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.

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.