Gender segregation on campus: a timeline of opposition in UK media

There’s been a lot of friction lately over who the main opponents were of segregated seats for men and women at Islamic campus talks, endorsed till recently by higher education group Universities UK.

Priyamvada Gopal, in a December 16 post at the Rationalist Association originally entitled ‘The Right may have hijacked the issue of gender segregation, but thats no reason to ignore it’, described ‘the deft way in which Student Rights, an offshoot of the bullishly paternalist Euro-American think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, has managed to bring “gender segregation” at some campus events to national attention’ and how ‘battle lines were drawn once again between so-called ‘muscular liberals’ (generally, in fact, deeply conservative white males with a commitment to the idea that West is Best) and defenders of the rights of minorities to their own customary or traditional practices.’ She was roundly vilified on Twitter and in the blogosphere for this, charged by a wide variety of anti-segregationists – especially those behind the December 10 demonstration in Tavistock Square – with inaccuracy over who its and related actions’ organisers were.

Laurie Penny, in Guardian column this Sunday she acknowledged as being influenced by Gopal’s piece, wrote that as a feminist she is ‘constantly being told that Islam is the greatest threat to gender equality in this or any other country – mostly by white men, who always know best.’ ‘The rhetoric and language of feminism has been co-opted by Islamophobes’, says Penny, since gender segregation made the headlines this year, and ‘rightwing commentators and tabloids seized upon the issue to imply that Islamic extremists are taking over the British academy.’

Both posts contain inaccuracies and intimations I’d dispute. Penny too faced a wave of criticism, rebuked by Muslim and ex-Muslim women, not unfairly, for ignoring their role in the anti-segregation push – and by Nick Cohen, less fairly, of ‘rais[ing] up right wing bogeymen’. (Both also somewhat miss the mark, I think, in their characterisation of Student Rights, but that’s a different post.) Confusion abounds, it seems, over which forces drove back support for segregation. Both sides have become heated about it.

To add some clarity to the debate, I’ve assembled a timeline of events – coverage, principally, in British media – between March 9 when the issue first came to light and December 15, the day before Gopal’s piece (accused by many of rewriting history) was published. Suffice it to say the true picture is mixed: Gopal’s and Penny’s critics are right to knock them for overlooking one faction’s role, but they themselves are right – and I side with their general point of view, if not their every word – to say right-leaning pundits and publications played a central role.

I’ve made the timeline as comprehensive as I can, though inevitably I’ll have overlooked some things – let me know and I’ll amend it. There are a couple of caveats to this: first, since I’m measuring events in the still-insular British news environment, inclusion is UK-specific, hence Ophelia Benson’s posts at Butterflies and Wheels (cited only once, as I recall, in a post listed below) don’t appear while Maryam Namazie’s do; second, since this post tracks opposition to segregated seating, it doesn’t account for articles defending it – that some papers published more of these than others (the Huffington Post and Independent spring to mind) is, consequently, part of their role the timeline fails to gauge. When it comes to smaller or personal blogs, there’s also a subjective question of which merit inclusion and which don’t, but I’m more or less confident I’ve answered it with reasonable fairness.

The method by which bullet points were sourced, for transparency, had several steps. It began with date-specific Google searches of UK sites in five day intervals between March 9 and December 15 for the keywords ‘segregation’, ‘universities’ and ‘gender’, listing relevant results from the first five pages. After this came site-specific searches for results containing the keyword ‘segregation’ or ‘segregate’ on sites (newspapers’, for instance) that had yielded results initially. Finally, relevant pages already linked or cited were added in, before pages and posts by the specific campaigners Gopal and Penny were charged with ignoring. (Many of these, it should be noted, didn’t show up in the initial search, but I didn’t want to erase them myself, and it’s notable which are and aren’t cited in other media here.)

The timeline follows, with names of major players emboldened and notes underneath on things I find, well, noteworthy.

March 9

  • A debate is held at University College London between Lawrence Krauss and the Islamic Education and Research Academy’s Hamza Tzortzis, entitled ‘Islam or Atheism: Which Makes More Sense?’

March 10

  • Krauss tweets that he ‘almost walked out of [the] debate as it ended up segregated + saw 3 kids being ejected for sitting in wrong place’, adding ‘I packed up and they gave in’.
  • Richard Dawkins responds, posting numerous tweets accusing UCL of ‘cowardly capitulation to Muslims’, referring to Tzortzis as ‘Some Muslim or other’ and asking ‘Who the hell do these Muslims think they are?’ (These tweets and later ones by Dawkins on Islam have heavy criticism, including from me.)
  • Facebook user Dana Sondergaard posts video footage of Krauss threatening to leave, tweeted by him soon afterward, stating: ‘After having been told the event would NOT be gender segregated, we arrived and were told that women were to sit in the back of the auditorium, while men and couples could file into the front’ and corroborating Krauss’ account.
  • Richard Dawkins at the RDFRS site: ‘Sexual Apartheid in University College, London
    ‘A few days ago,’ states Dawkins, ‘I had received a tip-off from somebody who had made an inquiry’, writing that he informed Krauss, prompting him to secure IERA’s (eventually worthless) assurance seating would be non-segregated. Dawkins closes the post asking ‘Isn’t it really about time we decent, nice, liberal people stopped being so pusillanimously terrified of being thought “Islamophobic” and stood up for decent, nice, liberal values?’
  • The Tab: ‘Dawkins outraged by Islamic gender segregation at UCL
    Both Krauss’ and Dawkins’ tweets are cited in the student tabloid’s report, as well as Dawkins’ RDFRS post and statements by students on Facebook that ‘Ucl security helped enforce the segregation’.
  • The forum of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain publishes a widely-distributed statement ‘by concerned students’ that ‘Sexual segregation at UCL is a scandal’, detailing correspondence with university officials who promised a segregated event would ‘not be permitted to go ahead’. CEMB members Adam Barnett and Christopher Roche are quoted as two of the three male students ejected, as well as a female Asian student named Halima and Chris Moos, a prominent member of LSE’s student atheist group.
  • The Huffington Post (UK): ‘Segregated Seating Row At UCL Debate Between Islam And Atheism

March 11

March 12

  • NSS: ‘Islamic group banned from UCL following gender segregation row
  • John Sargeant at Homo economicus’ Weblog: ‘Take a seat: UCL Islamic V Atheist debate
  • Anne Marie Waters at the Huffington Post: ‘Islamic Extremism on Campus – Is the Tide Turning?’
    States IERA enforced segregation ‘in a scenario lifted straight out of Saudi Arabia’; indicts ‘the political left and student activists’ as ‘defenders of religious brutality and totalitarianism’, gender segregation and ‘medieval misogyny’.

March 13

  • Alliance for Workers’ Liberty: ‘Socialists must fight for secularism
    Notes criticism of Dawkins’ March 10 article for its ‘air of . . . western superiority’ and describes him as ‘not the best spokesperson against sexism’, while also insisting ‘mild annoyance at the idea of the first university in the UK to admit female students on the same basis as their male counterparts playing host to a quasi-segregated event is simply not a good enough reaction. Any attempt to forcibly divide an audience at a secular institution such as a university, or anywhere else for that matter, must be thoroughly denounced. . . . he tradition of marginalising religion from the public sphere is a proud one that socialists used to uphold. Let us continue to uphold it.’

March 14

March 15

  • The Daily Telegraph: ‘Britons afraid to challenge radical Islam, says former Obama adviser
    Cites Lawrence Krauss in the byline as suggesting ‘British people are too afraid to offend a “vocal and aggressive” section of the Muslim community who demand that their cultural values are accepted by wider society’, and quotes him verbatim as telling them segregationists feel ‘their cultural norms are not being met’, that ‘the notion that these cultural norms should be carried out within a broader society that not only doesn’t share them but that is free and open is a very serious problem’ and that ‘[t]he notion . . . broader society should accommodate that discomfort is complete nonsense . . . . It is the obligation of people who don’t feel comfortable with that to decide how they are going to mesh with broader society, not the other way around.’ Note the headline’s emphasis on Krauss’ role as a policy consultant in Obama’s first presidential run – as if to lend his views extra authority, despite having advised on science rather than anything directly relevant (secularism, social cohesion, etc).
  • The Week: ‘Brits too afraid of “aggressive” Muslims, says US academic
    Regurgitates Lawrence Krauss comments to the Telegraph – all my notes there apply here too – and also David Aaronovitch’s in the Times.
  • An Islamist event at the University of East London advertised with ‘segregated seating’, scheduled to take place on this date, is averted by campus authorities.
  • Toby Young in the Telegraph: ‘Even a right-on Obama advisor is shocked by Islamic sexism at UCL
    Quotes Krauss’ comments to the paper, again describing him conspicuously as ‘a leading physicist who served on Obama’s science policy committee’ and nodding at his comparison of British campus attitudes with those of (Young:) ‘other Western universities’ – including, tellingly, one in Australia, directly south of Japan. Young, like the Mail‘s coverage the day before, quotes Dawkins’ ‘nice, decent liberals’ statement, calling him and Krauss ‘absolutely right’. (Original URL reads ‘bowing to Islamic sexism’.)
  • The Independent: ‘UCL bans Islamic group after segregation row
  • Guardian: ‘UCL bans Islamic group from campus in row over segregated seating
  • Tab: ‘Islamic Society in sexual segregation row
    Details an event at Leicester University’s Islamic Society where Tzortzis addressed a segregated audience on February 20, including signage directing men and women to separate areas.

March 18

March 19

  • Terry Sanderson at the NSS: ‘Feeding the fires of fundamentalism
    Says of Tzortzis’ events, ‘it has become clear that the only purpose of these “debates” is to prove to his devout followers that the infidels must be overcome.’

March 20

March 22

March 24

  • FOSIS organise a sixth formers’ event with Hamza Tzortzis at Imperial College London, advertised with separate information phone lines for men and women. (I can’t track down promotional material, so am taking Andrew Gilligan’s word in the Telegraph for it – see below – but this is quite a common practice in campus Islamic Societies, and if organisers wished to prevent men and women speaking on the telephone, it’s presumably a reasonable bet they wanted them to sit apart.)

April 15

April 16

April 19

  • Student Rights: ‘MPACUK have a “Dream for the Ummah” at Queen Mary
    Reports plans by the Muslim Public Affairs Committee – listed, it’s mentioned here, by the NUS No Platform policy as a racist group – to hold a conference on Queen Mary’s campus where a student in touch with Student Rights ‘claimed that gender segregation was planned, though we have found no evidence to suggest that this is the case.’

April 22

  • Student Rights: ‘Segregation by gender advertised at MPACUK Conference
    Confirms the planned use of segregation at the ‘Dream for the Ummah’ event, based on an email sent to attendees which announced ‘Separate seating arrangements for men and women have been arranged’.

April 27

  • Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph: ‘Baroness Warsi and the demons of hate
    On Sayeeda Warsi’s cooperation with FOSIS, despite other members of her government refusing to meet its leaders, and numerous segregated events at universities.

May 1

May 6

  • Islamic group DaruTawheed holds an event in the city’s Asian Cultural Centre previously promoted on student-based Facebook page ‘Interesting Talks Oxford’ and advertised as ‘fully segregated’.

May 9

May 12

  • Commentator: ‘UK universities fall victim to campus segregation trend
    Covers the findings of Student Rights’ ‘Unequal Opportunity’ report on segregation, released the following day. Note that the Commentator was formerly edited by Student Rights’ director, Raheem Kassam – it isn’t surprising, in light of this, that it had the scoop on the report. The piece does link the Times’ story from May 13 (see below); I assume this was an edit after publication, unless the Commentator site shows the wrong date.

May 13

May 14

May 18

May 19

  • Raheem Kassam in the Commentator: ‘A tangled web…
    Offers a more personal rebuttal to Aked and various others.

May 20

May 22

May 23

  • Chris Moos at the Huffington Post: ‘Defending the Right of – Muslim – Students
    Describes the Krauss-Tzortzis event at UCL as having been ‘[w]orryingly . . . omitted from the discussion’ of the Student Rights report, despite it being mentioned in coverage by the Independent, Times and Daily Express. Also states, supported by good data, that ‘FOSIS, the umbrella organisation of Islamic Student Societies represents only a fraction of Muslim UK students’, and states ‘there is merit in mentioning that Student Rights is affiliated to the Henry Jackson Society. It is a lamentable fact that it is being left to an organisation with possible ties to a neo-con associated group to highlight what the Left should’.

May 26

May 27

  • Louise Tickle in the Guardian: ‘How do universities deal with gender segregation?
    Quotes the opinion of female Muslim student Razana Abdul, who wished to sit with her male partner at the segregated UCL debate but was prevented, describing this as ‘gender apartheid’.

May 30

  • Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail: ‘Keeping the sexes apart is extremist
    Gives figures from the Student Rights report on segregated events, stating ‘All were organised by Muslim groups, or were focused on issues of interest to Muslims.’ See notes on the Telegraph piece from April 15: this is strictly true, but also somewhat misleading.

June 3

June 4

June 13

  • Hanna Ibraheem at Times Higher Education: ‘Are there extremist “swamps” to drain on campus?
    Notes the impact of the Lee Rigby’s murder in Woolwich, mentioned in the Standard’s June 3 editorial, as ‘reignit[ing] debate over university radicalisation’. This is the first story to refer to comments by David Cameron, who after Woolwich ‘said he wanted to “drain the swamp” that allowed violent extremism to take root in British society, including groups based at universities.’ It also quotes Rupert Sutton’s comments on City University Islamic Society refusing to submit sermons for pre-approval and 2011 statements by Theresa May (another important name later) that universities ‘have [not] been sufficiently willing to recognise what can be happening on their campuses and the radicalisation that can take place’, as well as referring to segregation ‘controversies’.

September 18

  • Abishek Phadnis at Trending Central: ‘The silence of secularists: how the Left-Islamist alliance is winning
    Notes various Islamist-related controversies on campuses and elsewhere, including segregation at the Krauss-Tzortzis event in March, and the role of left wing campus authorities. Note that Trending Central‘s ‘About’ page states it was ‘founded in 2013 by Raheem Kassam’, being in some respect a successor to the Commentator in this regard.

October 5

October 26

November 22

  • Universities UK publishes ‘External speakers in higher education institutions’ guidance for higher education bodies signed by Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge, stating the free speech of guest lecturers who demand segregated audiences mustn’t be ‘curtailed unlawfully’ and ‘a balance of interests is most likely to be achieved if it is possible to offer attendees both segregated and non-segregated seating areas’, which is acceptable ‘assuming the room can be segregated left and right, rather than front and back’.
  • Times Higher Education: ‘Some gender segregation in Islamic talks may meet “balance of interests”
    Reports on the UUK guidance, mentioning segregated events where Tzortzis spoke at UCL (March 9) and Leicester University (February 20).
  • Daily Telegraph: ‘Universities “can segregate men and women for debates”
    Refers to the UCL debate on March 9 and Student Rights‘ report on segregation of May 13.
  • Independent: ‘Freedom of speech is not an “absolute”, university leaders warn
    Mentions the Student Rights report and the NUS’ approval of the guidance, claiming to have been involved in drafting it.
  • Louisa Peacock in the Telegraph: ‘Allowing university speakers to segregate genders is outrageous
    Cites Razana Abdul’s testimony in Louise Tickle’s Guardian piece of May 27, Boris Johnson’s comments in the Telegraph from May 26 and the Student Rights report; asks how ‘a modern Britain [can] sit back and allow external speakers to dictate where young men and women sit’, adding ‘We pride ourselves on democracy, on the freedom to choose how we live. I want my children, and children’s children, to grow up knowing the UK respects freedom of choice. . . . We live in a modern, grown up Britain. Let’s start acting like it.’

November 23

  • Times: ‘Universities “allowed to segregate students”
    Paywalled.
  • Maryam Namazie: ‘Sex apartheid not discriminatory?
    Quotes and criticises the UUK guidance, stating it forgets ‘segregation of the sexes and the veil are highly contested even amongst Muslims’, and calls for it to be rescinded and for UUK to be contacted to this end; credits Chris Moos for the tip.
  • The CEMB calls an anti-segregation protest outside UUK headquarters on December 10 (the UN’s Human Rights Day), with Namazie and Moos as contacts for information (therefore, presumably, the two main organisers).
  • Student Rights: ‘Universities UK speaker guidelines excuse gender discrimination
  • Maryam Namazie creates a petition at Avaaz.org, titled ‘Universities UK: Rescind endorsement of sex segregation at UK universities’. It gathers signatures swiftly, reaching many thousands over the following few weeks.
  • One Law for All: ‘URGENT ACTION: Rescind endorsement of sex apartheid at UK universities
    Cites the UUK guidance the NUS’ approval of it. Links to the Avaaz.org petition, displaying a diverse list of prominent signatories (among them DawkinsKassamMoosNamaziePhadnis, SandersonSutton, TatchellRory Fenton, Marieme Helie Lucas, Pragna Patel and Polly Toynbee, plus many other noted secularists and human rights campaigners). Note that both the CEMB and One Law for All campaign are co-organised by Maryam Namazie.
  • CEMB: ‘Urgent Action: Protest against Universities UK endorsement of Sex Segregation at UK universities
    Promotes the petition, naming prominent signatories as above. Also outlines further plans for direct action, providing a (now defunct) Facebook link to the December 10 protest and announcing ‘Teams of Sex Apartheid Busters are being organised to break segregation wherever it is instituted.’
  • Chris Moos at Harry’s Place: ‘“You are a woman, you can’t sit here”: UK Universities condones gender segregation
    Opens by stating ‘If the new guidelines by Universities UK, an organisation representing the leadership of UK universities, are adopted, this is a phrase that might become not uncommon to hear at UK universities’. Cites the Student Rights segregation report, UCL’s banning IERA in March after the Krauss-Tzortzis event, the Independent’s coverage of the UUK advice, the contents of the advice itself, the NUS’ support for (and apparent role in creating) it, comments by NSS Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood later republished in the organisation’s 26 November statement (see below), Maryam Namazie’s ‘Not discriminatory?’ blog post from earlier in the day, her Avaaz.org petition, the December 10 demonstration and the opposition to segregation of signatories DawkinsToynbeeA.C. Grayling and Gita Sahgal.
  • Maryam Namazie: ‘Rescind endorsement of sex segregation at UK universities
    Reproduces the earlier One Law for All update, adding the additions plans announced on the CEMB site.
  • Trending Central: ‘British university heads back Islamists in pro-segregation scandal
    States the UUK document ‘has shocked anti-extremism campaigners, as well as those who believe in Western liberal values’ and mentions the Student Rights report, saying (somewhat misleadingly – see notes on the Telegraph’s May 13 story) that it ‘made mention of 25 percent of events monitored being segregated’ and links to Namazie‘s Avaaz petition, noting its having been signed by DawkinsGraylingToynbee and Trending Central editor Raheem Kassam, who I suspect wrote the copy here.
  • John Sargeant at Homo economicus’ Weblog: ‘University UK Guidelines Allow Gender Apartheid
    Cites the Telegraph’s coverage of the UUK guidelines, the guidelines themselves and his own post of March 12 on the Krauss-Tzortzis debate.

November 24

  • Rosie Bell at Shiraz Socialist: ‘WTF is this shit?
    Reproduces the One Law for All statement of the previous day.

November 25

  • Sara Khan in the Independent: ‘Segregating men and women at university events won’t lead to equality
    Critiques the UUK guidance, noting it ‘delves into trying to tell us what constitutes Muslim religious belief implying that those opposed to segregation must be people from outside of the Islamic faith, not recognising that often it is Muslims themselves who oppose gender segregation.’
  • Rory Fenton at the Rationalist Association: ‘Equally separate?
  • British Humanist Association: ‘BHA condemns Universities UK’s endorsement of gender segregation’
    Notes the UUK guidance was ‘published amid concerns that extremists are attempting to radicalise young people on university campuses’ and quotes BHA Head of Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal‘s comment, ‘Universities are secular institutions, not places of worship, and sex segregation should have no place in secular spaces in which we expect to find equality between men and women.’
  • Charles Crawford at the Commentator: ‘So, farewell then, freedom of speech
    Describes the UUK guidance as ‘a totalitarian land-grab to bring intellectual activity under the direct control of those few anointed, invariably progressive, High Wizards who proclaim the correct ‘geopolitical and socioeconomic factors’ that fall to be considered’, ‘drafted by Sub-Dean Ceausescu with helpful contributions from Rector Stalin and Professors Kafka and Pol Pot’.
  • Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge at the UUK site: ‘Universities UK’s external speakers guidance does not promote gender segregation – it highlights universities’ legal obligations

November 26

  • Polly Toynbee at the Guardian: ‘British universities shouldn’t condone this kind of gender segregation
    Cites the commentary of Maryam Namazie and the CEMB as well as research on segregated events by the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Student Societies (led by Rory Fenton).
  • Student Rights: ‘UUK respond to petition against gender segregation guidance
    Noting Dandridge’s response the day before to Namazie‘s petition ‘[of] which Student Rights was one of the initial signatories’, by this stage with over 4000 other signatures, argues that it ‘still does not address the fact that the guidance excuses the enforcement of gender segregation on campuses’, reproducing the UUK statement and linking to the Avaaz.org petition page.
  • Organisers of the December 10 demonstration establish a Facebook page, ‘Separate is never equal – Yes to equality, no to segregation’. As of December 27, it has 236 ‘likes’.

November 27

  • James Bloodworth at Progress: ‘Why the silence on universities kowtowing to bigotry?
    Describes ‘things which at one time would have been viewed as reactionary’ being accommodated ‘if not outright embraced’ by ‘certain bien pensant progressives’, outlining UUK’s publication of its guidance and ‘the support of the normally ultra-politically correct NUS’. ‘Rather than the Ayatollah Khamenei taking over the body which oversees British universities,’ writes Bloodworth, ‘it’s actually identity politics that is to blame . . . with the rights of those considered “oppressed” trumping those of the supposedly “privileged”. . . . Being a Muslim – even an Islamist – trumps being a woman on the identity politics totem, therefore it is equality of the sexes which must fall by the wayside [in] a zero-sum game of appeasing whoever can demand the most ‘rights’ based on perceived oppression. The fact that there hasn’t been a greater degree of outrage about the authorities giving the green light to sexism on campus is testament to how comfortable many comrades have become defending bronze-aged bigotry against the enlightenment values of equality, universal rights and reason.’
  • Tab: ‘Uni chiefs back gender segregation
    Cites the segregation cases at UCL and Leicester University as well as UUK’s document and response to critics, as well as Student Rights‘ segregation report.

November 29

December 3

  • Nick Cohen in the Spectator: ‘The segregation of women and the appeasement of bigotry
    Embeds Sondergaard’s footage of Krauss walking out of the UCL debate, relating events there which ended in IERA’s banishment from the campus, and the ‘astonished reaction’ to UUK’s guidance ‘cloth[ing] reactionary policies in the language of liberalism’, describing it as ‘an instant when the liberal establishment became the open and avowed enemy of its best principles.’ Cites Toynbee’s Guardian column of November 26, alleging the paper’s ‘editorial line to date has been that protests against minority religious beliefs are racist’, and compares gender segregation on campuses with segregation of Jews and non-Jews in 1930s Poland and racial segregation in fifties America.

December 4

  • Daily Telegraph: ‘Extremists in our midst
    Refers to the counter-extremism task force set up by David Cameron following the Woolwich attack and criticises the (allegedly insufficient) ‘measures announced by Theresa May’, stating ‘it would be preferable if universities did not bow to pressure from radicals to segregate the sexes at official events’ and ‘the problem of jihadists returning from Syria’, concluding ‘Mrs May needs to find a way to stop them’.
  • Nishith Chennakeshava in the Tab: ‘Uni Gender Segregation Should Not Be Tolerated’
    Illustrated with the image of signage from the Leicester University event with Tzortzis on February 20; argues UUK’s ruling ‘shows how we have evolved to think that political correctness is so much more important than our rights’.

December 5

  • Times: ‘Free speech no excuse for campus bigotry, says May’
    Paywalled – but notice it came directly after the Telegraph put pressure on her.
  • David Aaronovitch in the Times: ‘Let’s expose these apologists for injustice
    Paywalled.

December 8

  • Yasmin Alibhai Brown in the Independent: ‘It’s shameful that our universities have accepted gender segregation under pressure from the most oppressive religious fanatics
    Refers to the December 10 protest outside UUK headquarters, calling left-to-right separation ‘Separate but equal . . . as Boers ordered society in pre-freedom South Africa’ and the NUS’ support for it ‘disaster for feminism, for university life, for modernism, for progressive ideals and for Muslims  most of all.’ ‘Throngs of students, academics, parents, politicians, and feminists should fill Tavistock Square and shout out loud’, writes Alibhai Brown. ‘Not that they will, what with Christmas shopping and perhaps inchoate fears.’

December 9

December 10

  • Jim Denham at Shiraz Socialist: ‘No to gender segregation in universities: protest in London today!
    Invites readers to protest later in the day with images of black anti-segregation demonstrators in 1950s America. Quotes an extended statement from One Law for All discussing plans to meet and condemning UUK’s guidance and the NUS’ support for it – oddly, I can’t seem to find the original anywhere online.
  • Marieme Helie Lucas at Maryam Namazie‘s blog: ‘Sex segregation in UK universities – a step forward for the Muslim religious-right
    Refers to UUK’s guidance and the resulting criticism. Notes Krauss’ walkout at UCL in March and Sondergaard’s footage of it on Facebook, the statements by ‘concerned students’ about how the event unfolded and the role of UCL staff, Tzortzis’ segregated event at Leicester University and its repercussions, the segregated event at Northampton University on May 1, statements after the fact by Dawkins and Krauss, IERA’s track record, controversy over segregation among Muslims and people of Muslim descent, the treatment of Islamists as representatives of Muslims generally, Yasmin Alibai Brown’s column of December 8, Namazie’s petition and the demonstration later that day.
  • Maryam Namazie: ‘Islamists and Universities UK: You have been warned!
    Details plans for the rally that evening and also for the enactment of a ‘Sex Apartheid Busters’ initiative.
  • James Bloodworth at Left Foot Forward: ‘Why we’re protesting against gender segregation this evening
    Cites and criticises UUK’s advice, inviting the reader to ‘imagine for a minute the justified furore there would be if racial segregation were permitted on campus on the basis that black and white people were “different but equal” [or] if gay people were separated out from their straight friends on the basis that they were “difference [sic] but equal”, with those refusing to move booted out of the lecture hall for no other reason than their sexuality.’ Lists the time and location of the anti-UUK protest.
  • The protestheld by the CEMB and a coalition of other groups here mentioned, assembles at 5pm with a turnout of around 100 and begins at 5.30pm. Speakers according to Denham’s post quoting One Law for All include Pragna Patel of Southall Black SistersMaryam Namazie, comedian Kate SmurthwaiteAnne Marie Waters of the NSSJulie Bindel of Justice for Women, Charlie Kleinjian of the Lawyers’ Secular SocietyHelen Palmer of the Central London Humanist GroupSam Westrop of Stand for PeaceSean Oakley of Reading Univerity Atheist, Humanist and Secularist SocietyGeorgi Laag of the London Atheist Activists Group, Palestinian women’s rights campaigner Ahlam Akram, James Bloodworth and Erin Saltman of the Quilliam Foundation.
  • Channel 4 News: ‘Gender segregation: protests against university guidelines
    Includes quotes from Moos, Namazie and Saltman; news copy refers to UUK’s guidance, Namazie’s petition, Student Rights’ report in May and the Krauss-Tzortzis event at UCL. Footage suggests demonstrators think universities ‘are putting fees from Middle Eastern students above rights for all’ and shows Oakley speaking to that effect and Namazie (interviewed) describing a ‘climate of fear and intimidation’, also referring to IERA being banned from UCL, and an in-studio debate between Alibhai Brown and FOSIS President Omar Ali.

December 11

December 12

December 13

  • Daily Mail: ‘Now furious Gove says it’s a disgrace to segregate students and accuses university bosses of “pandering to extremism”
    Quotes Gove’s comments to the paper describing UUK’s guidance as ‘wrong and harmful’. Also cites Student Rights’ report, though eroneously stating it to have been ‘produced this week’ and quotes Rupert SuttonSara Khan and Dana Sondergaard, referring to segregated events at UCL and Leicester University as well as UUK’s approaching the EHRC for advice.
  • Telegraph: ‘Michael Gove: Do not pander to extremism by endorsing segregation at university
    Cites Gove’s comments to the Mail as well as Umunna’s (and Dandridge’s) on Today.
  • Guardian: ‘Michael Gove: university gender segregation is “pandering to extremism”
    Juxtaposes Gove’s statement UUK ‘should withdraw [its guidance] immediately’ with the EHRC’s description of it as ‘not permissible’, adding ‘Universities UK has yet to confirm that it is rewriting the guidance.’
  • Huffington Post: ‘Michael Gove: Gender Segregation In Universities Is Pandering To Extremism
    Adds to Gove’s comments – the first story to do so – the announcement UUK’s advice has ‘been withdrawn after David Cameron waded into the row over Universities UK’s advice’. Also provides the first coverage of Dandridge’s response, saying ‘Universities UK agrees entirely with the prime minister that universities should not enforce gender segregation on audiences at the request of guest speakers. However, where the gender segregation is voluntary, the law is unclear. We are working with our lawyers and the EHRC to clarify the position. Meanwhile the case study which triggered this debate has been withdrawn pending this review’ – apparently, this is where both Cameron’s intervention and the case study’s confirmed withdrawal broke in the press. A joint comment from Chris Moos and Abishek Phadnis is also given, welcoming Cameron’s statement, and Umunna is quoted once again.
  • Telegraph: ‘Gender segregation guidelines to be reviewed as David Cameron steps into row for the first time
    Reports on UUK having ‘said it would work with the [EHRC] to look again at its guidance . . . as David Cameron’s official spokesman said the Prime Minister disagreed with rules set out by the vice-chancellors’ body.’ Mentions earlier plans for ‘Segregation Busters’ and quotes Moos, calling it ‘outrageous that the EHRC are now suggesting that a policy that would allow for gender segregation merely needs “clarification” and greater “consistency”. It really looks like the EHRC are hedging their bets.”
  • politics.co.uk: ‘Campaigners claim victory after Universities UK cancels sex segregation guidance
    Notes UUK’s ‘announcement came hours after the prime minister’s spokesperson said David Cameron felt “very strongly” about the issue’ and that their ‘change in position comes after a week of protests from feminists and secular group[s].’ Quotes Gove and mentions Namazie‘s petition.
  • Independent: ‘“We should not pander to extremism”: Michael Gove warns over segregation of men and women in university lectures
    Cites Gove’s comments to the Mail and (immediately next to them) Umunna’s to the BBC.
  • James Bloodworth at Left Foot Forward: ‘Gender segregation “not permissible” under equality law
    States UUK ‘may be forced into a humiliating climbdown’ after Cameron’s and the EHRC’s remarks – notably, contrasting with the Huffington Post’s and Telegraph’s statements of their already-confirmed withdrawal. (From what I can make out, Bloodworth’s post did come after both these reports.) Refers to UUK’s pursuit of legal advice, states ‘Left Foot Forward has been at the forefront of the campaign’ and again seems to make the odd claim Umunna’s remarks were made initially to them rather than Today.
  • Times: ‘Universities back down on sexual segregation
    Paywalled.
  • Guardian: ‘Universities UK withdraws advice on gender segregation in lectures
    Refers to the input both of Cameron and the EHRC, as well as Gove’s comments to the Mail, and also specifies that Business Secretary Vince Cable . . . was writing to UUK calling for the guidance to be amended to clarify the distinction between private worship and areas of public learning [and] said: “I am clear that forced segregation of any kind, including gender segregation, is never acceptable on campuses.”’ This is the first mention of comments by Cable.
  • Evening Standard: ‘Sex segregation at UK universities must end, David Cameron says
    Mentions Gove‘s commentary as well as Cameron’s, and cites ‘a 2008 poll [that] found nine in 10 Muslim students regarded segregation as unacceptable at university’ – I’m not sure which poll this is, especially since newspapers tend to report them incredibly badly, but there’s a chance it’s this one.
  • James Bloodworth at Left Foot Forward : ‘Gender segregation guidelines withdrawn by Universities UK
    Writes ‘After our protest on Tuesday, followed by interventions by the Prime Minister David Cameron and shadow business secretary Chuka Ummuna, Universities UK has now said it will review the controversial guidelines.’ Cites the Guardian’s coverage and links to Maryam Namazie’s ‘We will continue’ post.
  • Maryam Namazie amends the version of One Law for All‘s ‘We will continue our fight’ statement originally cross-posted to her blog on December 12 (I suspect after seeing the pingback from Bloodworth’s post, though it’s possible the order was the other way around), adding that ‘Soon after the rally, which received widespread coverage, including when Prime Minister David Cameron intervened to oppose sex segregation at universities, UUK was forced to withdraw its guidance. Whilst this fight has been won, the battle continues particularly since sex segregation is still taking place at universities and UUK has said it hopes to redraft the guidance.’ (For what it’s worth, only politics.co.uk’s coverage of Cameron’s intervention seems at this point to have mentioned the December 10 protest, and it seems debatable to me – unclear, at least – exactly what the demonstration’s role in prompting it was as opposed to other factors listed here.)
  • Rumy Hasan at The Conversation: ‘Segregation and censorship on campus must not be tolerated
    Links to the Guardian’s story on UUK withdrawing its advice after Cameron’s comments, cites Umunna’s and mentions a separate conflict Moos and Phadnis had with LSE officials.
  • NSS: ‘Universities UK withdraws its guidance on gender segregation
    Provides comment from NSS President Sanderson and cites the input of the EHRC and the views aired by UmunnaGove and Cameron, plus Dandridge’s response to the latter. It’s worth pointing out at this point that much of the coverage of UUK’s retraction connects it with Cameron’s views as stated by his spokesperson at Downing Street, but it seems possible based on the Telegraph‘s December 12 story on the EHRC‘s ‘not permissible’ comments that UUK’s case study had already been withdrawn for reconsideration when Cameron entered the fry, and Dandridge’s reply only confirmed this.
  • Channel 4 News: ‘Gender segregation guidelines u-turn following PM warning
    Notes input from the EHRCGove and Cameron, and embeds footage of studio debates featuring both Namazie and Alibhai Brown.
  • Evening Standard: ‘PM “clear” on gender segregation
    Cites the EHRCGove and Cameron, sayingMr Cameron told Channel 4 News: “I’m absolutely clear that there shouldn’t be segregated audiences for visiting speakers to universities in Britain. That is not the right approach, the guidance shouldn’t say that, universities should not allow this and I’m very clear about that.”’ This seems to be a new statement (and to have been made by Cameron personally and not a spokesperson), but I can’t find it anywhere in Channel 4’s coverage online, although all other citations Google lists attribute it to them.
  • Independent: ‘Universities UK withdraws rules on gender segregation
    Mentions both Cameron and Gove.
  • Times Higher Education: ‘UUK gender segregation case study withdrawn
    Cites CameronGoveUmunna and the EHRC.
  • Student Rights: ‘Victory for campaigners as UUK withdraw gender segregation guidelines
    Cites Cameron, the December 10 protest and the EHRC’s criticism and congratulating ‘all those involved in this campaign, including: One Law for AllSouthall Black SistersLeft Foot Forward; the Lawyers’ Secular Society; the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student SocietiesLSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society; the National Secular Society; the Peter Tatchell Foundation; the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain [and] British Muslims for Secular Democracy’ (founded by Alibhai Brown).
  • Sky News: ‘Cameron: No To University Segregation
    Cites Cameron, GoveUmunna and Student Rights’s report, also noting ‘Downing Street’s intervention in the row follows angry demonstrations by students outraged at the advice.’
  • Graeme Archer in the Telegraph: ‘A shameful case of apartheid in Britain
    Accuses ‘the liberal Left in Britain [of not having] learnt anything at all from Mandela’s story . . . those in charge of our universities appear to be completely deaf to what the man was trying to say. . . . Whether you keep blacks from whites or Jews from gentiles – or women from men – then you are tolerating apartheid. . . . oh, that you were with us now, Rosa Parks . . . this is the predictable outcome of the Left’s obsession with identity politics . . . the endpoint of Labour’s equality fixation: medieval Islamism can be imposed on public spaces . . . You woke up in Britain – the mother of parliaments, Magna Carta, freedom of conscience; how we like to remember our glory days, don’t we, lest we lament the gap between our own dreams and the downtrodden reality. You read about Universities UK and think: imagine if those people had been in charge of apartheid-era South Africa.’
  • Huffington Post: ‘Universities UK Withdraws Guidance Over Gender Segregation In Lectures And Debates
    Cites Cameron, the ECHR and Gove.
  • Sarah Brown at Harry’s Place: ‘More on gender segregation
    Links to the Guardian’s coverage of the guidelines’ withdrawal, contrasting Dandridge’s defence of them with quotations from their contents.
  • Telegraph: ‘Universities pull back from sex segregation as Cameron weighs in
    Cites Cameron and Gove‘s criticism of UUK and the Telegraph’s own December 12 coverage of the ECHR’s. Includes the same statement from Chris Moos as the paper’s coverage earlier in the day and one from Maryam Namazie that ‘It is good that David Cameron has intervened but I have little faith that UUK will do the right thing. We want to see very clear guidance that segregation is unacceptable in public places like universities.’
  • Daily Mail: ‘Inside the British university where Muslims were segregated by sex: Shocking picture shows how men were reserved front-row seats while women had to sit at the back
    Includes photographs from a January 2013 event at Leicester University ISoc and refers to Student Rights’s report on segregation and the EHRC’s opposition, quoting Rupert Sutton and David Cameron.
  • I’m not able to date it, but at some point around this time, UUK replaces the guidance listed on its site with an edited version removing reference to segregation – this is the one currently available.

December 14

  • Daily Mail: ‘Universities cave in over sex segregation after Cameron condemns demands by radical preachers
    States ‘Universities last night caved in after Mr Cameron intervened to warn them it was unacceptable.
    The Prime Minister told Sky News: “I’m absolutely clear that there should not be segregated audiences for visiting speakers to universities in Britain.[“] . . . Mr Cameron’s intervention came after Education Secretary Michael Gove told the Mail that he believed universities were guilty of “pandering to extremism”. Also points to criticism from Umunna and the EHRC alongside Student Rights’s report and states ‘Protesters hold up placards rejecting “gender apartheid” outside the headquarters of Universities Uk’.
  • Jennifer Selway in the Daily Express: ‘Scandal of sexist seating
    States what UUK’s stance on segregation ‘is about is the financial muscle now exercised by foreign students – who take up more university places in Britain than in almost any other country. Many come from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, neither famous for an enlightened approach to women. But they pay big fees. University College London charges UK students £9,000, but demands up to £16,250 from its foreign students, while a foreign medical student has to pay £27,500. Universities need the money, radical Islamists get a foothold, demanding everyone respects their culture unquestioningly otherwise they’ll go screaming to the authorities about their human rights.’ (I’ve blogged already about why this view of Muslim international students – whether or not authorities hold it too – doesn’t stand up.) ‘Why’, Selway adds, ‘why should we respect practices that are so alien especially as Christians are routinely made to feel like second-class citizens? How can our universities – which should be totems of national pride, places of rationality and free speech – cave in without even a squeak of defiance? . . . single-sex schools remain a traditional part of British culture. What is not part of our culture is the belief that men are so easily inflamed by lust that they must be kept away from females.’
  • BBC News: ‘University segregation row: Ministers call for clarity
    Reports ‘PM David Cameron told Channel 4 News’ UUK’s guidance was wrong, and that Business Secretary Vince Cable, whose department has responsibility for universities, has now written to UUK urging it to clarify its position. “I am clear that forced segregation of any kind, including gender segregation, is never acceptable on campuses,” he said.’ Also notes ‘Baroness Perry of Southwark, chairwoman of the House of Lords backbench education committee, said she was “outraged” by the guidance. She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme it was contrary to “the long struggle that the brave women of the early academics in the 19th Century had to get the provision to sit in lectures”.’
  • Kate Maltby in the Spectator: Gender segregation: radical speakers cannot demand an audience that fits their prejudice
    Maltby, who attended the December 10 protest, writes that ‘protest sometimes works: by Friday, the beleaguered [UUK] had shifted their position . . . thanks in part to criticism by Michael Gove and David Cameron’ and that since she’s heard IERA are considering a European court case ‘Those who want Britain to stay in the EU, and committed to the ECHR [European Court of Human Rights – not to be confused with Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)], had better start hoping the ECHR come down on the side of common sense.’ Links to Nick Cohen’s December 3 post and mentions segregated events at UCL in March and Leicester University in February; also embeds audio from Maltby (introduced as a writer at ConservativeHome) debating segregationist Fatima Barkatulla on BBC Radio 4 Today.
  • Jim Denham at Shiraz Socialist: ‘After UUK’s climb-down, keep up the fight against relativism!
    Begins ‘At first it looked as though we were shouting into the wilderness: a few blogs (including us at Shiraz) drew attention to the outrage, and a small demonstration took place; just 8,000 people signed an online petition’, seemingly ignoring quite extensive coverage and criticism of UUK’s stance in (particularly right-leaning) media long before the December 10 protest. Adds that ‘Then the issue seemed to take off. To his credit, Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umanna declared that a Labour government would outlaw gender segregation at universities, and – belatedly – Cameron intervened’.
  • Matthew d’Ancona in the Telegraph: ‘Campus segregation: “religious freedom” cannot be allow to trump equality
    Wonders if Christopher Hitchens might have been more impressed by David Cameron had he witnessed his intervention on segregation; also notes (but doesn’t link to) the same mysterious ‘2008 YouGov poll’ as earlier, and cites Gove’s statements about ‘pandering to extremism’

December 15

  • Louise Mensch in the Sun on Sunday: ‘How dare our unis back gender based apartheid?
    Paywalled.
  • The Observer: ‘Segregation: our secular values need to be protected
    Headed, like seemingly any piece the Guardian site ever runs on anything at all secularist, with a picture of Richard Dawkins: notes his ‘heads should roll’ comment from after the Krauss-Tzortzis debate at UCL. Notes also the opposition of ‘student protesters [see notes on the Mirror‘s piece of December 12], academics, feminists and, belatedly, politicians’, including specifically Cameron, Cable and Gove, and details both Krauss’ and Dawkins’s response to segregation at UCL, where it mentions IERA being banned.
  • Catherine Bennett in the Guardian: ‘Segregation by gender has no place in our public realm
    Refers to Krauss’s walkout and to the opposition to segregation of Jack StrawChuka Umunna, David CameronMichael Gove and ‘Muslim women such as’ Sara KhanMaryam Namazie and Yasmin Alibhai Brown (a designation to which I suspect Namazie would object). Also notes that “Maintain segregation between brothers and sisters” is how [FOSIS] advises student organisers, “keeping interactions between them at a minimum.”’
  • Joan Smith at the Independent: ‘Do stay out of religion, David Cameron, it’s not your job
    Blames segregation’s popularity on British political leaders attempting to create, in Sayeeda Warsi’s words, ‘the most pro-faith government in the West’; cites Cameron and Gove’s opposition.
  • Rosie Bell at Shiraz Socialist: ‘The segregationists unseated
    Gives an account of anti-segregation developments in which ‘Student Rights picked [UUK’s guidance] up’, ‘the bloggers you’d expect . . . produced angry posts’ (BloodworthNamazie and Ophelia Benson, whose – extensive – posts aren’t listed here since she’s a U.S. writer), ‘mainstream media moved in – Nick Cohen in the Spectator, and Yasmin Alibai-Brown, finely furious, in the Independent’, ‘[t]here was a petition and a small demonstration which Channel 4 covered at length’, ‘the BBC began to thunder’ with the editions of Today from December 11 and 12, ‘politicians – Chuka UmunnaJack StrawMichael GoveDavid Cameron spoke out’ (‘Under the threads of their statements in the Guardian’, writes Bell, ‘commenters were saying, Bugger me, the horrible Tory creeps are right this time’) andSo now the UUK has withdrawn gender segreation from its guidelines. It looks like the forces of light have won for once. Congratulations to those who attended protests and wrote copiously.’ (Needless to say I – and, I think, this timeline – somewhat parts aspects of this account, as well as the implied chain of cause and effect.)
  • Yasmin Alibhai Brown in the Independent: ‘The Talibanisation of British universities has got to stop
    ‘Result!’ the column begins. ‘In one week, we, a small group of stalwarts, Muslims and non-Muslims, who are opposed to sexual apartheid in our universities, raised the slumbering politicians and jolted gutless academics. Universities UK (UUK) will reconsider its guidelines which sanctify gender discrimination in the name of freedom of speech and equal access.’ By Friday’, it concludes, ‘UUK had shed its overconfidence and seemed to be wavering. I predict the guidance will be binned. This Talibanisation of British universities has got to stop. Now I think it might be.’

“Waging all-out war against religion”: New Atheism, Alom Shaha and me

In his book The Young Atheist’s Handbook, Alom Shaha – now a physics teacher at a London school for girls – recounts a friend’s entry in his own school leaver’s book, ‘Watch out … because this boy is going to find out if God really does play with dice.’ He ascribes this statement sheepishly to zealous adolescent hubris, so I’m bound to stand up for it, but I’m not sure he should cringe on looking back: the slogan predicted, if inadvertently, his adult apostasy as well as scientific skill.

Alom is one of my favourite atheists. Around the time of his book’s release in summer 2012, I interviewed him for a piece reviewing it. Before all else, what struck me was that more than one voice came through in its pages. To quote myself,

Even his atheist rhetoric is chameleonic. In his introduction, Alom states his admission to eating pork ‘may be the most controversial thing I write in this book’. He later goes on to say ‘It’s one thing to be complicit in the unnecessary suffering of animals; it’s another thing entirely to suffer from sexual repression because you’ve been brought up to believe that God disapproves of masturbation, or to live as a second-class citizen because you’re a woman, or to live in fear for your life because you’re a homosexual. Yet this is the reality that is imposed on millions, if not billions, of people around the world because they live in communities or countries that base their morality and laws on religious beliefs founded ancient books and stories.’ A few pages later, he states ‘I wouldn’t necessarily agree that religion is morally wrong’.

One moment it’s a firebrand we’re reading, the next a diplomat. The division’s artificial, of course, but the question stands – why the inconsistency? It’s sometimes better, Alom tells me, to appear harmless before moments of secular rage. I’m only half appeased, but he submits ‘My opinion’s always changing and evolving. I hope that I’ll be better able to express some of my ideas a few years down the line, and I suspect I will have changed my mind about a few things.’

Eighteen months have passed. As if on cue, he sides in New Humanist’s current issue with the backlash against ‘New Atheism’:

“Muslims are destroying our way of life!” This is not a Daily Mail headline, but something an irate member of the audience yelled at me at a talk I was giving . . . parroting the kind of rhetoric that is not just to be found in the pages of our tabloids, but also amongst many people who wear their atheist identities with pride.

. . .

I also encountered hostility . . . because I am, according to some, an “accommodationist” – an atheist whose prime objective isn’t to wage all-out war against all religions and their believers, an atheist who doesn’t think it’s productive to go around telling people who believe in God that they’re ignorant, wrong or stupid . . . who is full of admiration, respect and love for many people who describe themselves as having some sort of “faith”.

I can’t help but feel that people who expend huge amounts of time and energy trying to convince people of the non-existence of God are largely wasting their time. It’s easy to criticise religious belief, to point out the irrationality of faith, to show that God is just an idea. . . . But even in the face of overwhelming evidence that their God is a fiction, many people continue to have “faith” because that’s how their minds work. . . . [W]e all have some irrational beliefs, dodgy notions that we hold on to despite an absence of evidence, because we want to feel them to be true, not because they are.

. . .

When there’s a religiously motivated terrorist attack, I’m not sure it’s helpful to attack religion, to vilify believers. When we have children being segregated from each other on the grounds of their parents’ religions, I’m not sure arguments about the non-existence of God are useful. When we want to implement laws and policies that tackle inequality, pointing out the silly, anachronistic rules in ancient religious texts is not how we ensure support from religious people who are on our side. . . . there are more important things to consider . . . in the battles we face to make the world a better place. If we want to eliminate sexism, racism, homophobia, if we want to address the inequalities and injustices of society, we cannot afford to alienate those with whom we differ only on the question of God.

. . .

I’m starting to think that identifying as an atheist isn’t terribly useful most of the time. As many others have pointed out, defining yourself in terms of something you don’t believe seems a bit pointless. I increasingly find myself introducing myself as a humanist, someone with positive views about how the world should be, rather than someone with a rather simplistic view on how the world isn’t.

I agree on most things with Alom, but not on this – my vote, predictably, goes to the case made by Tom Chivers overleaf against ‘treating religious beliefs with unearned respect’, which to keep from treading further on New Humanist’s financial turf I shan’t replicate here. (The magazine, and you ought to buy a copy, is in Smith’s for £4.95.) I could argue from first principles with any of the core points here – like Chivers, I think atheists should speak more accurately on Islam so as to hone, not blunt, our criticism; plenty of useful negative identities exist, ‘apostate’ being one, and if discrediting religion is so easy, why not try? – but all those points feel a touch tired by now, and in the end, Alom’s personal angle grips me more. To say time’s changed his viewpoint would be easy, but the truth is that I’ve always found his stance hard to pin down.

It’s an odd thing writing in the third person of someone you know privately, especially in disagreement, but we’ve exchanged the favour several times. I confess it was I who flippantly called Alom an accommodationist the second time we met, after hearing him say much the same in a Skeptics in the Pub talk. (Terry Rodgers, of Edinburgh Skeptics, sums up the version given there in the phrase ‘We have to move on from the era of The God Delusion’, asking on Alom’s behalf, ‘if someone’s beliefs give comfort or an illusion of being loved, to whose benefit would it be to take that away from them?’) It wasn’t a tense moment, at least from where I sat, and I’d like to think I’m quoted not because Alom puts me the way he views those concerned for ‘our way of life’, but because my wording captured the backdraught he’d faced more stridently elsewhere. Certainly I was surprised (and mildly dissatisfied) by how well his argument seemed to go down, but mainly I was incredulous: this didn’t seem to be the man whose book I’d read just months before.

At points throughout the Handbook, if not (see above) uncomplicatedly, Alom excoriates religion, quoting Thomas Paine in calling its institutions ‘human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind’. He dismisses NOMA, writing that ‘while it may be good for the societies we live in to be tolerant . . . we demean the concept of truth by reducing what it means to something that is determined by a misguided desire to agree with our fellow humans’ and stating ‘While I don’t condone the behaviour of “dick atheists”, I can empathise with their frustrations. I’d like to think I’m not one, but I’m not prepared, as I think [Stephen Jay] Gould did, to compromise my intellectual integrity to avoid causing offence.’ Crediting his life’s experiencing with having ‘freed [him] from the shackles of superstition and religion’, he goes so far as to say things like ‘Religion allows people to ignore the needs of real beings in favour of the supposed wishes of a being that does not exist’, and ‘just as many individuals outgrow religion, the human race as a whole needs to outgrow religion’, later adding ‘despite my best efforts to be reasonable, empathetic and understanding . . . the world would be a better place if there were more atheists, if a greater proportion of the world rejected religion and embraced the view that we humans can make a better, fairer, happier world without God.’ ‘Can we truly fulfil our potential as a species’, he asks, ‘as long as we hold on to, and encourage, the perpetuation of the lie of life after death?’ ‘It will be a huge failure of the human race if we do not evolve better, more relevant, more just ways of living our lives.’

These, one would think, are quintessential New Atheist stances, if not ones reminiscent at times of an older continental antitheism. It’s hard to believe they share an author with the piece in New Humanist quoted above, but he has a robust case for adopting them and makes it well. Alom’s book describes in its memoiristic stretches his being forbidden from birth from eating pork; his melancholy at missing out on Christmas unlike classmates whose religion(s) seemed not to revolve around ‘the forbidding of fun’; how a local imam told him ‘to be really, really scared of Allah’ and that non-Muslims would ‘burn in the fires of hell for eternity’; how he was, further to this, ‘brought up to believe in hell, a place where I would be made to burn and subjected to terrible torture’ failing good behaviour; how his mother, suffering mental illness, was said in the time before her death to be possessed by religious family members and adults; how an ‘older Bangladeshi boy’ told him her loss and his brother’s various disabilities ‘were proof that God thought there was something rotten with my family’; how acquaintances dub him ‘a coconut: brown on the outside, but white on the inside’ due to leaving Islam; how his secondary school made him choose to sing Christian hymns or be ‘excluded from the rest of the school’ with only one other (Jewish) boy; how relenting after two years of this to stand silently among classmates as they sang evoked in him ‘lingering bits of guilt’ for failing, quite literally, to keep the faith; how his physics teacher expelled him from a lesson aged eleven or twelve for exclaiming ‘Jesus Christ!’; how his father ‘glared at’ him in his teenage years for piercing his ear, ‘piss[ed] off’ since ‘good Muslim boys’ apparently refrained from this; how to keep up appearances, he was made to attend prayer with his brothers at the local mosque, learn suras by rote and mindlessly recite ‘La Ilaha Illallahu Muhamadur Rasulullah’ (‘There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah’) under ‘the threat of a beating from our father’, even when one brother ‘would cry with desperation immediately before having to go to these miserable lessons’; how his brothers (Alom escaped their fate) were subjected to genital-cutting, nightmarish at any age, once old enough to be ‘terrified of the surgery and fully aware of the prospect of pain’, at the hands of someone he suspects ‘was just an imam with a scalpel and minimum training’, and ‘how heartbreaking it was to hear their screams and whimpers every time they moved the wrong way during the night, or when their bandages had to come off for cleaning during the day’. (Notably, their family is several times described as less religiously ‘hardcore’ than others in the area.)

It relates his close encounters, too, with believers and belief: the friend who declared in the wake of a natural disaster, ‘I don’t understand how an earthquake could happen in Pakistan [-] it’s a Muslim country’; the one who ‘“protects” his mother from his “true opinions”’; the numerous male acquaintances who ‘did not marry the love of their life because the girl was not of the same religion’; the white Englishman who converted for his Bangladeshi wife, both of whom are ‘now secretly atheists’ but hide this from her parents; the arranged marriages foisted both on his parents and on numerous current friends; the ‘months of shame’ his mother endured sleeping beside her children while her husband’s mistress visited their bed, an indignity Alom attributes partly to traditions ‘not uncommon in Islamic countries, where polygamy is sanctioned by Qur’anic law’; the streets of Elephant and Castle where he grew up, where ‘the men would walk several feet in front of the women, a sight that is not unusual in Muslim communities even today’; the sixteen year old who ‘went from taking an active interest in women’s fashion to wearing traditional Islamic dress almost overnight’, donning a hijab in her own words to Alom because ‘My brother has become a strict Muslim’ – in his own, ‘because she has no choice’; the student of his who like him had been raised reciting the Qur’an in Arabic without knowing passages’ meaning, but described it as ‘so beautiful that it  could not possibly have been written by a human’; the eleven year old who promised to boycott lessons on evolution, telling him ‘It’s against my religion to believe we’re descended from monkeys’, and the others who’ve told him his lessons on the Big Bang are ‘an attempt to undermine their religious beliefs’, ‘upset or offended by the suggestion that they should be “forced to learn this rubbish”’; the students in his science class who’ve told him ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’; the trainee teacher of religious studies who recoiled at his suspicion physics classes made some students question their beliefs, a conversation which resulted in her ‘storming off after stating “You scientists think you know everything, but you don’t!”’

Then come the spotlights on religion in the wider world: 22 million sub-Saharan Africans living with HIV thanks to the Catholic Church, ‘an epidemic that is devastating these countries’; ‘the recent spate of homophobic violence in certain parts of Africa . . . fuelled by both Christian and Muslim leaders calling for communities to “flush out gays”’; the Islamist states where ‘homosexuality is strictly illegal, and punishment can range from a violent beating to death by stoning’; the U.S. Christian in 2011 who murdered a gay man ‘because “he read in the Old Testament that gays should be stoned to death”’; the two New Yorkers in 2009 who ‘viciously attacked’ a gay man there and were defended by a friend whose homophobic tattoo quoted Leviticus; Webster Cook, student at the University of Central Florida, threatened with death by Christians when he took a communion wafer home instead of eating it, accused by a local priest of kidnapping Jesus in so doing (‘If anything were to qualify as a hate crime’, the priest in question said, ‘this might be it’); Usama Hasan, imam and physicist, threatened with death by British Muslims when ‘he claimed that Islam was compatible with Darwin’s theory of evolution’; the stonings or whippings prescribed in versions of Islam for women who have sex before or outside marriage, ‘carried out in many Islamic countries today’; ‘the requirement for women to be covered up’, and ‘reports of young Muslim girls feeling pressured by their peers into wearing the hijab’; genital-cutting ‘practised in many Muslim communities . . . in which the clitoris of young girls is removed with the specific intention of reducing, or even entirely destroying, their ability to enjoy sex’; ‘guilt, shame, and anxiety, all of which can lead to serious psychological harm’ promoted by widespread religious attitudes to masturbation; ‘unnecessary and avoidable pain’ caused to animals by religious slaughter; Jehovah’s Witnesses who ‘refuse blood transfusions when critically ill’ and ‘members of religious cults who commit mass suicide’; the ‘many wars . . . carried out in the name of God’ and ‘conflicts spurred by religion . . . around the world’, including between African Christians and Muslims and conflicting schools of Islam in the Middle East; the ‘promise of a reward in the afterlife’, ‘used to encourage young men and women to kill themselves, and others, so that they can become martyrs’, ‘to deny help to the poor, helpless, and oppressed’, ‘to explain away human misery rather than deal with it’; that ‘most children are . . . brought up with the impression that it is evil not to believe, and that they will be punished – often in horrific ways, such as burning for an eternity in hell – for deviating from the rules and regulations of their parents’ religions’; that ‘belief without questioning is seen as a virtue in some, if not all, religions’.

If ‘New Atheism’ can be seen as a distinct philosophy, its central precepts can I think be summarised as follows:

  1. Religion is to blame for widespread suffering and injustice, not just due to its contingent structural embodiments, but because of its inherent epistemic nature.
  2. Religion benefits from and has historically relied on unearned deference, rendering criticism of its claims heretical, unlawful or socially unacceptable.
  3. Religion’s claims and inherent nature deserve to be criticised unflinchingly, with this deference discarded in the name of combating injustices it lets them cause unchallenged.

I’m as up as any for a new New Atheism which pays deeper attention to the social contexts in which religion operates, including with regard to ‘sexism, racism, homophobia . . . inequalities and [other] injustices’ – this was the founding principle of Atheism Plus, whose supporters are (if nothing else) right to recognise the current secular movement is at base a push ‘to make the world a better place’. I don’t think that movement is, to date, without its major faults, but I do think its core ideas as stated here are right. It would be to the planet’s benefit for religious beliefs to be taken from, or rather abandoned by, its populace. Alom’s book gives all manner of reasons why.

Each manifestation of religion above is a blight that would, at very least, have far greater difficulty arising in a more skeptical world. Many of those mentioned simply couldn’t.

Many are also born, it’s true, from factors other than religion. Suicide bombings, sexism, genital-cutting – none of these should be understood as a purely religious phenomenon, uninformed and unaffected by world politics or cultural history. Nothing, religion and its performances included, exists in a vacuum. But the fact the God idea may not be sufficient for the flying of planes into buildings doesn’t mean it isn’t likely to be necessary. To say we can’t blame religion for it since a web of other factor exists is much like saying that since fallout from prior conflicts and centuries of European racism hung behind Nazism, the Stauffenberg plot was pointless. No Hitler, in Milton Himmelfarb’s words, no Holocaust; no God, no 9/11. A shot at either’s assassination couldn’t possibly make matters worse.

I’m acutely and painfully aware that I am, in essence, lecturing someone by telling them to read their own book. (Sorry.) I don’t mean to be condescending – if I seem to be, it’s because the obvious rebuttal to Alom’s NH piece is to list grievances against religion, and I wouldn’t wish to imply (equally condescendingly) he has none of his own. I know he does; what puzzles me is that I know them to have prompted justified missives from him in the past that would look at home in the very annals of the New Atheism he lambasts. People change their minds, of course, but I heard the same criticisms from him only months after his book’s release, ones it seems itself to answer.

Even there, it’s not always clear where he stands. ‘Just as religion can provide some people with answers,’ Alom writes at one point between statements (seemingly) that it needs to be discarded, ‘it gives some people a sense of meaning, solace, and happiness – and who am I to cast judgement on that?’ ‘If believers ‘come to different conclusions about what they believe, then, unless their beliefs hurt other people, I will not condemn that for it.’ Surely the point, made elsewhere in the Handbook at some length, is that faith beliefs routinely hurt people?

Sometimes the line he takes appears reformist – the incitement to ‘outgrow religion’, to be fair, is qualified: ‘At least . . . the primitive, anachronistic form of religion that still dominates so many people’s lives’. ‘Perhaps, in the future,’ he speculates, ‘societies will rise above the fundamentally divisive nature of contemporary religion and re-invent it to better encompass our scientific knowledge of ourselves, the universe, and morality; perhaps we will shift closer to the idea of religion as a philosophy, a way to provide those who need it with guidance on how to lead better, happier lives’. ‘It is time to modify or abandon the idea of God’, he says as if hedging his bets, and ‘redefine the concept of religion’. Alom doesn’t explore how this might happen – it reads like he’s looking for a get-out clause, a reason to say a less religious planet might not be needed after all.

I don’t buy it. If he means Alain de Botton’s Religion 2.0 or the non-realist theology of Karen Armstrong or Don Cupitt should supplant conventional belief, I agree the world would end up brighter for it, but how to popularise such an approach without first smothering mainstream theism? De Botton describes his project openly as ‘religion for atheists’, and it isn’t by chance that Cupitt formed his views (and Sea of Faith Network) at Cambridge and the liberal end of Anglicanism after centuries of decline in British religion’s power. To reconstruct religion wholesale in this way would necessitate destroying it first, just as New Atheists hope to; there’s no rebuilding the church, at least in such a fundamental way, if it hasn’t been torn down.

I’m not sure, in fact, why one would want to – if literal God-belief would need extinguishing before religion was reformed, why bother with step two at all? Why seek to preserve it in name only, a cloak of empty metaphor and ritual around secular beliefs, except out of emotional attachment or lack of confidence in outright atheism? Religion has no moral viewpoint of its own once claims of fact have been thrown out, its orders we ought or oughtn’t do something relying on the thought a god is watching by whom it is or isn’t earmarked. Stripped of these claims, used a pedagogic puppet of secular ethics, how could it still be called religion? That would be abrogation, not reform – an aesthetic departure from New Atheism’s plot to bury God, but not a substantive one.

Could theism be tamed perhaps, recalibrated to be free of ‘sexism, racism, homophobia’ and capacity to hurt others, as one senses in New Humanist and at points during the Handbook is Alom’s real hope? I’m inclined to say no, at least on a mass scale or completely. Religions evolve to suit their habitats, of course, and kinder, gentler versions can and do gain traction, prompted at times by combative secular Enlightenments and culture wars. (His column cites these as unproductive; they’ve produced a Church of England whose leader says it ‘must accept . . . a revolution in the area of sexuality’, a Vatican pleading quite suddenly to be tolerated.) But my sense is that a life rooted in faith, lived by the arbitrarily imagined whims of a god who may or may not be there, will always have its casualties. I’ve been one of them. I know Alom has too.

Given the options, anyway, to ‘modify or abandon the idea of God’ – and it hasn’t had the second one very long – which does humanity seem likelier to take? Rates of religious non-belief, as noted by Tom Chivers in NH, are soaring, while political and fundamentalist beliefs are widespread; both of these, in recent decades, have grown at the middle ground’s expense. It’s easier for me to think Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and their counterparts will simply lose their grip on world populations than that mainstream forms of each will become ecumenical champions of human rights and secularism, whose followers put down their arms and opt to co-exist in harmony.

When has a culture war ever ended in a truce? And why, moreover, call off one we only just started to win?

Stray thoughts on niqab-related tussles

I don’t care for ‘Islamophobia': it names a multitude of sins, but more than the odd virtue too, and politics seldom gains from too-broad terms. That said, Daniel Trilling’s latest column at the Rationalist Association site (he’s New Humanist‘s new editor) says excellent things on the recent media storm over niqab-clad women.

A defendant currently on trial in London, if you hadn’t heard about it, has been permitted to wear hers in court while removing it to give evidence, face shielded from public view by a screen but visible to judge, jury and lawyers. (‘The defendant, who cannot be identified,’ BBC News reports mischievously, ‘was present for the hearing.’) A Birmingham Sixth Form college, meanwhile, has revised its dress code after pressure to allow niqab.

Writes Trilling, among other things:

The National Secular Society opposes “a general ban on the wearing of the burka and niqab”, but states that “religious freedom is not absolute” and supports certain requirements to remove a face veil in situations where people need to be identified. Precisely which situations, how these are negotiated, and whether people are being treated fairly and without being stigmatised, seem to me to be the real areas for debate.

It seems on the face of it a sensible line to take. Discussions like this always call for degrees of nuance, so like him, I’ll avoid skindeep demands and outline some instincts that shape my thinking.

  • I’m don’t believe in ‘religious freedom’ as a category unto itself, the ‘right to manifest religion’ being one example. There are no religious rights or freedoms, as such: there are secular rights and freedoms (of thought, speech and assembly, say) which at times find religious expression. One such right, it seems to me, is not having one’s clothing unduly policed.
  • Demands ‘face coverings’ be banned in public, Tory MP Philip Hollobone’s among them, seem clear products of the so-called War on Terror’s Hobbesian domestic politics, obsessed with fatuous ‘security’ concerns. Could you tell a friend in detail, if asked, about the faces of passers-by when last you went to buy milk or strolled to work? Did you even eye them that closely, or feel a burning need to view them? If not, what does this say about the widespread urge to view niqab-wearers’ faces?
  • My general presumption thus would be not to proscribe items of clothing. Certain specific contexts do exist, however, where we justifiably require faces’ visibility – in passport photographs, banks or while taking exams, for instance. (During my university finals, student cards were placed on desks to be compared with owners’ faces by invigilators.) The question then, as Trilling states, is which contexts qualify.
  • Incidentally: should we assume any woman in a niqab considers its removal an unthinkable sacrilege? Many no doubt do; there are also those, I’d imagine, who find it viable enough if unpreferable, or else not a matter of huge importance. Veiled women: not homogenous or undifferentiated.
  • Relatedly: niqabs are not burqas. Here are the former, predominantly Middle Eastern; here are the latter, predominantly South Asian. So-called Muslim cultures from all around the world: not interchangeable.
  • Also: why the media’s constant reference to ‘the niqab’/’the burqa’, as if only one exists? Veils, and women wearing them, are plural.
  • Also: a little over three million Muslims, half of them presumably female, live in France where veils have been publicly banned since 2011. Around 2000 women according to the Independent‘s coverage of the Sixth Form college story, and certainly a very small minority, wear this version of hijab. Why have veil-wearing Muslim women, making up only a tiny, highly conservative fraction of the populace at large, been used so emblematically of Muslims in the West by media there?
  • The question of whether or to what extent niqab (or hijab more broadly) is a ‘choice’ is not binary. ‘Choice’ is complex and has degrees and counter-valances; if you want to read about that, see Marwa Berro’s guest post here on Lady Gaga and veils.
  • This whole discussion is complex, in fact, and needs to involve who are Muslims, ex-Muslims and who’ve worn hijab – as Zakia Uddin argues persuasively here.
  • France’s anti-veil laws have, it seems to me, had penetratingly dire results.
  • All sides in the current British controversy appear to want a ‘definitive answer’ from government on the status of niqab ‘bans’, one way or the other, which seems to hint at legislation on the issue. I am unconvinced, especially in the courtroom and college contexts, that this is a good idea, as I’m often unconvinced demands for new legislation are worthwhile.
  • In educational settings, it seems to me niqab-related issues might best be dealt with case-by-case. It’s conceivable potential risks of students covering their faces might vary strongly between schools (are ‘security’ concerns over covered faces more valid, perhaps, at Birmingham’s inner-city colleges than small-sized grammar schools in leafy Buckinghamshire?), and different teachers might feel differently about veils’ impact on lessons. (Could staff legitimately ask, for example, to see students’ faces for while teaching them? Probably, yes – on the other hand, individuals’ discomfort on being made to remove veils or tense group dynamics as a result might stop that being worth it, or cause teachers to think carefully about whether, or how uncompromisingly, to set down that rule.)
  • In court, as in the classroom if not more so, facial expressions matter greatly. Though we don’t bar the blind or partially sighted from jury service, those who do serve are presumably told as objectively as possible of testifiers’ expressions – certainly, we wouldn’t hold court with the lights out. In the current case, of course, jurors and court officials can still see the defendant’s face, so perhaps the point is moot. While we do let individuals give evidence in silhouette, this presumably requires special circumstances: religious faith alone, as far as I can see, shouldn’t qualify. There may perhaps be issues of comfort here too, since insisting garments held sacred be removed could quite conceivably place witnesses under added stress, thus biasing proceedings – this seems, though, like a reason for the kind of reasonable accommodation currently on offer. (Do members of the public have the same right as the jury to see all participants’ faces? I would say not.)
  • In either case above, existing laws allow over-draconian rulings to be challenged quite sufficiently. My sense is that any case for niqabs’ allowance based specifically on legislation to that effect, and not on any broader principle of human rights or personal autonomy, would deserve dismissal, as does UK Christian groups’ demand for a specific, legally enshrined right to wear crosses.

Those are my thoughts. I might have missed no end of things of course, and my stance here isn’t set in stone, so what are you yours?