Praying for an end to prayers

Are council prayers discriminatory, or just local democracy in action?

Are council prayers discriminatory, or just local democracy in action?

As living standards atrophy and the collapse of the eurozone becomes every day a little less unthinkable, it may seem trivial in the extreme to be arguing about whether or not the mayor of a small town in Devon should be called upon to say a prayer before the start of council meetings. Yet for the National Secular Society (NSS) it would seem to be a big deal. As their legal challenge is heard in the High Court, the NSS believes its case against Bideford council to be an issue that "goes to the very heart of secularism in public life and, if successful, will set a key country-wide precedent."

The law, declares the NSS in a press release, "is not made in Bideford". But whichever way the decision goes, Bideford will decide the law. The NSS estimates that half of all local councils in Britain begin their proceedings with prayers, usually of a Christian character. It's a custom that they're determined to see brought to an end. A document published on the NSS website calls both for donations to a fighting fund and for a pro-active campaign to root out instances of coucil prayer. Supporters are urged to find out if their local council begins its meetings with prayers -- and, if so, to complain to the council and to the local press ("the local media are always looking for stories, particularly those with a specific community angle") and to take part in radio phone-ins.

Feelings are running equally high on the other side. Last year when the NSS's legal challenge was first announced, Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, claimed that the "centuries-long tradition of saying of prayers before council meetings" was "an acknowledgment of the important role the Christian faith plays in civic life". (This may be why the NSS finds them so objectionable, of course.) He condemned the lawsuit as "an attack on freedom and a cynical manoeuvre to drive public expressions of faith from national as well as local life." A local bishop went so far as to claim that council prayers formed "an integral part of the British system of government".

Bideford council is being represented by a firm of solicitors closely linked to the campaign group the Christian Institute. The firm has acted in a number of high profile cases -- most recently that of Adrian Smith, demoted by Trafford Housing Trust for objecting to gay marriage on his private Facebook account.

But the roots of the Bideford case are also local, particular and long-standing. At its centre is Councillor Clive Bone, who has been trying to get prayers abolished for more than three years. His attempt in 2008 to replace them with a moment of silent contemplation was defeated by nine votes to four. Bone claims that the practice is divisive, embarrassing and that he was aware of potential councillors who put off standing for election by the prospect of having to sit through prayers. According to the NSS, "prayers make him uncomfortable and he feels embarrassed and awkward as the public act of worship is practised". He objects to having to choose between "participating" or leaving the room, or else arriving late. Holding prayers "creates a feeling of exclusion for him and some other councillors," which has led him not to seek re-election.

I can well understand non-religious councillors finding prayers to be boring and unnecessary. The NSS may have a case in law. They report that the National Association of Local Councils shares their analysis that council prayers may be considered discriminatory. They certainly have a good case in logic. I would worry about any councillor who seriously believed that they required divine guidance before making decisions about some local planning application. And prayers at the start of meetings are likely to produce embarrassed shuffling of feet among non-believing councillors.

To impose prayers by majority vote upon council members who actively object to them strikes me as insensitive and less than wholly Christian. In Bideford itself, the controversy seems to have produced a poisonous atmosphere on the council that can hardly have been conducive to good local government; still less to the "cohesion" that was claimed to be the purpose of the prayers. There's more common sense on display in Gloucester, where to the NSS's delight council prayers have this week been abolished.

And yet I can't help thinking that high court judges have more pressing calls on their time, and more expertise than micromanaging how proceedings should be initiated in council chambers up and down the country. It's not as if -- as with religious school assemblies -- council prayers are compulsory, and for the National Secular Society to argue that it they represent a key front in the wider battle against religious domination of public life is as absurd as their opponents' contention that they are essential to maintaining the country's Christian foundation. In reality, the issue represents yet another opportunity for two legally-obsessed pressure groups to go head-to-head -- a depressingly recurrent feature of our modern human rights culture. Sometimes the law is best made in Bideford.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.