Keith Porteous Wood is one of the interim panel of nine to serve as a sounding board when the Fundamental Rights Agency is planning the next steps and the structures of the Fundamental Rights Platform (including the next meeting and consultations). Keith had attended the first meeting of the Agency in Vienna on 7/8 October 2008. The FRA’s main objective is providing assistance and expertise relating to fundamental rights. The primary objective of the October meeting was to discuss suggestions for the FRA Work Programme 2009 and to provide feedback and suggestions for follow up on the FRA Annual Report 2008. The Agency had formerly been focussed on racism but is expanding its remit to include all fundamental rights.
Prior to the meeting, Keith had prepared a detailed report about the discrimination suffered by the non-religious. He took a prominent part in the conference, and was invited to chair a intense session collecting and prioritising suggestions for the FRA Work Programme 2009 from delegates. He described this process of distilling the very different priorities and expectations from delegates all over Europe as exhausting but ultimately very satisfying. The invitation to become one of just nine Civil Society representatives at the Agency can be seen as a result of his efforts,
As this was an initial meeting of its kind, much of the meeting was concerned with setting up working methods and, lines of communication for the delegates from civil society and the overseeing body, the Fundamental Rights Agency. This reduced the opportunity to emphasise our areas of special concern, e.g. the discrimination/religious privilege adversely impacting the non-religious, but Keith had been able to raise our concerns at a senior level. He also expressed publicly his concerns that freedom of expression seemed to be omitted as an area of concern, partly because it is not perceived to have a victim.
Sonja Eggerickx, President of IHEU added: “It is an honour Keith has been invited to become one of nine Civil Society members of the new Agency. I congratulate Keith on his report to the Agency and on having been invited to take such a prominent part at the top table in Vienna”.
We reproduce below a Summary of the key points from the report.
Religious discrimination against the majority – a summary
Despite the declining interest of most Europeans in religion, the influence of religious bodies has grown rapidly in the last decade, and the Submission examines some of the areas where levels of concern have been heightened by this phenomenon.
We demonstrate the extent to which the non-religious, the religiously unconcerned (and to a progressively lesser extent religious liberals and moderates) represent a very substantial and growing proportion of the population, who, to a greater and greater extent, are being disenfranchised and suffering unfair discrimination as a result of pressure from religious bodies on national and international institutions. Not only that, there is an increasing tendency for religious leaders to misrepresent, and even vilify, secular world views.
This pressure is growing despite a continuing decline in belief in, and observance of, Christianity. The new-found interest of governments and international organisations in consulting religions arises to some degree from the sensitivities engendered by a multicultural society and the need to address security issues.
In doing so, a pattern is emerging, in which the following tendencies can be identified.
· It is falsely assumed that everyone in minority religious communities is a willing member of the faith and also shares the orthodox views of the faith or its governing body.
· In the hope of reaching these communities, there is a new urge on the part of government to consult religious leaders, which gives these leaders more power and influence to call for changes in laws and customs with the intention of imposing their incompatible world views on the population as a whole, the majority of whom do not share their beliefs. As part of this phenomenon, religious leaders have a near-monopoly on such consultations, however unrepresentative they are. It should also be noted they are almost always men.
· The non-religious and religiously unconcerned elements of civil society are largely un-consulted even though they are often affected, directly or relatively by the demands of religious groups. The non-consultation is partly because they are not part of any religious community, do not have hierarchical or “community” leaders to speak up for them, are not regarded as being as a disadvantaged minority and are not regarded as at risk.
· As a result, secular civil society is grossly under-represented in consultations to which religious leaders are invited to contribute: in these, the voice of civil society is overwhelmed by the voices of multiple religions and denominations requiring to be represented, and by the strength of the historic links that many have with the institutions.
· Religion and race are being conflated, and hence criticism of religion is often labelled as racism (this particularly relates to “Islamophobia”).
· Ethnic/cultural dress and appurtenances are being regarded as either solely cultural or solely religious obligations, depending on whether they are being distanced from a religion or claimed as an unquestionable right. A similar ambiguity applies to a lesser extent to female genital mutilation and honour killing, for which unambiguous widespread criticism is by no means the norm in the communities where they are most prevalent. Excessive deference to cultural and religious norms, by social workers, police and prosecuting authorities and possibly in some cases intimidation by relatives, are all negative factors which need to be addressed.