The case of the Muslim parents protesting in Birmingham about LGBT relationship education is pretty much classroom-designed for a debate about religious freedom. And yet the media and MPs have been uninterested in examining in any depth the political and ethical reality of the competing rights claims at its heart. In fact Jess Phillips, the local Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, has dismissed the parents’ views by saying that “everyone is pussyfooting around a load of bigots. They shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the schools. These are people with a religious extremist agenda.”
Parkfield parents aren't all bigots
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Of course we should feel uncomfortable when a vocal minority holds views we find completely unacceptable. But simply insisting on that unacceptability won’t make the problem go away. If we want to think more clearly about state confrontation with ethnic and religious minorities, we need to retrace our steps. How did we get here in the first place?
I am sure many of the Muslims involved in the Parkfield and Anderton Park Primary protests, consider it a grave injustice that they, or their forebears, were welcomed to this country for the economic benefits they could bring – only to be subsequently excluded from acceptability on account of their deeply-held religious beliefs.
Furthermore, it is now clear that even a large minority of the Muslim community won’t change their views on these issues. Meaningful data on attitude change among British Muslims is difficult to come by, but currently only around 44% of British Asians as a whole aged 18–34 think same-sex relationships are acceptable. That’s only two percentage points higher than those aged 55 and over.
This is a view which was widely accepted in British society until only 30 years ago. Progress for gay rights since then is to be welcomed and comprehensively defended; that is not at issue. But rapidly changing sex and gender norms, including on still-controversial issues around trans rights, have largely bypassed the insular world of some British Muslims. Now they are becoming increasingly vocal (and some vocally abusive) about what they see as bewildering progressive intrusions into private spaces, including school and the home.
Their reaction has come as a surprise to a progressive establishment which always presumed its own values would prevail, and that further victories were inevitable. In 2006, then Prime Minister Tony Blair praised the diversity of British society, stating that we were “a country at ease with different races, religions, and cultures”. But, he added, “our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it, or don’t come here.”
But can we really have different races, religions, and cultures as well as a total tolerance of all progressive liberal norms? The great debate at Parkfield School seems to suggest not. It precludes the prospect of conservative communities of religious people educating their children in the state system. This raises the question as to what the role of a school should be in its local community, and how answerable it should be to parents whose views diverge hugely from the school’s, and the state’s, leadership.
It’s important that we start to think about how we answer these questions, given that the number of Muslims in Britain is predicted to increase quite significantly over the next few decades and so we’ll see these values conflicts happening more regularly. And as other religious groups shed nominal believers, those left — who hold a deep religious belief — are becoming more traditional. The prospect of an organised Christianity that actually believes its most central doctrines is one the liberal state was not expecting.
Preventing descent into an American-style culture war, in which both liberals and conservatives attempt to crush all dissent, should be central to our consideration of these value divides. We can’t simply dismiss centuries-old ethical traditions as simply ‘backward’ – that uninformed and incurious reaction is part of the problem. We need to look deeper. I have not seen one piece in a mainstream newspaper use the Birmingham schools case as an opportunity to examine the state of Islamic theology, culture, and ethics.
This reluctance to understand is hardly surprising given the religious illiteracy of the general population. When Islam is a cosy ‘community’ it can be boxed off as a minority concern. But when it is a real belief in God — necessarily primeval, deeply mysterious, and overawing — we are unprepared. We seem, as a society, totally uninterested in the religious traditions of our newest citizens.
The reaction that we’ve seen from most commentators, including MPs, is one that pits a barbarous past against an enlightened future. But the elites who presumed that all religious views would disappear with time have already been proved wrong. As the sociologist Peter Berger wrote in the New York Times, in 1968: “By the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.”
This view, that organised religion will gradually and inevitably decline in the secular age, is still widely shared. It never seems to occur to many of these people that the religious impulse is a product of the evolutionary process. The construction of religious belief systems and the meaning they provide in our lives are simply a normal part of human culture and biology. As John Gray notes, belief in a supernatural deity is “an evolutionary adaptation that goes with being human”. Reality doesn’t have a liberal bias after all.
So what should we do about Birmingham? There are three options available: forcefully suppressing these beliefs; carving out hard boundaries in law between the reach of equalities legislation and the right of parents to educate their children; or accepting that broad agreement on changing social norms must first be secured (through genuine dialogue with parents) before those norms are taught in local schools.
At the moment, we’ve only tried the first scenario. It isn’t working. Either way, the assessment that this values confrontation would become increasingly irrelevant has been so thoroughly discredited that to continue to hold such a view should be considered embarrassing.
If we understand religion as a passing phase in the inevitable story of human progress, one extirpated by the rise of wealthy, highly mobile societies, then the clash of religious conservatism and progressivism is simply a temporary blip, an accident of the old-world meeting with the new. But if, instead, you see religion as a deep and evolved human need providing a structure of meaning and purpose to entire populations, then this clash is indicative of a looming problem which liberals can only solve with a single-answer sledgehammer. In the recent party-political volleys over Islamophobia, it would be ironic if the worst offender turned out to be the liberal state itself.
Ultimately, for those in Birmingham, there are a series of very difficult questions that need to be addressed by both sides. Primarily, should a school be the servant of the local community, its leadership, or the state? And how far should relatively recently adopted ideas on sexual relations and gender be imposed as normative on minority communities who view them as morally wrong?
It should not be a problem to explain to children that some people are gay or transsexual as a scientific fact. Biology is not a threat to Islam or any other religion. But whether these facts have normative implications needs to be discussed with parents. And the debate about childhood gender identity, and whether children should be able to choose their own gender has barely even begun in wider society. To suggest that this is an open and shut case to a classroom full of children is plain irresponsible.
Parents and local communities need to have the right to protest what their children are being taught, even if we thoroughly disagree with them. In a very conservative society this would be a fundamental right owed to progressive parents. And religious parents need to recognise that living in a tolerant society also means accepting that some people live differently. More local control over schooling, and a far greater and deeper religious literacy, would begin to open up the possibilities for these conversations to begin.
But simply insisting that religious minorities keep quiet is neither working nor sustainable. It’s time we did some harder thinking in preparation for the inevitable clashes to come.
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