preventing them teaching their children the tenets of their religion, when really they object to their views being challenged by other facts and viewpoints being presented.
This is a curious view to take of education whose essence, surely, is to teach children what they cannot learn at home, to introduce them to a world of ideas and knowledge far beyond the confines of family.
They may be British citizens but their religious identity – at least in this regard – is more important. They too are seeking devolution but not via devolved parliaments on the basis of geography but on the basis of religion and as determined by the demands of the most organised and determined group. And, unsurprisingly, such demands always involve reducing people’s rights and freedoms; it is never about giving them additional ones.
Well, if it’s good enough for NI why shouldn’t it be good enough for groups in Birmingham or Bradford or Stamford Hill?
That this question even arises is a measure of Britain’s failure over recent decades to understand that the growth of credal communities with strongly held beliefs at odds with Western values/laws and customs requires more than cliched paeans of praise for diversity and tolerance.
Britain congratulates itself on repealing Section 28 while allowing a far more insidious version of the same thing to spread, through indifference, cowardice and fear.
In a democracy, the key unit is the individual, votes are individual, rights are individual. Individuals are free to choose how they live; their choices should be freely made. Laws are made in Parliament and apply equally to all. If the principle is conceded that someone’s religion or race or any other self-chosen characteristic should exempt a person or group from the rights and obligations others are under, then the principle of equality under the law is damaged, perhaps fatally.
Making rights dependant on group identity devolves power to self-appointed community leaders, usually male, and in a capricious way, often with actual violence (or the threat of it). It means that there are hierarchies of British citizens: those able to exercise all their rights and those whose rights are subordinate to the group they belong to, without them having any say in whether they want this to happen.
It is a form of religious coercive control, sanctioned by the state. It leads to people – usually women, children, gays, atheists, anyone who does not conform to that group’s expectations – being deprived of what they are legally entitled to. It tends to lead to isolated, enclosed, inward-looking communities, where integration is harder and which can make some of its members prey to extremism. (We were warned of this in 1984 but did not listen.) It can lead to “othering” those who are different, misunderstanding and hatred. This, after all, was the soil in which the DUP was nurtured.
It is a style of governing which is more reminiscent of Britain’s approach to its colonies, mediating with its separate groups of subjects through selected intermediaries, than with a grown-up 21stcentury democracy. It results in a society seemingly determined to root out discrimination and bigotry while oblivious to the fact that allowing religious diktats to determine people’s rights usually results in increased bigotry and discrimination against minorities and the most vulnerable, whether in their own communities or outside. It means that children are deprived of knowledge and help and opportunities which others can take for granted, purely because of where they live or where their ancestors came from.
And it is this last point which is often overlooked: some of those children in Birmingham or in Belfast will be gay or will want to have a life that is different to what their parents expect or want of them or want to question the received opinions around them. They may feel uncertain, isolated, maybe frightened, unsure of who they can confide in. They may be bullied, feel trapped; they may be made to feel wrong for being what they are.
They may want help but not know how to get it; they may feel guilty for not being as their parents expect, for not accepting the life laid out for them; they may have divided loyalties which they are unable to handle or reconcile. They may also be subject to physical harm or threats of it. (In some cases, girls have been murdered for being too Western, for wanting the same life as their friends. Gay men have been forced into marriage with unwilling brides.)
It is immensely cruel to leave children and young people in such a position because we are not willing to say clearly – and enforce – the boundaries beyond which religion cannot intrude, the circumstances in which it must yield to the state. Parents should not be able to withdraw children from any lessons, be they PHSE or music or science or about other religions. Gays should be free to marry wherever they live. Women should be able to determine their fertility regardless of their location.
Britain is no longer a country where religion determines law. There are countries where this is the case. But not here. People are free to believe what they want; they are free to teach their children about their beliefs. But this freedom does not – and should not – entitle them to deprive their children of knowledge and education and opportunities.
It does not entitle or excuse or justify abuse or cruelty or the infliction of harm. It does not entitle them to deprive others of their rights as citizens. It does not entitle them to demand tolerance for their own rights while denying the rights of or discriminating against others because their justification is religious rather than simple prejudice.
Bullies are still bullies even if they wear religious garb or claim the privileges of parenthood or of legal powers granted to them. We should not be shy about saying so and about standing up to them. The right to practise one’s religion, to raise one’s children how one wants are freedoms to be cherished, not weapons to be abused or used against others. It is long past the time this was made clear.