A liberal religion

In the third and fourth blogs devoted to the religion of ancient Greece, Nikolaos Markoulakis takes

The whole my life I've been a Greek polytheist, Hellenes, and supporter of the liberal political thought.

Nowadays, it is difficult to conceptualize that a religious faith can be described as liberal in notion.

We understand religion today as a structural organization with sacred books and a professional priesthood.

Liberalism requires a society driven by freedom of thought, there must be limits on power - especially that wielded by governmental and religious institutions.

How can I be both a liberal and a follower of a revived ancient religion? And can we really say that a religion which has derived from such an ancient culture and civilization could be liberal in modern terms? In my view this can be indeed the case when it concerns Greek polytheism.

The modern democracy has a structure which underlines the importance of the individual as part of a greater political organization, the state. Individual rights, as well as responsibilities, make up the political being.

Our contemporary democratic notion incorporates separation of state from religion because otherwise the individual freedoms could easily be suppressed by the most powerful religious group. A secular state is the only solution in a multi-cultural and diverse world to preserve political and individual rights and freedoms. Our free world today, which is liberal in notion derives from a school of thought dating back to the Enlightenment era. It is known that this initial liberal contemplation was ignited by the writings of Ancient Greece.

That world produced such marvellous spiritual works: philosophy and science, political constitution and deliberation, civil law and individualism, art and drama, literature and poetry as we known them today. The ancient Greek nation was tolerant towards new thought and diversity, because it was diverse and liberal at its core, and that core was its religion.

So, Greek thought is in fact a product of the ancient Greek religion. What makes Greek polytheism unique in producing such liberal societal structures? Some would argue that a set of foreign influences draw the minds of Greeks into a high level of contemplation. Indeed, this is partly right, but it is not the whole picture. A society (nation) has to be free of taboos and moral restrictions if it is to be able to easily absorb foreign thought as its own. Greek polytheism had an element so powerful and closely connected with the customs and ethics of men, yet all the while its directives were open to alterations and criticism.

Greek polytheism by its nature generates a variety of religious praxis. This multiplicity was reflected in the communities, the polis (city states), the nation as well as in the minds of men leaving in them. It was a religion for the state, not a religion of the state. The law of men was above the divine. Humility does not appear in Greek Polytheistic worship because the first principle of the Greek religion is the dignity of the individual.

In Greek religion there are no signs of zealotry, because it is part of the natural world, too much a part of the man’s nature. The religion and the gods are accepted as part of Nature’s body and the state’s constitution. Greeks recognized their divinities and religious practises as essential and important, turning to them whenever they felt the need. Greek polytheistic notion was a matter of joy and gladness, leaving no space for absorbed thoughts, empowerment and / or mystic devotion. Liberal thought, therefore, was in fact an element present in Greek polytheistic religiosity.

Nikolaos Markoulakis holds degrees in Social sciences and Social research. He is the director of the Markoulakis Publications, editor-in-chief at the scholarly based, peer-reviewed Journal of Hellenic Religion and the educational periodical Sparta.
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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.