When Fear is a Crime

By Jenny James – March 1997

Stereotyping Islam should be made a criminal offence, says a new report.

The Runnymede Trust, a liberal think-tank on race relations says the British so hate Muslims and Islam as they perceive them that both need special protection in law.

The report – a consultation exercise leading to a major publication in November 1997 – uses a word so new to define the problem that it is not in the latest – 1995 – edition of the Oxford English dictionary.

Yet “Islamophobia”, thought to have been coined by a Muslim researcher at the Policy Studies Institute, has existed in western countries and cultures for several centuries,’ claims the report.

Defined as “dread or hatred of Islam and Muslims” it has become “particularly dangerous”, and “must be tackled with great urgency”, it says.

Chief among the phobics it identifies are other liberals, namely Fay Weldon, the UK’s leading female author and feminist who is furious at being nobbled by what she calls a term of political correctness’.

They single out her monograph Sacred Cows (1989) written after the fatwah on Rushdie, in which she described the Qur’an as food for no-thought. It is not a poem on which society can be safely or sensibly based. It gives weapons and strength to the thought-police.’

Other targets are the Roman Catholic chat show host, Robert Kilroy-Silk who described Muslims as “backward and evil” in a Daily Express article, the Jewish columnist Bernard Levin, and Patrick Sookhdeo who campaigns for persecuted Christians overseas.

Weldon railed to Third Way: “If to object when one’s friend and colleague is sentenced to death by a foreign power is islamophobic, then yes and certainly”.

“If to make a comment on the Qur’an is, and to say I don’t think it is a proper document to base a modern society on, then call me what you like!”

The report is the work of Runnymede’s “Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia’, which numbers Richard Chartres, Bishop of London and Ian Hargreaves, editor of the New Statesman among its members, as well as leading figures from other faiths and academia.

Philip Lewis, the Bishop of Bradford’s adviser on inter-faith relations who is both a Trustee and a member of the Commission, says Christians should welcome the fall out among liberals which the report represents.

Slamming Weldon’s comments as “religious illiteracy’, he told Third Way: “One of the most sophisticated societies in history was Muslim Spain. Fay Weldon is talking arrogant nonsense.”

He said the report was indicting such members of the liberal intelligentsia for their anti-religious sentiments.

“If that can contribute to a climate where religion is taken seriously in the public domain, that’s all to the good.”

The report draws a line between legitimate criticism of Muslims and Islam, and phobic’ generalisations.

Seven features of “Islamophobic discourse” would be the subject of new guidelines particularly for journalists, employers and foreign policy makers, unless there is sufficient uproar to block it:

1)Muslim cultures seen as monolithic and unchanging 2)Claims that Muslim cultures are wholly different from other cultures 3)Islam perceived as implacably threatening 4)Claims that Islam’s adherents use their faith mainly for political or military advantage 5)Muslim criticisms of Western cultures and societies rejected out of hand 6)Fear of Islam mixed with racist hositility to immigration 7)Islamophobia assumed to be natural and unproblematic “Confidence-building measures”, says the report, could enable Muslims to play a full part in political, intellectual, economic and cultural affairs.

“We are in the middle of a process so we have not come to a conclusion, but I think it may well press for incitement to religious hatred possibly to replace blasphemy, initially to protect Muslims”, says Lewis.

Research is beginning to show how particularly Pakistani Muslims have become demonised’ in the way the Irish were for 400 years up to Vatican II. Other research is showing how Britain’s ordinary Muslims have been marginalised and hidden in ghettos, under a a cloak of multiculturalism’. The Church has been quietly acting as brokers’ between them and wider society, on issues such as schooling, prison chaplains, civic celebrations and legal matters.

Lewis – whose book Islamic Britain has been widely acclaimed by sociologists – accuses liberal intellectuals of being locked into an individualist mode of being’ and asserts: “Identity is wrapped up with religious belonging.”

Christians should welcome a document that pointed out some of the crass ignorance of the intellectuals who talk about religion, he added.

“That won’t do any more. If we are going to have a fairly critical dialogue across religious communities, it’s not going to happen if it’s OK to be abusive about another person’s religious tradition. It’s not going to create a climate where we can take each other seriously and disagree with one another.”

Key Muslim lobby groups like the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs have been pressing for some years for an extension to the 1976 Race Relations Act to include discrimination on religious grounds.

They are also pushing for English law to recognise aspects of the shariah, now widely practised unofficially in variant forms throughout the country.

They gave a cautious welcome to the Islamophobia document, although the Muslim Parliament’s spokesman, Massoud Shadjareh, in the Muslim weekly Q News, accused the Commission of cherry picking’ its membership to exclude all but the most compromising figures in the community.’

Such comments do little to dispel what Weldon describes as a nervousness at saying the words Satanic Verses.

“I don’t think the way to peace is through understanding one another. I think we have tried that for 100 years and it hasn’t worked. If you come here because you like the schools or the jobs, or whatever reason you want to be here, then join in and try and make it a better sort of place.”

But joining in’ on Weldon’s terms means privatising your faith – which clearly won’t work for people whose legal and social profile is religious.

Theologian Lesslie Newbigin will say in a forthcoming book that the State needs to affirm more decisively its debt to Christianity if secularism is to remain tolerant of diversity.

He told Third Way: “This pamphlet is disappointing from a body with the reputation which the Runnymede Trust has. It fails to address the central issue: it does not recognise the real challenge which Islam is posing to our whole secular society and it simply keeps it on the level of “let’s avoid a punch up” which of course we would all agree with, but it does not really address the serious issues.”

“Certainly condemn hatred of Muslims, but we won’t effectively deal with that if we don’t face the genuine questions which Islam raises for our secular society, such as what, if anything, is the reason for our life together, many of which are also questions Christians must raise.”