Religion: state of mind or state of being?

Is discrimination a challenge for us all?

You can see the colour of a person’s skin, but you cannot see their soul. To some, religion is a creation of the mind, while for others it is as much a part of them as the eyes in their head. But to be discriminated against on the grounds of your religion is a complex issue. Here I examine some of the initial points and asks, “Is religious discrimination real or just an extension of racism?”

Jack Straw, Home Secretary, supposed that religious discrimination can be dealt with under the same laws as racial discrimination. Such beliefs, however, may be misled. Even to attempt to represent the fact that religious discrimination exists is to enter a minefield of difficulties. On one side, while a white person may discuss racism and defend those that racism discriminates against, a person of one religion defending those of another who are affected by religious discrimination is a much more forbidding area. Issues of race are comparatively cut and dry; religion is based upon ideologies (of god or not) and, ultimately, the pursuit of a truth.
On another side, that person is faced with a barrage of questions, primarily relating to the fact that it is not a popular concern. Is there a reason for this; is that person only pouring salt on an already painful wound and digging holes that do not need to be dug? The answers to those questions depend upon your personal perspective.

Many who do not hold religious beliefs automatically reject the notion of religious discrimination because it simply does not affect them. This, however, is a questionable position to take. Others, who are religious, may be saying, “No, don’t, make me out as a victim. This isn’t an issue for me.” This also, I would say, is a questionable stance. Whether you reject or accept religion is another matter; the fact is, many religions do exist and religious discrimination is a problem.
The similarity that Straw talks of is the fact that it is ‘foreign’ religions that feel the greatest antagonism in this country. While Christianity, as a fairly indigenous religion, faces continual mockery; of which derelict blasphemy laws do little to abate because most is directed towards the institutions of the Church and not at the religion itself; the religious communities that arrived with migration appear to suffer far severer hostility.

On 22 October, the Runnymede Trust published a report entitled, “Islamophobia: a challenge for us all”, in which it was claimed that race relation laws are inadequate to protect Muslims from hostility. As a community of 1.5 million, made up of many ‘ethnic’ minority groups, British Muslims are often, according to the Trust, victims of what has come to be known as ‘Islamophobia’, an irrational anti-Muslim hostility. English law does not defend Muslims from discrimination in employment and the provision of services, slander and blasphemy, incitement to hatred, and violence.

While Straw recognised that race legislation is “not the answer to the particular problems of the Muslim community”, the pressures of the parliamentary programme means that he has no plans to legislate, and anyway, “religious legislation may not be the answer either.” he said.

It could be argued that the hostility towards Muslims is not religious at all, but racial. After all, many see themselves as Muslim first and foremost, thus indicating that they would consider hostility towards them as hostility because they are Muslim. As a group made up predominantly of migrants, the stigma associated with immigration is hard to be avoided, especially amongst the poorest. Such an argument, however, is not supported by much of the evidence. The Runnymede Trust believes that the term ‘racial violence’ does not protect those who suffer attack because of their Muslim dress codes, for example. Further to this, a white Muslim woman who is discriminated against because she wears the hijab has no grounds for protection under race legislation.

The report states that ‘Islamophobia’ “is a serious and dangerous feature of contemporary affairs and culture” with the assault on Muslims not only occurring in the form of individual violence, but also much evident in the prejudice of the press.

Yet, while the report, which set out to counter suppositions that Islam is one monolithic system, was welcome by many, some seemed to miss the point altogether. Polly Toynbee writing in The Independent told her readers that she was an Islamophobe and went on to justify that by citing examples of the cruelty of certain Muslims and groups of Muslims abroad. In this way she ignored what the report was actually saying. It was focussing on Muslim communities in Britain, and the actions of others is not justification for their mistreatment. Racists justify their mistreatment of individuals on the grounds of their stereotypes of whole groups of people. It should be apparent by now that this is wrong.

Though Toynbee can be forgiven, perhaps, because she admits that she is not just an Islamophobe, but more generally, a religiophobe. Bigot would do, but it does excuse her from her generalisations, as if Muslims were the only group to be governed by rules. She mentions the status of women, which is unsurprising, because the same is recited time after time if Muslims are to be criticised. Toynbee may overlook this point, for she evidently distrusts all religions, but what such remarks ignore is the fact that all the major religions are fundamentally patriarchal. In any religion taken to an ‘extreme’, the male domination generally becomes extreme.

Coupled with this criticism, a usual response to Islam is that “They’re all extremists / fundamentalists / terrorists*” (*delete as appropriate). The essential point here is not what some Muslims may be (as could be applied to some Christians, some Sikhs, some Hindus, etc., but usually isn’t), but the generalising first three words which are used too commonly to be taken seriously. “They are all” are the same three words used to describe any group that we are prejudiced against.

Beyond these two main reasons that justify hostility towards Muslims, definite responses are few, so some just settle for their unreasonable requests for a Prayer room and have done with it. Such a response simply illustrates the basic point that the Report made; that anti-Muslim hostility, in the same way as racism, is irrational.

So what can be done? The Home Secretary has ruled out the possibility of Religious Discrimination legislation being drawn up before the next General Election. The Runnymede Report suggests that the Press Complaints Commission should amend its code of conduct for journalists to guard against the media presenting distorted images of the Muslim world. The truth of the matter is, discrimination on the grounds of religion is a very complex issue to deal with. In the past, religious leaders were able to argue that racism was wrong, by the inclusiveness of their faith. Yet how could they respond to another religion when they insist that their religion is the religion.

Quite simply, I would imagine, by recognising that people should not be treated unjustly.

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