Friday, October 27, 2006

Is secular Britain trying to abolish religion?

Is secular Britain trying to abolish religion?

This may sound a sharp question but when you consider the recent news stories over the last few weeks is this really so.

First we had the question raised by Jack Straw over whether Moslem women should be allowed to wear the niqab (full veil) and then even raising the possibility that the hijab (partial veil) should not be worn either. Next came the news that a British Airways air stewardess was banned from wearing a cross on her necklace. Then there was the further news that there is a growing political consensus that religious-based state schools should ensure that 25% of their student body should include pupils that are not of the schools dominant religion. I therefore welcome the announcement yesterday by the Government that they won't be making this requirement compulsory on schools. Although, I don't believe the threat has gone away.

What each of these three stories highlight is that there is a growing view in Britain that individuals should not be able to identify themselves as different from the rest of society based on their religion. I would argue though that many religious actions are not there to make that person seem better than others, rather religious actions, religious determined dress and religious-based schools are there to help that person get closer to what they feel there ultimate purpose is. For example as an orthodox Jew I wear a kapel (skullcap) as a head covering to make me feel closer to G-d.

However, now in Britain there is a growing view that if you do not conform to the Western customs you are an outsider, who should not be tolerated as you are trying to be different from the norm. While, I believe that is not the correct way for society to treat minority groups in this country, I am also not suggesting that the minority-religious groups should exclude themselves from the rest of society, ignoring and often looking down on others. The Hindu, Jewish and Sikh communities are positive illustrations of how religious communities can remain as strong communities while at the same time becoming successful members of the wider community.

Especially in the Jewish community this can be put down to the successful Jewish schools that attract high numbers of Jewish pupils and are often over subscribed. So I ask why are schools such as these being threatened with reform so that they will have to accept 25% of their intake from children who are not Jewish.

There is a point of view that with the increasing marginalisation of some groups in society and the growing threat of terrorism, that there is a need to ensure that children are not secluded from other communities so that children can learn to accept and live with people that are different to themselves. While this obviously does have some positive benefits, this is not the only way to create a tolerant society. Children can be taught to be respectful of everyone in society while being taught in one-religion based schools. What matters for groups in society to be respectful of others is that they have a genuine understanding of others and are tolerant of all groups and individuals.

Children can learn this in mixed schools but they can also develop this method of understanding in single-religion schools. Like many parents want their children to be taught in single-sex schools, many parents want their children to go to a single-faith school. This can be for a number of reasons including that they want their children to develop a strong foundation in their own faith and history, while being able to share the same religious values with the children around them. Children are therefore able to gain confidence in their own beliefs and practices, so that they are then better equipped to face the world with tolerance and respect for others.

I am proud to be a former student at two Jewish schools, Rosh Pinah Primary School and JFS Secondary School. Through my time at these schools (including at JFS which has existed in London for more than 270 years) I received an education that provided me with a strong Jewish ethos but also to value and support everyone in society, so that I hope I am now someone that is proud to help all individuals where ever they come from. However, I also want to protect the rights of religious groups to express their religion as they wish. Therefore I will continue to campaign with and support religious groups that want to wear their religious attire and send their children to single faith schools.

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