Jonathan Schofield talks to Amina Lone about how society needs to draw the line somewhere
Bombs, knives, extremists in our midst, violent religious nut-cases one street over. It’s been a rough couple of weeks and it may get much worse before it gets better.
All the political party leaders are sound-biting about security and the need for more police, or smarter policing. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, said this week she’d alter human rights laws if they got in the way of worming out terrorists. At the same time everybody talks up the need for community cohesion.
Yet May’s manifesto appears, as Jonathan Romain wrote in The Independent on Monday, to be ‘consciously dividing children by faith at a time when what is needed is integration rather than segregation?’ Romain is talking about a sneaky paragraph in the manifesto which aims to scrap the admissions cap which prevents new state faith-based Academies from selecting more than 50% of pupils on faith grounds alone. This could realistically result with schools in some areas being 100% of one faith.
Imagine if state-funded government or local government departments were closed off to certain colours and creeds. Equality legislation would send people running to the courts. It appears state-funded faith schools are the last officially endorsed discriminatory institution in the UK, and it seems we may be about to get more of them.
Amina Lone is a Labour councillor for Hulme and co-director of the Social Action and Research Foundation, a think tank that aims to tackle poverty. “It’s frustrating that across the parties people talk about the need for integration and, after recent events, about standing together. Yet policies are dreamt up that have no logic, or contradict other policies.
"This Conservative idea would destroy the one place people from different communities and faiths might mix at a crucial time of their lives. They’re not going to get that in their homes, or places of worship, or in many areas on the street, so school is the place where people from different backgrounds will meet.”
Lone is a Brummie and Muslim of Pakistani origin. She is an engaging and forceful personality. She’s personally brave too, never afraid to speak her mind on subjects that many informed people are too cowardly to speak about. Our conversation moves on to a wider problem with community cohesion, one Lone brought up in a recent 4x4 debate on radicalism at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.
“The Left has an unwritten code not to interfere within communities such as the one I come from... even when certain practices are completely against British values"
If getting rid of the 50% faith pupil cap in education is just part of a general illogic and stupidity when it comes to faith, culture and community (especially in the face of the Manchester and London terror attacks), then Lone sees a large part of the problem coming from her own side of the political spectrum.
“The Left has an unwritten code,” she says, “not to interfere within communities such as the one I come from, the Muslim community, even when certain practices are completely against the values people in Britain fought for and gained over many years. These are often the exact values the Left took the lead in gaining.
"Instead leaders and representatives of the Left will, for example, meet within Muslim men-only spaces thus endorsing male and female segregation and tacitly stating that men should think for the women and make decisions for them. They will talk to these ‘community leaders’, who are all male and old, and listen to their advice because that’s the way they assume the community (whatever that is) operates. They seldom hear women’s voices and those of the young people.
“I was knocking on doors campaigning the other day,” Lone continues, “and Asian women were telling me to come back when their husband was in. I was talking politics and they’d been made to believe that only the man could make a decision on such matters. That is indefensible.”
Lone pauses, “For me, in this diverse city, in Manchester, this city of the Suffragettes, we need to be really radical and fight for gender equality across the board, not picking and choosing which communities can get away with restricting gender equality. This is nothing to do with culture or race, it’s about a fundamental freedom that we allow some communities to ignore. A hijab is fine but a full face covering, for example, is wrong in public places. It is against the values and norms of our society.’
As Lone wrote in The Times (13/05): ‘Many women in the Muslim world are contesting outward battles that western societies have largely triumphed in; whether that’s about wearing what one wants, or marrying of your own choice. Huge gender equality rights have been won, and women paid massive sacrifices to make those inroads, with the support of enlightened men.’
She tells Confidential, “Every society has a line that needs to be drawn, the full face covering, the niqab, symbolises gender inequality which is technically illegal in the UK. It shouldn’t be allowed, it works against the pluralist society we demand.”
She finds it strange that while religions have apparently an unchanging dogma, they are capable of transformation when it suits. She finds it disturbing that an Arab practice such as the wearing of the niqab or burka is being more and more adopted in Pakistani communities. Again in The Times she wrote: ‘The Arabicisation of Islam is pushing a representation of ritualised practice, which results in women donning black shrouds as the epitome of their virtue.’
There is real force in Lone’s voice when she says: “We have to speak out and not be afraid to be called racists, when something is just plain wrong or crosses the line society should draw. I am appalled UKIP has occupied ground that I, as a Muslim woman, and everybody who believes in our democracy, should be occupying.”
It is only by mixing together regularly that mutual knowledge and trust can develop
For Lone when policies are made they should involve a proper consultation with those who might be affected by those policies. She has conducted studies with white working class communities and youth who feel abandoned and also with young people in BME groups. She finds frustration, anger and alienation in many places across Greater Manchester.
“Enough is enough,” said Theresa May after Saturday’s low-tech horror in London. Yet the Conservatives after the General Election, if they win, are set to repeal something which actively aids community cohesion and understanding.
Romain, again in The Independent, writes: 'It is only by mixing together regularly that mutual knowledge and trust can develop. Religious identity should come from the home, and religious education from services and Sunday school, but not divide them from each other Monday to Friday. The key question is what sort of society do we want?'
“Both the Right with this strange idea for faith schools and the Left for its toleration of intolerance need to be consistent and logical over policy,” says Lone, “because what we have now is clearly not working.”
The Conservative Party in Manchester were asked for an interview.