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
(The following short post is an introductory piece that will be included in the next edition of Speak Out magazine due for publication in early June. It will introduce a collection of short pieces about minority religions in Birmingham and a more detailed piece of the British Humanist Association’s recent report into the ‘religion or belief’ equalities strand – click here to read)
The former Labour spin-doctor Alistair Campbell was once famously quoted as saying, “We don’t do God”. In many ways, Campbell may have been speaking on behalf of the British per se: or at least how things might have been because there are signs that some things might be changing.
After posting ‘”It’s part of our religion…our identity…our culture”: tolerating the intolerable’, a regular to this blog commented:
“If you are not breaking the law, you should be able to do what you want. And if people don’t like it, it’s their tough luck”
My full response to this can be read here but as I put it, I do think that approaches such as ‘if people don’t like it, it’s their tough luck’ are very dangerous and a somewhat unworkable premise from which to begin discussing how an increasingly diverse and rapidly changing society moves forward. Because of this, I feel that it is necessary to explore my thinking further.
First off, such laissez faire arguments completely bypass any recognition of respect, something that in effect diminishes the rights of the individual, the group and the society as a whole. Here the individual, the collective, and the communal are indeterminably reduced and – dare I say it – rendered somewhat unnecessary. I would even go as far as suggesting that it verges on being ‘Social Darwinism’ albeit in a different guise.
Don’t agree…? Then what about the rhetoric employed by racists and bigots over the decades. Isn’t the sentiment underpinning the old adage, “if they don’t like it here, then they can go back home” pretty much the same?
Criminal or illegal…? No.
The reason why I ask whether it is ‘criminal or illegal’ is because as the comment put it, “If you are not breaking the law, you should be able to do what you want”. Again, I believe that this is as equally misguided. If not, then as long as something is neither criminal nor illegal, then neither can it be wrong whether morally, ethically, socially or whatever. In this way, the publication of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the British newspapers would have been fine (incidentally, none of the British national newspapers printed them).
So too would the BNP being cleared of inciting racial hatred in 2006. “If you are not breaking the law, you should be able to do what you want” therefore means that along with many other things, it should be completely acceptable and legitimate to describe Islam as a “wicked, vicious faith”; to state that Muslims are turning Britain into a “multi-racial hell hole”; and that as a society, we should “show these ethnics the door in 2004″. These are not my words I hasten to add, but the words of Nick Griffin and Mark Collett from the BNP: words that were deemed not to have broken the law. And when I use the term ‘we’, I use this as being a British citizen that is comfortable with being a part of a wider (multicultural) British society rather than a jingoistic, racist bigot.
To develop this line of thinking, I came up with the following list of things and activities that did not involve breaking the law. At the same time however, I would suggest that a vast few numbers of people – in some cases the majority – would prefer them either to not happen or at least have some boundaries/ limitations placed upon them (NB: the list is NOT a list of things that I personally find offensive or inoffensive, right or wrong. Merely an indicative list of activities to illustrate a point):
Breastfeeding in public
Wearing the niqab
Swearing in public
BNP/ NF marches
Satanic, pagan, cult and heretical religions being practised openly and/ or recruiting
Overt sexual advertising
Sale of Mein Kampf in bookshops
Sale of Satanic Verses in bookshops
Direct targeting of children with advertising of junk food
None of these things necessarily break the law. But does this mean that they are all right and proper…? And if you don’t think that they are right and proper, should we as a society collectively respond by saying ‘tough’…?
Which of course brings me back to my initial point in the first post: whether we need to have societal ‘boundaries’ or whether the demarcation between the criminal and non is enough?
In Britain, discussions about multiculturalism are marked by a stark paradox. Many welcome the fact that Britain is a multicultural society and delight in its diversity. Yet some of these people also reject multiculturalism. How is it possible to do this and how can those who recognise the value of cultural diversity take such a diametrically opposed standpoint on multiculturalism?
There are several explanations available. However, the most important is the two different ways in which the term ‘multiculturalism’ is employed.
For some, multiculturalism stands for cultural isolationism or ghettoisation, based on the view that every community is in some way self-contained and self-authenticating, unquestionably having the right to live by its own social and cultural norms. ‘Outsiders’ cannot therefore judge or criticise and should respect each communities autonomy (the ‘if they don’t like it, tough’ approach?).
Multiculturalism in this sense would seem to undermine attempts to have a shared life, existence, and experience. More importantly, it works against the whole notion of a multicultural society. Because different cultures do not passively coexist but instead interact and influence each other, multiculturalism defined in this way immediately puts a halt to such processes. Advocates of a multicultural society can therefore see multiculturalism as a barrier or obstacle to their societal aspiration or ideal. Such an approach might be described as isolationist or relativist multiculturalism.
Those who welcome multiculturalism and see no problems with the notion of a multicultural society define things very differently. Here the view is that every culture has limitations and benefits from a dialogue with others. Such dialogues accentuate new visions of life, exposes new world-views, looks at itself from the standpoint of others, increases its self-knowledge, and creates the conditions for human freedom and – allegedly – rationality.
This view therefore engenders the belief that different cultures should be respected but at the same time, brought into a process of interaction and engagement. It challenges the hegemonic dominant culture, exposes its biases and limitations, and helps create a composite culture in which ‘others’ can see something of themselves and their culture, and through which they can claim some ownership of. This model of multiculturalism is one where different cultures and communities feel valued and respected.
It is also necessary in this model – the one that I wholeheartedly prefer – for all of this to take place within an agreed system of rights and obligations: the boundaries from both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ that I mentioned in my original post. This model might therefore be called a dialogical or pluralist view of multiculturalism: the type of multiculturalism my earlier post was suggesting.
“If people don’t like it, it’s their tough luck…”? Well maybe for some, but not in the multiculturalism that I prefer or in the multicultural society that I would like to see develop. Having said that though, where and how we begin to negotiate the necessary boundaries and who decides what these are is the real challenge facing us all.
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.
Following Ken’s defeat in the London elections just over a week ago, I thought that I would re-publish one of my post’s from 22 January 2008. In it, I raise the question about how useful the open letter to the Guardian by various Muslim organisations was for Ken’s campaign. If nothing more, it might at least begin to make people think again about some of the ideas that I raised at the time…
Having been ‘courted’ by the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB) a few years ago, I remain privvy to their web forums and discussions (please though don’t tell them). An interesting thread of late has been the debate about whether or not Muslims and Muslim organisations should publicly endorse political parties and their representatives. In this particular instance, the thread referred to the public backing recently given to Ken Livingstone via an open letter to the Guardian. The debate has at times been quite heated and is split approximately 60/40 between those who do think that Muslims should offer public endorsements and those who do not (respectively? Is this grammatically required here – let me know).
Within the ‘do not’ camp is where I would firmly position myself. Without dismissing anyone on the list or indeed the organisations they represent, it would seem to me that in the current climate, having such groups as those listed endorsing you could be the final nail in the coffin (a la the Guardian, possibly) or at the very least, a long slow kiss of death infecting the recipient with a terminal illness that brings about a lengthy and protracted demise (a la the backlash Red Ken received following the visit of Yusuf al-Qaradawi). Beyond mere ‘should we’, ‘shouldn’t we’ discussions however, such ringing endorsements embed more serious problems, in my opinion at least.
First, championing ‘Muslim-only’ issues will continue to reinforce the stereotypical view that Muslims are inward looking isolationists, concerned only about themselves. Whilst the Guardian letter notes that Livingstone would be good ‘for all Londoners’, it does feel like this is something of an afterthought and that benefiting all Londoners – rather than just those of a Muslim persuasion – is incidental to the endorsees overall objective.
This is also problematic in other ways. A few weeks ago in Birmingham, a prominent Muslim organisation spoke at a conference about the educational under-achievement of young Muslims. What was problematic for me was that the speaker never once mentioned that other communities were experiencing the same levels of under-achievement, preferring instead to argue that this was – in some way, albeit never explained – evidence of Islamophobia in today’s Britain. Aside from dismissing the argument about Islamophobia (it’s clearly not), this was a lost opportunity as recent reports and statistics have shown that educational under-achievement is anything but a ‘Muslim-only’ (for ‘Muslim’ read Pakistani and Bangladesi only) issue. Instead, it is a serious issue that affects black and more recently white, lower socio-economic communities also. Little, if indeed any, evidence therefore exists to suggest that educational under-achievement is in any way related to any particular religion or religious identity. In doing so, not only did the Muslims at the conference – and beyond – miss the opportunity to find common ground with other communities finding themselves in a similar position but they also reinforced the widespread stereotypical view that they are both isolationist and exclusivist.
Secondly, the open letter somewhat inappropriately for a local election states that:
‘[Livingstone’s] stands and policies have constantly championed justice in the Middle East and around the world, freedom for the Palestinians and withdrawal of occupying troops from Iraq’
Having lived in London for more than twenty years and having family still living there in one form or another, I’m not sure how this would convince floating ‘non-Muslim’ Londoners to think about voting for him. Most Londoners – I presume and include Muslim Londoners in this also – would not have at the top of their list of concerns neither justice in the Middle East nor freedom for Palestinians. Both of course are extremely worthy and noble things to strive for but being brutally realistic, not something that is in the forefront of the average ‘man/ woman on the street’.
However, I am certain that if asked, those same Londoners would probably be more concerned with the levels of crime, the cleanliness of their streets and the affordability of housing rather more so than justice somewhere else in the world. This is not to state that championing such causes are unprincipled or that similarly influential public figures should not take such approaches, but instead merely to suggest that knowing your audience and getting the tone, pitch and content right is much more important than offering a rallying cry for (some) Muslims alone. Because of this, it wouldn’t take long for the average ‘man/ woman on the street’ to have the stereotype easily reinforced that Muslims are more concerned about what goes on ‘over there’ in ‘their countries’ than what goes on ‘over here’ in ‘our country’. Hopefully, the BNP won’t quote me on this.
Finally, since the visit of al-Qaradawi to London and the welcome afforded by Livingstone, many of the current mayor’s detractors have used his pro-Muslim bias as a weapon to beat him with. Whether this is fair or not I am genuinely unsure, but given the debacle around the ‘Search for Common Ground’ report that I contributed to last year and the fall-out from that (which formed a significant part of Martin Bright’s attack on Livingstone in Channel 4’s Dispatches programme last night), you would have thought that heightening awareness of Ken’s pro-Muslim tendencies or the links he has with certain Muslim organisations – many of which have elsewhere fallen out of favour with all and sundry – might have warranted more thought from those concerned. As a friend of mine put it to me earlier today, such a faux pas could easily be interpreted as little more than “a ‘reward’ to Ken for inviting Yusuf over” by all those concerned.
Since the open letter to the Guardian, Boris Johnson has responded by saying that he was “not remotely worried” by the statement of support:
“My grandfather was a Muslim and so was my great-grandfather. I am proud of my Muslim ancestry…But I want to talk about the interests of Londoners. I don’t care what religion they are. I want to look after people from all communities”.
Without endorsing Boris whatsoever – personally, I’ve been a fan of Red Ken for years and if I were living in London and there was an election tomorrow, I would vote for him without question – I do find myself agreeing with him as it would seem that what he is voicing here is the crux of the matter: namely that “I want to look after people from all communities”. Whether he does or not is another matter and we may well get the opportunity to find out sooner rather than later, but what the endorsees and their open letter have done is to put the ball firmly into Boris’ court and to provide Livingstone’s growing army of detractors with even more ammunition to use against him.
Let’s hope that recent reports are wrong when they state that Boris is now only 1% behind Ken in the opinion polls and that any further open letters (read ‘glowing endorsements’) are written so that they are seen to benefit all and not just Muslims. If they don’t, then will someone please get them put on hold or are at least thought about before any such decisions are made.