Richard Dawkins attacks David Cameron over faith schools

An open letter to the Prime Minister from the <em>New Statesman</em>'s guest editor.

"Do you get it now, Prime Minister?"

In his leading article in the 19 December issue of the New Statesman, which he has guest-edited, the evolutionary biologist and bestselling author Richard Dawkins launches a scathing attack on David Cameron and his government's imposition of religious tradition on society in the form of faith schools.

Dawkins's open letter, addressed to the Prime Minister, leads with a warning that we must not be distracted "from the real domination of our culture and politics that religion gets away with in (tax-free) spades"; indeed, these religious traditions are "enforced by government edict".

In a direct rebuke to David Cameron's "government, [which,] like its predecessors, does force religion on our society, in ways whose very familiarity disarms us", Dawkins lists examples, from bishops in the House of Lords and the fast-tracking of "faith-based charities to tax-free status" to the "most obvious and serious" case of government-imposed religion: faith schools.

"Faith schools don't so much teach about religion as indoctrinate in the particular religion that runs the school," Dawkins writes. Telling a child that he or she belongs to one particular faith "pav[es] the way . . . for a lifetime of discrimination and prejudice".

Returning to a question he posed to Cameron in the Guardian last month - Why do you support faith schools? - Dawkins writes:

I satirised the faith-labelling of children using an analogy that almost everybody gets as soon as he hears it: we wouldn't dream of labelling a child a "Keynesian child" simply because her parents were Keynesian economists. Mr Cameron, you replied to that serious and sincere point [with] a contemptuous snigger: "Comparing John Maynard Keynes to Jesus Christ shows, in my view, why Richard Dawkins just doesn't get it." Do you get it now, Prime Minister? Obviously I was not comparing Keynes with Jesus. I could just as well have used "monetarist child" or "fascist child" or "postmodernist child" or "Europhile child".

Nor is Dawkins convinced by the Prime Minister's "contemptuous snigger" and his claims about misunderstanding: "I think you got it all along. If you are like several government ministers (of all three parties) to whom I have spoken, you are not really a religious believer yourself. Several ministers and ex-ministers of education whom I have met, both Conservative and Labour, don't believe in God but, to quote the philosopher Daniel Dennett, they do 'believe in belief'."

Dawkins adds: "A depressingly large number of intelligent and educated people, despite having outgrown religious faith, still vaguely presume without thinking about it that religious faith is somehow 'good' for other people, good for society, good for public order, good for instilling morals, good for the common people even if we chaps don't need it. Condescending? Patronising? Yes, but isn't that largely what lies behind successive governments' enthusiasm for faith schools?"

Furthermore, the enforcement of religion in society through politics is not democratic: "Baroness Warsi, your Minister Without Portfolio (and without election), has been at pains to inform us that this coalition government does indeed 'do God'." Yet British citizens who elected these ministers "mostly do not".

Modern society requires and deserves a truly secular state, by which I do not mean state atheism, but state neutrality in all matters pertaining to religion: the recognition that faith is personal and no business of the state.

In the leader, Dawkins also makes a point of wishing Cameron a "Merry Christmas". "All that 'Happy Holiday Season' stuff, with 'holiday' cards and 'holiday' presents, is a tiresome import from the US, where it has long been fostered more by rival religions than by atheists," he writes.

As a "cultural Anglican", he writes, "I recoil from secular carols such as 'White Christmas', 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' and the loathsome 'Jingle Bells', but I'm happy to sing real carols, and in the unlikely event that anyone wants me to read a lesson I'll gladly oblige - only from the King James Version, of course."

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This special Christmas issue follows the much-discussed New Statesman guest edit by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in June this year.

The issue, cover-dated 19 December, will go on sale in London on Tuesday 13 December and in the rest of the country from Wednesday 14 December. British and international readers can pre-order single-issue copies through our website from 1pm on Monday 12 December. If you have any purchasing queries, please email Stephen Brasher

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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.