Religious insignia

Well I hope I get my pectoral cross through the airport security tonight – since the display of religious symbols is becoming such a huge political issue.  One has to be careful – India Knight in today’s Sunday Times suggests that Moslems are becoming the ‘new Jews’ and that the political sensitivity about dress and veils is part of a growing anti-Islamic feeling in society.  There is, of course, a legitimate and honourable argument about religious freedom – and religious groups which feel under pressure will naturally tend either to vanish out of sight in order not to draw attention to themselves or will do the opposite -asserting ever more strongly their identity and individuality.  Out of my reading and exploring of the nature of sectarianism in Ireland, I find myself unhappy when strong expressions of religious identity become the bearer or the marker of other strands of cultural and political identity.  I have no problem with strong and confident expressions of religious belonging – provided that they come with strong messages about including and respecting other strongly-held expressions of belonging.  But then of course you run into the difficulty which I used to run into in my parish.  I used to risk saying, ‘I don’t think I would be happy to send my child to the Free Presybterian Sunday School’ [Ian Paisley’s Church].  To which parishioner would reply, ‘Sure they are all the same anyway – isn’t that what you are always saying?’


  1. My choice would always be the latter. Much of the challenge of sharing space comes down to being able to tolerate one another’s symbols. I have an affection for the American model – maybe only possible in a new country where everybody [apart from the native Americans, of course!] is an incomer. You can have Polish Americans, Irish Americans, etc. But it seems to me that the other question beyond your choices is that the extent to which ethnic minority groups are prepared to make an clear commitment to engage in wider society. The issue of faith schools lurks in the background of these questions.

  2. There are two main approaches to multiculturalism which, in each case, aim towards an ideal state.

    In one of these ideal states, no-one exhibits any religious or ethnic symbolism or sporting allegiance for fear of perpetuating divisions within society (France has travelled a considerable way down this road). There is fear that open avowal of faith may make others feel threatened or insulted.

    In another, people display all kinds of personal statements of faith, ethnicity, sporting allegiance, etc. and no-one bothers.

    Which of these should we be aiming most towards?

  3. The piece was so vituperative that the “new Jews” allusion wasn’t elucidated – feminists are 55 year old slappers? I read her as implying that the opinions expressed are an unwarranted piece of prejudice against a small and unthreatening minority – as the Jews were. I have never encountered any “polite” person who regarded anti-Semitism as acceptable!

  4. Strange – I read her the other way round. As tho’ there was a risk that it was becoming acceptable to indulge in persecution of Moslems – as anti-Semitism was also acceptable in polite society.

  5. I’m not sure of the validity of India Knight’s analogy – I’m not aware of the Jews since AD 70 persecuting anyone for their religious beliefs in the way that happens in some Islamic states. One faces the paradox of having to be illiberal to preserve liberal values.

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