I changed jobs recently. Although I have to do a lot of travelling for the job, I don’t mind because of the work I’m doing. Also: the company itself is pretty awesome.
It was in the cab home after one trip to Northern Ireland that I had a really interesting conversation with the cab driver, Omar.
It turns out that Omar came to the UK from Afghanistan in 2000. The Taliban was rampant, and was targeting wealthy Afghans to charge with being insufficiently Islamic in some way or another. They had summarily executed Omar’s uncle and taken all of his assets. It reminded me of this lovely Voltaire quote:
The Taliban was now after Omar. He had a few properties and a sports car: not bad for a University student. Omar was only two days ahead of his pursuers and had to liquidate his assets quickly, so that he could pay a man £35,000 to smuggle him out of the country. He sold his car and his two flats at knockdown prices, and his mum sold her jewellery to get him out.
The people smuggler took his photo, stuck it into a stolen British Passport, and Omar got across the border to Pakistan. Within a day he had given himself up at London’s Heathrow airport, and requested asylum.
He was granted asylum, then indefinite leave to remain, and finally citizenship. He got married and had two kids, who have London accents. He is grateful every day for his life, and is proud to be British, and proud of his kids. He described himself as a moderate Muslim.
One thing Omar appreciates about living in the UK is that the State and Church are separate. Omar was fascinated to learn that we Europeans had our own interdenominational wars, and that it took us a long time to get where we are now.
Omar has a very good reason to appreciate this separation of Church and State. He comes from a country where there was no such separation and he nearly died there because of it. Even though he is a Muslim, his life was threatened by other Muslims, who were happy to abuse a power they shouldn’t have had: judge, jury, executioner, and ultimate certainty of legitimacy. There are no checks and balances in a theocracy: there’s just a guy with a book who decides what god wants.
Even in the more secular countries, there are debates in the public sphere about legislating based on what some pressure groups assert their religion requires. This is why I like this quote from President Obama:
On the day I rode home in the cab with Omar, I saw the disappointing news that the National Secular Society’s complaint about employment discrimination in UK state schools had been rejected by the European Commission. You may be surprised to know that faith schools can discriminate against you based on your religious convictions, whereas this is illegal in other workplaces. Being a follower of the National Secular Society, I already knew of this discrimination. Indeed a friend of mine has been working well above his pay grade for a few years, and supporting a dysfunctional leadership at his school, but never considered for promotion on the discriminatory grounds that he is the wrong sort of Christian.
Whatever your religious beliefs, schools should hire the best people possible to teach their children. Children of all faiths and none should be able to go to any school: there shouldn’t be any faith schools because we’re all in the public sphere and we all have to learn to live together. This benefits everyone of all faiths and none.
Instead, slowly, we’re handing power back to faith groups. Omar knows that this is a dangerous road to start on. Let’s hope we don’t find out again.