Share this page
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
Rate this post

The recently published report of  the Commission on Religion in British Public Life (CORAB) calls for greater recognition of Britain’s multi-faith society in institutions and public culture. Conceived and mainly funded by the Woolf Institute,  CORAB was a conscious effort to follow-up on the ‘Runnymede Commission on the Future of multi-ethnic Britain’ (2000, 2004).  Other CORAB funders included the Joseph Rowntree CharitableTrust, Open Society, Davis Foundation and DominionTrust.

CORAB was chaired by  Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, with  the Woolf Institute providing a co-chair, David Kessler, and  a commission secretariat headed by barrister Abdul Aziz (also Nohoudh Scholar at SOAS, London).  The twenty commissioners included the interfaith dialogue veteran Brian Pearce and also Professor Emeritus Lord Bhiku Parekh.  Also serving as commissioners were Bishop Dr Joe Aldred (Churches Together in England), Revd Canon Dr Angus Ritchie and Revd Dr RobertTosh. Figures from the minority religious communities included Shaikh Ibrahim Mogra (Muslims), Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal (Sikhs), Shaunaka Rishi Das (Hindus), Rabbi Dr Norman Solomon (Jews).   There were also several distinguished academics among the commissioners: Francesca Klug, Tariq Modood and Maleiha Malik.

The report touches on three issues particularly relevent to a Muslim audience: the nature of a religious identity; the debate on ‘shared values’; the placement of a whole community under the ‘security lens’.

  1. Religious identity

The CORAB report argues that religious identity is not simply an exercise in freedom of conscience:

The term ethno-religious is sometimes used to capture the fact that ethnicity and religion can overlap and intertwine. A person’s ethno-religious identity is not primarily to do with a system of religious beliefs which they may or may not embrace, or various religious practices they may or may not take part in, but with who their parents and family are and how they are perceived, approached and treated by others,regardless of their own wishes and preferences.They may regret and resist this, but there are limits to what they can do about it… Religion, to repeat, is not always and for everyone a matter of personal choice. It can be given and unchosen and in this respect it is similar to human characteristics such as ethnicity and gender

This  line of argument challenges the view that incitement to religious hatred should be viewed differently from incitement to racial hatred. The present legislation gives lee-way to derogatory references to religion, but not ethnicity or race.  As the Commissioners note,

Hate crimes against Muslims operate in much the same way as antisemitic or anti-Sikh hate crimes – they are often perpetrated by the same people, usually involve the same kinds of violence and abusive and threatening language, are condoned or encouraged in the same milieu of onlookers and bystanders, inflict the same kinds of bodily harm, do the same kinds of criminal damage to property and sacred places, and have the same demoralising intimidating and traumatic effects on victims, and on the victims’ families and communities.  Yet incitement to anti-Muslim hate crime is more difficult to prosecute than incitement to antisemitic or anti-Sikh hate crime.This is a further anomaly that needs to be rectifed. This is because Jews and Sikhs are protected under the incitement to racial hatred provisions in Part III of the Public Order Act 1986, whereas Muslims are not. Muslims may, it is true,seek protection under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006; but the provisions under this are signifcantly weaker than those which apply under the Public Order Act.Also, there is a freedom of expression defence in the 2006 provisions which makes it more diffcult to prosecute for inciting religious hatred than it is for inciting racial hatred. A further example of the disparity in protection is to do with harassment. Jews and Sikhs are protected against harassment in the provision of goods and services (on the grounds of race), but members of other religion or belief groups are not.

… The effects of anomalies in legal protection are exacerbated if those who feel aggrieved are also the subject of demeaning stereotypes in the media and feel they are over-policed and under-protected on the streets and in society more generally.Again, this is essentially a matter of principle but the obvious example in current practice relates to British Muslims, because their sense of belonging to Britain is affected not only by negative stereotypes in the media but also by their experiences of policing under counter-terrorism legislation. The net result of such experiences is a feeling amongst British Muslims that they are a suspect community, as Irish Catholic people in Britain during the Troubles felt, and consequently there is a sense of alienation from, and grievance towards, mainstream British society. The recently introduced requirement that all police should collect statistics on incidents perceived to be anti-Muslim is a welcome development. It is not, however, a substitute for removing the injustice that Muslims do not have as much protection against hate-crime as do the members of certain other religions.

Shared Values

The Commissioners suggest that the process for arriving at an agreement of  ‘shared values’ cannot be reached through top-down fiat, but rather  dialogue:

At a time when so much is dominated by the sole value of individual choice, faith leaders and other opinion leaders need to initiate discussions on the values, political and personal, they have in common with each other and with the humanist values of the Enlightenment. A national conversation should be launched across the UK by leaders of faith communities and opinion leaders in other ethical traditions to create a shared understanding of the fundamental values underlying public life. It would take place at all levels and in all regions. The outcome might well be, within the tradition of Magna Carta and other such declarations of rights over the centuries,  a statement of principles to guide the development and evaluation of policies relating to the common good. At the very least it would be of practical and valuable relevance in the feld of education. It could also, though, be useful in many other policy fields as well, and in any case the conversation itself would have many benefits.

Securitisation policies

The CORAB report grapples with the difficulties that Government has caused by Counter-Terrorism (CT) policies perceived by many Muslims to be discriminatory and selective in application:

In universities two of the biggest problems put to us in our consultation were to do with a tendency to view issues of religion and belief through a lens of security and counter-terrorism, and a tendency to see modernity and science as intrinsically inimical to religion and belief.To an extent, these two tendencies complement and reinforce each other.With regard to the frst of these, there is currently concern about the requirements of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 in relation to universities. ‘Enabling free debate within the law,’ wrote the Russell Group of universities,‘is a key function which universities perform in our democratic society. Imposing restrictions on non-violent extremism or radical views would risk limiting freedom of speech on campus and may potentially drive those with radical views off campus and underground, where … [they] cannot be challenged in an open environment. Closing down challenge and debate could foster extremism and dissent …The intention to include non-violent extremism within the scope of Prevent work in universities is a particular problem, as it conficts with the obligation to protect free speech.

… Universities thus can be places where the successful negotiation of crucial issues can be modelled and learned by young citizens.They can also be places where students and staff experience the formation of a strong, balanced confdence in their personal identity and beliefs as the foundation for respect for others and for diversity. Such spaces exist also in schools, it is important to recall, not just in universities. Free debate should be possible without fear of students being labelled as extremists or attracting the attention of the security services.That all said, universities will deal better with religion if they approach it as something that belongs to their intellectual discussions rather than as an external factor with which they have to cope.’

… The ways in which anti-terrorism policies operate in practice can have, however, unintended consequences. In particular, signifcant numbers of citizens may come to feel they are viewed as Other, namely as people who do not truly belong and cannot be trusted, ‘them’ rather than ‘us’, suspects or potential suspects, not ordinary citizens with the same values as everyone else. Counter-terrorism policies and measures may then not only fail to achieve their objectives but may actually make matters worse, such that both terrorism and the fear of terrorism increase, and both security and sense of security are diminished. At the present time it is Muslim communities in Britain that are most directly and obviously affected.All people, however, are of course affected by increases in fear and feelings of insecurity, as also all people in a society are affected by the ways in which majorities and minorities see and approach each other.

CORAB raises several issues which hopefully will receive attention in Whitehall for CT legislation to stop being counter-productive, for example

  • The government needs to engage with a wide range of academic theory, research and scholarship about the nature and causes of terrorism. Amongst other things, this means it should encourage and promote, not seek to limit, freedom of enquiry, speech and expression, and should not loosely use words and concepts which scholarship shows to be controversial and unclear. Such words and concepts include ‘ideology’, ‘radicalisation’, ‘extremism’ and ‘Islamism’.
  • The government needs to meet and engage with a wide range of Muslim groups and organisations, and to show that it understands, even if it does not agree with, the views about the nature and causes of terrorism that they hold. It cannot otherwise gain the trust and confdence of signifcant opinion leaders, and therefore cannot rely on their support and assistance.Their support and assistance are essential, however, if counter-terrorism strategies are to be successful. In its selection of organisations with which to engage the government must guard against the perception that it is operating with a simplistic good Muslims/bad Muslims distinction, or between ‘mainstream moderates’ and ‘violent or non-violent extremists’.
  • There is no causal or inevitable link between conservative or orthodox theological and moral views on the one hand and propensity to violent and criminal behaviour on the other. Nor, more fundamentally, is there a simple, one-way causal link between a worldview, ideology or narrative on the one hand and specifc actions and behaviours on the other.
  • Political leaders should seek not only to promote debate and deliberation about the causes of terrorism but also to challenge misunderstandings and negative stereotypes in the population at large and in mass-circulation newspapers – they have a duty to lead public opinion, and not only to reduce fear and insecurity in the majority population but also to give principled reassurance and moral support to groups and communities which feel vulnerable to violence or discrimination.

Among CORAB’s other key recommendations was the appeal that  ‘the pluralist character of modern society should be reflected in national and civic events so that they are more reflective of the UK’s increasing diversity, and in national forums such as the House of Lords, so that they include a wider range of worldviews and religious traditions, and of Christian denominations other than the Church of England.’

Click here for report.

  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •