Leave homophobia to Speaker's Corner: don't teach it in schools

Should faith schools criticise homosexuality? No, says Tom Copley.

During the Equal Marriage debate we heard much from opponents of equality about how dreadful it would be for teachers to have to tell pupils that same-sex marriage was as equal and valid as straight marriage.  Much was made of the need to protect the religious beliefs of teachers over and above the rights of same-sex couples to marry the person that they love.

Now Neil Davenport, a teacher at a north London school, has asked in an article why it is that faith schools should not be allowed to criticise homosexuality.  This is in response to research from the British Humanist Association which has found that 46 schools had Section 28 type provisions in their SRE policies banning the “promotion” of homosexuality.

I am a passionate supporter of freedom of speech and expression.  But freedom of speech does not mean freedom for a teacher to express any opinion whatsoever to pupils within a classroom.  Surely no one, including those who support Mr Davenport’s position, seriously believes that.

Those who believe homosexuality to be wrong are perfectly within their rights to publish unlettered diatribes on Spiked Online, or to stand on the corner of Oxford Circus with a sandwich board and a megaphone proclaiming the sinfulness of the “homosexual lifestyle”.  What they are not entitled to do is tell the children in their care that some of them are inherently flawed based upon their nature.

If you disagree with that then fine, but I suspect you may find yourself in some difficulty.  Because if you believe that schools and teachers have a right to promote a specific religious belief system then where do you turn to for protection when they start preaching ideas that victimise your own children?

The real conundrum for those like Mr Davenport who think it’s perfectly fine for teachers to express criticism of homosexuality in the name of faith is that it was not so long ago that religion was used to in the same way to justify the most appalling racism.

Until as recently as the 1960s it was the official doctrine of the Catholic Church that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, a doctrine based on one line in the Gospel of Matthew (“Let his blood be upon us and our children”).   This doctrine was responsible for centuries of anti-Semitism, and was finally repealed by the Church in 1965 (after which, of course, they returned to being infallible). 

The Mormon Church forbade the ordination of black priests until 1978 on the grounds that black men and women had inherited the Curse of Ham (the same curse which was used to justify slavery).

Would Mr Davenport have been content with either of these doctrines being taught in schools of those religions?  One hopes and assumes not.  Yet he is content for religion today to be used as an excuse for schools to criticise, and therefore victimise, their gay pupils.

Indeed, there are a plethora of verses in any religious text that can be quoted in defence of beliefs and practises that would be abhorrent to the vast majority of people, including those of faith.  So why is homophobia an exception?

If Mr Davenport had written an article asking “why can’t schools criticise black people,” he would rightly no longer be a teacher.  Yet it is still considered acceptable for teachers to demand the right to homophobia on the grounds of personal belief. 

Ultimately I would like to see an end to faith schools so that all children have the right to go to their local school regardless of the beliefs of their parents.  However, in the absence of a fully secular education system the Department for Education must make it clear to all schools that discriminating against LGBT pupils is as unacceptable as discriminating against pupils based on disability, race or gender.

Cross? Very. Photograph: Getty Images

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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