Letters: The limits of multiculturalism

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At a time when to express any view condemning the practices of non-Western religions means you are lumped in the same category as nationalist bigots, I welcomed Christina Patterson's article, "The limits of multiculturalism" (28 July). It was thoughtful, intelligent, and politely furious; perhaps too polite.

Patterson laments the "ill-mannered nonsense" preached in faith schools, and the sight of three-year-olds in hijabs makes her "sad". While genuine outrage does feature in the article, it is directed towards the barbaric practise of female circumcision rather than the more insidious indoctrination of women in Islam, Judaism and other religions.

For some reason, it is acceptable to condemn genital mutilation yet not the wearing of the burka, despite the clear links between the two. Obviously, not all wearers of the burka support female circumcision; some do actually choose to wear it.

But the ideas that underpin female circumcision – female sexual pleasure is taboo; women are the sum total of their sexuality – and the burka are very similar. These practices are tolerated in the name of religious acceptance. Tolerance has long been over-deified as the defining value of liberal society, yet there comes a point where tolerance actually becomes complicity in repression.

It is time to puncture the bubble of untouchability in which religion hovers parallel to us, and in which such practices as female circumcision continue unchallenged.

Patterson should raise her voice a little more loudly so that we can awaken those feminists who are curiously quiet on this topic (yet vociferous on the subject of objectification and discrimination) and better defend the rights of women, instead of the rights of religion.

Madeleine Maxwell-Libby

London WC1

I was shocked to read Christina Patterson's hate-filled rant, "balanced" by her grotesquely ignorant Islamophobic remarks. I (a non-Jew) often visit Stamford Hill and, unlike Patterson, find my encounters there warm and life-enhancing, with the shopkeepers uniformly helpful, and humorous. It may be that the unpleasant experiences Patterson claims to have had resulted from her looking on the orthodox Jews with suspicion and antipathy, without realising that it's what one is, not how one dresses, that matters.

Of course, all of us are influenced by the culture into which we are born. I wonder if Patterson is imprisoned in her complacent, white, middle-class, "liberal", self-regarding culture, a culture that considers itself ineffably superior to other cultures, especially those that are, however obscurely, "foreign".

Instead of demeaning the reputation of The Independent (with the marvellous reportage of Robert Fisk), Patterson would be better employed to ponder the words of Baruch Spinoza: "If religion renders a man in harmony with his neighbours, then it matters not a jot whether he be a Christian, a Jew or a Mohammedan".

Dr Philip Maher

London N15

Christina Patterson's article was strong and compelling in highlighting offensive multicultural excess. Few would argue against female circumcision being abhorrent but, as she says, it is already illegal; the challenge is for the law to start doing its job.

Bizarrely, Patterson then makes a huge leap and lays the blame at the door of "all religions", and calls for compulsory secular education for all to pave the way for tolerant and civilised behaviour. What she fails to see is that secularism as a world view has its own limitations, intolerance, excesses and dogma.

Many millions find the act of the deliberate ending of millions of human lives in the womb to be as abhorrent as female circumcision and yet the dominant secular ideology marginalises that view. Teaching six-day creation may be bad science and education, but theories of creation are a valid and reasonable belief, held with justification by many respected scientists; again marginalised by secularism.

Secularism has no more right to control the educational agenda than any reasonable world view. The answer is simple; we have a universal national curriculum and we value a pluralist, not a secular, approach to education which encourages dialogue, listening, questioning and respect, enabling pupils to consider different beliefs, examine a range of options and make their own choices. Oh, and we insist that the law does its job and is enforced.

Ian Nicholson

Guildford, Surrey

Finally, a British answer to the Tea Party across the Atlantic. Christina Patterson has expressed quite brilliantly the feelings of myself and, I suspect, a high number of liberal-minded Britons.

The attitudes, deceptions, experiences and disgraces that she describes have been experienced by most people but have rarely been addressed by any mainstream political parties in such and empathetic, intelligent and commonsense manner.

Could we now therefore formulate our own Tea Party (the Macchiato Party?) to enable us all to start to do something?

Ted Heath

Solihull, West Midlands

Playing the old numbers game

You report that "HIV infection among over-50s has more than doubled in seven years" (22 July). I wonder if this would merit the same prominence, or indeed be reported at all, if it had stated, equally accurately and more informatively, that "The incidence of HIV positivity among over-50s in Britain has increased almost imperceptibly, by 0.002 per cent over seven years".

The researchers' data are not false but they were presented in a meretricious fashion, to give the impression that we face an epidemic of HIV positivity in older Britons. One condones researchers, who must constantly seek grant support, presenting their findings in as attention-grabbing a light as possible. Unfortunately, this is the sort of statistical legerdemain which makes the people sceptical about all statistics.

The essential missing information here is the size of the at-risk group; case numbers rose from 299 to 710 in an over-50 population numbering about 20 million at the last census. The change in incidence was thus from 0.0015 per cent to 0.0035 per cent, scarcely cause for a national panic or for banner headlines.

Ken Campbell

Kettering, Northamptonshire

Scandal of poor pensioners

Your interview with Pensions Minister Steve Webb ("State pension is not enough to live on, minister admits", 29 July) raises important issues.

Mr Webb recently told us that he agrees with the demand of the Pensioners Manifesto for the basic state pension to be equal to the official poverty level, estimated at £165 in 2009. We therefore challenge him to produce a plan to achieve this.

Here are suggestions: one, the National Insurance Fund (in which every worker saves for a state pension) currently has a surplus of almost £55bn, most of which should be made available to state pensioners; two, the upper earnings limit of £43,888 on which NI contributions are levied should be abolished, thus raising an estimated £10bn a year and ending the injustice in which the higher-paid contribute a smaller proportion of earnings than the lower-paid.

Three, the employers' contributions to NI should be raised from 12.8 per cent to at least 15 per cent of payroll, as is the case in many other EU countries; four, tax relief on private pensions should be reformed.

This costs the Treasury about £37bn a year, with the top 1 per cent of taxpayers receiving about 25 per cent of the rebate, while the average employee receives just £330 a year. This is neither the most effective nor equitable way of using public money, giving a massive incentive to save to those who least need it.

Dot Gibson

General Secretary, National Pensioners Convention,

London EC1

Pensions Minister Steve Webb admits that the state pension is insufficient for those British pensioners living in the UK and enjoying the many other benefits they are entitled to, but what about those British pensioners who have moved to join family abroad and found their pension frozen?

The British Government freezes our citizens' pensions if they reside in any of 150 countries but pays annual increases to those in Europe, the US and a handful of others.

Having paid into the National Insurance fund all their working lives, having fought to protect this country during the Second World War, some of our oldest and most vulnerable are still drawing as little as £6 a week in state pension and are surviving only on the generosity of family.

The pension system is badly in need of reform, but that reform must be fair for all and end this discrimination.

John Markham

International Consortium of British Pensioners,

London W1

Backward step

It is excellent news that Catalonia has voted to ban the barbarism of bullfighting (report, 29 July). Sadly, our country could be about to take a huge leap backwards by bringing back cruelty in the name of entertainment. The Tories and some of their Liberal allies want to re-legalise hare-coursing, stag-hunting and fox-hunting. They aim to hold a vote in Parliament soon.

Chris Gale

Chippenham, Wiltshire

Gem of an idea

The Koh-I-Noor diamond was a gift to HM Queen Victoria. Now, to my astonishment, my MP, Keith Vaz, supports its return to India. Would any other constituency be willing to exchange their MP for ours? Labour preferred, but not essential.

John Burrows

Humberstone, Leicester

Proper Charlie

In the correction of Nick Daubenay's piece on Greenwich Naval College (letters, 29 July), John Williams states, "Charles I began building after the Restoration in 1660". By then, Charles I had parted company with his head. I think he meant Charles II.

Barbara Hawkes

Rainham, Kent

Perspectives on universities

Shake up the tuition fees

With reference to your article ,"The way to fund our universities", by Frances Cairncross (Comment, 26 July), there is a simple way to increase university funding from undergraduate families by referencing their school education. So if a student has been educated wholly in the state sector they would pay the £3,290 tuition fees as set.

If a family has opted out of the state education system and pay privately for their child's education they should pay full tuition fees similar to that paid by overseas students because they can clearly afford about £18,000 per annum fees.

Anyone spending two years or more in the private education system between the ages of 11 and 18 would be liable for the full cost of their education after 18.

Obviously, this would be highly unpopular with the middle classes who choose an independent school but these parents are making a very considerable "saving" once their son or daughter leaves the sixth form at somewhere like Eton or Millfield and starts at university.

Paul Rees

Minehead, Somerset

Pioneering in the redbrick sector

When the question of university funding comes up must you inevitably turn to some Oxbridge worthy for comment. Were you to go to a representative of the larger group he could return Frances Cairncross's insulting remark about "renamed polytechnics" by referring to her own place as an "arthritic" university.

Does she really think that in the 18 years since the creation of the vibrant university sector these places have just stood still? The "former" polytechnics pioneered degree courses in such as computing and management, and enabled many a "senile sector" graduate to qualify as a solicitor while giving the latter a first experience of such new-fangled visual aids as PowerPoint.

Cairncross is simply trying to eliminate the competition in the hope that her renamed Stapeldon Hall will be able to return to the halcyon days when both "dons" and students knew that the latter were made for life just by getting in, thereby enabling the former to get on with their research without the bore of learning how to teach.

Professor Chris Barton

Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire

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