This piece first appeared in The Big Issue magazine – journalism worth paying for. Available from street vendors UK wide or subscription.
Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford has 3 and a half miles of books. It’s a wonderful place. The deputy manager told me how they staged Doctor Faustus in its stacks recently. Nearly 25 years ago as a student, I was there for what turned out to be Salman Rushdie’s last public reading from The Satanic Verses. I was the only person to ask whether he feared his Muslim background meant he was going to be treated in a way no other writer would. Rushdie said no, and it’s highly probable he believed it at the time.
It felt like a a singular madness. When I agreed a year ago to chair some discussions for the World Humanist Congress, in Oxford in August, it was as a favour to the head of the British Humanist Association (BHA), who’d introduced me to the TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But the weekend turned out to be a thought-provoking chance to connect what happened after that 1988 book reading to the global fight by humanists, for a moral framework of human rights without religion.
Among more than a thousand delegates in Oxford I met Norwegians concerned at how they felt the Lutheran church had pushed to cement its state influence after the Anders Brevik massacre.
Exeter University Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou described how some of her students, funded by American Christian fundamentalist organisations, waste hours of teaching time challenging her expert authority on the historical origins of Bible texts.
Babu Gogineni, a leading humanist campaigner in India against superstition, which is embedded in public Hindu life, recounted stories that made you laugh — such as embarrassing astrologers on national TV for their failed predictions; but also incidents that made the audience sit in sombre silence — the regularity with which Dalit (untouchable) caste Hindus were harassed and tortured for “witchcraft” by landowners. Babu told me how the police stopped him boarding his flight to the conference and held him for just long enough to remind him that they can make his life difficult.
Leo Igwe from Nigeria, has been beaten up for his relentless campaign against Christian witchhunters who starve and torture children. All these years after the murder of Victoria Climbie as a result of just such beliefs, Leo pointed out that a prominent Nigerian witch hunter was set to come to London in a widely publicised visit.
Valentin Abgottspon, a school teacher from Switzerland might not have faced any violence, but his fight to enforce the law protecting freedom of belief by taking down a crucifix in his classroom, exposed the hypocrisy of a nation which likes to claim it’s a bastion of human rights. His challenge to the Catholic Church and its privileged support from the supposedly secular state authorities embodied the biggest question of the Congress: Does every case of religious discrimination matter equally?
After all, the Congress was taking place as Yazidi minority Iraqis were starving to death or being buried alive in the desert by Islamic State fighters. So who better to ask than Richard Dawkins, vice chairman of the BHA at the Congress, whose belief in logical thinking and related provocative pronouncements on twitter have led to huge controversy? I put to him Nobel prize winning physicist Peter Higgs’ criticism — that it was a mistake to pick on moderate religious believers and alienate potential allies in the war against extremists.
Dawkins said, watching the horrors of Islamic extremism, he did wonder if Christianity was a useful “bulwark” against it. But he also felt moderate faith leaders, by upholding core superstitions, ultimately made it possible for extremists to flourish.
In the Q&A one prominent ex-Muslim pulled an easy stunt by ripping up a paper home made Islamic State flag with a flourish to great applause. Afterwards another ex-Muslim told me how one delegate had suggested to him that someone should try to invent an anti-Muslim “vaccine”. An isolated moment, but revealing of human nature at a conference all about the danger of sweeping prejudices.
The conference theme you see was building a twenty first century Enlightenment. Europeans during the 17th century one proved capable of advocating human rights while widely tolerating slavery, child labour and the subjugation of women as subhuman and the property of men. Today Western leaders condemn Islamic State while remaining politically close to the Gulf States from where much of their ideology and funding is believed to emanate. I bought a book in Blackwells before I left by the novelist and humanist EM Forster. That bloke who said, “Only connect”.