Why do we need an event that focuses on Islamophobia and religious discrimination when, as Alistair Campbell once famously remarked to Tony Blair, as a nation “We don’t do God”.
For a nation that doesn’t ‘do God’, reading or watching the news may suggest otherwise. A glance back at 2009 might remind you of a number of different stories that had a relevance to religion or belief:
The British National Party (BNP) run a European election campaign under the slogan “What would Jesus do?” culminating in them winning two seats in the European parliament after almost a decade of running openly anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim campaigns
Anjem Choudhury and his Islam4UK group campaigning against British troops returning from Afghanistan
All readers of this blog are invited to the event, “Islamophobia & Religious Discrimination: new perspectives, policies and practices”. Details as follows. If you are intending coming along to the event, please ensure that you register beforehand – scroll down for details:
Wednesday, 09 December 2009
14:00 – 17:00
G15 (Main Lecture Theatre), Muirhead Tower, Main Campus, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT
More than a decade ago, the Runnymede Trust report Islamophobia: a challenge for us all noted that Islamophobia had reached previously unprecedented levels. Shortly after, a Home Office report suggested that other forms of religiously-based discrimination was also on the increase. Since then, a whole raft of legislation has been introduced in an attempt to address this issue. Most recently, the Equality Act 2006 introduced a ‘religion or belief’ strand of equalities protection that has regularly made the headlines through a number of high profile cases, for example where a Christian registrar asked to be excluded from performing same-sex civil registrations.
The sentencing of Syed Mustafa Zaidi, who was found guilty on two counts of child cruelty for forcing two teenage boys to beat themselves with a bladed whip during a Shia Muslim ceremony, raises a number of key equalities issues. Despite being found guilty, Zaidi denied throughout the trial that his actions had been wrong. Instead – and as I have addressed previously on this site – he protested that, “This is a part of our religion”.
Despite Zaidi’s insistence, the legal process has categorically shown that what Zaidi required of the two boys was illegal. Consequently, it will be extremely difficult for any religious group to advocate or enforce those practices that go beyond the law. This is nothing new however and should not be seen as a decision against a particular faith or religion or indeed against religion per se. For some years now, British law has insisted that Rastafarians are not legally permitted to smoke cannabis despite it being recognised as a ‘sacrament’ or ‘part’ of the religion. As a result, prosecutions against Rastafarians have ensued. However, given the shift over the past decade towards a more human rights based approach to equalities in this country, one judge has suggested that Rastafarians challenge this as it may contravene the right to practice one’s religion as enshrined in both British and European law.
In terms of individual and community rights, things have been changing for the past few years with various pieces of human rights-based legislation seeking to protect different groups and communities. Most significantly, the introduction of the Equality Act 2006 and the creation of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) had the greatest impact. This shift has not necessarily been an easy one and the future progression of such an approach could be fraught with pitfalls. For faith communities, some may encounter particularly difficult obstacles, particularly where the rights of a faith group – or merely some from within it – appear to contest, contend or be contrary to the rights of others. None the least where rights are afforded to those that are understood to be ‘sinful’ or participating in practices or actions that go against theological interpretations. Given that some may see this as going against ‘God’s will’ and by default the fundamentals of their religious belief, how do some of those from within faith groups negotiate a solution that upholds matters of moral and ethical conscience at the same time as endorsing ‘sinful’ activities that contravene religious beliefs? As with the Zaidi case, just because something is a ‘part of our religion’ cannot be upheld as the sole determining factor as to whether that thing is right or wrong, legal or illegal.
The key to overcoming this must begin by identifying and making clear the distinction between upholding and respecting the inalienable human rights of everyone without differentiation, and agreeing with or even endorsing those activities, practices and also conflicting beliefs that might be contrary to collective and individual consciences that have the potential to contravene certain interpretations of faith. So for instance, the practice of self-flagellation is now being addressed via a code of conduct for adults that the Manchester Shia community has begun to draw up in conjunction with the local Police force. As one Shia community leader put it:
“We can and will work to a code of practice so that the children don’t get hurt, the law isn’t broken, and the people who do want to take part don’t get prosecuted…But we are not above the law and we never will be.”
Beyond this case, there is the need for us as a society to find the vocabulary and space to negotiate how we decide whose rights take precedence and how we go about ensuring that these are adequately protected. As a society, we need to consider which freedoms need to be prioritised as well as those that need to be informed by public debates that reflect the issues and challenges that we face today, even where this makes some of us feel uncomfortable. Here human rights-based models and the principles underpinning them, including the role of ‘proportionality’, can be useful in helping us make balanced decisions about whether the rights of an individual or group can be protected without adversely affecting the rights of society as a whole or vice versa. Where decisions go against certain groups or communities – faith or otherwise – then at least a robust model has been employed through which these decisions have been addressed and subsequently responded to.
The transition to a human rights-based approach to tackling equalities must from the outset be seen to be a positive development, one that will provide a much fuller and comprehensive framework of protection for all in society. As the Zaidi case proves, carte blanche approaches to determining what we can and cannot do in a multicultural society clearly do not work. They offer no stability or foundation.
Accepting this is not necessarily the easy option but has to be the realistic one. To make the transition as painless as possible, it is vital that all those that are engaged with equalities issues – especially those from within the various faith communities as well as those not normally engaged in policy and the thinking behind them – are engaged in dialogue and begin to address the issues honestly and openly. Through asking the most difficult of questions today, so the pitfalls and obstacles of tomorrow and the processes of pitting one against the other will be minimised and possibly even sidestepped. This is what has to be a part of our society and our collective thinking.
(This post is an amended version of a short piece that I wrote for brap – it is does not represent the views of the organisation in any way whatsoever)
This work by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at www.chris-allen.co.uk.
When I saw the poster (it used to be opposite but the owner of the image has requested that I remove it – shame really, given that I was supporting the campaign that it was showing) outside Birmingham International station yesterday, I was struck by its confident, bold and unapologetic message.
The posters by Stonewall are part of a campaign that seeks to tackle homophobia in particular, homophobic bullying in our schools. To quote from Stonewall’s Chief Executive, Ben Summerskill:
“Homophobia is almost endemic in our schools and blights the lives of people throughout society. It makes sense that this zero-tolerance message should be extended to the wider public. Across urban and rural Britain, this plain-speaking slogan will remind people that discrimination against gay men and lesbians is no longer acceptable.”
The poster made me reflect upon a campaign run by a Muslim organisation – Islam is Peace – on buses and billboards last year. The message on their posters was:
“Proud to be a British Muslim. IslamIsPeace.org.uk”
What a gulf of difference between the two messages. Far from being the ‘confident, bold and unapologetic’ message of Stonewall, the Muslim message was unsure, timid and overwhelmingly apologetic. Instead of making a statement to tell others that any prejudice or discrimination was their problem, the campaign suggested that it was ours and that we should (politely) ask people not to stereotype, discriminate or dislike all Muslims without differentiation.
“Such kowtowing only confirms that we have something to hide and that we should apologise for being Muslim…”
In the same article, she also writes that:
“I am not a criminal, nor am I likely to commit a criminal act in my lifetime. I am not a terrorist, nor do I support people who commit or incite others to carry out acts of mass murder. I am as likely to die in a terrorist attack as you are. There is no reason for me not be vigilant. But these facts do not convince people who believe that…”
And that really is the crux of the matter. No matter how many times Muslims apologise, you’re not going to convince anyone of anything different. As I wrote in my thesis at Birmingham, repeatedly trying to appease society in phoney and patronising ways, rarely – if indeed ever – achieves its intended outcome.
Coming at this issue from an equalities perspective, it is important that all forms of prejudice and discrimination are tackled head on, whether that’s on the basis of ‘race’, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation or disability. The Equality Act 2006 provides the basic template to begin approaching this even though a lot more is still required if we are going to equate rather than reinforce the hierarchy of discrimination that continues to exist.
With the Equality Act 2006, also came the establishment of the Equalities & Human Right Commission (EHRC). Without any doubt whatsoever, human rights based approaches to equalities is the way forward. For each and every one of us – whether Muslim or not – from a human rights perspective, we all have certain rights and protections that are afforded to us. These rights are:
Inherent (in that they don’t have to be either earned or bought);
Universal and equitable (irrespective of any markers of difference);
Inalienable (in that they cannot be taken away);
And indivisible (so any individual or group may have more than one human right applicable to them at any given time).
And so Muslims please note: first, your rights – not to be discriminated, persecuted, vilified etc – do not have to be earned or bought (whether with apologies or indeed any other form of kowtowing). Second, they are applicable to ALL (including those that many of you dislike or routinely discriminate against – sorry).
Consequently, for all those who discriminate and dislike gays for example, if you want to ‘buy in’ to equality and human rights yourself and benefit from the protection and equality that these afford, then you too have to accept that gays – as well as lesbians and transgendered people; the old, the young and children; women and men; Jews, Christians and atheists including the kuffar and idol worshippers; the paraplegics and the mentally ill; the black, white, Asian and everyone in between – have the same rights as you too. The same rights, quite irrespective of whether you like it or not, agree or disagree.
The message (and lesson) then for society is not that Islam is a religion of peace (no-one believes it or even listens to it anymore – get real) but instead that, ‘Some people are Muslim. Get over it’. Likewise, some people are gay: get over it.
If you can’t, then you could try apologising for another few years to see where that gets you. Better still, just get over it…