T + 641 Enquiry Conference Part Five (PG)

This is the final part of my write up of the Enquiry 2010 Conference and one that highlights two of the most important areas where religious practices have a real and negative impact on people's lives. So even if you haven't been following this series of posts I would ask you to read this one.

It is rated Potentially Gruesome for a discussion of delicate surgical matters.

Maryam Namazie

Maryam gave a very impassioned talk about the rise of Sharia or Islamic Law in the UK. You might be forgiven for thinking that Sharia Law has no relevance to the UK and only applies to countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran, like me, you'd be wrong.

I had a vague recollection of some arbitration matters that could be dealt with under private arrangements such as Rabbinical Courts for religious jews and recall the Archbishop of Canterbury getting into hot water when raising the subject of Sharia Law in the UK. However Maryam's talk really opened my eyes.

The 1996 Arbitration Act allows for parties to voluntarily agree to have a legal dispute decided by a body other than a court. The use of this is supposed to be prescribed to certain limited areas of civil law and specific circumstances.

However Muslim Arbitration Panels (MAPs) that operate under the act and can make legally binding agreements and so called Sharia Councils that, though not formally recognised, operate in the UK are being used to override the rights of women in matters of divorce and childcare.

At one level there is the whole issue of consent and whether women in close knit religiously based communities are truly free to consent to have their legal disputes settled by one of these bodies. Maryam gave lots of examples where pressure was brought to bear on young vulnerable women scared of being outcast from their community and family or even threatened with physical violence to make them submit to a Sharia Council or MAP.

Even if you disregard that serious issue the whole concept upon with these bodies operate is incompatible with basic human rights and moral principles of justice.

To give some examples from the One Law for All campaign site:-

  • Under Sharia law a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s
  • A woman’s marriage contract is between her male guardian and her husband ( the woman cannot not sign the contract).
  • A man can divorce his wife by simple repudiation, whereas a woman must give reasons, some of which are extremely difficult to prove.
  • Child custody reverts to the father at a preset age, even if the father is abusive.
  • Women who remarry lose custody of their children.
  • Sons are entitled to inherit twice the share of daughters.
It seems hard to believe that these things can be going on in the UK but they are.

Maryam and the One Law for All campaign have a petition that people can sign to call for an end to these practices and a change in the law. I urge you to sign it.

Dr Anthony Lempert

Dr Lempert is a GP in Powys, Wales and co-ordinator of the Secular Medical Forum (SMF). This is a campaign body with a membership of UK Healthcare professionals that seeks to ensure there is a secular approach to healthcare in the UK.

Dr Lempert was an engaging speaker and with a careful balance of humour and reasoned argument he spoke on a number of matters relating to healthcare where religious beliefs of either healthcare professionals or people other than the patient themselves have a deleterious impact on the patient.

In a wide ranging talk he covered a lot of the obvious areas that might come under scrutiny in relation to religious practice such as abortion, the right to die with dignity and contraception.

One surprising fact he stated was that hospital chaplains are funded by the NHS not by the churches they represent. This is done at a cost to the NHS and therefore the tax payer of around £35 million a year. I naively assumed that these posts were funded by the church.

One of the main areas he concentrated on and that I would like to highlight here is what the forum calls, perhaps somewhat euphemistically, Religious Surgery on Children.

The practice of Female Circumcision or what is more rightly called Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a barbaric practise that is carried out on young girls & women for supposed religious and cultural reasons. It was made explicitly illegal in the UK in 1985 but as the SMF point out:-

Some British girls of Muslim parents are still being sent back to the countries of their parents' origin for this dreadful procedure to be done. And, many believe it is even performed secretly in this country. Female genital mutilation (FGM) has been illegal in the UK since 1985 and the law was updated in 2003. It remains unclear why there has not been a single successful prosecution in all that time.

Dr Lempert then went on to discuss the issue of male circumcision, something that is performed on boys of religious jewish parents before the child is 8 days old and on many muslim children in early childhood.

There are medical reasons for a circumcision to be necessary but they are relatively few, these religious circumcisions are completely non-theraputic and this irreversible operation is being performed on babies who can in no way be considered to have consented to this elective procedure.

Dr Lempert put this into perspective in the following way. Imagine a proud Liberal Democrat couple have a baby boy and they take him to their doctor and say as part of raising their child that they would like the doctor to tattoo the word "Lib Dem" on the baby's forehead. What would the doctor's reaction be? Image the reaction if the same couple said actually they wanted their little boy to be tattooed on his penis.

Luckily the tattooing of a minor is completely illegal in the UK but a far more irreversible operation is not illegal. It doesn't even have to be performed by a doctor. It can be performed by religious figures as long as they don't claim they are doctors. They are also not required to keep any record of what they have done or any follow up on the outcome of their operations that can sometimes quite literally be performed on the kitchen table.

You may be thinking, well this is not very satisfactory but there is no real harm done. However to quote again from the SMF.

Research published by Sorrells et al in 2007 confirms ..... that the foreskin contains several of the most sensitive areas on the penis. Many men are too embarrassed to speak out about the harm done to their most intimate body parts in the name of their parents' religion. It is not they who should be ashamed. Scarring, infections, pain on urinating and psychosexual difficulties are not uncommon results of ritual childhood circumcision.

It is hard to get figures on the number of children that get adverse reactions in part because, as stated earlier, non-doctors performing this operation do not need to keep any records, but even if it only affected a few there is no reason to allow this completely unnecessary surgery to take place on babies who may not even grow up to have the same religious beliefs as their parents.


I must first begin with an apology for not writing up the talks given by Professor A C Grayling and Dr Gijsbert Stoet. They both gave very interesting talks. The 1st on the nature of proof when it comes to God and why it is irrational to believe in a supernatural being, the second on the role chaplains and was there a need for humanist chaplains.

To purvey the subtlety of Professor Grayling's arguments or the detail of the wide ranging areas Dr Stoet covered would take up a lot of space and I fear I may have already gone on too long about the conference on this blog.

However to summarise, it was a very enjoyable and informative conference and I met some very interesting people. Some people may think my active interest in atheism and humanism is just an academic exercise or a personal matter but I hope this post in particular has shown that there are issues that affect the wider public and in a 21st Century liberal democracy such as the UK they deserve to be given proper scrutiny.

The public practices of people of religious faith cannot be given special treatment or be impervious to being held up to the standards for other practice just because they have an imaginary friend that they say tells them to do it.


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