Religion is an idea of life, the universe and everything stating how we should live. What will happen to us after death. A God - or at least a cosmic force - has set these things in motion and may or may not keep the wheels turning by active involvement.
There are many issues to be had when claimed as truth. Religions make universal claims which are at odds with each other. They cannot all hold true. Certain beliefs are essential to believe, currying favour in an after life or to receive blessings in this life time. Or else you are dammed. That the faith you have is largely determined arbitrarily by the country and parents you are born to suggests God really does play dice with your eternal happiness.
If religion makes a belief true - and your salvation depends on it - absurdities become essentially rationalised or explained as a metaphor with a universal truth. Criticising becomes an attack on the faith. Pointing out how people respond to the belief is retorted as you being phobic. The sectarianism and killing in the name of the one true God become anything but about belief. It is tribal, it is politics, it is social injustice, it is western foreign policy, it is human nature. So ignore that they claim they are doing God's will in a moment of religious ecstasy.
The majority of religious followers do not want to convert you or subject you to what they regard as their personal belief. They are not secretly waiting for the moment to turn democracy into a theocratic state. Many will stand for the principles of secularism supporting a pluralistic state and multi cultural society with shared values. But claiming militant Islamists are not a problem within Islam misses exactly how extremists are cultivated, indoctrinated and turned to violence.
Which is why I welcome Qasim Rashid's new book "Extremist" because it recognises not just the passages and assertions Geert Wilders uses to portray Islam as an inherently violent ideology. Qasim recognises that extremists use them to claim their violence is in line with Islam. A theological counter narrative to extremism needs to be taught to children of Muslim parents and the parents themselves need to be aware too. So do non Muslims.
Regrettably, what we have seen is the hope by some parents that giving children an indoctrinated - but Wahhabist style instruction of Islam - will help with a moral education. In several Birmingham schools this year that is the concern. Six year olds told British women are "white prostitutes". Music and dance lessons off the curriculum. That evolution cannot be "believed." Only Islam taught as religious education. As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown put it in 2010 "The Talibanisation of British childhood by hardline parents"
In my role as chair of the British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD), which campaigns against fanaticism, many inner-city teachers have told me they feel paralysed by extreme demands.
Brainwashed Muslim parents ask school librarians not to lend their children storybooks. (Jacqueline Wilson, the former Children's Laureate, is targeted for 'leading children astray' with her stories that deal with contemporary social issues, such as single motherhood.)
Some Muslim children have been kept away from school visits to temples, churches and art galleries.
Teddy bears and pets are also branded un-Islamic.
How about the daughter of a relative of mine, who was having a birthday-party and invited all the girls in her class.
The Muslim pupils organised a boycott because she had invited 'unbelievers'.
This is the background to the Trojan Horse fears and why it took so long to be acted upon till 2014. It reminds me of my Jehovah's Witness childhood - no birthday parties ever, censored school book lists, no toys with any super natural powers, avoid false religion and people not of the faith as friends. Tragically this has now become an accepted part of British education and life for some children. Because some claim it to be the true religion. This should outrage us all.
Such non violent extremism needs countering. I cannot speak for Qasim, but I am sure he would agree the best education needs to be taught to every single child in school. That education would not be dependent on the stated religious claims of the parents. That socialising and interacting with children from different backgrounds enriches childhood, setting up friendships for life, preparing for the world as an adult.
For this, comparative religious studies as an academic subject is essential for children. It will teach them to think about religious claims, and evaluate them. Show that there are many faiths, sects and movements, how to approach them academically and not as a religious zealot or as an atheist. Above all they will know about religions. Not the skewed propaganda which is out there.
The last thing I want to see in any school is this sort of pledge:
"I pledge allegiance to the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, Lord and Saviour, crucified, risen, and coming again as king with life and liberty for all who believe.
I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God's Holy Word. I will make it a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. I will hide it in my heart, that I might not sin against God."
- The pledge, spoken at Accelerated Christian Education schools.
Of course I am not going to agree with Qasim that The Prophet Mohammed having led a good life supports claims to receiving his divine revelation, or that history backs slavery was not really slavery after Mohammed in the book. I am not going to take kindly to some people described as "Taliban atheists" because not one of them would shoot a school girl for criticising them or atheism, in an article he shared.
But Qasim and I will agree on universal human rights. That we can disagree perhaps passionately with each other. That civil discourse helps that debate (challenging at times), and the bigger picture puts us on the same side. That violence against others for difference of belief is never ever acceptable. That religious freedom and freedom from religion is the fundamental thing that we all need to care about to avoid discrimination.
My point would be just as scientists are uneasy about using the word truth about science, I hope one day all religious people would be uneasy about claiming their religion as true. My concern is that religion lends itself to hardcore fundamentalist mentality which can be devastating on the outlook of life.
Rather it should be this is my view, and to you yours. May we live in peace and reduce the harm we cause each other in our short life on this earth. United to stop the extremists destroying what we should love and cherish. That we are free to think differently and to be ourselves openly. Leaving a better world than we inherited.Suggest a correction