A nod to reality, an affront to religious liberty, or both? As radicalization continues to percolate in the UK, the Home Office has a new proposal to spot and counter it, but it’s not going to be well received among the faithful of any religion. Under the proposal, as reported on Saturday by the Telegraph’s Andrew Gilligan, any religious leader who interacts with the public sector will have to register with the government and meet training and other prerequisites before being allowed to perform any ministry. It applies to all faiths within the UK, and it’s generating outrage from all of them, too:
Imams, priests, rabbis and other religious figures will have to enrol in a “national register of faith leaders” and be subject to government-specified training and security checks in the Home Office’s latest action on extremism.
The highly controversial proposal appears in a leaked draft of the Government’s new counter-extremism strategy, seen by The Telegraph, which goes substantially further than previous versions of the document.
The strategy, due to be published this autumn, says that Whitehall will “require all faiths to maintain a national register of faith leaders” and the Government will “set out the minimum level of training and checks” faith leaders must have to join the new register.
Registration will be compulsory for all faith leaders who wish to work with the public sector, including universities, the document says. In practice, most faith leaders have some dealings with the public sector and the requirement will cover the great majority.
Andrew Gilligan drily noted that the new policy is “likely to be resisted” by most religious leaders. That may be putting it mildly. Christian leaders are comparing the move to China’s management of churches and insistence on approval of leadership:
Catholic priest Father Jeffrey Steel said on Twitter: “Exactly what China did and does. Don’t submit!”
Christian writer and blogger Barrie Lawrence tweeted: “Faith leaders’ in the UK will have to register? I thought such predictions were alarmist – it’s starting to happen.”
Colin Green, Christian author and expert on apologetics, said: “Government plans to put church leaders’ names on a watchlist. No this isn’t a novel by George Orwell.”
David Cameron has talked about cracking down on radical imams after a series of threats and attacks were linked back to mosques in Great Britain. The Prime Minister blames laissez-faire treatment of radical Islam in the UK for inciting these threats, and says that his government “will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach.” In order to do so without discriminating, though, Cameron has to apply this to all religious faiths, and that will create all sorts of political headaches.
In fact, there may be another poison pill in this proposal. Not only will religious leaders have to register and pass government inspection, but religious schools will have to have at least one trustee with no ties to the school or community. That comes in response to the “Trojan Horse” plot to convert secular private schools into “hardline Islamic faith schools.” Police failed to pick up on that plot until it was well underway, and also failed to act against the human trafficking in Rotherham for more than a decade, both blamed on political correctness and a lack of access to closed-off communities.
It’s worth noting that the UK has a state religion and no constitutional protection for the free expression of religion, although they have a more recent tradition of tolerance. The impulse for this action certainly is understandable, but the precedent and controls it places on religious leaders — especially those with no track record of radicalization — is onerous and ominous. There should be a better approach to this, one that targets the actual problem of radicalization rather than roping in harmless communities into government control of faith. Allow police to investigate organizations for actual bad conduct and give prosecutors the tools to target the real malefactors rather than set up a giant bureaucracy to issue licenses and control religious leadership across the board. When doing so, make sure that police know that the government will stand behind them rather than play political-correctness games when enforcement of the law generates baseless accusations of bias.
That’s better than having government inspections of theology for everyone, and actually addresses the problem.