Shami Chakrabarti in Bradford

My wife I took my teenage daughter to see Shami Chakrabarti of "Liberty" (formerly the National Council for Civil Liberties) speak at Bradford University last week (2009 June 03).

It was, in many ways, a wonderful experience. The "Great Hall" at Bradford was full to bursting, and it was nice to see that so many people were prepared to drag themselves away from things like Big Brother and Britain's Got Talent (not to mention their computers) to simply listen to someone speak in a hall. Shami was eloquent, entertaining, and self assured. A superb role model for my daughter.

Shami spoke movingly about the battles fought and won over the years, and the battles (e.g. on "rendition" and torture) still playing out today. She reminded us that the European Court of Human rights is not some kind of arm of Brussels's EU bureaucracy that forces us to eat straight bananas (as the Daily Mail might have it) it is the result of a process began, after the horrors of World War II, by Winston Churchill's brain child: The Council of Europe. Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe (who oversaw the drafting of Convention and whose moniker hardly conjures up an image of Johnny Foreigner) said at the time that it was designed to incorporate a traditional civil liberties approach to securing "effective political democracy", from the strongest traditions in the United Kingdom, France and other member states of Europe.

But then Shami said a few words about religion .......

First of all she contrasted states where a single compulsory state religion that permeates all aspects of life (citing Afghanistan under the Taliban and England under the Tudors as examples) with states where religion was more or less outlawed (the French Republic and Soviet Russia) and indicated that her position lay somewhere between these extremes. Fair enough! Shami then went on to suggest that (Professor) Richard Dawkins (who she insisted on referring to as "Mr Dawkins") was an advocate of the Soviet approach to religion and that he denied the contribution of religion to art, culture, and music. This is quite simply false in every respect and a gross calumny against Richard Dawkins.

Shami went on to provide an example of how Liberty had helped forge a righteous path between these two extremes by (for example) championing the case of Sarika Watkins-Singh who wished to wear her kara (Sikh bracelet) to school that had rules against the wearing of any jewellery.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not generally against people wearing karas or crosses round their necks or any other symbols and I don't really understand why the school thought it necessary to ban jewellery - other than (perhaps) in the laboratories and on the playing fields - but the judgement in this case (endorsed by Liberty) seems just plain barmy.

The judges ruled that though it was perfectly okay for schools to impose general bans on jewellery, they have to make exceptions for individuals who claim that their jewellery is religious in character. In other words, the judges and Liberty have endorsed the principle of different laws for people of different faiths.

As we have seen in many parts of the world, this is the road to tyranny not the road to liberty.

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