When the Liberal Conscience Fails


This article originally appeared in “The Third Way”, March 1996

Discrimination on grounds of religion is wrong, most Christians would agree. No-one should be victimised because of their beliefs. But is it as simple as that?

A new booklet was published in May 1996 by the British Government, advising minorities on how to cope with religious discrimination. It was produced as an emollient in response to pressure to change the law about racism, and recognise religious discrimination as a greater problem to those whose skins are brown but whose religion, they believe, is perceived as the greater ‘threat’.

Since the complaints about discrimination are coming from Islamic activists who have been unable to furnish evidence that it’s actually happening, some suspect a subtler, political agenda: an attempt to be recognised as a bigger group that cuts across race and is better able to command the debate.

Muslims have won concessions in Britain under the old racism agenda: now they’re seeking legal parity as both a race and a religion along with Jews and Sikhs whom they outnumber seven to one – although Islam, unlike Judaism and Sikhism, spans many races and cultures. To be regarded as Muslim confers more political clout than to be regarded as Bengali or Pakistani.

Called ‘Religious Discrimination: Ways to Challenge It’, the booklet has been put together by the Inner Cities Religious Council – an agency within the Department of the Environment (DOE), run by Anglican vicar David Horn.

The DOE refused to allow the writer to interview Horn, but it is known that the publication follows the government’s failure to endorse a European initiative in October 1995 to extend the 1976 Race Relations Act to include religion.

Britain alone out of the European Community’s 15 member states vetoed an Interior Ministers’ ‘joint action’ in Brussels making it a crime on the British mainland to incite religious hatred or discrimination.

The implications are complex – and ominous. Home Secretary Michael Howard is thought to have ducked out of a vote at the last moment, after representations that Salman Rushdie could have been prosecuted for The Satanic Verses under such a proviso.

The Commission for Racial Equality is uneasy too. Papers leaked to Q News – Europe’s first Muslim weekly – in October 1995 revealed that lawyers regard the measure as ‘neither feasible nor desirable’. They believe it would prove impossible to define religion for the purposes of an Act (do you include Druids? Moonies?) And there are some practices sanctioned or forbidden by religion that society as a whole might legitimately wish to discriminate against, such as polygamy for Muslims and the ban on blood transfusions for Jehovahs’ Witnesses. A 1992 review of the 1976 Race Relations Act spoke of ‘ramifications going well beyond the area of good race relations.’ They want a wider debate.

So what are people worried about? Is this a naive bid for power – the ‘Islamisation of Europe’ that the Islamic Foundation in Leicester speaks of – or more seriously, the beginning of the permanent polarisation of local communities along religious lines?

Massoud Shadjareh, Chairman of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain Human Rights Committee says Muslims are now the largest ethnic minority in Britain and they should be dealt with as such. ‘Our identity is first and foremost religious’, he says.

That challenges the assumptions of secular Britain – where the government lists religion with gambling under ‘leisure activities’ in its annual Abstract of Statistics. Islam functions as a political system, regulating every aspect of life. It is governed by Divine Law – which often contradicts other law in Britain. How would one arbitrate between the two laws if it became illegal to discriminate religiously? One easy way out would be to govern Muslims under Islamic law – but this could lay the groundwork for a kind of sectarianism we have not seen on the British mainland for several hundred years.

This is not far-fetched. Some high-profile Muslim groups have already demanded concessions ranging from recognition of blasphemy, through an Islamic curriculum in mainly Muslim schools, to the outlawing of free comment about Islam and more.

For example, the Manifesto of the Muslim Parliament, published under the name of ex-Guardian journalist Kalim Siddiqi in 1990, declares: ‘The option of integration and assimilation that is on offer as official policy in Britain must be firmly resisted and rejected.’

The Manifesto calls for ‘a no-go area where the exercise of freedom of speech against Islam will not be tolerated.’ Sussex University student union, among others, has already revoked its free speech rule – it must be assumed that religious extremism has had something to do with it – and British history dons examining the origins of Islam have received death threats

Q News – Europe’s first Muslim Weekly – is campaigning for parity with Jews in the public consciousness. ‘We are concerned that you can be accused of being anti-Semitic against Jews, but not against Muslims, although we’re the same race.’

The CRE is flummoxed. A survey of 2,500 minority groups in 1994 failed to find evidence of discrimination that is anything other than racist – and existing law can cope with border-line cases.

An employer who refuses to allow his workers to take leave to celebrate Eid for example – the festival marking the end of Ramadan – can be prosecuted as a racist.

Some Muslim lawyers, however, have a much broader agenda. To be Muslim, they say, is to observe the Shari’ah, Islamic divine law. Your identity as a Muslim cannot be divorced from your obligations to that law. And until English law recognises Muslim ‘religious rights’ in such matters, it remains discriminatory.

The CRE in October 1995 set up a working party under Kashmiri Muslim Kurshid Drabu to look afresh at the question of religious discrimination.

The question of incorporating Shari’ah law within the English legal system as a way of protecting Muslims from each other is also being examined by some lawyers. To refuse would be, in the words of the new politically correct lexicon – assimilationist. A case in point is ‘limping marriages’ to do with polygamy which is legal in Islam, and practised in Britain. It has reached ‘alarming proportions’ in the States. A woman may obtain a divorce from the state, but be denied one by her husband under Shari’ah law. The husband can and frequently does marry again under Muslim polygamy rules, but the wife cannot. She faces rejection and destitution within her own community. Unless the state recognises Islamic divorce or talaq in order to regulate it (a man merely has to pronounce a short verbal formula three times to divorce his wife) – such women have no real protection. And until the state recognises it, argue some, the state is guilty of discrimination.

In a new book published in 1996 Verna Menski, an academic lawyer and expert in ethnic minority law at London University, says that Muslims are operating a kind of legal apartheid anyway.

He says that the state is still closing its eyes to ‘the unpalatable reality’ that many different Asian laws are in full though unofficial, operation on British soil.

Muslims are increasingly asserting their religious values and are willing to challenge the system rather than neglect their religious duties, he says, ‘opening the door to possible conflict over differing norms’.

One alternative is what Muslim lawyers call ‘Angrezi shariah’ – a hybrid obligation system, whereby, for example, a Muslim woman in 1990 successfully sued her former husband who had accused her of not being a virgin on her wedding night. She was awarded £20,000 in recognition of the slur on her and her family ‘bearing in mind the values of her community’.

A more worrying option is what Sebastian Poulter, Reader in Law at Sussex University describes as ‘multi-cultural tolerance’ – a cloak for oppression and injustice within the immigrant communities themselves.

What angers Muslims is a feeling of being dragooned into ‘English public policy’ with its undefined ‘shared values’ which are not actually shared by Muslims.

‘This leads to a situation where the law is divorced from reality and unable to claim the loyalty of the Muslim community – bringing the law into contempt’, says Menski.

Some Muslim academics see the solution to the problem in ‘adjustments’ to the relation between church and state. By this they mean disestablishment, with the monarch becoming ‘defender of faith’ – not just one faith, the removal of bishops from the House of Lords and an end to the ‘predominantly Christian emphasis’ in religious education in state schools.

‘It is clear that norms and values of a Christian background are in a privileged position, whereas those derived from Islam have to fight their way in.’

Writers such as Tariq Modood at the Policy Studies Institute, echoing Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks’ 1990 Reith Lectures, are against disestablishment.

‘The minimal nature of the Anglican establishment, its relative openness to other denominations and faiths seeking a public space and the fact that its very existence is an ongoing acknowledgement of the public character of religion are all reasons why it may seem far less intimidating to the minority faiths than a triumphal secularism’, says Modood in his book, ‘Not Easy Being British.’

And indeed, as the new communities have bunkered down over the last ten years, it has been the largely anti-religious voluntary sector and local authority activists that have helped to dig the trenches.

The consequences are serious. Councillors on local authority race equality committees who yesterday funded mosques as ‘community centres’ today note with regret that many Muslims have ‘marginalised’ themselves by refusing to cooperate within broader community policies. Philip Lewis, the Bishop of Bradford’s Advisor on Race Relations says Bradford has ‘a permanent under-class’ The concept of citizenship is all but redundant. Muslims mistrust secular politics. The time has come for political forums to become religious again.

Nigel Todd, Labour Chair of Newcastle City Council Racial Equality Working Group – a self-confessed atheist – says councillors are getting ‘hurt’ by being called racist every time they resist the exclusivist Islamic agenda.

‘If they don’t get their way they say you are racist. These are politically inspired accusations that are about achieving another agenda. The aggro is ruining people’s lives. Why should we bother any more?’

If the liberal conscience is growing weary, who will fill the breach as communities threaten to splinter for good? Are the churches ready? ‘How blessed are the peacemakers’ is likely to be a text for our times.