International TV interview with Bahram Soroush
August 9, 2004

Maryam Namazie: People who are against faith schools often say that it causes segregation, perpetrates a system of apartheid that it separates children of ‘different religions’ from each other. Would you agree or disagree with that?

Bahram Soroush: I would agree with that. We are supposed to have mainstream, secular education for children and it should be irrespective of what their families’ religious affiliations are. A whole lot of issues come into this discussion; the issue of secularism, i.e. whether you want to have a secular education or not, and also the issue of children’s rights, whether you want to allow them the opportunity of a free and secular education, free from the religious indoctrination that comes with faith schools.

Maryam Namazie: Some might say why should secularists decide on what children should learn? If parents who have religious beliefs want their children raised with these religious beliefs, why not? Isn’t it being repressive, in a sense, asking the state to intervene and ensure that schools are secular?

Bahram Soroush: The state intervenes on many other issues and nobody calls that repressive. The state intervenes on the issue of the protection of children, for example. The rights of parents do not stand apart from other rights in society. Certain rights override others. Especially, when it comes to children, parents do not have absolute rights in how their children are brought up. For example, you have child protection laws which definitely condition and limit the rights of parents. Any defender of the rights of children would say that children’s rights should override any political, cultural and economic considerations. Most definitely and most clearly they should override the rights of parents. So the issue of whether parents have the right to send their children to a faith school comes up against the issue of children’s rights.

Maryam Namazie: But there are parents who say that they want their children to go to faith schools because they want their children to have a proper upbringing, to be moral, to be ethical, and they say what’s wrong with that? They ask what’s wrong with giving our children that sort of education.

Bahram Soroush: There’s nothing wrong with having a good upbringing and being morally sound. But you don’t have to be religious to have sound morals. On the contrary, when you bring religion into it, you’re bringing in a particular ideology. Religion cannot claim to have a monopoly on ethics, on morals. There are millions of people who don’t have any religious beliefs, who are atheists; nobody can accuse them of being amoral, of not having any ethics, not having any values. So that’s just a defence they’re putting up. You can have your children brought up with values of humanism, respecting other people’s rights, with a sense of justice, and with everything that we want our children, the next generation, to have. Especially, in order for that to develop as fully as possible, you have to take religion away from it, because it’s a barrier to progress.

Maryam Namazie: Some might say that’s your opinion. If you promote secularism in schools, you’re treating secularism like a religion as well; you’re imposing your ideology on people who want their children to be raised with a religious upbringing. What’s your opinion on that?

Bahram Soroush: I could turn the question back at them. I would say why do you want to impose your religion on society? With secularism, society is saying we want people to have the right to think as they like; we won’t interrogate people, ask them what their beliefs are, what their ideological affiliations are. People have the absolute right – and that’s where rights should be absolute – to think and have whatever belief systems that they want to have. But at the same time, in order to maintain that, you should stop one section of society, particular sects, imposing their views and their way of thinking on the rest of us. Secularism would contain and accommodate that as well. So somebody in a secular society would have the right to be religious in their own private worlds. They would have the right to speak their mind and try to win adherents to their religion, just as we would have the right to criticise them and promote atheism, secularism and free thought. But when it comes to education, it is one of our achievements in many parts of the world that we have fought against the hold of religion which for so many years, for centuries, stifled free thought and human progress and happiness. Having a secular education is an issue of protecting children from the encroachments of religious bodies and sects.

Maryam Namazie: One of the things people are saying is that there are so many Catholic schools, for example, in Europe, and there are so few Islamic schools. And they are saying that this is a form of discrimination against Muslims living in Europe. So as a way of redressing this discrimination, they say there should be an equal number of Islamic schools. What’s your response?

Bahram Soroush: It may well be discrimination, but the way of redressing it, I would say, would be to stop all faith schools. They are arguing amongst themselves. But let’s face this fundamental question: why have faith schools? This is indoctrination of children. We are saying, stop this indoctrination of children. When they are adults, they can choose whatever religious, political, philosophical beliefs and standpoints they want to have. But while they are children, society has a duty towards them. As we have laws against physical abuse of children, we should have laws against psychological, emotional and ideological abuse of children. Children don’t choose to go to faith schools. Somebody else is deciding that. Somebody else is imposing their religion on them. So it’s not even a question of free choice, which is one of the arguments they use as well. But whose free choice are we talking about? The parents’ free choice. And a particular section of parents. Because the majority of parents decide to send their children to mainstream, secular schools. So we are faced with a small section of society who wants to have this prerogative for themselves to bring up their children as they like and have the sanction of the state as well. Even if they did not seek the financial support of the state, that would still be an infringement of children’s rights. Children should have the absolute right, on equal terms with every other child, to a free and secular education. The rights of the child born into a family, whose parents have strong religious beliefs and want to put their children into faith schools, should be protected. They should have the right to an education that is free from any ideology. And religion is one of those ideologies.

Maryam Namazie: But then, some would argue, isn’t humanism a form of ideology? Isn’t secularism an ideology?

Bahram Soroush: I’m talking about ideology in the narrow sense of the word; the ideas of particular groups and sects that are inherently divisive. I would define humanism as a set of values, a set of beliefs, the way we want to organise our society, which does not discriminate against certain people and does not curtail rights.

Maryam Namazie: Some people will say religion is a set of values and beliefs that are positive.

Bahram Soroush: Yes, but it’s very segregationist. Humanism, on the other hand, is all-inclusive. Unlike religion, it puts the human being at the centre. Its standpoint is against discrimination. It is against narrowing down and only protecting a small section of society; whereas religion and any other sectarian ideology build on denying that.

Maryam Namazie: What would you say to the proposal to keep faith schools but make sure that a percentage of students are atheists and a percentage are of different religions to stop the segregation from taking place?

Bahram Soroush: We are creating a problem for ourselves and then trying to patch it up somehow. The issue of segregation is still there. The whole way of looking at it, I think, is wrong as well. Instead of viewing society in a holistic way, as human beings, being colour-blind, not distinguishing people on the basis of their religion, or their parents’ religions, their beliefs, and where they come from, they look at it in a very divisive way. They categorise people and then say what do we do with these categories? In that way we build isolated schools and worlds for those children, isolated from the mainstream society. The rights of those children are infringed; their right of development and enjoyment on the same terms as every other child is infringed. By accepting faith schools, we are accepting that a section of our children should have fewer rights than other children. When it comes to children, we should leave aside all other considerations, including the religious beliefs of their parents.

The above is an International TV ( interview dated August 9, 2004.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.