Muslims Seek Power in Religious Identity

Part I


This article originally appeared in “The Christian Herald” – 10th February 1996

Moves to meet the growing demands of Islamic pressure groups to outlaw alleged ‘religious discrimination’ in Britain are not being debated enough despite its far-reaching implications, it’s claimed.

Pressure, particularly from Muslim groups who now make up 65% of all Britain’s ethnic minorities, to be defined by religion rather than race, is mounting.

But the Commission for Racial Equality believes the implications of such legislation are only being discussed in obscure forums at European level – despite significant ramifications.

The issue was raised again at the Madrid Summit in December 1995 at which interior ministers agreed to press for a consensus on extending race law to religion – but the issue, which is of vital significance for British social policy, has gone largely unreported.

Britain has vetoed a ‘joint action’ agreed to by the 14 other members of the European Justice and Home Affairs Ministers Council – a parallel body to the European Commission set up under the Maastricht Treaty.

The matter of most concern to religious groups is the first clause which seeks to criminalise ‘public incitement to discrimination, violence or racial hatred in respect of the group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to colour, race, religion or national or ethnic origin.’

Michael Howard has objected to the words discrimination and religion – which extend existing law – until he is satisfied there is sufficient evidence to show that race relations legislation does not give adequate protection.

Member States would be required to adopt the Joint Action by June 1997 – and John Major said in Parliament on 18 December 1995 that all that stands between the measure and its becoming law are ‘technical issues still being worked out, but I do not envisage that they will cause any great difficulties.’

Says CRE spokesman, Chris Myant: ‘We would like to see a wider public debate – partly because the implications are so wide. We are not in a position to offer advice across this wide range of Muslim questions.

‘These are issues around which society would feel very strongly and it’s important that there be a wider debate. I don’t think there has been yet.’

Muslims believe they have more chance of securing their needs – particularly in education – as a religious group instead of under existing ethnic minority provision.

Says Massoud Shadjareh, Chairman of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain Human Rights Committee: ‘When it comes to our needs like health and housing we are excluded. The Asian umbrella is being addressed but the Muslim community which constitutes the largest ethnic minority is not, and our identity is first and foremost religious.’

There are various issues at stake being tackled in different ways:

  • incitement to religious hatred
  • discrimination in terms of the delivery of services and employment
  • discrimination that implies that one religion is inferior to another.

The CRE, recognising in its 1992 review of the 1976 Race Relations Act that the issue had ‘ramifications going well beyond the area of good race relations’ set up a Project Team to coordinate work around the whole issue in October 1995.

Run by Khurshid Drabu, a Kashmiri Muslim, the team has a three-fold remit including the backing of Max Madden MP’s Private Member’s bill against incitement to religious hatred – which exists in Northern Ireland but not the mainland.

The team will also:

  • continue to look for suitable test cases to deepen and further understanding of the application of the Race Relations Act in cases which involve elements or religious discrimination
  • seek to amend the Race Relations Act to clarify where discrimination on religious grounds may constitute indirect racial discrimination

As it stands the law itself gives people who believe they are victims of religious discrimination no automatic rights in law: They must make a complaint on a piece-meal basis by showing someone else has won a similar case, for example, where the CRE can define religious discrimination as racism by another name. And it is pledged to stamp it out – when it can find it.

But say the CRE, their efforts to secure hard evidence have largely failed.

A survey of major religious groups, previous test cases and law centres was carried out in response to pressure from Islamic groups in 1994.

It asked for first and second hand examples of problems being experienced in regards to faith, not covered by existing legislation in terms of jobs and services.

Says Myant: ‘We came back with very little material to show that an individual who was a follower of Islam and who experienced difficulty in getting a job for example, because he was a Muslim, or getting a service could not use existing legislation.

‘Clearly there was a problem for Jehovah’s Witnesses over invasive surgery on children which is prohibited.’

But he adds: ‘I am not quite sure what people mean by religious discrimination and we have to be a little bit careful.’

Observers believe the vexed question of Islamic schools – there are no grant-maintained Islamic schools as yet (1996) – has less to do with religious discrimination, and more to do with the availability of Muslim teachers – and broader integration issues.

Jorgen Nielsen, in the Journal for the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs, writes: ‘It is clear that this way forward can never serve more than a minority, even if all the practical obstacles are overcome. This is not, of course, an argument against such schools in principle; so long as the facility exists in law and is used in practice by some religious communities it is invidious to prevent others from making use of the facility.

‘But the Muslim leadership cannot avoid the accusation that they will be racially divisive simply by pointing out that racism is unIslamic… A Muslim school in parts of Birmingham or Bradford would be racially segregated in effect even if not in intent.’

Part two of this article examining the Church’s response to the issue of religious discrimination follows.
This article is re-printed by kind permission of the “New Christian Herald”.