Daniel Stafford is a Conservative activist in Oxford.
The concern Christians have expressed regarding the potential scope of the Anti-Terror Prevent Duty is less a matter of religious rights and freedoms, and more fundamentality a question on the future of freedom of speech in our nation. Most Conservatives are small-l liberals, to the extent that on the whole we believe the state should generally leave people alone, while also recognising that there are occasions which require the state to interfere in our personal liberty.
We should not, therefore, rashly join the haste to lambast Mark Spencer MP for expressing his views as to how the Prevent Duty Legislation could be used. The country does face a challenge at home to address the potential radicalisation of young people in Britain, and the legislation is intended to make it much more difficult for extreme views to be propagated in schools.
It is worth bearing that intent in mind as we consider the views Spencer has put forward – the legislation is not intended primarily to reduce extreme views, but rather to make much less likely the extreme behaviour that is informed by extreme views. To give a crude example – there is a world of difference between the statement of faith Muslims hold to: ‘There is one God, Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet’, and the extreme view that only minority of that faith then take: ‘therefore anyone who does not recognise this is a legitimate target.’
Let’s be clear, the first is an exclusive statement – anyone who is not a Muslim could not subscribe to it, in much the same way that not everyone will subscribe to the view that ‘There is no God’, or ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’, or ‘God is in all things.’ Such statements only become extreme statements when they provide the foundation for someone to then act in an extreme manner against someone else.
In that regard, Christianity is quite possibly the least deserving faith to be classed as extreme. The principle tenant of Christianity is to love each other (or if you prefer, be kind to one another) as Jesus Christ loved us – and his model of love was to self-sacrificially give himself up for humanity. While it is true that individual Christians have not always shown this selfless love well, and certain groups that would call themselves ‘Christian’ act in a manner that is anything but, on the whole Christianity has a wonderful regard for right of conscience for individuals.
Individual right of freedom of conscience owes much to the reformer Martin Luther, who famously declared “Here I stand, I can do no other” – it recognises belief and values as something deeply personal to the individual, which cannot be simply imposed upon them. At the same time, it sees no conflict in promoting values they believe to be right (as Spencer points out) while recognising not everyone may subscribe to them. C.S. Lewis gave a very pertinent example when Parliament was considering changing the law on divorce – a Christian could oppose the principle of divorce while recognising the right of non-Christians to divorce if they so wish; in much the same way that he hoped Muslims could oppose the principle of drinking alcohol, while recognising the rights of non-Muslims to drink alcohol if they so wish.
Let us also give Spencer the credit for meeting the concern of Christians head-on – would a Christian teacher be at risk for expressing their views? Bearing in mind the intent set out above, they should not. A Christian, or indeed a teacher of any belief or faith, will express views that significant numbers of their class will object to – my wife teaches Religious Education classes, and a frequent refrain from awkward members of the class is “I’m an atheist – I don’t want to learn this!”
Which is why the case is not about religious freedoms, but about freedom of speech in general. Let me give this example – should a teacher be censured when teaching about Christianity because it teaches about the concept of sin, and certain pupils find that uncomfortable? What about the teacher who teaches that in the absence of a god, this life is all there is? Or what about history teachers – should they be censured when they teach the eugenics policy of Nazi Germany, or the homicidal policies of Stalin’s Russia? For that matter, should English teachers for the last forty years be censured for commending Atticus Finch as a good man, when it now transpires he was a racist?
There is of course a serious point, which is that a teacher can abuse their position of authority to make a huge impression upon a class, especially with those of a very young age. However much that may be the case, you don’t need anti-terror legislation to deal with that. If a teacher abuses their position in such a manner, it becomes a case for professional disciplinary measures, and it is not with the purpose of quashing uncomfortable views from discussion but rather, as Mark Spencer to his credit observes, ensuring that these views are not pushed forward to the exclusion of debate or expression of the alternative perspectives. The fact is, using anti-terror laws to censure a teacher for expressing views in a manner or context which was not appropriate is rather like bringing a water cannon to a water pistol fight – excessive, and liable to upset your friends.
The way forward for the party is clear; while we must continue to thoughtfully assess how we can make the task of extremists more difficult, and protect our young people from genuine indoctrination, we should not in so doing strangle the free expression of views in education, nor threaten our teachers with a legislative threat wholly disproportionate to the possible harm caused. It would be a sad loss if Christians, with their high regard for freedom of conscience, felt permanently excluded from public expression of their faith.