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The Case for Banning Religious Practice in Public Spaces

The case for banning religious practice in public spaces

by Daria Davani

To what extent should we tolerate religious practices in our schools, workplaces, and public life? We probably find ourselves faced with this question from time to time when the religiosity of others proves a little too much. Religious practice in public spaces is a bad thing.

Recently, a new colleague joined my work department who takes 3 breaks throughout the work day to go for salah/namaz, which is Islamic ritual worship performed by Muslims. Facing Mecca, Muslims recite prescribed phrases from the Quran as they bow and prostrate themselves in between.

Anxiety and Prayer

I’ve been pondering what to do about this issue as it can be disruptive to our work, especially when we’re working together. I’ve been mulling over whether I should make an anonymous complaint about allowing religious practices that affect our work.

Today I noticed that my colleague, who is very intelligent, amiable, and hard-working, seemed a little tense and anxious as the time for prayers drew near.

We were in the middle of something and as he realized the time for prayers was almost upon us, he seemed very anxious to dash away. This reminded me of something I witnessed in a company I worked for previously where the owner was a devout Pakistani Muslim and would hold prayers in one of the company rooms several times a day. He was always joined by all the Muslim men in the company. It now occurs to me that they had little choice in whether or not they attended those prayers! If a self-declared Muslim was seen to be too lax in his religious loyalties, that could potentially be disastrous for him in a company where the boss is a Muslim.

Moderation and Dogmatism

Even a group of “moderate Muslims” or “cultural Muslims” will get noticeably more dogmatic when placed together in their efforts to avoid accusations of immorality from their peers, or to raise their social status by appearing more devout than they really are.

Coming back to this colleague of mine; I now rather suspect that his frantic disappearances to attend prayers, are motivated by fear of orthodox Muslim family members who keep tabs on whether or not he conducts salah/namaz at the prescribed times, rather than personal motivation.

Besides these disappearances to attend ritual worship, my colleague never mentions religion. In my experience, Muslims who are truly devout make a show of their religiosity and may even go so far as to boast about the spread of Islam. This colleague seems almost…dare I say, embarrassed? About having to leave work for prayers throughout the day. He simply reminds us ahead of time that he needs to go, without saying what for, and lets us know when he will be back which is usually about 20 minutes later.

When France banned headscarves in schools and face coverings in public, some argued that it could potentially exclude some from education and a role in public life. I considered whether this could apply to my colleague. Would a company ban on such religious practices during work hours force him to leave the company? Potentially. It depends on how dogmatic he and/or his family are.

I believe a ban on religious practices in educational institutions, workplaces, and in public life is not only justified, but completely necessary to protect individuals born into high-demand religions. Children who are born into high-demand religions have little protection from their own communities and are often pressured to make overt displays of religiosity or risk shaming, ostracism, or even physical violence.

Katharine Birbalsingh

Katharine Birbalsingh, headteacher at Michaela Community School in London, is currently fighting a legal battle to uphold a ban on worship rituals in school. These worship rituals have led to growing segregation between non-Muslim and Muslim pupils in the playground, and peer pressure among the Muslim pupils to be more religious. The court heard of incidents where a Muslim girl who had never previously worn a headscarf was pressured to wear one, another dropped out of the school choir after Muslim peers told her it’s ‘haram’ (forbidden, sinful, impure), and other Muslims pupils were shamed as “bad Muslims” for not participating in salah/namaz and thus had begun to participate. As evident, religious bullying can start from an early age and its proponents can be children copying the example of their parents.

If bans on religious practices in shared spaces are rolled out nationwide, then there’s every chance we could see a decrease in religious tyranny overall as the religious will see their religious bullying is not tolerated and they must adapt to a secular society. This will not be an easy road. Brave people like Katharine Birbalsingh, who are striving to propagate social-cohesion in our diverse society, need our support. We must stand up to religious bullying, and perhaps one of the most effective ways of doing that is by upholding the principle of secularism in public spaces.

See: Guardian Article, Wikipedia.

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