In defence of Islamophobia: religion and the state
By Polly Toynbee
The Independent, 23 October 1997
I am an Islamophobe. I judge Islam not by its words – the teachings of the Koran as interpreted by those Thought-for-the-Day moderate Islamic theologians. I judge Islam by the religion’s deeds in the societies where it dominates. Does that make me a racist?
For I am also a Christophobe. If Christianity were not such a spent force in this country, if it were powerful and dominant as it once was, it would still be every bit as damaging as Islam is in those theocratic states in its thrall. Christianity remains a lethal weapon in Northern Ireland.
If I lived in Israel, I’d feel the same way about Judaism. Everywhere in the world where religion dominates over the state, that is a bad place to live. Religiophobia is highly rational.
The plea by the Runnymede Trust for understanding and protection for the Muslim community is understandable enough. We are still a racist society and to be a poor, black, non-English speaking Bangladeshi woman in, say, London’s East End, is to be not so much a second- as a third-class citizen. No doubt some of the racism such women suffer does spring from the fact that they are Muslim. But there is no hard evidence that poor, black, non-English speakers of other faiths are treated any better than Muslims. Racism is the problem, not religion.
The Runnymede report calls for a ban on religious discrimination, pointing out that people are often attacked because of their religious dress. But discrimination on grounds of appearance is already covered by our race relations laws. If Runnymede had its way and outlawed incitement to religious hatred, I would not be allowed to write this now ( which you may or may not think a good thing). Many Muslims also want our Christian blasphemy laws, mercifully almost defunct, resuscitated to cover all religions. But how could any idea of free speech survive a ban on criticism or mockery of what others think and believe?
Jack Straw, who has an excellent record on race, and who also has 20,000 Muslims in his Blackburn constituency, spoke out bravely yesterday when he told the Runymede Trust that the government would not introduce legislation to outlaw religious discrimination.
The report protests that Islam is caricatured as one monolithic bloc, when of course it has its moderates and extremists with a plethora of varying interpretations in societies around the globe. The report says that Islam is seen as “barbaric, irrational, primitive and sexist” when it should be seen as ” distinctly different, but not deficient and as equally worthy of respect.” This is not easy with a religion that describes women as of inferior status, placing them one step behind in the divine order of things. That is not equally worthy of respect.
To be sure, it is unfair to blame some of the moderate British Muslims for the excesses of many Islamic nations. But it would be reassuring to see them out on the streets demonstrating vigorously and vociferously for the lifting of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, offering him their strong protection and support. The fact that he has been forced to live in solitary confinement all these years because of the threat from Islamic states is not something that can easily be soothed away by describing that religion as “equally worthy of respect”. Should I, or indeed Salman Rushdie and his supporters, be branded as racists for pointing this out?
We watch the progress of justice under a shariah court in Saudi Arabia with unmitigated horror. Guilty or not, the two nurses have had no justice, however much we allow for cultural differences. No witnesses, no evidence, no cross-examination, the defendants not allowed to know the evidence against them in order to refute it, judges sitting in secret – this isn’t a cultural misunderstanding, this is injustice. Is it racist to say so? Could we still say so if there was a law protecting religions?
The report also claims the right to state support for muslim schools. Although we are the most secular and irreligious nation in Europe, one third of our state schools are run by religions – from Orthodox Jewish and Roman Catholic to Christian Brothers and bigotted nuns. The state, bizarrely, is already paying for some unpleasantly extreme religious beliefs to be taught right across the spectrum – but not yet for Muslims.
That looks unjust, but only if you think we should be egalitarian about the propagation of unreason.
Ever since July 1996 the Secretary of State for Education has had the approval of the first grant maintained Muslim school sitting in the office in-tray. First Gillian Shephard, now David Blunkett, have simply left it there, pending. The proposal for a new Muslim school in Birmingham has passed all the hurdles and has received the imprimature of the Funding Agency for Schools, as has the Islamia primary school in North London. With a waiting list of 1,000, there can hardly be said to be insufficient local “demand”. What is to be done?
The Rationalist Press Association and the National Secular Society were quick yesterday to issue a statement opposing the granting of state status and funding to any Islamic schools. They have passionately opposed all religious state education ever since the first religious school was funded in 1902. Protestants at the time protested about “Rome on the Rates”. Now there will no doubt be indignation at “Mecca on the Rates”.
The Rationalists have the only consistent reason for opposing Muslim schools: they are against all religion in state education. Yesterday they claimed Islamic schools “discriminate against girls, offer little artistic and physical education and serve to marginalise a community already seriously marginalised – as emphasised by the Runnymede Trust itself.”
The US constitution forbids religious worship or teaching in state schools. Now is the time for us to follow suit. For once some are allowed sectarian education, there is no reason why others shouldn’t be allowed their schools too – New Agers, astrologists, Moonies or any other sect or cult with a sufficient number of followers. After all, if you really believe the stars govern our everyday lives, then of course children should be taught the details of the movements and influences of the planets and the zodiac. If you think that’s all nonsense but the Bible is the literal truth, be warned, for there is no satisfactory legal definition of a religion. A religion is just a cult with more followers.