In 1997 the British anti-racist organisation the Runnymede Trust published its highly influential report Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All. The report both brought to public consciousness the reality of anti-Muslim bigotry and framed it in terms of ‘Islamophobia’ – indeed, it played a significant role in establishing the term as legitimate and important. Twenty years on, the Runnymede Trust has brought out a follow-up report Islamophobia: Still a Challenge for Us All, which is a stock-take on current views, and facts, about the issue.
I have long been a critic of the term ‘islamophobia’, arguing that it confuses matters, framing anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry in a way that compounds, rather than alleviates, the problems facing Muslims. I was invited to write a chapter for the new report that explores some of these themes. My thanks to the Runnymede Trust, and especially to its director Omar Khan, for being so generous in giving space to a critic. I hope the report becomes the focus of a proper debate about the issue of anti-Muslim bigotry, and of how to deal with it.
Fear, indifference and engagement:
Rethinking the challenge of anti-Muslim bigotry
The original 1997 Runnymede Trust report observes of the word ‘Islamophobia’ that ‘it is not ideal’ but is nevertheless ‘a useful shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam – and, therefore, to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims’. I want to argue in this chapter that the word is not just ‘not ideal’ but deeply problematic, and one that makes it more difficult to challenge bigotry and discrimination against Muslims.
The term has come to be used by both proponents and opponents of bigotry to blur the distinction between criticism and hatred. On the one hand, it enables many to attack criticism of Islam as illegitimate because it is judged to be ‘Islamophobic’. On the other, it permits those who promote hatred to dismiss condemnation of that hatred as stemming from an illegitimate desire to avoid criticism of Islam. In conflating criticism and bigotry, the very concept of Islamophobia makes it more difficult to engage in a rational discussion about where and how to draw the line between the two, and about how to challenge the latter.
I am not making simply a semantic or terminological point. I am questioning, rather, a particular way of looking at the problem that seems often to compound, rather than alleviate, the problems facing Muslims.
In thinking about how to deal with anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination, we need to distinguish four categories: criticism of Islam; hatred of Muslims; discriminatory practices; and violent acts. For reasons of space, I will, in this chapter, deal largely with the first two issues – that is, issues primarily of speech and thought – and will have little to say about the latter two, though the question of how to confront discrimination, in particular, raises equally challenging issues.
When it comes to the criticism of ideas, nothing, in my view, should be out of bounds. Nothing should be unsayable simply because someone finds it offensive, or because it is culturally or religiously sensitive. This is a view that today finds little resonance. Much of the discussion about Islamophobia revolves around questions of what speech should be limited and how.
To unpack this discussion, we need again to separate out certain distinct categories. We need, in particular, to distinguish between the giving of offence, the promotion of bigotry or hatred, and the incitement of violence. The boundaries between the categories are blurred, and have deliberately been made more so in recent practice and policymaking. The 1986 Public Order Act, for instance, forbids the use of ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, within the hearing and sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby’, a phrasing that conflates offence, hatred and violence. The use of the concept of Islamophobia has helped further erode such distinctions. The distinctions are, nevertheless, important, as are the different ways in which we should respond to the different categories.
I will argue in this chapter that the giving of offence should be acceptable in an open, plural, democratic society. The fomenting of hatred can be deeply problematic, creating fear within certain communities and begetting violence. But while bigotry and hate speech need urgently to be tackled, they need tackling primarily at a political and moral level, rather than through the use of legislation to restrict speech. The legal line should come at the point not of incitement to hatred but of incitement to violence; direct incitement should be an offence, just as the violence being incited is an offence.
It has become commonplace to argue that while free speech may be a good, it must necessarily be less free in a plural society. For diverse societies to function and to be fair, so the argument runs, we need to show respect not just for individuals but also for the cultures and beliefs in which those individuals are embedded and which help give them a sense of identity and being. This requires that we police public discourse about those cultures and beliefs both to minimize friction between antagonistic cultures and to protect the dignity of those individuals embedded in them. As the sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, that ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’.
I want to argue the opposite: that it is precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In a plural society, it is both inevitable and, often, important that people offend the sensibilities of others. It is inevitable because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. Almost by definition such clashes express what it is to live in a diverse society; they should be openly resolved rather than suppressed in the name of ‘respect’ or ‘tolerance’. And it is often important because any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. Or to put it another way: ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged.
The notion of giving offence suggests that certain beliefs are so important or valuable to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. This is why free speech is essential not simply to the practice of democracy, but to the aspirations of those groups who may have been failed by the formal democratic processes: to those whose voices may have been silenced by racism, for instance. The real value of free speech, in other words, is not to those who possess power, but to those who want to challenge them. And the real value of censorship is to those who do not wish their authority to be challenged. Once we give up on the right to offend in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.
Commentators and critics often talk about ‘offence to a community’. And from The Satanic Verses to Charlie Hebdo, speech regarded as offensive to Muslims is often described as ‘Islamophobic’.
More often than not, though, what is deemed an ‘offence to a community’ refers in reality to debates within communities. Some Muslims found The Satanic Verses offensive. Others did not. Few Muslims objected when the Danish cartoons were first published. Only months of campaigning, primarily by Saudi Arabian authorities, turned the issue into a flashpoint. It is because what is often called ‘offence to a community’ is in reality debate within communities that so many of the flashpoints over offensiveness have been over works produced by minority artists – not just Salman Rushdie, but also Hanif Kureishi, Monica Ali, Sooreh Hera, Taslima Nasrin, MF Hussain and countless others.
Part of the reason that the debates within communities are often ignored, and the spotlight shone only on the ‘offence’, derives from the way that many today have come to understand the meaning of community and of diversity. Anti-Muslim bigots look upon Muslims as comprising an undifferentiated lump. Muslims, in their eyes, constitute a single, homogeneous community, all speaking with a common voice, all defined primarily by their faith, all hostile to ‘western values’ and all bearing social views that have remained unchanged for over a millennium.
Put like that, few liberals would agree with such a perspective. Yet, the common liberal or leftwing view of Muslim communities is not that different.
Naser Khader is a secular Danish MP of Muslim background. He tells of a conversation with Tøger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a left-wing Danish newspaper that was critical of the Muhammed cartoons. Seidenfaden claimed that ‘the cartoons insulted all Muslims’. Khader responded: ‘I am not insulted.’ ‘But you’re not a real Muslim’, was Seidenfaden’s response
‘You’re not a real Muslim.’ Why? Because to be a proper Muslim is, from such a perspective, to find the cartoons offensive. Anyone who is not offended is by definition not a proper Muslim. The argument of the liberal antiracist here meets that of the anti-Muslim bigot. For the latter, the real Muslim is the reactionary Muslim; for the former, the liberal Muslim is not a real Muslim. And in eliding criticism of Islam with hatred of Muslims, the concept of Islamophobia helps makes it easier for the bigot to portray his bigotry as criticism of Islam and for the liberal to view criticism of Islam as a form of bigotry.
This leads us to the questions of bigotry and of incitement to hatred. It is one thing to cause offence; it is quite another to foment hatred. If the giving of offence should be acceptable in an open, plural society, hatred and bigotry should not. How, then, should we challenge such bigotry and hatred?
Hate speech laws – the outlawing of certain forms of speech defined as hateful – have become accepted as essential weapons in combating bigotry. But just as the received wisdom that it is morally wrong to give offence is misplaced, so is the received wisdom that hate speech and bigotry should be outlawed. We certainly need to resist all attempts to use criticism of Islam to demonize Muslims. But criticism, of whatever kind, even if it is hateful or bigoted, should be seen as a moral and political, not legal, issue.
The argument that we should censor speech to prevent bigotry raises a number of questions. The first is about who decides what should be censored.
In January 2006, Iqbal Sacranie, then secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, made some derogatory comments about homosexuality on Radio 4’s Today programme. Homosexuality, he said was ‘harmful’ and ‘not acceptable’. According to Sacranie, ‘scientific evidence’ showed that homosexuality led to ‘illnesses and diseases’.
Sacranie saw himself as merely expressing what he considered to be the Islamic view. Many gay groups saw his comments as promoting hatred. Scotland Yard’s community safety unit launched an investigation into whether Sacranie’s comments constituted ‘hate speech’, and whether he had fallen foul of the 1986 Public Order Act, which forbids the use of ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words’.
In response to the police investigation, 22 imams and Muslim leaders wrote to The Times demanding the right to be able to ‘freely express their views in an atmosphere free of intimidation or bullying’. They added that ‘We cannot truly claim to be a free and open society while we are trying to silence dissenting views’. Many of those same leaders had called for Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to be banned. Sacranie himself had said of Rushdie, immediately after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa calling for the author’s murder, that ‘Death is too good for him’. And every one of the signatories to the Times letter had wanted the Danish cartoons, published just four months before Sacranie’s comments, to be censored.
The kind of hypocrisy, or moral blindness, expressed by those Muslim leaders is widespread, and far from limited to Muslims. Many of those happy to see cartoons lampooning Mohammed draw the line at anything mocking the Holocaust. Many gay rights activists want Muslims to be prosecuted for homophobia but want the right to criticize Muslims as they see fit. Racists such as Nick Griffin of the British National Party (BNP) or Tommy Robinson of the English Defence League (EDL) want to be free to spout racist abuse but want Muslim clerics locked up for doing the same. And so it goes on. The argument for the censorship of bigotry quickly degenerates into the claim that ‘my speech should be free but yours is too costly’.
The problem of censoring bigotry is not simply the difficulty in defining what it is that should be censored. It is also that the consequence of such censorship is not what many believe it to be. Banning certain forms of speech does not reduce or eliminate bigotry. It simply festers beyond the public gaze. Sheffield University social geographer Gill Valentine, for instance, suggests that hate speech restrictions do not reduce bigotry but rather ‘change its form’ and ‘privatize’ it. ‘The privatized nature of contemporary prejudice’, Valentine argues, ‘makes it more difficult to expose and challenge, producing a frustration that offenders are “getting away with it”, and making it harder to identify patterns of prejudice in form and intent.’ For those ‘critical of the progressive social norms… there is a sense of anger and frustration that their views are being silenced in public by the law’. The danger, Valentine concludes, ‘is that if these mutual and antagonistic senses of injustice are not openly acknowledged they might be exploited by extremist political parties and erupt into tension and conflict’.
The rise, in the past few years, of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim political parties throughout Europe bears out Valentine’s warning. The emergence of such organizations has been regarded by some as showing the necessity for even tighter controls on bigoted speech. In fact, the attempt to outlaw bigotry through censorship has itself provided some of the fuel for such bigotry.
The consequence of challenging bigotry through censorship also leads ‘anti-racists into a false comfort zone, where it feels like the basic arguments against prejudice no longer need to be put’, as the journalist Paul Mason has put it. It helps absolve us, in other words, of the responsibility of tackling such ideas openly and robustly.
It is, in my view, morally incumbent on advocates of free speech also to challenge bigotry. Part of the reason for free speech is to be able to create the conditions for open, robust debate, conditions necessary to allow us to challenge obnoxious views. And part of the reason that such obnoxious views continue to flourish is that too many remain keener to censor than to challenge.
It is worth noting too that, just as with the attempt to censor offence, minorities themselves are all too often the victims of legal constraints on bigotry. The 1965 Race Relations Act introduced Britain’s first legal ban on the incitement of racial hatred. The first person convicted under its provisions was not a member of the National Front or of the Racial Preservation Society but the Trinidadian Black Power activist Michael X, sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment in 1967. Four members of the Universal Coloured Peoples’ Association were also convicted that year for stirring up hatred against white people at Speakers’ Corner.
In the 1960s and 1970s, incitement laws were often used to target black activists whose views were regarded as unacceptable or dangerous. Today, those with unacceptable Muslim or Islamist views are more likely to be targets. In Britain, Muslims with unpalatable views, from Samina Malik (the so-called ‘lyrical terrorist’) to protestors against the Danish cartoons, who were jailed for up to six years for chants that ‘solicited murder’ and ‘incited racial hatred’, have felt the coercive impact of such laws. In France, after the Charlie Hebdo killings, the government organized a huge march through Paris in defence of free speech. It also used hate speech laws to criminalize those who dissented from the official view, from the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné to schoolchildren who refused to honour the slain cartoonists. Many countries now use hate speech laws to outlaw support for the anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement.
Critics of such policies usually cry ‘Islamophobia’. But what has helped legitimize such actions is the way that antiracists themselves have both demanded the criminalization of hate and helped expand the meanings of ‘hatred’ and ‘incitement’. When the state gets to criminalize dissenting speech, even if it is bigoted, minorities themselves too often suffer.
All this suggests that the concept of Islamophobia not only elides criticism and bigotry in a problematic fashion, but is also an expression of a wider way of thinking about racism, and of how to combat it, that seems to me unhelpful. To understand this better, let me finish by returning to the question of ‘diversity’, of how we conceive of it today, and of how we should conceive of it.
When we talk about diversity, what we mean is that the world is a messy place, full of clashes and conflicts. That is all for the good, for such clashes and conflicts are the raw material of political and cultural engagement. The importance of diversity is that it allows us to expand our horizons, bringing different values, beliefs and lifestyles face to face, and forcing us to think about those differences. Only this can create the political dialogue and debate necessary, paradoxically, to help forge a more universal language of citizenship.
But the very thing that is valuable about diversity – the cultural and ideological clashes that it brings about – is precisely what many fear. That fear can take two forms. On the one side there is the nativist sentiment that immigration undermines social cohesion and erodes our sense of national identity. Muslim immigration, in particular, elicits such fear. Many view Islam through the lens of the ‘clash of civilizations’, a perspective that leads politicians and commentators – not just on the right but many self-proclaimed liberals too – towards deeply illiberal arguments: insisting, for instance, that Muslim immigration must be limited, or that racial profiling is necessary in the ‘war on terror’, or that it is not possible to be racist against Muslims because Muslims are not a ‘race’.
And on the other side there is the multicultural perspective, that sees Britain, in the words of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, whose report was published by the Runnymede Trust in 2000, three years after the Islamophobia report, as ‘a community of citizens and community of communities’, in which equality ‘must be defined in a culturally sensitive way and applied in a discriminating but not discriminatory manner’. In practice, the idea of a ‘community of communities’ has helped erode that of a ‘community of citizens’.
Diversity is too often ‘managed’ by putting individuals from minority communities into particular ethnic and cultural boxes, defining needs and aspirations by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and allowing the boxes to shape public policy. Muslims, in particular, have come to be seen less as citizens who happen to be Muslim than as Muslims who happen to live in Britain.
At the same time, defining equality in a ‘culturally sensitive way’ has led many to view respect for others as meaning the need to accept their ways of being, and to regard criticisms of, or challenges to, others’ values or practices as ‘insensitive’, even racist. As a result, boundaries between groups have increasingly become policed in an effort to minimize clashes and conflicts.
The one perspective encourages fear, the other indifference. What neither begins to address is the question of engagement. Engagement requires us neither to shun certain people as the Other, with values and practices inevitably inimical to ours, nor to be indifferent to such values and practices in the name of ‘respect’, but rather to recognize that respect requires us to challenge the values and beliefs of others. It requires us to have a robust, open public debate about the values to which we aspire, accepting that such a debate will be difficult, and often confrontational, but also that such difficult, confrontational debate is a necessity in any society that seeks to be open and liberal. It requires us, in other words, to remake the very framework within which Islam, and Muslims, are viewed from both sides of the debate.