Responding to Runnymede

The opinions expressed and observations below are those of a number of Muslim students at SOAS, whose responses to the points were mixed. Despite the differences in views, however, there was a general consensus that discrimination on the grounds of religion does exist. While some agree that it is an extension of racism, others believe that it can and does exist on its own. A Ghanaian student who converted to Islam said he felt more discrimination against him now on the grounds of his religion that he ever did before on the grounds of race. The most obvious illustration that separates it from racism is seen in the case of British converts, some of whom feel a certain amount of hostility from family and friends. Statements of ignorance merge with misunderstandings, and questions like, “Why can’t you come to the Pub any more?”

That there are many British converts demonstrates that Islam is not a racially based religion. The idea that race legislation deals with religious discrimination, therefore, was disputed. Muhammed, a Kenyan student, said that Article 9 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights acknowledges a right of Freedom to gather and Freedom of belief; so you can become a member of any faith you like; but there is no protection for you when you are within that religion. He mentioned that religious discrimination legislation exists in Northern Ireland, but in the rest of the UK Race legislation is said to be sufficient.

Legislation is a cause for debate. Some think that an effort should be made to improve things in parliament. The Salman Rushdie case, was mentioned as an example, where nothing was done despite the fact that his book was greatly offensive to many Muslims. Blasphemy laws are designed to protect Christians from such offence, so it seems strange that other religions may not be protected also. Prince Charles’ offer to be an inclusive Defender of all Faiths was also brought up.

Others think that there is no point attempting to get British legislation to protect Muslims from discrimination, because British law basically contradicts Islamic law. The view of some is that their priority is to spread Islam and it is seen as hypocritical to go through a non-Muslim system; Islam is more than faith alone, for the Koran is a constitution for a way of life.

One student said that there are some Muslims who believe that if Islam is to be implemented to the full, there should be an Islamic state, although there are some arguments about exactly how this should be done. Some people say that Muslims, when they have to think about their roles in this society, should make hijra: going to live in a Muslim society.

Despite the varying views on legislation, few can see any reason why they should not ask parliament to recognise a need for respect of Muslims. There is a feeling that Muslims should work towards there being no discrimination towards them.

Most agreed that there are a lot of stereotypes about Islam and those stereotypes, it was said, mostly come from people who know very little about it. Probably because the only way they find out about Islam is through the media, and of course the only news that makes the news is bad news. One student said it was “understandable” that people who are not Muslim are going to discriminate because they do not know about Islam; that it is a way of life, both socially and economically. Those who practice, especially, find themselves separated from the rest of society because they do not drink and because they are praying five times a day. It was also said that Islam is seen as something foreign from the British way of life and the things associated with it.

A British Muslim said that he did not think that he had been discriminated against personally, but he remembered seeing people shouting abuse at a woman wearing a jellaba from their cars as they passed her on Edgware Road one day. He also cited examples of discrimination against members of other religions, like where Sikh men had been prevented from work as cabin staff for an airline because of their turbans and beards.

One student stressed the existence of discrimination in academic, media and literary fields. Muhammed believes that there is bias in the teaching at SOAS. According to him, the text books used in teaching ‘Islamic Law’ do not treat the subject truthfully. Another student mentioned that, for ‘Origins of Islam’, the huge majority of books on the reading list are by non-Muslims, though there are some traditional sources. Of those few Muslim sources that are translated, they are translated by non-Muslims or Orientalists and are questionable in their accuracy, he said. Muhammed claims that N.J. Coulson’s work on Islamic Law distorts the source, and points out that an Arabic academic found many mistakes in it, but that SOAS will not bring the English version into the Library. He said, “The Orientalist view portrays Islam like the media. In the classroom we don’t call you a suicide bomber, but as not compatible with the modern system, it’s medieval, it’s primitive.” The other student said that the courses on Islam in SOAS are not really teaching you about Islam, but the Orientalist view of it.

So, is discrimination a challenge for us all? “It’s really a question of respect, but it’s unrealistic to say that everyone would believe in that. A lot of people aren’t concerned unless it’s affecting them. Depends on your goal. If you’re working for an environment where people aren’t discriminated against, then, yes, it is a challenge for us all.” The conclusion of one student was that there is not enough understanding of Muslims and not enough respect.

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