• 03 Feb - 09 Feb, 2018
  • Shahed Sadullah
  • London Eye

There has been quite a lot of comment recently about a Pakistani humanist Hamza bin Walayat, who came to this country in 2011 and had applied for asylum. It is not easy to define humanism, but it may be fair to say that humanists emphasize the value of critical thinking and evidence over dogma and superstition. They believe that human beings have the right to give meaning and shape to their own lives.

According to press reports, Hamza bin Walayat said he had received death threats from members of his family and community in Pakistan after renouncing Islam, integrating into secular British life, forming a relationship with a non-Muslim partner and refusing to conform to the expectations of conservative Islam. His application for asylum was turned down by the Home Office on the grounds that during a test he had failed to identify Plato and Aristotle as humanist philosophers and that this indicated his knowledge of humanism was “rudimentary at best”. The Home Office added that his assertion that he would be at risk in Pakistan, and could be killed by his family because of his beliefs and his renunciation of Islam, was unfounded.

In response to the Home Office’s decision, more than 120 leading philosophers have signed a letter addressed to the Home Secretary asking her to reconsider the case because “knowledge of Plato and Aristotle is not a reliable test for whether someone is a humanist.” The signatories include some of the best philosophic minds in the country, including people from Oxford and Cambridge Universities and a specialist in ancient Greek philosophy at Nottingham University. Among the arguments put forward in the letter is also one that says it is not reasonable to expect someone who has not been educated in the West to know about ancient Greek philosophers.

Of course, the real issue here is not the relevance of knowing, or not knowing, about ancient Greek philosophers. The British government is desperately trying to keep down immigration numbers and anything that furthers that end will do, no matter how absurd it may sound. It is not known exactly how much importance will be given by the government to this letter, but more important than that is the fact that the matter has hit the newspapers and that could have a big effect on the ultimate outcome of Hamza bin Walayat’s petition.

Brexit, a second referendum?

Meanwhile, one of the largest nationwide polls since Brexit has found that British voters now support the idea of holding a second referendum by a 16-point margin, although if you go down to the depths of it, this does not even nearly mean that we are on the brink of being allowed a second vote.

The poll found that 47 per cent of people would like to have a final say on Brexit once the terms and conditions of Britain’s exit from the European Union are finalised. 34 per cent, however, are against re-opening the Brexit debate again. The rest, which is almost a fifth of voters, do not know their mind which begs the question when will they ever know and just what would it take for them to wake up. However, if this fifth is taken out of the reckoning and it is presumed that on the day a second vote was held they would rather go to Tesco than vote on an issue of ultimate national importance – not an irrational presumption by any means -, then it works out to 58 per cent backing a second referendum while 42 per cent do not. However, that does not mean that if a second referendum were to be held today, 58 per cent would vote to stay in the EU. Many of this 58 per cent are actually people who voted to remain in June 2016, just as many of the 42 per cent who do not want a second vote had voted to leave the EU in the referendum. When put the question whether in a new vote people would vote to stay in the EU or leave it, the poll found that just 51 per cent now wanted to stay in the EU while 49 per cent still wanted to get out. A few pieces of good hard hitting fake news items by the purveyors of Brexit could easily turn around a small majority like that.

But the poll found a few other things that are quite telling. The first is that young voters are 17 per cent more likely than before to support Britain remain in the EU than over 65s among whom the desire for Brexit is almost universal. This is because the older people remember a Britain which was much more unicultural and uniracial than the one they live in today, an idyllic one in which the local village policeman knew everyone by name whereas now the poor chap would not be able to pronounce some of the names he encounters even if one were to hand it over to him on a piece of paper.

There is a completely false expectation that out of the EU, Britain would revert to the sort of green and pleasant land that Shakespeare wrote of. But this demographic divide is not a healthy thing because the younger generations argue, and rightly so, that the negative effects of Brexit will have to be borne mainly by them, not those who are over 65.

Secondly, there is also a sharp regional divide with voters in Scotland, who had voted to remain the first time around, now even more staunchly of this view while the British midlands seem to be only region which now still wants Brexit, and quite decisively so. But most important of all, the poll found that 9 per cent of Labour supporters who had voted to leave the EU in the first referendum, were now switching to remain and many Labour constituencies that had voted Leave were now strongly in favour of a second referendum. This may push Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, to finally take a clearer and more definite view on Brexit than the fence sitting he has been doing. If Labour as a party feels that it may lose ground if it continues to sit on the fence, then it will have to come out with something more substantial like coming out with a policy that says Britain stays in the single market failing which the country should have a second referendum. The Tories would never agree to either of these things and since they are the party that has driven this barmy idea, the likelihood is that the future too will be barmy. •