In all the wringing of hands about the violence at the end of the Hibs/Rangers Scottish cup final, there is a reluctance to tackle the root of the question. The debate has in recent weeks been reinvigorated over the Scottish law banning sectarian songs and displays at football matches, with speculation that the Scottish Parliament will now have a majority for lifting it. Public mass displays of hate speech do not to me come under freedom of speech. My guide as usual is the philosopher John Stuart Mill, who stated that to argue that corn merchants are parasites who thrive on the misery of the poor is freedom of speech. To yell the same thing to an armed mob outside a corn merchant’s house at night is not. That seems a precise analogy to sectarian songs in football grounds and Mill – whose father was from Montrose – is right.
But sensible as the ban is, it does nothing to tackle the cause of sectarian hatred. The greatest cause is segregated education. It is difficult to hate people when you grow up amongst them, share your earliest friendships and experiences with them, and learn together. It is easy to hate people when you are taught from your most innocent youth that they are different, and are forcibly segregated from them by the state for all the time you spend outside the family environment in young childhood. They are the other, different, rivals, the enemy. Name-calling, stone throwing, hostile chanting, sectarian singing and your football banner and scarf all ensue in obvious and logical succession.
I find the fact that the state routinely segregates Catholic and Protestant children in school, as the norm in much of Scotland, deeply shocking. The lack of intellectual honesty in facing up to the open consequences is pathetic. It behoves me as someone whose family is Scots-Italian and Hibs supporting to say that the Catholic Church bears a major share of the blame. So do Scottish politicians, who are in large majority too scared of voter reaction to take a firm stand on the issue.
The Catholic/Protestant divide is particularly acute in Scotland, but England has precisely the same problem with faith schools. If you filter out the substantial degree of Islamophobia in many reports, it is still plain that there is a problem with “Islamic” schools which teach values which have no place in modern education. (I would argue they are also a deviation from Islam, but that is a different argument for another day). I recently highlighted the interview by Mark Wallis Simons about education at a Jewish Orthodox school in England where pro-Israel propaganda was such that the pupils would fight for Israel against Britain. Thanks to Tony Blair, the leader who believes God wanted him to start war in Iraq, England has actually seen a growth in state schools which are a strong feature of the neo-cons’ “Academy system”. This has led to state schools being run by all shades of religious nutter including creationists.
Finally I would add to this sorry mix my experience in Blackburn, where with the active connivance of a Labour council there were apparently normal state schools under local authority control, within a couple of hundred yards of each other, which were 99% Muslim or 99% non-Muslim.
The answer to this problem is not to cherry-pick which faith is acceptable and which faith is not. The answer is simple. It has been accepted for centuries that the state has the right and duty to prescribe and provide education for children. There must be no segregated religious education in the UK. Children should attend school in a mixed environment and there learn a broad educational curriculum in which shade of religious belief has no place. Outside of school the religious life of the family is no business of the state. The children’s education is no business of the religion.
Private schools are a further different question. Quite simply I would abolish them, irrespective of the faith question, as they entrench the networks of growing social inequality.