about 1 min ago
ErasmusFeb 1st 2019by ERASMUStwitter iconfacebook iconlinkedin iconmail iconprint iconIN BRITAIN’s high places, there is much hand-wringing at the moment over the relationships between freedom of belief, hate speech, prejudice, violence and ultimately terrorism. At least three senior-level processes have been undertaken. First, the government has announced there will be an “independent review” of its so-called Prevent…
IN BRITAIN’s high places, there is much hand-wringing at the moment over the relationships between freedom of belief, hate speech, prejudice, violence and ultimately terrorism. At least three senior-level processes have been undertaken. First, the government has announced there will be an “independent review” of its so-called Prevent programme whose aim is to counter, and if possible nip in the bud, all kinds of violent extremism, ranging from the Islamist sort to the white-nativist variety. The review has received only the most cautious of welcomes from the voluble lobby of politically active Muslims who complain that Prevent is stigmatising their community.
Meanwhile, the Commission on Countering Extremism, a powerful advisory body,recently asked everybodywith an interest in the topic to offer submissions that will help its deliberations on how extremism should be defined. And finally Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee has just completed a year of investigations into the extent and appropriate definition of Islamophobia. The panel, which has yet to offer any conclusions, extended its work to take in suggestions from yet another body of legislators (the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims) who after astudyof their own have called for the general adoption of a statement along these lines: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”
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In all these discussions, some themes recur. For example, advocates of free speech are for good reason nervous about any policy that precludes robust theological debate. Indeed, many object to the term Islamophobia on grounds that it might be used to prevent criticism of a religion, as opposed to the victimising of its adherents. And among those who are concerned with protecting the British public from acts of religiously or racially inspired violence, there is another trope. It is now almost axiomatic that anti-democratic ideologies can be almost as dangerous as physical preparations to use force. That principle is reflected in the Prevent programme, which imposes on teachers, policemen and other public servants a duty to be vigilant in spotting individuals who might be falling prey to extremist ideas. But critics, including Muslims who are theologically conservative but insist they are not violent, say this amounts to a demand that schools and universities take on the role of thought police.
Onereasoned contributionto the whole debate was offered by the National Secular Society (NSS), a campaign group which opposes what it calls religious privilege. It told the Commission that “extremism” was itself a “loaded and subjective” term, often used to denigrate ideological opponents. It followed that “having and expressing views deemed to be extremist should not itself be a crime, unless those views are expressed in a way that directly incites criminal acts or constitutes harassment.”
As you might expect, the NSS argued that the perks enjoyed by religions in general (such as the right to run schools, and benefit from charitable status) could easily be abused. As examples of extremist infiltration, it mentioned a British-based Hindu youth group which was scolded by regulators for inculcating anti-Muslim ideas during a training camp. It also mentioned the London primary school which, about a year ago, had to back down on its policy of banning headscarves for girls under eight, after receiving a storm of abusive emails. (To some critics, the school was behaving Islamophobically by limiting the right of parents to cover their daughters’ heads. For those who link ultra-traditionalist theology with a potential for violence, the school was behaving prudently. And to those who see this question through a prism of universal human rights, this was an appropriate case of children being protected from the egregiously conservative whims of their parents.)
The NSS also drew approving attention to aninteresting contributionby one of Britain’s religious minorities. The Network of Sikh Organisations made a submission arguing that the term “Islamophobia” could be used to shut down “free and open debate about matters of public interest” including the treatment of minority faiths in Muslim lands, both in the present day or in history. Nor, the Sikhs argued, should concern with Islamophobia be used to give a free pass to conflict within the world of Islam, such as the ostracising of the Ahmadi Muslim sect which had led to two sectarian murders in Britain.
For at least two reasons, this debate is rising to a crescendo. One is the campaign by a significant group of politicians (by no means all Muslim) to describe and proscribe Islamophobia in as robust a way as anti-Semitism has been defined internationally. The other is the Prevent programme’s evident inability to win hearts and minds among leaders of the Muslim community and other advocates of minority rights.
Ben Wallace, the security minister who announced the review, said one of its purposes was to give critics of Prevent a chance to produce evidence to back up their claims that the programme was doing harm. A lot of allegations against the programme had been investigated and found to be baseless, he noted. His sceptical words reinforced the suspicion among Muslim leaders that what the government had in mind was simply going through the motions of an investigation. For the programme’s supporters, the government is at risk of going too far to appease moaners whom nothing will satisfy.
This is certainly a case of robust debate, and as free-speech campaigners always remind us, nobody should be against robust debate. But it’s quite worrying when, at the highest levels of a democracy which has been threatened by terrorism and inter-communal conflict, there is no minimal consensus on the definition of the existential problems the country faces.