In western societies, inter-religious sectarianism is a disturbing reminder that however much we cleave to the values of the Enlightenment, it remains the case that irrationality, intolerance and violence based on religious difference are still with us. On a Monday evening in Glasgow the Scottish Secular Society were delighted to host, in conjunction with our friends at Glasgow Skeptics, Boyd Sleator from Northern Ireland Humanists and Tehmina Kazi, Chair of British Muslims for Secular Democracy. Megan Crawford, Chair of the Scottish Secular Society, opened the discussion. ‘Why’ asked Crawford, ‘is sectarianism still with us today, and how should we respond to it?’
Tehmina Kazi began by describing the tragic events in Glasgow three months ago. “’And a very happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nation’. These, she reminded us, were the last words of Glaswegian newsagent Asad Shah, posted on his Facebook page on March 24th 2016. Just hours later, this hugely popular man, an Ahmadi Muslim, was brutally attacked. Found outside his shop with multiple injuries, he later died in hospital. The suspect, Tanveer Ahmed, is alleged to have stabbed Mr. Ahmed multiple times and stamped on his head. He apparently traveled two hundred miles from Bradford in a premeditated attack. Police in Scotland are sure that this is a religiously motivated murder. This is probably because Ahmadi Muslims are regarded as heretics by many Sunni and even Shia Muslims as they do not believe in the finality of prophethood since Muhammad’s death. They are persecuted in Pakistan, and have been for many years.”
“It is unbearable to think that someone, who reached out to others, no matter what their background, has been extinguished by a mind-set that was the antithesis of everything he stood for”.
Kazi outlined some of the ambiguities and failings of responses of Muslim leaders to Shah’s murder; “One would expect UK Muslim organisations, particularly those who choose Islamophobia as their rallying call to be up in arms about such a murder. Glasgow Central Mosque put out a statement which decried the murder as ‘abhorrent’ and ‘unacceptable’ and said it would stand with all communities to eradicate this intolerance from society.’ However, this statement appeared to gloss-over WhatsApp messages posted by their most senior Imam, referring to the Pakistani government’s execution of Mumtaz Qadri, who had killed anti-blasphemy campaigner Sulman Taseer in 2011, saying ‘I cannot hide my pain today. A true Muslim was punished for doing which the collective will of the nation failed to carry out’. It is difficult to see how this message has been taken out of context as the Mosque alleged. They inferred that that Imam was talking about due process, and how this had presumably been lacking in the case. Even if we accept this explanation, it totally misses the point. The treatment of minorities, whether in Pakistan or the UK is a matter of principle over process.”
“If a group expects to be taken seriously in its attempts to bring communities together, it must abandon supremacist ideas and theologies, in so much as they discriminate against others or lead to hate crimes. It is all very well to advocate for the rights of one’s own community, but what we really need is empathetic advocacy work where campaigners get to grips with the struggles that other communities face, and offer genuine solidarity instead of meaningless platitudes”.
The resolution of Islamic leaders in Scotland and England and their ability or even willingness to challenge sectarianism was questioned. “Glasgow Central Mosque has other figures with questionable links. A BBC investigation has found that Sabir Ali, head of religious events, was formerly president of Sipah-e-Sahaba, the groups which bears responsibility for a number of deadly attacks against Shias and other minorities in Pakistan. South of the border, the Muslim Council of Britain has condemned the murder of Assad Shah, stating that there is ‘no place for hatred of this kind’. While this sounds encouraging at first, their own initiatives have not been as inclusive of different sects as one would hope, and they immediately put out a statement after the killing saying that they did not think that Sunni and Shia Muslims should, in their words, be ‘forced to accept Ahmadis as fellow Muslims… In a 2014 interfaith initiative by the Council, Ahmadis were conspicuous by their absence.” Kazi continued by describing a catalogue of discrimination recently experienced by Ahmadi Muslims in Britain. For example, “Planning permission for a Mosque in Walsall was denied after eight hundred complaints, not from the English Defence League, but from Sunni Muslims. Most disturbingly of all, an anti-Ahmadi group with an office in London, congratulated Muslims on the killing of Assad Shah”.
“When theological authorities take it on themselves who is or who is not a Muslim as opposed to respecting how groups and individuals define themselves, it is crystal clear that this leads to breeches of equality and human rights standards… What I would really like to see is a statement from groups like the Muslim Council of Britain which unequivocally and unambiguously defends the right of Ahmadis to refer to themselves as Muslims. I would also like to see religious leaders from both sects expressing a more positive approach to Sunni/Ahmadi marriages which are, anecdotally, still discouraged. The term ‘moderate Muslim’ is essentially meaningless when there is so little in the way of positive and proactive action over these major fault lines.”
“Of course wider society has its own issues with sectarianism, most notably in Northern Ireland, but the difference is that there has been a widespread and concerted effort to address this. The best legacy we can leave Assad Shah is to take sectarian hate crime as seriously as far-right attacks on Muslims and to follow in his footsteps of spreading goodwill to all”.
Boyd Sleator began by commenting that he’d change the title of the event in that in Northern Ireland it is not sectarianism in the Christian community, as such, as in Catholics or Protestants fighting each other – but is to do with Unionists and Nationalists, people who believe in a United Ireland and people want to be part of the United Kingdom. So although they identify as Catholics or Protestants mostly, he would doubt very much that most of them are practicing Christians, whereas that would be very different, he would say, in the Muslim communities.
“Northern Ireland has a long history of violence when it comes to unionism and nationalism. You could go back hundreds of years and blame it on hundreds of things. A starting point is the 1960s and what happened in then with regards to the equal rights movement and how Catholics or Nationalists were discriminated against. There were rallies in Northern Ireland to try and stop discrimination, and Catholics and Protestants had got together to march together to show that we wanted equality for all in Northern Ireland. And then Bloody Sunday happened and people were murdered. The likes of the IRA and Sinn Fein jumped on board with that and turned it into an ‘us and them’ issue. And then we had violence for many many years. It wasn’t religious violence as such. Sure, there were religious overtones to some of it, but it wasn’t religious violence like you have in the Islamic community. But there are parallels.”
Despite the 1994 Good Friday Agreement, which in some ways succeeded and in others failed, Sleator highlighted that, “we still live in a divided society. There are very few integrated schools and people are divided along ‘you go to a state school or you go to a Catholic school. And as it happens all the Catholics go to Catholic school so it just leaves all the Protestants to go to state school. And the communities stay divided. And then you have problems with how the children are taught in those schools with regard to our religious education system, which is very similar to that in Scotland.”
Sleator continued by explaining how the Christian nature of the education system was becoming anachronistic in light of increasing ethnic diversity and the growth of non-religion. “Strictly Christian education bred more xenophobia. The issues in Northern Ireland have gone from ‘us and them, Catholics and Protestants’ – which still exists to a certain extent- to Jews, Muslims- they’re the outsiders now, the people who will be attacked now. It stops people from being able to understand each other unless we educate together. Unless our education system is open for children to ask questions rather than being indoctrinated into any one faith or another.”
Sleator explained how separate education systems perpetuate division in society. Despite initiatives such as shared youth clubs young people will go back to their communities in which there has been years of violence, where family members have been murdered and where hatred still exists. In these communities also, sectarian language will reinforce division and hated. Concluding his discussion of sectarianism, Sleator suggested two ways in which it might be tackled in Northern Ireland:
“First of all both communities need to own up to the atrocities that have happened and understand how they have put the ‘other side’ as they would call them, into a position where they allow them to hate them. And be able to say ‘yes we did things which were unacceptable.’ And not say ‘what about what they did?’ We call it whataboutery in Northern Ireland and it happens all the time. Stop it. Put your hand up and admit what you did wrong and how you are going to change it.”
“Secondly, we need to make more cross-community projects that are about integration between adults. Between people who have gone through the Troubles. Between people who don’t interact with each other.”
You’ll be able to listen to the entirety of Tehmina and Boyd’s speeches here: