Is it racist to criticise religion?
As the Conservative chair Sayeeda Warsi suggests Islamophobia has become acceptable, Paul Sims assesses the boundaries of free speech
A few years ago I was quoted by the BNP. I’d only been at New Humanist for a couple of months, and one of their websites had got hold of an article I had written about Islamist extremism on university campuses. I’d concluded that universities could help combat extremism by continuing to encourage debate and the free exchange of ideas, but the BNP selectively quoted me to support the view that Islam had become too influential on campus and had to be stopped.
As you can imagine, I was mortified, but in hindsight it was a valuable lesson in how the opposition to religious ideologies that is the stock in trade of rationalist journalism can be misconstrued or misrepresented as hatred of religious people. When it comes to religions practised almost exclusively by ethnic minority communities, as is the case with Islam, this is particularly true, something we were reminded of recently when Baroness Warsi, the Conservative Party chair and the first female Muslim cabinet minister, used a lecture at Leicester University to suggest that Islamophobia has “passed the dinner table test” and “crossed the threshold of middle class respectability”.
“Islamophobia” is a slippery word – its literal meaning denotes an irrational fear of Islam, i.e. the religion itself, yet it is more generally used as a term to describe prejudice against those who follow Islam. The problem is that those two things are not the same. While most humanists would, I imagine, passionately oppose discrimination against people on the grounds of their religion, they would defend with equal fervour the right to criticise interpretations of the Islamic faith that they view as oppressive and reactionary, and would reject the idea that doing so is somehow “irrational”. When some Muslim groups raise cries of Islamophobia, as the Muslim Council of Britain did recently in response to David Cameron’s speech suggesting that multiculturalism had failed, you suspect they would prefer not to see forthright discussion of matters related to Islam at all, and that the accusation is a tactic to silence all criticism.
But Warsi raises a genuine issue. While it is doubtful that anti-Muslim prejudice has become socially acceptable (I’m not sure what parties she goes to, but I see no evidence that racism is acceptable around the dinner table), elsewhere you can see that Muslims are being singled out for negative coverage. Take this recent Daily Mail headline: “Cafe owner ordered to remove extractor fan because neighbour claimed ‘smell of frying bacon offends Muslims’”. Closer analysis (i.e. reading the actual facts) showed that the cafe owner was in fact ordered to remove the fan because she had never obtained planning permission to install it and that the neighbour who complained wasn’t even a Muslim. Such scaremongering stories provide clear evidence of the prejudice Warsi was speaking about, which is directed very clearly at followers of one particular religion. An even clearer example can be found in the way in which the bile of the BNP, and latterly the English Defence League, is directed at Muslims.
The challenge for humanists, and indeed anyone who wants to talk frankly about the role of religion in society, is to walk the line between those who would prefer to close down discussion around the issue, and those who would happily use the debate around religion to further illiberal and racist agendas. We must choose our allies carefully. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders may be outspoken on issues surrounding Islam, but his desire to ban the Qur’an, stop the building of mosques and end immigration hardly mark him out as a champion of humanism. The same goes for the BNP and the EDL.
Humanism involves a twin commitment to freedom of belief and the right to criticise belief. The two may, at times, conflict, but they couldn’t exist without each other