John Sentamu and the acceptable face of bigotry

To deny that gay people do not have equal rights is to be on the side of evil, no matter how twinkly

John Sentamu is nice. That’s his schtick. He’s one of those religious men that it’s okay for atheists to look at and say: “Oh, isn’t he cuddly with his archaic belief in an invisible man who tells us what to do.”

Read his article on marriage rights though and you’ll see the cuddly facade masks just another reactionary. It is clear from the very first sentence:

I will be the first to accept that homosexual people have suffered discrimination and sometimes worse through the decades and that the churches have, at times, been complicit in this.

Oh bully for you John Sentamu. Thanks very much for conceding that gay people have had a crap time throughout history and that, yes, sometimes, you know, not too much, the church has been an engine for vile bigotry and, oops, still is.

And boy does it get better. This mealy-mouthed cleric has more Thought For The Day wisdom bomb to drop: “…that baleful history does not diminish the need to speak the truth in love.” Truth? To mangle Tybalt: What, drawn and talk of truth? I hate the word as I hate hell, all patronising preachers and thee.

Here’s the kernel of jumping John’s argument:

I firmly believe that redefining marriage to embrace same-sex relationships would mean diminishing the meaning of marriage for most people with very little, if anything, gained for homosexual people. If I am right, in the long-term we would all be losers.

Oh yes. I know that giving gay people the right to express their love as straight couples do would boil my brain within my skull. How the hell can those bastards even dare to suggest that they might have equality in the law? Sweet little baby Jesus wearing a cute babygro emblazoned “Is this dude tripping?”. Sentamu pulls out all the classic anti-equality arguments and it is disgusting, whatever his sweet, folksy presentation.

He goes on:

Drawing parallels between the proposed same-sex marriage and inter-racial marriage ignores the fact that there is more than one paradigm of equality . . . should there be equality between the sexes because a woman can do anything a man can do or because a good society needs the different perspectives of women and men equally?

Dragging Mary Wollstonecraft onto his side, Sentamu says:

Unless one believes that every difference between the sexes is a mere social construct, the question of equality between the sexes cannot be completely addressed by the paradigm of racial equality. Defining marriage as between a man and a woman is not discriminatory against same-sex couples. What I am pressing for is a kind of social pluralism that does not degenerate into fancy-free individualism.

Fancy-free individualism. It takes some skill to pack so much offensiveness into three seemingly sweet words. Sentamu cheerleads marriage but goes on to say, so what if gay people don’t have the right to it as civil partnerships are really, really awesome and basically the same. It is a disingenuous argument. If civil partnerships are different but essentially equal to marriage why not call the union between man and man and woman and woman a marriage just as that of a man and woman?

Sentamu says:

The question for me is one of justice and not equality . . .it does not mean not treating everyone the same way but giving everyone what they need or deserve . . . equality follows justice and secures its consistent administration . . . if it was a question of justice, what injustice would result from not turning civil partners into married couples? I suggest: no injustice.

I suggest: bullshit. Colossal bullshit. Bullshit of biblical proportions, appropriately. Of course there is injustice, because in making gay people have civil partnerships (which straight people are not entitled to enter into), they are being placed in a different section of society. They do not have all the rights accorded to heterosexual people. They cannot sit at the same lunch counter, cannot choose the same bus seats as the straights. This is a fundamental question of equality. To deny that is to be on the side of evil, no matter how twinkly your smile is.

Here’s what Sentamu thinks marriage does: “Marriage is built around complementarity of the sexes and therefore the institution of marriage is a support for stable families and societies.” Run your eye over the divorce stats and tell me how that’s going. And for your supplementary homework, tell me why gay couples' love is not conducive for family and societal stability. If you can give me a good answer, I might even pretend your invisible opinion former exists.
 

Mic Wright is a freelance writer. This piece originally appeared on his blog. You can follow him on Twitter @brokenbottleboy

Mic Wright is a freelance journalist.

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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.