My opening speech from the “Islamophobia & Religious Discrimination: new perspectives, policies and practices” event yesterday (9th December 2009):

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

In response, the English Defence League marching in protest against the perceived ‘Islamification’ of Britain in various towns and cities across the UK

Books on atheism by Richard Dawkins being sold on supermarket shelves and holding a place in the bestseller lists

News stories about alleged and actual terror campaigns, some being perpetrated by Muslims who claim to be doing Allah’s will regularly making the front pages

Bus poster campaigns by humanist proclaiming that there’s probably no God sharply followed by various Christian groups proclaiming that there most definitely is

And more recently, the ramifications and response here to the decision in Switzerland to ban the building of minarets

But it is not just in the news where religion is alive and well. Since the turn of the century, more new churches than Starbucks outlets have opened across the UK, more Britons believe in the concept of heaven today than they did in 1970, 34% of churches are reporting a growth in numbers, and the number of adult Christian baptisms is increasing each year. So the idea that Britain doesn’t do God is something that is increasingly difficult to comprehend.

In fact I would suggest that whether you adhere to any particular religion or not, the role and place of religion in today’s society is such that it would be very difficult for you to ignore. The relevance of religion as we approach the 2010s cannot be underestimated.

Cast your minds back to when we entered the 1990s and things were much different. Only in the past decade and a half has any real change been identifiable.

It was in the mid-90s that the first pieces of research were being undertaken that begun to highlight how a growing number of people were choosing to identify themselves in terms of their religion or belief. This trend has continued and as a recent report by the public theology think-tank Theos noted earlier this year, “religious identity is a feature of national and international affairs today in a way that was unexpected, indeed unimaginable, just twenty years ago” (Theos, 2009).

Since then we have also had for the first time the inclusion of the ‘religion’ question in the 2001 Census. Along with just under three quarters of the population that responded by describing themselves as Christian – albeit with the recognition that this does not necessarily equate to practise – other significant communities were also formally recognised including Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish and Buddhist. But one statistic that is routinely overlooked is that approximately 14% of the population stated that they had ‘No religion’, a percentage that exceeds all the minority faith communities added together.

It was also little more than a decade ago in 1997 that the Runnymede Trust published the Commission on British Muslims & Islamophobia’s now seminal report, ‘Islamophobia: a challenge for us all’. It was a watershed moment in the formal recognition and acknowledgement of not only Islamophobia in both the political and public spaces but so too the recognition of religiously based discrimination.

Describing Islamophobia as “a useful shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam – and, therefore, the fear or dislike of all or most Muslims” (Commission on British Muslims & Islamophobia, 1997) the report went on to set out a range of policy and practical recommendations to counter an Islamophobia that was perceived to be a “part of the fabric of everyday life in modern Britain” (ibid). As I wrote in a piece entitled ‘The first decade of Islamophobia’ a few years ago, who in 1997 could have predicted the events that have occurred since and the unimaginable impact that these have had?

Since then, much has been written about Islamophobia and if today’s event is anything to go by, it would seem to be something that continues to generate significant levels of interest and enquiry. Yet still confusion and disagreement continues with many believing that Islamophobia does not exist or is at best, a mere shield behind which Muslim communities can deflect or shy away from legitimate and valid criticism. As Douglas Murray, the Director of the Centre for Social Cohesion told me when we were both panellists in a debate in the European Parliament last month, Islamophobia is – to quote him – nothing but a ‘crock’. For him and indeed many others, Islamophobia is far from something that we should be readily considering.

Maybe one of the reasons for the lack of acceptance that Islamophobia exists is because despite more than a decade of trying, we still struggle to find evidence for Islamophobia beyond the mere anecdotal. As an Open Society Institute report noted, “it is often difficult to substantiate the extent of discrimination against Muslims, as little data has been collected using religion as an indicator” (2002). My own research into Islamophobia across the EU after 9/11 noted something similar. Evidencing Islamophobia has therefore been a problem and indeed remains so, leaving the proof of a phenomenon that affects and impacts the everyday lives of too many people sadly weak and insufficient.

One explanation for this lack of evidence might be in part a legacy of earlier race relations legislation. Focusing solely on markers of ‘race’ and ethnicity as a basis for discrimination, an anomaly existed in the legislation where it became legal for multi-ethnic religious groups to be discriminated against. Unlike Jewish and Sikh communities who were both afforded protection because they were seen to be mono-ethnic and thereby a legally defined ‘race’, Muslims – and indeed other multi-ethnic religious communities that included Buddhists, Hindus and Christians amongst others – were left were unprotected. It was this particular loophole that the far-right began to exploit and build upon since the turn of the century (Allen, 2005).

Since then, various pieces of legislation have been implemented that have sought to not only close this loophole but also address the wider issue of discrimination based on markers of religion. This has included: the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill 2001; the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006; and the EU Employment Directive 2003. Under the Equality Act 2006, a ‘Religion or Belief’ strand was formally recognised as a marker for discrimination whilst the recently proposed Equality Bill is expected to accelerate progress on outlawing discrimination on this basis even further.

Unlike the introduction of the other equality strands however, the religion or belief strand would appear to have been more problematic. Without doubt, it has been the equality strand that has gained the most attention and has had the widest social and political ramifications. Take for instance the classroom assistant who wanted to wear the niqab and the way in which this fed into wider debates about the extent to which the niqab is a barrier to integration.

There has been much discussion also on conflicts with the religion or belief strand. Illustrative of this have been the refusal of adoption services by some religious organisations to same sex couples and the refusal of a registrar to administer same-sex civil partnerships on the grounds of religious belief. How we negotiate and manage the balancing of rights between groups and indeed getting religious groups and communities to uphold the rights of those that some may perceive to be sinful or against their theology is something that is going to be key if the policies are going to be a success.

This broadening of the equalities framework to include ‘religion or belief’ is very much in line with the growing incidence of ‘religion’ and ‘faith’ in the policies of the New Labour Government. From policies relating to community cohesion to those more recent including ‘Face to face and side by side’, the Government’s inter-faith strategy, religion and faith now have an increasingly heard voice right through Whitehall. Aside from the politics, some unease with the role of religious and faith groups and communities is evident not least from those such as the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association. For them, any increased role for religion or faith in public and social policy means that those without any particular religion or belief – the vast majority of the population both groups argue – are more likely to be discriminated against. Elsewhere, others have argued that placing too great a focus on religion and faith can divide communities especially when it is perceived that particular religions or communities are afforded preferential treatment. There is also of course the discrimination and hostility that exists between different faith communities.

And if the situation wasn’t already confused enough, then much of the legislation and policy relating to religion or belief has been closely linked to the Government’s policy responses to anti-terror and security issues. Given the impact of such terrorist atrocities as 9/11 and 7/7, the failed terrorist attacks of 21/7 and Glasgow airport amongst others, the heightened media coverage of numerous ‘terror raids’, and the fact that many of those involved in such incidents self-declare their actions as being ‘in the name of Islam’, many view the current counter-terrorist legislation and policy agendas as being directed primarily at Muslims and Muslims alone. From seeking to curtail and control radicalism, proscribing ‘extremist groups’, and introducing a raft of new offences that include ‘acts preparatory to terrorism’, ‘encouragement to terrorism’ and the ‘dissemination of terrorist publications’, my own research has shown that not only has this the potential to isolate and alienate Muslim communities but so too has it reinforced the wider fears and anxieties about Muslim cultures and traditions that already existed (Allen & Nielsen, 2002). Muslims remain the ‘them’ to our ‘us’.

Against this backdrop, policies such as the Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) programme (DCLG, 2007; HM, 2008) have been implemented in the hope of encouraging better relations between Muslims and mainstream society. Not only is it being suggested that these policies and initiatives are making Muslim communities feel increasingly under pressure and targeted (Waddington et al., 2004; Bowling and Phillips, 2007; Liberty, 2004; Kundani, 2007; Khan, 2009) but so too is research showing that they are liable to bring about feelings of anger, alienation, mistrust, and radicalisation (Briggs, Crabtree et al, 2008; Khan, 2009) again, further dividing Muslim and non-Muslim communities along lines of religion and identity.

Given the current climate then, how can we be sure that the policies and legislation that have been introduced to address Islamophobia – and indeed all forms of discrimination based on markers of religion or belief – are working?

Given that fears and anxieties continue to grow in wider society about Muslims, and that far-right groups have begun to make inroads into the British and European political mainstream, are the policies and legislation going far enough?

More worryingly, could it be that the policies and legislation are indeed reinforcing the fears and mistrust that already exist in some parts of society: in essence, encouraging further discrimination and prejudice?

And could it be that recent policies and legislation have indeed created an environment where anti-Muslim attitudes and expression have been given some social and political credence?

Ultimately, is Islamophobia and religious discrimination becoming increasingly ‘normal’?

These and indeed numerous other questions are today both timely and relevant: the overwhelming interest in this event is evidence enough that these are issues that people want to better understand and engage with.

Without any doubt whatsoever, these are issues that we cannot ignore. If we do and leave these critical issues unchecked, the situation could deteriorate further resulting in tensions, unrest and harm between different communities and religions. To ensure the future wellbeing of a cohesive multicultural, multi-faith Britain, it is vital that we begin to discuss these issues now and that we do that head on especially if we want to move into the new decade with a fairer and more equitable society.

With this, I challenge my assembled panel of distinguished guests to offer their ideas and thinking to you as a means of beginning a new dialogue that encompasses new perspectives, policies and practices.

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