Baroness Sayeeda Warsi’s speech yesterday to the University of Leicester (prepared text available on her website) has provoked rather a lot of comment. It’s subject is anti-religious sentiment, in particular anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Near the top she conversationally mentions the bi-monthly publication from the Rationalist Association
The New Humanist Magazine ran a poll of their readers which ranked me the fifth most dangerous enemy of reason last year.
She neglects to mention that this is probably because she branded secularism “intolerant and illiberal”, tried to remove protections for non-religious views in equalities legislation, and despite many extensions of religious privilege by the previous government said that the Coalition would “do God” even more. She also takes a pot-shot at BHA President Polly Toynbee for having stated “I am an Islamophobe.” That is all that’s quoted and it’s quite clear why. When read in context Toynbee’s supposed admission is pretty bad evidence for a recent downward trend in Muslim/non-Muslim relations: it was written fourteen years ago, and the article is about defending the right to be critical of religion – Toynbee calls herself “Christophobe” in this context too – and about judging religion as a whole including the actions of its adherents, rather than just the words in religious books.
Warsi set the scene saying:
In my last speech I made the evidential case for faith in our country. I showed that contrary to popular belief, faith in this country is certainly not fading away; I explained that faith inspires many people to do good things which help build a bigger society; And I announced that the aim of this government is to help not hinder faith communities in the good things that they do.
Today, I want to make a related argument. I want to make the case against the rising tide of anti-religious bigotry.
Though the press has responded mainly to her already infamous central claim that “Islamophobia has now passed the dinner-table-test”, much of the speech is on anti-religious views in general, and when it comes to that “now” which makes everything seem so pressing, her examples quickly dry up.
Warsi claims that she’s not censuring fair criticism, only highlighting that there is too much irrational bigotedness against religious people and especially Muslims. There are few really current examples, which might be seen as a flaw in a speech made so soon after a very obvious example of bigotedness flowing in the other direction, from religion, outward. Warsi digs back to 2004 and the appointment of Ruth Kelly as Education secretary, in which Kelly’s firm Catholic conviction was widely discussed (but then, Kelly was proudly connected with Opus Dei, so it wasn’t exactly a passing reference to private belief that provoked the commentators). Warsi’s limited examples quickly retreat into history…
Sikhism suddenly seems to be all about a play in Birmingham.
“Suddenly”… Behzti was shut down following protests in 2004.
And Evangelical Christianity is seen as anti-Abortion activists rather than campaigners like William Wilberforce.
William Wilberforce died in 1833.
Her recommendations in the end boil down to a plea to talk more about “British Muslims” than “moderate Muslims” because the latter leads too quickly to thoughts about extremists, and finally:
What we need now is for more faith leaders, and more faith communities, to stand up and speak out in defence of faith.
The prepared text of the lecture: http://www.sayeedawarsi.com/2011/01/university-of-leicester-sir-sigmund-sternberg-lecture/
So, concerns about possibly damaging free speech aside, is the background level of genuine prejudice against Muslims increasing? HumanistLife has reported on Islamophobia and hatreds “real and imagined” quite recently.
Peter Oborne for the Telegraph is in no doubt, praising Warsi’s speech as a potentially career-damaging but necessary intervention against a background of real growing prejudice:
What she said yesterday has desperately needed saying by a mainstream politician for a very long time. I know this because, over the past few years, I have visited many Muslim communities and spoken to scores of Muslim leaders. With very few exceptions (such as Anjem Choudary, the fanatic who tried to organise a protest march by British Muslims through Wootton Bassett) they are decent people. Many have come from countries which persecute their citizens and trash human rights. So they are even more keenly aware of what it means to be a British citizen.
But – and this is why what Baroness Warsi has to say is so important – British Muslims get spat at, abused, insulted and physically attacked. Vandalism and mosque burnings are common, and often unrecorded. The far?Right in Britain has changed its nature. In the 1980s, organisations such as the National Front and the BNP concentrated their hatred and odium on blacks and Jews. Today, racist organisations such as the English Defence League focus on Muslim immigrants.
The Spittoon blog (anti-blasphemy, pro-free speech) also sympathises against real prejudice, but questions the political motivations.
Warsi is right to speak out against the kind of casual anti-Muslim bigotry which has become increasingly noticeable in the day to day language of Britain. There is now a climate here where the kind of language in which phraseology invoking ”fucking Muslims” is commonplace. And this is to say nothing of the heightened levels of Muslim baiting which passes for journalism on the pages of the Daily Express and the Daily Mail. Both of these organs has acted as barometer and weather vane for gauging society’s prejudice du jour. We know from them that English exceptionalism is fickle when it comes to fear and loathing of minorities and has passed over the seasons from Jews to blacks to Asians and now, currently, to Muslims.
But Warsi’s points suffer from ambiguity and a failure to discern between overt prejudice and the necessity of isolating extremist and racist elements within the fold of Islam. This suggests a barely disguised political agenda of her own, and most worryingly, a tendency to lean in favour of the goals of organised political Islamists. The kind which organise the GPU – an event she was banned from attending by Cameron himself. Is Warsi’s speech motivated by a need to extract payback from Tory Head Office for reigning her in on the question of political Islam?
Likewise Ed West for the Telegraph is keen to recognise very real prejudice, but is similarly concerned about lumping all criticism together as “Islamophobia”.
In a sense she is right, and it is noticeable how people are far more open in their hostility; I suspect many people who hate immigration of all shapes and sizes now focus largely on Muslims because it’s the one sort of criticism that’s even mildly acceptable… I would certainly challenge anyone to put themselves in the shoes of a British Muslim and look at the tabloid newspaper stands everyday, and not feel a bit hated.
But, sadly, a level of bigotry has become socially acceptable in many parts of society. Why? Well, there are two strands to the issue, and both of them are called “Islamophobia”. … It is a weasel word, because it lumps together two entirely different things. On the one hand, there is an unacceptable hatred of Muslims, which is largely racial (where Muslim is basically a new way of saying “P***”). And, on the other, there is fear of and hostility to the religion.
“Islamophobia” stigmatises a perfectly legitimate feeling of hostility to a religion which, let’s be honest, doesn’t always sit well with liberalism.
For Andrew Brown in the Guardian, It’s not just “Islamophobia” that might blur two kinds of feeling, but “extreme”, as well.
The real problem is that “extreme” is a term that denotes two separate kinds of distance from the rest of us. In its political sense it is entirely straightforward: “extremism” is a measure of your readiness to use violence, or of your lack of commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflicts. But in the religious or social sense, “extremism” means something much more like “weirdness”; just not being like us. This can also involve harmless eccentricity, as in “Richard Dawkins is an extreme atheist” but in a religious concept it can go very far indeed from what the rest of the world regards as sanity without involving violence.
A contemplative nun, who spends almost her entire life in silent and solitary prayer, might be regarded as an extreme Christian.
The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain is less sympathetic, calling Warsi’s speech “an attempt to stigmatise critical scrutiny of Islam and stifle genuine debate”:
All religions should be scrutinised and do not deserve special treatment over any other beliefs, ideas or philosophies. Of course the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain strongly condemns all forms of racism, bigotry and violence, however we utterly reject any attempt to conflate these issues with valid criticism and debate about Islam and Islamism.
Ghaffar Hussain from Quillam meanwhile says there is real cause for concern and the press is partly to blame:
[I]n the press, most media stories that involve Muslims and Islam tend to be negative – although the same could probably also be said of Christianity and Christians. The difference however is that most Brits are much more comfortable with Christianity than they are with Islam. For instance, while ordinary British people can understand that radical Christians (such as the pastor Terry Jones who was yesterday banned from the UK) are a fringe minority, Islam remains a largely unknown quantity, the exotic “other”. This means that ordinary British people reading overblown press reports, for instance about the antics of Anjem Choudary, may not know that such individuals are fringe self-publicists who are barred from every mosque in Britain.
Once again though the consensus is that not all criticism is wrong.
However, that is not to say that Warsi is entirely right. The stirring-up of hatred and prejudice against all Muslims needs to be clearly distinguished from criticism of aspects of contemporary Muslim practice. Her reluctance to divide Muslims into “moderates” and “extremists” also seems counter-productive. Extremists exist in every religion and we shouldn’t be afraid to say so.
The Daily Express flatters Warsi’s general abilities but says that when it comes to Islam she has “lost her bearings” and the speech will do more harm than good:
If Muslims prove receptive to her message they will ease back on attempts to confront abhorrent practices within their own communities and instead become even more entrenched in a grievance culture that blames every difficulty on alleged oppression by “Islamophobes”.
In fact there are many serious problems within Muslim communities in Britain, as sensible groups such as the Quilliam Foundation have recognised. From its support for terrorism to its attempts to deny female emancipation and free speech, militant Islam is making life difficult both for moderate Muslims and for wider society.
The ever-diplomatic Richard Littlejohn lurches from point to point, claiming that no one is in fact speaking about Muslims at all, nor saying anything wrong. Then going on to say that maybe they should allo go home to Saudi Arabia. So, when Warsi claims that the common response to a woman in a burka is “That woman is either oppressed or is making a political statement”, Littlejohn’s reply is:
Are you sure?
Fair point. Maybe Warsi is just projecting. Maybe that’s not what people are thinking at all.
So Littlejohn in the very next sentence speaks on behalf of the country to tell her exactly what most of us are thinking, which Richard Littlejohn definitely knows.
Most of us just think anyone who wears a burka in Britain is barking mad and wonder why someone who so utterly rejects our society and our liberal values would want to live here. Surely they would be much happier in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.
Maybe Richard Littlejohn would be much happier in a zoo.
I’m fortunate to live in a part of the world where people of all races and religious persuasions rub along well.
Well isn’t that reasonable! Richard Littlejohn likes the idea that everyone can get along together. Until his next sentence.
The same can’t be said of some neighbourhoods in towns and cities, especially in the North of England, where the indigenous population has been supplanted by a hostile Muslim monoculture.
It is an incontrovertible fact that a sizeable number of Muslims pursue a separatist agenda and simply refuse to integrate into British society. Or that many mosques and madrassas in this country play host to extremist preachers of hate who aim to brainwash impressionable youngsters into joining the global jihad.
And finally… in a shocking twist the BBC News magazine beats even Richard Littlejohn to the comedy “And finally…” slot at the end of the round-up, with a deft avoidance of controversy as it asks the all-important question, What is a dinner-table test?
Hostility to Muslims has “passed the dinner table test”, a peer claims. So how did this item of furniture become the benchmark for what is and isn’t acceptable to say?
You start with the cutlery on the outside and work your way in. The port is passed from right to left and you never, ever, blow your nose on the napkin.
To the socially gauche, meal-time manners are already baffling enough. And now it appears that, all along, an unwritten code has governed the opinions we express while sitting down to eat…
This is a real article. It rambles on and on at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12240315