Oh what a year: LSS Secretary’s Christmas message

By LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian

It’s been an incredible 12 months for the Lawyers’ Secular Society so I thought I should do the dignified thing and yell about it from the rooftops.

The year started with a bang, with the thorough busting of a de facto blasphemy code.

In January I was a front-row guest on BBC’s The Big Questions, alongside my fellow secularist Maajid Nawaz and my friends Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadnis of LSE’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society.

Chris and Abhishek were wearing “Jesus and Mo” t-shirts under their tops, and they happily revealed them when the programme’s host invited them to do so.

The programme was filmed a week in advance and I understand the BBC went into something of a tailspin between the filming of the programme and its transmission, as they grappled with that most pressing moral conundrum of our age: whether to show a line drawing of a man with a beard.

Mercifully, the BBC’s lawyers seem to have remembered that the crime of blasphemy had been wiped off our statute books in 2008 and that de facto blasphemy codes have no place either in a secular liberal democracy. The BBC showed the t-shirts, albeit briefly, and they didn’t obscure the images of Mohammed.

Secularism one, Theocracy…nil. You can watch the programme on YouTube here.

I’m very proud that I appeared on the programme where a depiction of Mohammed was shown on British television for the first time ever. There is no more vital freedom than freedom of speech. It is a crucial and non-negotiable condition of a democracy and it is the crucial battlefront of secularism. When freedom of speech dies, all freedom dies with it.

In March the Law Society, which is the representative body for solicitors in England and Wales, went into multiculturalism overdrive and decided to issue formal guidance to solicitors on how to draft “sharia compliant wills”.

The guidance laid out warped, discriminatory advice: non-Muslims were to inherit nothing, as were adopted children and “illegitimate” children (yes, the guidance actually used the term “illegitimate”). As for Muslim women, they had to be content with receiving half of what the menfolk inherited.

The LSS was not in any way challenging the English law principle of testamentary freedom, whereby people can dispose of their assets however they wish as long as they provide for their dependants, but we didn’t feel it was the Law Society’s place to give theological guidance – let alone eye-wateringly discriminatory theological guidance. We were also concerned that the Law Society was giving credibility and respectability to a legal system with a dreadful human rights record and that it was damaging the rule of law.

The LSS was the first organisation to raise the alarm at the Law Society’s decision to rebrand itself as a mosque. My LSS colleague Sadikur Rahman wrote a blog post shortly after publication of the guidance and events snowballed from there.

In April I spoke/shouted at a large protest outside the Law Society’s offices in Chancery Lane alongside human rights and women’s rights campaigners, including the veteran troublemaker Peter Tatchell. You can read my speech here and you can listen to it here.

Also in April I spoke in the House of Lords at the launch of “Sharia Watch UK” and I contributed to their report “Sharia Law: Britain’s Blind Spot”. You can read my speech here.

In June the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which is the regulatory body for solicitors in England and Wales, decided to endorse the Law Society’s sharia practice note. The SRA issued its own “ethics guidance” on the drafting and preparation of wills, the very final sentence of which said:

“If you are acting for clients for whom sharia succession rules may be relevant you will find the Law Society’s practice note on the subject helpful.”

The SRA’s endorsement changed the game. Unlike the Law Society the SRA is a public authority for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 and it is fully bound by the public sector equality duty.

Again, the LSS was first off the blocks and we raised the alarm. We wrote to the SRA asking them why they thought it was a good idea to promote discrimination, and I’m glad to say in July they withdrew their endorsement. This then put pressure on the Law Society.

Also in July, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission published advice saying it considered gender segregation in universities unlawful. In late 2013 Universities UK, which is the representative body for our universities, had issued guidance saying that speaker events could be gender-segregated if this was driven by the “genuinely-held religious beliefs” of the speaker. I spoke at the protest in December 2013 outside UUK’s offices (you can read my speech here).

Shortly after the protest there was strong condemnation of UUK by the Prime Minister David Cameron, the then-Education Secretary Michael Gove, and the Shadow Business Secretary Chukka Umunna. UUK subsequently withdrew its guidance and I’m delighted that the EHRC finally applied their own seal of disapproval this year.

Also in July I met my MP, Charles Walker, to discuss the Law Society campaign. I was delighted to learn that he was as angry as me. I am very grateful to him for raising the subject in the House of Commons – he was the only MP to do so.

In August, together with representatives from the National Secular Society, I met with the Law Society’s Chief Executive and the head of their equality and diversity committee to discuss the sharia practice note; our protest in April having failed to have the desired effect at this point.

Essentially I was trying to understand why the Law Society was issuing religious guidance and why it was promoting a system of law which the highest court in our land has held to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

I left the meeting as confused as I had entered it – if anything even more so – but the Law Society assured us it would think very carefully about whether to retain the practice note.

In October an LSS campaign which was started as a personal campaign by two LSS members, Peter Fisher MBE and John Butcher, secured a small but significant victory.

Peter and John had been busily challenging the annual judges’ service for over a year, and this October for the first time ever (so far as we are aware) the service was opened up to the press.

Fundamental constitutional changes rarely happen overnight, and so any progress on constitutional issues, however small, is a giant leap. Opening up the judges’ service to the press was significant because transparency itself is a disinfectant. I’m very grateful to Peter and John for all their hard work on this campaign. I can take absolutely no credit myself.

And in November came the biggy: the Law Society withdrew its sharia practice note. It also issued a clear public apology and told us in a letter that it would not be amending or replacing the guidance. I believe this is the first time the Law Society has ever withdrawn a practice note.

The LSS was the only lawyers group (so far as we are aware) to challenge the Law Society’s decision to issue its practice note, and certainly the only lawyers group to challenge the Law Society publicly. I guess all the other lawyers must have been busy.

I am incredibly proud that when sharia appeared at the gates of our legal system it was the LSS that raised the alarm, it was the LSS that played a key role in propping up the gates, and it was a lowly solicitor from Hertfordshire leading the LSS resistance. The LSS has preserved a PDF of the Law Society’s now-withdrawn guidance here (the nasty provisions are at paragraphs 5 and 6 of section 3.6), and you can see a full chronology of the campaign’s key events, media coverage and blog posts here. The legal website Roll on Friday had a particularly irreverent take on events here.

But the good news didn’t stop there. The Law Society also decided to distance itself from sharia more generally by “delisting” the sharia courses that had previously appeared on its website.

To give you an insight into just how uncomfortable the relationship between sharia and the Law Society was becoming, one of these sharia courses on the Law Society’s website contained the following biography of Aina Khan, an English solicitor who is also a proponent of sharia (emphasis added):

“Aina frequently works with courts, Sharia Councils and other official bodies on legal issues affecting Muslim and Asian communities and is frequently invited to appear on TV, Radio and the press in the UK.”

For the Law Society to give credence to the idea that sharia councils were in any way “official bodies” was, how shall we say, deeply regrettable. I’m delighted that the Law Society not only removed this biography from its website but decided to delist (basically delete) the sharia courses too.

One amusing sub-plot to the Law Society episode is that the practice note was co-drafted by a solicitor called Jo Summers, who sits on the Law Society’s wills and equity committee. Just under ten years ago I spent the last six months of my two-year training contract in a law firm’s private client department, and my supervisor was the very same Jo Summers. We even co-authored an article on the Gender Recognition Act and its effect on wills (£). Clearly our careers have taken different paths since then. I believe the relevant phrase is “the apple has fallen far from the tree”. I like to think the outcome of the Law Society campaign is testament to the fine training Ms Summers gave me those many moons ago; perhaps she has a different view.

Also in November free speech on campus unfortunately took a knock. I was due to speak at the University of West London about – amongst other things – censorship on campus and the difficulty of discussing Islam. With just 24 hours to go the university decided to cancel the event, as one does. The LSS is currently challenging this decision and we hope to have some good news soon.

Thankfully, in December, a similar LSS event went ahead at Manchester University, despite some significant pressure to cancel the event and to modify it on terms that were not acceptable.

This year the LSS has also given talks to the East London Humanists (twice), the London South Bank University Atheist Society, and the London Atheist Activist Group. We also had stalls at the annual convention of the AHS (National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies), and at a conference about the “oppression and resilience of women”. Thank you very much to everyone who has hosted us and apologies to those groups whose kind invitations we haven’t been able to take up because of time restraints. There’s always next year.

And although the LSS does not provide legal advice, this year we have put LSS members in touch with members of the public and related organisations who have needed legal advice on issues relating to secularism.

Our profile has risen, and so has our membership. The Law Society’s sharia guidance turned out to be the recruiting sergeant we could only dream of.

It’s worth reminding readers that the LSS has zero money and it has zero staff. All LSS members fit their activities around their work/study/family/personal commitments, taking time off work where necessary, and it’s probably for this reason above all else that I am so proud of our achievements this year. We have achieved real, concrete things; the LSS is no talking shop or glorified university debating society.

In my view the above whistle-stop tour of LSS activities represents a reasonable twelve-month return for a penniless, staffless organisation which only relaunched two years ago.

There are some factors which I believe have contributed to our success.

Firstly, the LSS is very clear that its remit is secularism – not atheism or humanism. We have religious members and religious supporters. As lawyers we feel we are well-placed to explain to the legal profession and to the wider public what secularism is and what it is not. The theory is that lawyers are calm and rational people, and capable of explaining things coherently.

Secondly, the LSS is politically neutral. We don’t consider that secularism is owned by the Left or the Right. Secularism can and does appeal to everyone, and all the main political parties have a credit and debit account when it comes to secularism. There is no “pro secularism” party. Our members are drawn from across the political spectrum and they have very different political views away from secularism – but the LSS’s focus is secularism, not the personal politics of its members. It is difficult enough for secularists to achieve their objectives when they focus on secularism; when they bring their personal politics to the table progress becomes an increasingly distant pipe-dream.

The combination of religious neutrality and political neutrality ensures the LSS maintains a razor-like focus on its chosen remit of secularism. We don’t suffer “mission-creep” whereby our focus sloppily moves away from secularism to something else. The general public is already confused witless about secularism. Often our opponents are the cause of this confusion, by deliberately misrepresenting and denigrating secularism at every available opportunity. But unfortunately sometimes secularists are themselves to blame, by drifting from secularism into atheism or humanism, or by bringing general politics into the mix. Keeping a firm grip on our remit is not only important as a means of achieving our objectives; it is important for our credibility as lawyers too. No-one respects a lawyer who sets out to do Task X and ends up doing Task Y.

And thirdly, the LSS values its independence. Lawyers are a funny bunch – they like to know they have maximum freedom of thought and that they are not restrained by external forces. But independence does not mean isolation. Quite the opposite, in fact: independence enables the LSS to maximise its reach by working with individuals and groups where our interests intersect.

I want to close by warmly thanking all my LSS colleagues for their hard work and support this year. It has been a privilege to lead – in the words of the author and journalist Nick Cohen – this “admirable body which represents the best traditions of the English law”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Finally, Merry Christmas – or whatever you want to call it.

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

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Meet the LSS: Daniel Anderson

This is number 13 in our Meet the LSS series.

Tell us a bit about yourself

I am a solicitor specialising in Social Welfare law – predominately in Housing law and Welfare Benefits law.

I currently live and work in Manchester.

Secularism as a concept is often misunderstood.  If you had to explain it to someone in your own words, what would you say?

Simply put: that the State and its publicly-funded services should be kept separate from religious organisations and movements.

It follows that there is not necessarily a contradiction in being both a religious person and a secularist. In fact some of the first proponents of secularism were religious organisations and movements who were concerned with the State meddling into their private affairs for so-called political gains.

It also follows that secularism is an apolitical concept. What the State should do free from the interference of religious organisations and movements is left to be determined.

What’s the most common misconception that you come across about secularism?

That secularists are strident and intolerant. Really??!!! All that secularists are proposing is that the State simply be neutral in matters concerning religion and that all persons should have the right to practise their religion and beliefs in private, provided it does not harm anyone else. Sounds like a reasonable and tolerant idea to me.

Why do you think secularism is important?

Secularism is important because it prevents the State favouring persons of one religion over persons of other religions or belief systems.

You only have to take the fairly recent examples of Northern Ireland or Bosnia to understand what incredible damage this can do. And, of course, there is the current example of ISIS and its extreme brutality to anyone not following its warped religious ideology.

As a secularist, what concerns you the most?

My biggest concern is that more and more people in Britain appear to be taking secularism for granted. I think there is now a serious danger that we will not appreciate all the benefits that secularism brings until it is too late. I myself was probably guilty of taking secularism for granted until I recently travelled to Bosnia and met some of the most passionate advocates of secularism you’re ever likely to meet.

A specific concern includes the continual attempts to limit free speech and the challenging of religious ideas and beliefs by threats of violence. To threaten someone with violence just because you disagree with their opinion or because you find what they say ‘offensive’ is a disgrace. The State should not tolerate this criminality.

Another specific concern is the attempts to establish a number of religious parallel ‘legal systems’ which discriminate against women and other minorities. As a lawyer I am meant to uphold the Rule of Law, of which an essential component is that all persons should be equal before the law. Yet without all persons being equal before the law there can never be any justice. And having parallel ‘legal systems’ will soon lead to society as a whole fragmenting.

Complete this sentence: “I’m a secularist because……”

I believe that the State should treat all persons equally – not discriminate against them on the sole basis of their sex, race, religion, sexual orientation or any other irrelevant reason. Only secularism can make this possible.

Also, from a personal point of view, I welcome all my ideas being challenged – not only for the rights of the person seeking to challenge my ideas but also for my right to later change my ideas. I don’t want to be a mere prisoner to my current opinions (I’m paraphrasing Thomas Paine in his introduction to The Age of Reason here).

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS.

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Universities are places of learning. Free speech must not die there.

UWL and Manchester

By LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian

It’s been quite an eventful few weeks for the Lawyers’ Secular Society. I’m only just catching my breath.

One of our university talks about radicalisation was cancelled; our persistent campaigning led the Law Society to withdraw its sharia practice note and to apologise clearly for issuing it; and another one of our campus talks about Islam went ahead – but only just.

This piece will focus on the two campus events.

University of West London (UWL)

On 12 November 2014 I was due to speak at UWL alongside my friend Anne Marie Waters, the spokesperson of Sharia Watch UK (SWUK). The event had kindly been organised by UWL’s Law Society.

The purpose of the event was to present the findings of a new SWUK report which dealt with, amongst other things, extremist speakers on campus, censorship on campus, and the difficulty of talking freely about Islam.

With just 24 hours to go UWL – you guessed it – cancelled our event. Irony is so difficult to define, but so easy to recognise.

The LSS’s current understanding is that UWL cancelled the event for one or more of three reasons.

Firstly, UWL was worried about “bad PR” – but apparently not so worried about extinguishing freedom of speech or the bad PR that might flow from that.

Secondly, UWL was concerned that the event was not “balanced” enough, even though:

  • It was clear from the outset that the event was not a debate involving two opposing sides debating a motion, but rather a panel discussion involving the presentation of a report
  • The event was scheduled for two hours, with a full hour devoted to questions and challenges from the audience
  • UWL’s Law Society had specifically invited UWL’s Islamic Society

And thirdly, UWL claimed that various administrative procedures – room-booking and the like – had not been followed correctly, something disputed by UWL’s Law Society and hardly a justification to cancel an event with 24 hours’ notice when the booking had already been in place for some time prior to that.

I am appalled at UWL’s decision to cancel. The LSS is currently challenging the cancellation with a view to rescheduling the event. Watch this space.

Manchester University

Mercifully, on 3 December 2014 Anne Marie and I did manage to exercise our freedom of speech at Manchester University to discuss sharia, women’s rights, free speech and universities – this time at the kind invitation of the university’s Free Speech and Secular Society (FSS).

I want to describe here some of the hurdles that had to be cleared, and also some of the positive lessons I think university bodies can learn from the eventual positive outcome.

The build-up

There was pressure from the university’s students union (SU) to significantly change the format of our event.

Our intended format was the same as the aborted UWL event: a very simple panel discussion involving me and Anne Marie, with plenty of time set aside after our speeches for questions and challenges from the audience.

The SU put pressure on the FSS to change the format to a formal debate – not necessarily a debate against Muslims but a debate nonetheless. The FSS, to their immense credit, resisted this pressure.

This might not sound significant but it is. Free speech with imposed conditions is not free speech. In any case, I wonder if the SU would place pressure on, say, the university’s Islamic Society to change the format of one of their talks to a debate.

No sooner had one hurdle been successfully negotiated than another one appeared. This time the SU, under pressure from some Muslims who were not happy with the event going ahead, took a leaf out of UWL’s free speech handbook and pulled the “balance” requirement out of the hat.

What did “balance” mean in this context, you might ask? Quite simply, it meant that we had to have a Muslim on the panel. Why? Because of a “lack of representation of a Muslim voice”.

Can a talk about Islam only take place with the involvement of a Muslim on the panel? If the university’s Labour Society want to have a panel discussion about Tory austerity cuts, must they invite a Tory on to their panel?

Most worryingly, the SU “strongly recommended” that we agree to a Muslim panellist in order to reduce the “risks” of the event.

Who posed these risks, and who was in danger? Could safety only be ensured by the presence of a Muslim on the panel?

It got worse. Our would-be panel gatecrasher was recommended to us: a Mr Abdullah al Andalusi.

Mr al Andalusi has referred to secular liberal democracy as a “totalitarian system”. He has referred to democracy, secularism and feminism as “blatantly un-Islamic concepts”.

If the SU consider al Andalusi a representative Muslim voice then they don’t seem to have a very high regard for Muslims. And in any case, why on earth should Anne Marie and I be under pressure to share a panel with a man whose worldview is so fundamentally different to our own? Why can’t we have our event, he have his own event if he wants to, and if we want a debate against each other then we can arrange that ourselves without the SU playing the role of a coercive online dating agency?

The SU’s condition was unacceptable in principle and also on its merits. Once again, the FSS admirably resisted the pressure. I also felt a strong personal responsibility not to set a precedent on campus, whereby people could only discuss Islam in the presence of a Muslim panellist. I was adamant that free speech would not take another body blow after the UWL fiasco.

It’s reasonable to consider whether this requirement of “balance” – which seems to be a newly-emerging condition for campus events about Islam – is applied consistently at Manchester University.

I understand from speaking to some of the students in Manchester that their university has an annual “Israel Apartheid Week”, with speaker after speaker lined up to condemn Israel and also to advocate the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” (BDS) campaign against Israel.

How much balance does the SU insist on during “Israel Apartheid Week”? None, from what I can make out.

And look at this poster for an event at Manchester University, scheduled for the day after our event:


I don’t see too much “balance” here. But I do see the SU’s logo at the bottom right of the poster.

To be clear: from a free speech perspective I have no objection whatsoever to anti-Israel or BDS speakers on campus. And I don’t want any requirement of “balance” for my event any more than I want it for other people’s events.

My point is that this supposed requirement of “balance” was clearly a way of exerting pressure on us to modify our event, rather than the simple implementation of an existing SU policy which is consistently and uniformly applied to all events.

As Anne Marie and I travelled up to Manchester for our talk, scheduled to start at 5pm, we still didn’t know whether it was even going ahead. We got to Manchester, met our contacts, and only at 4.20pm did we finally get the green light: our talk was on, and on our terms.

There was a protest outside the main entrance of the building about the event going ahead (I am told the protesters were overwhelmingly non-Muslims), and so we were smuggled in through the back entrances.

The event itself

It’s fair to say the event was a resounding success. This was primarily because it actually went ahead, and in our chosen format (a very low bar, I readily admit), but also because many people thanked us afterwards for speaking and told us how much they had enjoyed it – even people who had disagreed with much of what we were saying. A number of Muslims were very grateful that the event had not been cancelled.

Of course there was no shortage of heated exchanges and fundamental disagreements, and there was also much cause for face-palming – such as the comment from one member of the audience that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. This is par for the course though, and certainly nothing out of the ordinary in the context of these events.

Other than the usual robust exchange of opinions the event passed without any incident.

Collectively, everyone in the theatre demonstrated that there was no reason whatsoever for events such as these to be cancelled, or conditioned. If anything, people from all sides of the discussion seemed to be crying out for more of these events.

Credit where it’s due to the SU

My intention here has not been to criticise the SU unfairly or excessively. In the SU’s defence their approach was unfortunately just the standard operating procedure on campuses up and down the country. Their approach is symptomatic of a wider inability and unwillingness by university bodies to treat Islam like any other set of ideas, and Muslims like any other people, and sadly to insist instead on treating Islam and Muslims with patronising kid gloves. This really, really has to stop – for everyone’s sake. Hopefully after this event it will.

Indeed I am very grateful to the SU for allowing the event to go ahead. The night before the event the SU were under huge pressure themselves from the National Union of Students to cancel the event. By the way, this is the same NUS that recently refused to pass a motion condemning the murderous and genocidal ISIS on the basis the motion amounted to “blatant Islamophobia”.

The SU managed to resist the pressure from the NUS to cancel the event and so they deserve credit for that – and they also deserve my gratitude. Hopefully the SU has now set a precedent for other student unions across the country, that we are allowed to talk about Islam.

Everyone needs free speech

We have to remind ourselves of the basics here: the fundamental role of a university is to serve as a place of learning.

As I told my audience at the beginning of my talk – as a pre-warning to anyone who was minded to plead offence at the content that was to follow – if you can’t handle your ideas being challenged then you really have no business being in a university in the first place, and you have no business attending an event hosted by a university’s Free Speech and Secular Society.

Free speech is not just about the right of the speaker to speak. One of its crucial roles is to expose the listener to new ideas.

Whatever their intentions, when university bodies restrict free speech because of a fear that Muslims might be offended, they inadvertently and degradingly enclose Muslims in a time capsule stamped with the words “Handle With Care” on the outside, and they treat Muslims as something less than intellectual adults, and something less than everyone else. In other words by seeking – ostensibly – to protect the rights of Muslims, university bodies actually do the very opposite. And by seeking solace in any Muslim whom they perceive as “representative” of Muslims they treat Muslims with the broadest possible brush and as a homogenous mass, rather than treating them as I and any fellow secularist worth their salt would do: as individual human beings. And to think, it’s secularists that get called “Islamophobic”.

The consequence of this patronising treatment was painfully evident at UWL: we heard from UWL’s Law Society that many Muslims were disappointed by the cancellation as they had really been looking forward to the event. They felt it was an important topic. Unfortunately, UWL chose to deprive them of what might have been an illuminating and engaging discussion.

I’m not saying that all Muslims have a healthy approach to free speech – we know this is simply not the case, sadly. Islamic blasphemy codes, whether formal or de facto, have caused and continue to this day to cause the most unimaginable human suffering. As the secularist and reformed extremist Maajid Nawaz recently said of blasphemy: “Kill the law, not the people.”

Why do university bodies take the side of those Muslims (and those who patronisingly take offence on their behalf) who want to shut down debate and scrutiny, rather than those Muslims who are happy for light to flood in? Instead of just listening to the loudest members of a community, perhaps university bodies should also listen to the quietest, and indeed to the silent.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that university bodies should tally up how many people are for or against an event going ahead and then make a decision on that basis. What I am suggesting is that university bodies must simply demonstrate a firm commitment to free speech, not just in their policies but in practice too.

My hope is that UWL will now have a rethink about their decision to cancel our event. And my hope is also that university bodies, rather than seeking to shut down any uncomfortable discussions about Islam, will make every effort to ensure such events go ahead – without conditions.

Finally, a big thank you to the helpful and cheerful security guards (I counted about six of them) and also the police officers (three or four). But most of all, thank you to all the wonderful students I met for making the evening so enjoyable. In particular, thank you to the brave and principled members of Manchester University’s Free Speech and Secular Society, a politically and culturally diverse group of students who were united in their unwavering commitment to their cause in ensuring this event took place – without conditions. This was their very first event and I hope it will be the first of many.

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

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Meet the LSS: Jay Marshall

Jay MarshallThis is number 12 in our Meet the LSS series.

Tell us a bit about yourself

Hi, I’m Jay Marshall. I’m a law student at the University of West London, and I’m also the President of its Law Society.

I’m an aspiring lawyer and an active member of the Socialist Workers Party.

Secularism as a concept is often misunderstood.  If you had to explain it to someone in your own words, what would you say?

To be able to understand secularism, one has to understand the history process which brought about the idea of secularism. The United States of America is one of the most famous secular states, due to the fact that after the American War of Independence it detached itself from a tyrannical theocratic nation (the British imperialist colonies), and reformed into a nation under a written constitution which under its First Amendment and its Sixth Article clearly states that is to never make law respecting an establishment of religion and that it prohibits the use of any religious test as qualification for any public office – but it will also never prohibit the practise of religion.

James Madison said in Writings that: “Religion and Government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together”.

This beautiful quote highlights the essential essence of pure secularism.  The ideology of secularism is about the separation of Church and State, meaning that organised religion can not have direct involvement in the nation’s political process.

Secularism is also about opening up public discourse to a range of views, religious and non-religious, meaning that you can make an attempt to qualify for public office whatever your political or religious views are, and that your chances of success ultimately fall down to your ability to convince the public.

What’s the most common misconception that you come across about secularism?

Firstly, that “secularism is just atheism…”

A common misconception of secularism is that it is just politicised atheism. This is pure nonsense, as atheism is not an ideology nor is it a moral or political standpoint. All atheism means is the non-belief of the existence of deities. That’s it! You can be a secularist and be religious also. It is true; a lot of secularists are atheists or agnostics. But, then again, why would they want a theocratic state?

And secondly, that “Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao Tse-tung were secularists”.

Again: all untrue. Hitler was a Roman Catholic and in 1933 he signed the Reichskonkordat with Pope Pius XI in which the Pope dissolved the Catholic Centre Party in exchange for giving the Catholic Church a monopoly over the education system in Nazi Germany. Hitler also made a speech during the negotiations of the Reichskonkordat stating that secular schools were never to be tolerated and that the Aryan race needed to be a “believing people”.

The other three were undoubtedly atheists, but they were not secularists on the basis that they founded nations which banned religion outright, even though Stalin reintroduced the Russian Orthodox Church. But none of these people did their crimes in the name of their religious/non-religious persuasion. They did them because the political ideology which they belonged to allowed them to commit their crimes. Plus they were all psychopaths.

Why do you think secularism is important?

Secularism is incredibly important in the modern world. Especially in the United Kingdom, where we have developed into a very multicultural society, it is unfair to govern people in a way which shows a certain favouritism and gives particular status to the Christian faith.

I also think the idea of the United Kingdom being a Christian country is completely outdated and that the Church of England brings no real benefits to UK politics. An argument I often hear is that it is part of our country’s traditions and heritage, and that therefore there’s no need for change. But I disagree; keeping tradition alive for tradition’s sake is no reason to keep an idea going.

Secularism is such a revolutionary idea in terms of democracy, equality and human rights, and it’s an idea which has been ignorantly and arrogantly attacked by really low-rent intelligences and lazy minds.

As a secularist, what concerns you the most?

One thing which really concerns me is that we still have Bishops in the House of Lords as a matter of constitutional right, and like anyone who has studied Constitutional and Administrative Law will understand, these Bishops will have a say when a Bill gets passed through Parliament before it receives the Royal Assent. Frankly I find this outrageous as I’m convinced this blatantly shows favouritism towards the Christian faith (and a particular denomination) and demonstrates that citizens of other religions or no religion are being unrepresented.

Faith schools are also a big concern. A.C. Grayling once described faith schools as an oxymoron – as the term “school” implies the idea of discovering knowledge, and the term “faith” implies the idea of indoctrination. I also believe that faith schools divide communities as they are not connecting with people who are different within them, which can only lead to ignorance.

Complete this sentence: “I’m a secularist because……”

…I believe in the Enlightenment, in liberty, in democracy, in equality, in reason, in empiricism and in rationalism, and I believe in the eternal war against ignorance, intolerance and totalitarianism. But above all I believe in choice. Without choice, our lives are meaningless, and human life will be nothing but a means to an end.

Secularism cries out for the goodness in people, for the unity of us all, and for us to recognise that we are free to live our lives as we see fit. Secularism is not only sacrosanct for a democracy to thrive; it is essential.

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS.

Jay recently tried to organise an event at his university at which LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian and Sharia Watch UK Spokesperson Anne Marie Waters were due to speak about (amongst other things) student radicalisation, censorship on campus, and the difficulty of discussing Islam on campus. With just 24 hours to go, the university cancelled the event. You can read more here. The LSS is very grateful to Jay for his efforts and we hope we will one day be able to reschedule the event.

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Speaking engagement at Manchester University: sharia law

Free Speech and Secular SocietyThe LSS is pleased to announce an event at Manchester University called “Sharia law in the UK: women’s rights, free speech, and universities”.

The event will take place on Wednesday 3 December 2014 at 5pm. LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian and Sharia Watch UK Spokesperson Anne Marie Waters will be speaking.

The event is not open to the public but it will be filmed. A link to the film will be added to this page in due course.

The event is kindly hosted by Hellen Parra Florez of Manchester University’s Free Speech and Secular Society. Hellen is an LLM graduate in Public International and European Law, and she is currently a PhD candidate researching sharia. She was the winner of the LSS’s student essay-writing competition called “Sharia: what’s going on?”. You can read her essay “Sharia law: no place in Europe” here.

The LSS is particularly grateful to Hellen for her hard work in organising this event, especially as this follows hot on the heels of the appalling decision by the University of West London a couple of weeks ago to cancel an event at which Charlie Klendjian and Anne Marie Waters were due to speak about student radicalisation and censorship on campus. You can read more about that here.

Commenting, LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian said:

“Organising this event has been far from straightforward and the LSS acknowledges Hellen’s persistence with deep gratitude. As recent events at the University of West London have demonstrated, organising a discussion about Islam in a British university is becoming something of an extreme sport.

“The LSS is very much looking forward to discussing this subject in a calm and welcoming atmosphere.”

(PDF of the above poster here)

Update: there is more information about this event on the Manchester University Students’ Union website here, and the Free Speech and Secular Society’s website here.

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Good news! Law Society withdraws its sharia guidance

Law Society

The Lawyers’ Secular Society has welcomed the news that the Law Society has today (24 November 2014) withdrawn its formal practice note of 13 March 2014 on “sharia succession rules”.

The LSS is pleased to see that the Law Society has now deleted the page of its website that contained the sharia guidance (at http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/advice/practice-notes/sharia-succession-rules/). The page now says “The page you are looking for cannot be found”. The LSS has preserved a PDF of the now-withdrawn guidance here.

The Law Society has sent the LSS a letter which says:

“We have reviewed our practice note on Sharia succession principles following your feedback, and that of our members and other stakeholders. Following this review, we have withdrawn the note and it will no longer be available through our website. We have no plans to amend or replace the note.”

“We are mindful of the criticism we received and we apologise.”

You can read the full letter from the Law Society here and you can see their press release here.

The sharia guidance contained provisions, at section 3.6, which explicitly discriminated against women, non-Muslims, adopted children and “illegitimate” children:

“The male heirs in most cases receive double the amount inherited by a female heir of the same class.”

“Non-Muslims may not inherit at all”

“…illegitimate and adopted children are not Sharia heirs”

The LSS’s objections to the practice note have been as follows:

  1. The Law Society had issued guidance on a subject outside of its remit (theology).
  2. The Law Society had given sharia, which is not only theology but which also has a very poor human rights record, the credibility and respectability of a legal discipline within our jurisdiction.
  3. The LSS had not in any way challenged the English law principle of testamentary freedom but the LSS strongly felt it was not appropriate for the Law Society to give explicit guidance on how to achieve discrimination. The Law Society would not and should not give guidance on, for example, how to achieve racist objectives in a will even though racist provisions would be lawful, and nor should it have given guidance on how to achieve sexist and religiously discriminatory objectives in a will.
  4. Anything that undermines or competes with English law, or that is perceived as undermining or competing with English law, is damaging to the principle of equality before the law and the rule of law more generally.
  5. The practice note was at odds with the Law Society’s own stated commitment to equality and diversity.

The LSS was the first organisation to raise the alarm about this guidance. The LSS strongly and publicly condemned the Law Society and sent two open letters (here and here) asking the Law Society to justify its decision, and it also submitted a formal complaint.

In April, LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian spoke at a large public protest outside the Law Society’s offices in Chancery Lane, London, alongside a number of human rights campaigners. Charlie Klendjian’s speech is here (audio) and here (PDF).

The LSS was also the first organisation to report that the Solicitors Regulation Authority had endorsed the Law Society’s practice note. (The SRA is the profession’s regulatory body, whereas the Law Society is the representative body and often referred to as a trade union.)

The LSS challenged the SRA’s decision to endorse the Law Society’s practice note on the basis the SRA is a public authority for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. Shortly afterwards the SRA confirmed in writing to the LSS its decision to withdraw that endorsement “given the concerns that have been raised”. This put pressure on the Law Society to withdraw the sharia guidance.

In August, the LSS and representatives from the National Secular Society had a frank meeting with the Law Society’s then-Chief Executive Des Hudson and the head of its equality and diversity committee (and former President of the Law Society) Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, at the end of which the Law Society said it would think carefully about whether to retain the practice note.

On 24 November 2014 the Law Society announced its decision to withdraw the practice note.

You can see a full chronology of this campaign’s key events and media coverage on this page of the LSS website.

Commenting, LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian said:

“Withdrawal of this guidance was the only possible way for the Law Society to retain the confidence of the profession and the public. We welcome the decision.

“We are particularly pleased that the Law Society has acknowledged the criticism and apologised.

“We are also pleased that there are no plans to amend or replace the practice note. If the Law Society had decided to reissue ostensibly “benign” or “non-discriminatory” sharia guidance it is highly likely we would have challenged that too, because it is not the Law Society’s business to issue Islamic theological guidance to its members any more than it is their business to issue any other form of theological guidance.

“In this jurisdiction sharia has the status of mere theology. Long may that continue. Sharia also has a truly dreadful human rights record, and the highest court in our land, the then House of Lords, has already held that sharia breaches the European Convention on Human Rights. Therefore by issuing any sharia guidance at all the Law Society would still be legitimising and endorsing sharia more generally. Arguably, “benign” sharia guidance would be even more harmful than the discriminatory guidance we have seen because it would be highly deceptive: it is an observable fact that sharia is not benign. It is not the Law Society’s business to reform sharia or to peddle sharia.

“I am very proud that the LSS was the first organisation to raise the alarm about this practice note, by way of LSS member Sadikur Rahman’s blog post of 18 March 2014, five days after the Law Society had issued its guidance. Events and media coverage snowballed from there at some pace.

“But we shall keep sentiments of victory to a minimum because we shouldn’t be celebrating the withdrawal of theological guidance, let alone fundamentally discriminatory theological guidance, issued in a liberal democracy by a key secular institution such as the Law Society. We shouldn’t be celebrating battles or asserting basic principles that – so far as we thought – had been satisfactorily settled some time ago.

“Challenging well-established and powerful institutions like the Law Society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority, never mind so publicly and never mind on a subject such as sharia, has been a hugely daunting task for a tiny organisation such as the LSS which relies purely on the goodwill and helpful assistance of its volunteer members.

“I would like to warmly thank all my LSS colleagues who have contributed in any way to this campaign, publicly or behind the scenes. I would also like to thank the many other campaigners and also supporters who have played their part, and indeed all the journalists who have raised the profile of this crucial campaign.

“Given that the LSS has been the only group of lawyers to challenge this sharia guidance publicly, and for all we know at all, we hope this campaign will alert the legal profession to the ever-present threat of unwelcome religious influences on our legal system, and especially sharia. We hope the legal profession will recognise the importance of maintaining a secular legal system no matter what.

“We see the horrific consequences of fusing Islam with law or power on an almost daily basis now, domestically and internationally. It is vital that the legal profession in this country takes a principled stance against sharia and realises that our legal system is worthy of defending against sharia. We should have immense pride in our wonderful legal system and we should be incredibly protective towards it.

“We reiterate that we welcome the Law Society’s decision to withdraw this guidance, and we are delighted that good sense has finally prevailed. We are also happy to state publicly that the LSS would welcome any opportunity to be involved in future discussions with the Law Society or the SRA concerning the appropriate approach of the profession to Islam or any other religion.”

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“Learning Jihad”: read the Sharia Watch UK report

Learning JihadSharia Watch UK (SWUK) has now published its report about student radicalisation, “Learning Jihad: Islamists in British Universities”.

You can read the full report here (PDF).

SWUK Spokesperson Anne Marie Waters was due to present the report on Wednesday 12 November 2014 at the University of West London (UWL), and LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian was also due to speak. The event had been organised by UWL’s Law Society but unfortunately, with just over 24 hours to go, UWL decided to cancel the event.

UWL’s reasons for cancelling the event were that they were concerned about bad PR and a lack of balance. UWL also claim that the UWL Law Society did not follow various administrative procedures for event booking – something strongly denied by UWL Law Society President Jay Marshall. You can read more about the cancellation of the event here.

The LSS urges people to read and share this report. In particular there are some clear conclusions from the report, including this section:

“There is endless debate about the “cause” of radicalisation. There is no shortage of theories placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of external actors and external factors. Perhaps the time is finally upon us to ask whether the “cause” of Islamic radicalisation is within Islam itself.”

Commenting, LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian said:

“This is an important report that Sharia Watch UK has put together, and we thank them for it.

“Reading the report is like watching a car crash. Whether the subject is extremists on campus, censorship, anti-Semitism or gender segregation, a clear picture develops of a very concerning state of affairs. And let’s remember that the National Union of Students couldn’t even bring themselves to pass a motion condemning Islamic State – on the basis it supposedly amounted to “blatant Islamophobia”.

“The LSS reiterates its disgust at UWL’s decision to cancel the event on 12 November, and we call on them again to allow the UWL Law Society to reschedule it without delay. It is clear from this report that a full and frank discussion of the relationship between Islam and universities is desperately needed.”

Image credit above: Sharia Watch UK

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Sharia Watch UK report: University of West London cancels event about student radicalisation

Learning JihadThe Lawyers’ Secular Society is appalled at the decision of the University of West London (UWL) to cancel an event which was to highlight the problem of Islamic radicalisation.

The event was planned for Wednesday 12 November and UWL decided to cancel it today, with just over 24 hours to go.

At the event, Anne Marie Waters of Sharia Watch UK (SWUK) was due to present the findings of a forthcoming SWUK report about radicalisation in universities called “Learning Jihad”, and LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian was also due to speak.

The event had kindly been organised by UWL’s Law Society, whose President Jay Marshall was also scheduled to talk.

The report, which is due to be published on Thursday 13 November, covers:

•    Jihadist speakers
•    Gender segregation
•    Censorship
•    The role of student unions
•    Funding of British universities
•    Anti-Semitism
•    The Prevent Strategy

The LSS understands that UWL cancelled the event for the following reasons:

1. The university was worried about bad PR.

2. The university thought the event wasn’t balanced enough. However, it was always clear from the start that the purpose of the event was the presentation of a report and not a debate between two opposing sides arguing a motion. In addition, the event was to be two hours long with one hour devoted to questions, comments and challenges from the audience. Also, the university’s Islamic Society had specifically been invited.

UWL’s Interim University Secretary, Hugh Jones, has since outlined some further reasons for the event’s cancellation and has sent this to UWL Law Society President Jay Marshall by email, which the LSS is reproducing below. (Note that the email mentions an incorrect event date of Thursday 13 November – it was Wednesday 12 November.)

Dear All

I am writing with regard to the Sharia Watch public meeting which has been scheduled to take place at UWL on Thursday 13 November, and advertised on the Sharia Watch website.  I have discussed this with various colleagues, including Professor Kath Mitchell (DVC), Professor Nick Braisby (PVC), Professor Julia Fionda (Head of the School of Law), Josh Goddard and Ben Whittaker of the Students’ Union; Gurvir Dhillon (Lettings Manager) and Leann Lavery (Media Relations Manager).

The meeting was booked on behalf of the Student Law Society.  This society is not affiliated to the Students’ Union and therefore does not have the right to book rooms within the University.  The booking was not made through the normal and approved channels for a student society meeting – that is, via the Students’ Union.

The University has a duty under the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 s43(1) to promote freedom of speech within the law on campus for members, students, and employees and visiting speakers.  In particular (s42(2) of the Act) we have a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the use of any premises of the establishment is not denied to any individual or body of persons on any ground connected with the beliefs or views of that individual or any member of that body or the policy or objectives of that body.

We also have a duty of care to ensure the safety and wellbeing of people on the campus.  A considerable interest has been generated by the meeting, giving me cause for concern that attendance will be considerably larger than has been allowed for; that stewarding arrangements will not be sufficient; and generally that we can safely host the meeting.

For these reasons

(i) That the meeting was not properly booked through the University’s agreed procedures, giving us the opportunity to properly consider the issues involved in hosting the meeting; and

(ii) That I have real cause for concern about the safety of people using the campus because of the meeting

I have decided that the room booking should be cancelled, and that the meeting cannot therefore take place at UWL.

I have sought to contact David Barling-Gasson, the Law School tutor responsible for liaison with the Student Law Society, to discuss this, but have been unable to do so.  I have discussed this with Julia Fionda, Head of the School of Law.  I will separately be emailing David Barling-Gasson and Jay Marshall, President of the Student Law Society, to let them know.

Leann Lavery, Media Relations Manager, will be drafting a standard response which can be sent to enquirers.  As discussed, Leann, it would be great if you could liaise with the Students’ Union in this regard. Leann will share a standard response tomorrow.

This email is sent to all of those involved at UWL in the correspondence on this topic.


Hugh Jones
Interim University Secretary
University of West London

Jay Marshall has told the LSS that his Law Society is indeed affiliated to the Students’ Union, that it does have room-booking rights, and that it did follow the process for booking rooms. The LSS also understands from Jay that many Muslims were excited about the event as they thought it was very important.

Jay told the LSS: “If booking the event has taught me one thing, it is how to draw out a university’s inner coward. Frankly, I don’t know what’s more offensive – the hypocrisy or the wasting of my time and that of the team.”

Commenting, LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian said:

“The LSS is very grateful to Jay Marshall and his team at the UWL Law Society for their valiant efforts. Sadly, they simply weren’t to know that a discussion of Islam in a British university in the 21st century is forbidden.

“The irony meter appears to be firmly within the red section of the dial. The forthcoming SWUK report lays out some disturbing examples of censorship that have taken place on campus, but rather than give SWUK and the LSS the opportunity to present these findings about censorship – not to mention all the other concerns in the report – the University of West London has chosen to apply more censorship. In terms of intelligence levels, this is like attempting to extinguish a fire with a gigantic bucket of petrol.

“The report also highlights some of the extremist speakers who have spoken on British campuses, but unfortunately it is not possible to come to a British university to talk about that.

“UWL’s hyper-sensitive approach is symptomatic of a highly dysfunctional relationship between Islam and British universities. No matter what people’s concerns are about Islam, universities seem intent on pressing a self-destruct button. They will stop at nothing to avoid an open discussion about Islam. If we can’t discuss ideas in a place of learning, where can we discuss them?

“What is particularly disturbing about this instance of censorship is that the report specifically talks about the problem of censorship on campus and how those who wish to criticise Islam or merely have an open discussion about it are being increasingly side-lined.

“The task of holding Islam to account is becoming all but impossible, just when it is becoming absolutely essential. The timing of this report, and UWL’s decision to cancel the event, could not be more salient. British Muslims, including university students, are travelling abroad to fight for ISIS, an organisation of the utmost barbarism even by the standards of jihadist groups. It is imperative that we be allowed to have these discussions otherwise we will sink deeper and deeper into an abyss.

“We hope as many people as possible will join the LSS in loudly condemning UWL’s disgraceful decision, calling on them to apologise for this cancellation, and calling on them to allow UWL’s Law Society to reschedule this event without delay. When people read the SWUK report they will see just how serious the situation on campus is, and therefore just how shameful it is to place any barriers whatsoever to discussion.”

Image credit above: Sharia Watch UK

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