Reason and Poor Rhetoric
The Criminal Offence of “Incitement to Religious Hatred” in England and Wales came into force on 1st October 2007 in the form of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. In my opinion, making incitement to religious hatred a criminal offence was a mistake. I supported proposals to restrict the scope of the offence to those who exploit anti-Muslim feeling as a fig leaf for traditional forms of racism. This is not because I disagree with the new law in principle - rather, I fear its scope may be so broad in practice that it will never become encultured. That would be counterproductive.
The debate over incitement has been wide ranging and has included discussions pertaining to how Muslim ought to respond to remarks and images which might be deemed 'offensive', illegal or otherwise. The coming into force of this act, along with recent events on the social networking site Facebook, have re-opened this debate, but sadly in the form of the most risible piece of nonsense on Guardian CIF.
The central thesis of the piece, written by Sunny Hundal, was actually a badly framed argument bought to its insane conclusion. Briefly, it was at some point suggested Islam should not be subject to offensive comment because it is part of people's "primary identity." In fact, this is half an argument lifted out of context - probably not by the author, but nonetheless perpetuated by him. The original argument is that religion is a core identity in the same way as race and gender, and hence statements intended to invoke anti-Muslim sentiment are no different to racism/sexism.
Some people have disagreed with this argument - not very convincingly, in my view. However, Sunny's logic was to argue that fervent nationalism was no less a "primary identity" than religion. However, the conclusion of such equivalence is that anti-nationalist statements are designated as being on par with racist and sexist statements. I think most people would agree that is palpable nonsense.
Perhaps misunderstandings arise because people who are not religious do not understand the wholeheartedness of faith. However, I believe it is implicit within Islam to use reason to contest those who attack Islam. At the same, because Muslims are a minority in the UK subject to discrimination, there should be legal protection to ensure Muslims and non-Muslims have equal opportunities to participate and prosper within society. Hence, I do not support those Muslims who want to ban those on Facebook who have written offending comments about Islam, if they are not in breach of the law.
What saddens me most about Sunny's article is that - yet again - some British Muslims are ticking a box in support of a view they broadly support - that Muslims should be a little more thick skinned and reasoning in their defence of their faith, but without stopping to think carefully about what is actually being said. Not only was the piece a mish mash of bad reasoning, but it denigrated some Muslims as illogical, emotionalist and infantile in a way strongly reminiscent of Orientalist and colonial discourses.
Every day, it seems, I find another justification for pressing on with my work and making sure its aims are properly realised. I realise now this must include some familiarity with the laws and debates surrounding religious discrimination.