Thursday, 20 January 2011

Has anti-Muslim bigotry become socially acceptable?

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly):

Baroness Warsi
According to the Daily Telegraph, the Conservative Party chair, Baroness Warsi, will use a speech at Leicester University this evening to warn that prejudice against Muslims in Britain has become socially acceptable, having passed what she terms "the dinner-table test". Part of the blame for this, in Warsi's view, lies with the way in which Muslims are often defined as either "moderate" or "extremist". In one of the extracts from the speech published in the Telegraph, she says:
“It’s not a big leap of imagination to predict where the talk of 'moderate’ Muslims leads; in the factory, where they’ve just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: 'Not to worry, he’s only fairly Muslim’. In the school, the kids say: 'The family next door are Muslim but they’re not too bad’. And in the road, as a woman walks past wearing a burka, the passers-by think: 'That woman’s either oppressed or is making a political statement’.”
She will also warn that Muslims should not be subject to collective blame for the violence committed by extremists:
"Those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law. They also should face social rejection and alienation across society and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims."
Clearly it's a good idea to wait and see what Warsi says in the full speech, but it seems it is likely to prove controversial (she's already attracted the ire of Tory grandee Norman Tebbit, who suggests she might like to take a look at what Muslim preachers are saying about members of other religions and none). One contentious issue is the word "Islamophobia", which, while it is used in the Telegraph story, doesn't actually appear in the quoted excerpts. The implication of the word is that a "fear" of Islam pervades society, and gives rise to prejudice against those that practice the religion. The problem with that idea is that it confuses (or conveniently combines, depending on which way you look at it) two things that are not necessarily the same. Are we talking about the questioning of aspects of the Islamic faith, which involves legitimate concern about issues such as the role of women or attitudes towards violence? Or are we talking about open prejudice and discrimination towards those that practice Islam?

I think the latter is something that does need to be taken seriously, but it needs to be separated from the legitimate discussion and criticism of religion. To term bigotry towards those that practice Islam as "Islamophobia" sidesteps the fact that such prejudice, surely, often has as much to do with race as it does religion. Islam is, of course, a very visible aspect of life in communities of South Asian origin but, having grown up in Lancashire and seen this kind of prejudice, which is indeed a very real problem, at first hand, I don't feel that religion is the primary issue. The derogatory terms used tend to be racial epithets, which (if you assume any real "thinking" goes on in their use) are intended to cover anyone of Asian origin, many of whom are not Muslims.

So bigotry is a serious problem, but to suggest that the main issue is Islam, and imply that all criticism of the religion contributes to prejudice, is, in my view, wrong. And I don't think Warsi is right to say that "Islamophobia", or racism, or whatever we call it, has become socially acceptable – it does exist, but I think the majority of people would recoil on hearing any of the insults directed at ethnic minorities around the dinner table, to use Warsi's example. Yet this is not to say that she has raised a non-issue – you only need to take a look at the pages of the Daily Mail or Daily Express to see how Muslims are singled out for negative news coverage (the Mail's recent story about a café removing an extractor fan because it "offended Muslims", which as the Tabloid Watch blog showed was inaccurate at best, comes to mind). But I think we need to look more closely at what is going on in cases such as those, and separate out the perfectly valid discussion of religion from instances where the link to a religion is used as a convenient means to inflame issues around immigration and race.

Essentially, we need a more mature debate, and a good starting point, in my view, would be to drop the confusing label "Islamophobia", which has the obfuscating effect of stigmatising the discussion of religion, while diminishing the racist angle to the prejudices it is intended to describe. Perhaps some people value this confusion, but it serves little purpose for those who are serious about getting to the bottom of the issue.

What do you think? I suppose we'll know more after Warsi's full speech, but I'd be interested to hear your views – has prejudice against Muslims become socially acceptable? Is "Islamophobia" a useful term? Share your thoughts in the comments.
blog comments powered by Disqus