(Chris Sloggett) Hello and welcome to the National
Secular Society Podcast. I’m Chris Sloggett, Communications Officer at the
NSS. In this episode we’ll be discussing the ethics of male circumcision after a
BBC documentary shone a spotlight on the issue. But first Alastair Lichten talks to
Andrew Moffat, the teacher who devised a program for inclusive education and
has faced a backlash from religious groups. (Alastair Lichten) Welcome to the NSS podcast.
(Andrew Moffatt) Hello. Thank you for having me. (AL) You’re delivering the 2019 Bradlaugh
Lecture. Would you say this is the greatest honour of your life?
(AM) [Laughing] Absolutely! That and … (AL) That’s great to hear.
(AM) That, and I was once featured in the interval of a Eurovision Song Contest,
and so I think it’s sort of on a par with that. (AL) Okay. So definitely top two.
The topic of this year’s lecture is No Outsiders. Can you give the audience a quick rundown
on what No Outsiders is? (AM) Yes, certainly. So No Outsiders is a
primary school resource, and it basically teaches children,
it prepares them for life in modern Britain. So it teaches children about
the world that we live in today, which is a diverse world. It prepares
children to be global citizens, because in the UK, and in the world today,
our children need to be able to work alongside and live alongside anybody.
It doesn’t matter if you have different color skin or are of a different
religion or have disabilities or if you’re gay or lesbian or transgender
or whether you speak a different language. I can work alongside you, and
that’s what we want to teach our children, make them confident global citizens.
(AL) Okay so it’s not a secret sinister plot to turn five-year-olds gay, as part of a cultural Marxist conspiracy to destroy religious family values? (AM) Well, yes, that has been levelled, possibly not the Marxist bit
(AL) I read that on Twitter! (AM) [Laughing] I have read that I have a secret agenda.
I do have an agenda, actually. My agenda is very clear: it’s community cohesion,
and I’m very confident about that. So clearly I do have an agenda.
But, no, I don’t think you can make children gay, funnily enough. No-one made
me gay, and so, no, that’s not really not in my scheme of things.
(AL) What do you think are some challenges in creating and then defending a robust, inclusive
school ethos, particularly when you have strong conservative views
within the school community? (AM) Well, you may feed have seen on the news recently, there’s been some huge
challenges to this work. In my own school in the last six months, funnily
enough, those challenges weren’t around for the last four years. And that gives
me confidence that this work is possible, that we can do this work,
because it’s only in the last six months that this has come about. Maybe the challenges
were always there in a background, but they certainly weren’t surfacing.
So the challenge, really, for schools today, is to work out a
way to bring everyone on board. And that is why I wrote No Outsiders actually.
I went to that school deliberately, four years ago, because I thought there might
be challenges to some of this work. I wanted to get it right. I wanted to work
with a community who I thought, maybe, might find some tension with
some aspects of this work, specifically LGBT, I’ll be honest, and the reason
why I wrote No Outsiders was to try and find a way to to place LGBT equality
in context in schools with all of the equalities, and try to sit it alongside,
to teach children that it’s no more important than any other equality, but
also no less important. So that’s why I wrote No Outsiders four years ago and I
wrote it when I first joined Parkfield School. I think it was reasonably successful,
but I think what the last six months show is that this work is not
done and and there’s a massive need for this work. Ithink
that i was maybe naive, thinking that I had this sussed. I think
that the last six months demonstrates how important this work is in schools.
(AL) Do you think that Community Schools , so those are schools that don’t have really clearly defined and protected ethos in
the same way that faith schools do, lack the confidence or find it difficult
to set out and say “This is our ethos. At this school we value these things
and we promote these values”? Because I notice the subtitle
of No Outsider’s is Reclaiming Radical Ideas in Schools.
(AM) That’s a different book. I’ve got two resources The first one, the main one is No Outsiders, and then I and then two years
later I wrote Reclaim Radical Ideas. The idea of that really was saying
that as schools we are becoming the radical ones because we are
saying communication works, we can coexist, and at the
same time we’re almost battling with Brexit and Donald Trump.
A new Prime Minister today that talks about Muslim with letterboxes,
for goodness sake, if this language becomes acceptable,
filtering down into our communities, then teachers fighting
for communication are becoming the radical ones.
That’s where that title came from. In answer to your
original question, no, my experience is that teachers generally a very
comfortable with this kind of work. There’s actually nothing new about us work, is there,
really? Teachers have been teaching this kind of stuff for many, many years and
many schools are very confident in teaching about equality. What No
Outsiders does is it gives it a framework, and gives a new sort of language to
use to tie it all together. Maybe in the past, maybe some schools would have
been nervous about teaching about LGBT equality, for example. Certainly in many schools
where I’ve been in the past, that was the case. What No Outsiders enables schools
to do is teach LGBT equality within a framework, in a context
with all the characteristics of the Equality Act.
(AL) The Bradlaugh Lecturer often takes a look at issues that are both historic and contemporary.
What do you think is the best historical parallel to today’s
protests against RSE? (AM) I was reminded when the
first protest that we had at my school which was a deafening, frightening,
300 children chanting outside my school “Get Mr. Moffat out!” over and over again,
children banging on windows at the school with placards. It was really
frightening, and I was reminded of a lesson that I teach. Every year we
teach in year 6 that Elizabeth Eckford. Elizabeth Eckford was one of the Little
Rock Nine in Arkansas, in the US. This is a story about segregation when school
started to to desegregate. This school in Little Rock had nine black students that had to be bussed in, under national guard, to be
protected in that school. And there was a massive demonstration against them.
Elizabeth missed the bus, but she was so determined to go to school that she
walked round the blockades. She walked in to school herself. There’s a really
famous photo, that I show the children every year , of Elizabeth with her
books, and she’sgot her books close to her chest, and she’s walking
through a mob and there’s a woman who’s spitting at her, and there’s mobs, and
they’re chanting and shouting at her. But she carried on, she went in to school.
What I show the children at the end of that lesson, when we talk about the impact on Elizabeth,
why did people keep shouting at her, and why didn’t they want to sit next to a black person, why didn’t they want black kids in their school,
where those ideas come from, but also how can those ideas
change? Because now, in the U.S,. you haven’t got schools like that.
Schools are where black and white kids sit together, so how does that change happen?
The way the plenary is a lesson I show a photo of Elizabeth next
to the woman that spat at her, but 40 years later, and they’re hugging and they’re
outside the school. It shows that ideas can change , that woman now
campaigns with Elizabeth Eckford, and goes into schools to do
talks. She changed her mind. Because all ideas can change.
Anyone can change their mind. When the children at my own school had those protests against me and against LGBT people
in school, I just thought “Wow! The parallels here are phenomenal. These are
huge parallels. What I want to happen, and I hope will happen,
in years to come, is that people will remember this, the children involved will remember this time, and will change their minds,
because anyone can change their mind. You just have to get throug dialog and discussion.
(AL) We can hope. Before we go, and especially for those who might
not be able to make it to the lecture, can you give us a little bit of hope?
Do you think that inclusive RSE is going to be successful? How is it going to
win over, even just overcome this minority of hardcore opposition?
(AL) Oh, I’m full of hope. My CEO, Hazel Pulley, the head teacher, had this phrase
back when it started, and she said she “has a reservoir of hope”.
I think that’s a really good line,and I’d like to use that line, because I do have
a reservoir of hope. Because we’re not going back people, are we?
We’re not going back even 30 years ago, 1980’s, when
you were not allowed to talk about LGBT people in schools.
We’ve moved on from that now. And I tell you what it gives me hope, Alistair, is that
this was on the news this morning, about a school in Nottingham where some of the protesters
from Birmingham have gone to this school, and are standing outside
with placards in the same way that they did with my school, and it’s like 12
of them outside the school saying “Stop sexualisation of children” and all this. But
what’s really good is that parents in that school walked into
school, past them, with rainbow flags. Parents walked in, they were not
put off, and they walk past them and there’s footage of them all over Sky
News this morning. Parents are saying “These ideas don’t
belong here. We want our children to be educated.” That gives
me hope, because that shows that, yes, there’s difficulties, there’s challenges,
but that’s good, isn’t it? It’s good because it means that this dialogue, this
debate, is happening nationally now. It’s not under the carpet.
It’s out there so let’s talk about it, let’s work together. No, I’m absolutely
confident that we can find a way forward. I know how this is gonna end.
It’s gonna end with all schools doing this work, maybe not No Outsiders, but all
schools doing work around equality. It might take a couple of years, it might
take five years, six years, but it will happen, because what’s the alternative?
The alternative is just to say “Well, okay, you don’t belong.” And schools aren’t gonna say that.
(AL) That’s a really great note to leave it on. We’ll obviously have links to all those stories in the show notes, and, Andrew, we look forward to
discussing this in more detail at the Bradlaugh Lecture. Thanks so much.
(AM) Thank you. (Chris Sloggett) So now we turn
o the issue of male circumcision. Historically religious groups,
particularly Jews and Muslims, have been given carte blanche to cut the
genitals of healthy boys to fit in with long-standing traditions. But now there
are signs of change on the issue. The release of the recent BBC documentary
A Cut Too Far was the latest sign that the tide may gradually be turning on this issue.
Shortly after the documentary was published, the NSS’s CEO, Stephen Evans, had a piece published in The Independent, arguing that medically unnecessary infant genital cutting should end.
Stephen joins me now along with our Campaigns Officer, Megan Manson.
(Stephen Evans) Hello.
(Megan Manson) Hiya (AL) So, Stephen, defenders of male
circumcision often say this is a religious freedom issue. Your argument is
that they’ve got a blinkered view of what religious freedom means and what it involves.
Would you mind just explaining why? (SE) Sure. Well, it is for sure that those advocating for the right to cut children, for
them this is an issue of religious freedom. They want the right to do this
for religious reasons. Certainly when Iceland proposed legislation to
outlaw infant circumcision last year, religious leaders across
Europe united to claim this was an attack on religious freedom. But, of
course, as is so often the case with these sort of things, they’re only really
looking at that from their own narrow point of view. There seems to be an
assumption, I think, on their part that children don’t have human rights, too.
But the reality is that children do have rights. They have the right to bodily integrity,
to be protected from harm. They absolutely have their right to their
own independent religious freedom too. Circumcision, don’t forget, is
in many ways a stamp of religious identity on a child. It’s an irreversible
marker of identity. So, clearly, you see that we have some sort of clash of rights
developing here. As a society I think we need to balance competing
rights and freedoms, and not forget to consider the rights of the child.
(AL) So, Steven, what you’re really saying here ties in with a lot of the points
that we were making at our recent Secularism 2019 Conference, where we were
saying religious freedom is a qualified right, and it’s a right that actually
belongs to everybody, and you don’t have the right to impose your view of
religious freedom on others. Is that fair? (SE) Yeah, Absolutely. That’s
absolutely it. So whilst you have the right to your belief, you don’t
necessarily have the right to impose those beliefs and others. As argued
in the blog, you certainly shouldn’t assume to have the right to impose those
beliefs with a pair of scissors or a sharp knife on the genitals of a
non-consenting child. So unless you’re the kind of person that thinks
anything religious should demand some sort of automatic or unqualified respect,
then ritual circumcision is something that we should, as a society I
think, consider carefully, because it does represent a violation of the rights of the child.
(AL) There’s a reluctance to compare male circumcision to FGM. This
was something that was brought up in the BBC documentary, but as soon as that happened
I noticed that the presenter referred to the comparison as controversial.
What do you think explains this reluctance? What’s the relationship between the two?
Because there are nuances, of course, and I suppose we want to just unpick that.
And do you think the two can becombatted together?
(SE) Well. Yeah. Let’s be clear . FGM is a barbaric practice
that needs to be eradicated. Millions of girls and women around the
world bear the scars. Thankfully progress is really being made on that issue I think. It’s understandable that some
FGM campaigners, I think, fear that equating infant circumcision, which is
lawful and even respected in some quarters, could undermine the efforts to
tackle FGM. so the current situation we have is that any form of
FGM is illegal in the UK, and indeed in many other countries, and typically
regarded as barbaric. Now, on the other hand, we have this thing called male
circumcision which has, at least until recently anyway, being regarded as
something that’s quite benign, or even beneficial on health grounds, although we
have to say that the supposed health benefits are weak, they’re contested, and are
actually largely irrelevant in a Western context. So to listen some
people you think the two things have absolutely nothing in common,
they’re totally different, you shouldn’t even talk about them in the
same breath. But I don’t really buy that. You don’t need to compare them,
but I think it is quite reasonable to point out the similarities between the two practices.
Because they are many and varied. Both involve painful, usually permanent,
surgery on a non-consenting child. Both procedures vary in severity.
Many people don’t actually realize There are many different forms of FGM,
and FGM at its “mildest”, for want of a better word, is actually less invasive than
the average male circumcision. But both procedures, too, are medically unnecessary, they both can result in injury,
complications, and even death, as we’ve seen, including here in the UK.
It’s not about comparing them, but I would suggest that we should
take the same consistent and ethical approach to all forms of
ritual genital cutting. (AL) So there’s an ethical similarity in the
case against male circumcision and the case against FGM, in that both boys and
girls, indeed all children, have the right to bodily integrity, and the assumption
should be that children’s bodies are their own, and that if they want to
alter them, they could do it when they’re older. I suppose I would say
that making that case consistently, strengthens the case against both male
circumcision and FGM, because it’s a clear ethical line that you don’t cross.
(SE) Absolutely. What we’re saying really is the principle of bodily integrity should apply equally to all children, irrespective of sex.
We accept that FGM is a violation of human rights of girls, so what we’re saying is
non-therapeutic male circumcision is a violation of the rights of boys. So we’ve
got a gender double standard in the way the law deals with them. I think
that’s what we’re saying needs to be addressed. Don’t forget that a rising tide of human rights
will float all boats so this is something that, I think, FGM campaigners
should be able to get behind. (AL) So, Megan, turning to you,
you’ve noted that powerful people are often at pains to suggest that FGM has
nothing to do with religion, and you recently wrote a blog on our website
arguing that this was a misguided view. Do you mind explaining why?
(Megan Manson) Sure. I was quite struck by the fact that during discussions in Parliament about FGM,
politicians would say again and again that FGM has nothing to do with religion.
The reality is FGM does have something to do with religion, and there are
certain Muslim sects, for example, around the world, who assert that the reason
why they cut their daughters is because they consider it’s a religious requirement.
And no doubt politicians and other stakeholders are well-meaning when
they say that FGM is not a religious practice. At the local level,
campaigners may tell people in communities that practice FGM, that it’s
not a religious requirement, to try and deter them from doing it. But what
actually happens is that this entrenches the idea that something that’s religious
cannot be harmful, because religions are seen to be benign or beneficial and so,
therefore, FGM cannot be religious. But this is really quite simplistic thinking.
Many religious practices, both past and present, can be very harmful.
So denying that harmful practices like FGM have anything to do religion is a
way of shielding religion from criticism, and in turn that shields
male circumcision from criticism, because everyone knows that circumcision is
strongly connected with religion, particularly Judaism. Politicians and
other stakeholders need to be braver and they need to call out harmful religious practices,
rather than just denying that they’re religious. (AL) So, we need to tackle
this way of thinking, don’t we? That religion is automatically a good thing,
and the religious practices can’t be harmfu,l and I think that there’s a
sort of short-termism about it sometimes, isn’t there? Where I think, politicians think
to themselves “Look, if we say that FGM has nothing to do with religion, then FGM
is seen as further beyond the pale than ever” – obviously it’s beyond the pale in the first place – but it pushes it even further away,
and therefore we’re going to tackle that. (SE) I think it also reveals a reluctance to challenge people’s religious freedom, or restrict
people’s religious freedom, and so that feeds into this narrative that religious
freedom is something that is absolute, that it’s sacrosanct, that you can’t
challenge, when we all know, but I don’t think enough people realize, that religious freedom is very much a qualified right, and can
be set aside in certain circumstances. I think we need to be a little bit
less squeamish about making clear to people that their religious freedom
is not absolute, and actually sometimes the state has as a duty to interfere
with that right, if it’s to protect the rights and freedoms of others. (MM) There is another point as well.
I keep hearing that these people who say that FGM has nothing to do religion
often say it’s to do with patriarchy, it’s to do with subjugating women.
Now the problem with that argument is that every culture that practices FGM also
practises male circumcision. So, although it might be the case that there is
a form of patriarchal control involved, it goes deeper than that. There is more
going on here, because the genitals of both children, of both sexes, are cut.
(AL) It’s perhaps just more of a fashionable case to make I suppose, whereas
actually saying “Look this is, at least in some cases, or at least to
some extent, a religious tradition, but that doesn’t make it okay.” I think that
actually strengthens the case against both FGM and male circumcision and
sometimes we just need to be clear that the state needs to be prepared to stand
up to religious practices. That doesn’t mean hiding behind the sort of
cop-out, that all this isn’t truly religious, because sometimes it is.
Obviously, any religious challenges to these practices we do welcome, but, at the
same time, pretending that they are not religious is, I think, a fool’s errand.
So there are differing opinions about how best to bring about an end to infant genital cutting.
The presenter of the BBC’s documentary concluded that regulation, rather than outright
legal restrictions, would be appropriate. What’s your response to that line of argument, and
what do you think is the best way to approach this? (SE) Well, I suppose there are
three approaches you can take: – you can just leave well alone
– you can regulate the practice, or – you can ban it.
Now there’s no question that bringing in legislation to outlaw genital cutting
would be difficult politically, particularly in the context of rising
anti-semitism and anti-muslim bigotry across Europe. The idea of
regulating a human rights violation doesn’t strike me as a sensible way
forward either. Circumcision, as with any other religious or cultural tradition, is
something that is carried out quite often unthinkingly, you know,
“This is something we’ve always done”, “We do things this way because we’ve
always done things this way.” So I think what we really need first is a
conversation. We need to encourage people to think about this, to question it.
Some people are. Within some Jewish faith traditions, the Brit Shalom ceremony is being increasingly adopted by Jewish parents. Now this is a
ceremony that, like infant circumcision, welcomes children into the world, but
it doesn’t involve cutting their genitals. I think the tide is, perhaps, beginning to turn,
and this needs to happen. But I think we certainly need to
change hearts and minds, we need to have conversations,
we need people to question the practice, and I think that needs to be a precursor to
any attempt to outlaw genital cutting, But ultimately I think that’s where we need to go.
(MM) I think that campaigners against FGM should also be very, very wary about
arguments regarding regulation. Because advocates of more minor forms of FGM, where only a pinprick incision is made,
or small amount of tissue is removed from the clitoris, those people, who are
advocating for that, would argue that if we tolerate a regulated form of infant
male circumcision, it would be discriminatory to not tolerate a
regulated form of FGM. And they sort of have a point. But the solution,
obviously, is not to weaken our protection for the rights of girls to
bodily integrity, it’s to strengthen the protection of both boys and girls
from non-consensual forms of religious and cultural genital cutting.
(SE) Yeah. This is something which we’re seeing a lot, in America in particular, where FGM is managing to become a sort of
controversial issue legally. And I think a lot of anti-FGM campaigners would have
thought that was very, very unlikely to happen. And it would be horrifying to
see, well it is horrifying to see, potentially backward steps on that, but, as you say,
the logic has to be applied consistently in order to protect children.
(AL) Okay. So, Steven, Megan, thank you very much. (SE) Thank you.
(MM) Thank you. (Chris Sloggett) Thank you for joining us on the
National Secular Society podcast. Have a look in the show notes for more details on the
Bradlaugh Lecture, the articles we’ve discussed on male circumcision, and
links to our website, where you can get involved with the NSS’s work.
We’ll see you next time.