Pointy bishop hats for everyone! Photo: Getty
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I'm a big Jesus fan! Make me the first lesbian bishop, Church of England

All over the world, socially liberal Christians would be able to say that they’d lived to see a Jewish lesbian don the pointy hat of bishopdom

Yay for the Church of England, I suppose. The slightly liberal parents of the Christian world (the kind who might let you stay up to watch something on the telly that contains adult situations) have just granted women the right to wear big, pointy hats.

From my entirely non-Christian perspective, the issue of female bishops in the C of E has, for aeons, been going a bit like this:

General Synod: “I don’t know… God gets really smitey when we let women do stuff.”

Desmond Tutu (the voice of reason): “Let women be bishops. Also, let people be gay and stuff.”

General Synod: “No.”

As of this week though, a consensus has finally been reached within the Church that bishops can and will have vaginas. Meanwhile, in another longstanding dispute over modernisation, the Archbishop of Canterbury “continues to struggle” with the idea of gay marriage. As it stands, the C of E still officially defines marriage as something between a man and a woman. PR-wise, it occurs to me that the self-identified Church of liberalism, puppies and rainbows should move forward on this issue pretty sharpish. And if they’d like to align themselves with The Gays in one decisive action, I suggest that they make me, Eleanor M Margolis (BA), the first ever lesbian bishop.

Since I’m also Jewish, this move would give the Church double “look how chill we are” points. All over the world, socially liberal Christians would be able to say that they’d lived to see a Jewish lesbian don the pointy hat of bishopdom. Oh, I’m also agnostic.

So what, you may well ask, are my credentials? For starters, I’m a big Jesus fan. I went to primary school before teaching from the Bible became unfashionable in state education. As a strong believer in the separation of church and state, I’m not saying it’s a shame that this practice is dying out. On the other hand, I remember hearing Bible stories about Jesus helping the poor and generally being a sweet, beardy socialist and thinking he seemed cool. This is something that’s stuck with me, and I often find myself quoting Jesus at right wing Christians, while wondering how it’s even possible to be right wing and Christian, when Jesus was such an obvious lefty.

“A new command I give you: Love one another.” – John 34:35. If you take issue with that, you’re a dick.

Aside from being a Jesus freak, I’m excellent at moving diagonally across chequered floors. You should see me – I swoop. And while I struggle to see how religion isn’t messing up the world in countless ways (I’m a non-practising Jew, by the way) a big part of me is desperate for it to be used as a force for good.

So, General Synod (who I’ve probably grossly offended) hear me out. I suspect that the kind of women you have in mind for bishopdom are, you know, massive Christians. But was Jesus Christian? Make this Sapphic Semite a bishop and kill two doves with one stone. Except don’t actually kill them, because that would be a bit violent for the C of E. Wing them, maybe.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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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.