Writing on the Wall

Submitted by AWL on 30 March, 2005 - 10:38

Religious freedom?

Dr Amina Wadud is an Islamic scholar now living in New York. An outspoken feminist, Dr Wadud believes that women have an equal role to play in all aspects of Islamic faith and culture.

Unfortunately, the voices of the Muslim community more usually patronised by the left and liberal intelligentsia think that anyone who believes this kind of thing should be killed.

Wadud has received many death threats, and an religious service led by her recently had to be moved because extreme Islamists threatened to bomb the art gallery where it was to be held. It was eventually held in New York’s Episcopalian Cathedral.

One of the most virulent condemnations of Dr Wadud has come from Ken Livingstone’s bosom friend, the Muslim Brotherhood Islamist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Al-Qaradawi believes that mosques, like society, should be strictly segregated, and that women should not lead prayers because their sexuality will distract the all-important men from worship.

Religious hate

New Labour has abandoned its plan to outlaw incitement to religious hatred, for now. The feeling is that they will be unable to get it through Parliament before its suspension during the election campaign.

The law which would have made incitement of religious hatred an offence was bitterly criticised and justifiably so. The idea really was to update the blasphemy laws so that all religious groups, not just the Christian, would be covered. Many felt it could outlaw anti-religious satire and political comment by secularists and atheists. The government said not. But such a law would be defined and tested in the courts and the danger was that plenty of cases would be brought — not by people seeking to outlaw racism (which is already, rightly, covered by the law), but by people wanting to give religious mumbo-jumbo special status, make it beyond criticism or at least make much criticism too “offensive” to be tolerated.

It is good that the law will not go ahead right now, but, like the abortion issue, it will not go away. This law has been lobbied for by religious leaders for a long time, and they will not drop the issue. Nor should we.

Churchmen and sodomy

The English Churchman is a C of E publication whose editorial team seem, Rip van Winkle-like, to have fallen asleep in the days of Archbishop Laud and are just now waking up and stretching their cobwebbed limbs. As such, they have of course not noticed any of the important debates of the present day.

Instead, the latest issue leads with an ethical problem. What if a Christian working in a furniture shop is confronted with a “sodomite” [sic] or an unmarried heterosexual who wants to buy a bed? What a quandary!

The solution? The sinner should be allowed to make his or her purchase, but must take the bed away in secret shame, like “an alcoholic housewife or a pornography addict…in a brown paper bag”.

Inequality, and how to fight it

The top one per cent now own 35% of all marketable wealth (bar homes), up from 26% in 1996. The top 10% own 75% of the wealth, up from 63% in 1996.

According to the new edition of the official Social Trends report, the trend over most of the 20th century was for the inequality of wealth to be narrowed, slowly. There is no single series of statistics which gives comparable figures for different periods, but the trend was solid until the Tory Government of 1979–97. New Labour continues the Thatcher counter-trend towards increased inequality.

Inequality of income also grew in the 1980s, and has continued to grow under New Labour, mainly because “there has been much more rapid growth in the top one per cent of incomes than for the rest”.

The primary reason for the increased inequality is also documented in Social Trends: the relative weakening of the trade unions. Union density (trade-union membership as a percentage of employees) has been roughly stable around 29% for a few years, but it was 50% back in 1979. Worryingly, it is especially low for young workers — only 10% for 16 to 24 year olds. And the level of active trade unionism, as measured by strikes, has decreased even more, from an average of 12 million striker-days per year in 1970–85 to 500,000 in 2003 and a lot less in many years since 1991.

With inequality goes poor social provision. The UK’s infant mortality rate is the highest among the 15 pre-2004 member countries of the European Union. At 5.3 per thousand, it is almost twice Sweden’s rate of 2.8 per thousand.

Although school student numbers have been mostly declining since the mid-1970s, over a quarter of school classes of 7 to 11-year-olds in some regions — North West, East Midlands, and South West — are overcrowded, with over 31 students.

While the basic state pension has declined steadily in proportion to average earnings, overall pensioners’ income has in fact risen faster than average earnings (up 26% between 1994–5 and 2002–3 in real terms, while earnings rose 13% in real terms). This means that inequality has increased between the well-off, with good occupational and private pensions, and the large numbers dependent mainly or solely on the state pension.

In 1968, 200,000 new houses and flats were built by local authorities. By 2003–4, the number of units of “social housing” built in the year had gone down to 19,000, almost all by housing associations rather than local authorities.

And “while private sector rents… have traditionally been higher than those paid in the social sector, the difference has increased sharply over the past 10 years. Between 1993–4 and 2003–4 the mean private sector rent in England (after housing benefit) doubled. In contrast, rents… only increased… 47% for local authority accommodation”.

Consequently, the number of homeless households in temporary accommodation has risen from 41,000 in March 1997 to 97,000 in March 2004.

One bit of good news, though, is that — contrary to many people’s impressions — “reading rates have risen over the last 25 years, from 54 per cent of adults in 1977 to 65% in 2002–3” having read a book in the last four weeks. Get the right sort of books, pamphlets, and papers into the hands of those who want to read, and we can do something about those statistics for declining working-class organisation and increased inequality!

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