Rethinking the challenge of anti-Muslim bigotry
Date Written: 15/11/2017
Year Published: 2017
Resource Type: Article
In 1997 the British anti-racist organisation the Runnymede Trust published its highly influential report Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All. Twenty years on, the Runnymede Trust has brought out a follow-up report Islamophobia: Still a Challenge for Us All, which is a stock-take on current views, and facts, about the issue.
In thinking about how to deal with anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination, we need to distinguish four categories: criticism of Islam; hatred of Muslims; discriminatory practices; and violent acts. For reasons of space, I will, in this chapter, deal largely with the first two issues that is, issues primarily of speech and thought and will have little to say about the latter two, though the question of how to confront discrimination, in particular, raises equally challenging issues.
When it comes to the criticism of ideas, nothing, in my view, should be out of bounds. Nothing should be unsayable simply because someone finds it offensive, or because it is culturally or religiously sensitive. This is a view that today finds little resonance. Much of the discussion about Islamophobia revolves around questions of what speech should be limited and how.
To unpack this discussion, we need again to separate out certain distinct categories. We need, in particular, to distinguish between the giving of offence, the promotion of bigotry or hatred, and the incitement of violence. The boundaries between the categories are blurred, and have deliberately been made more so in recent practice and policymaking. The 1986 Public Order Act, for instance, forbids the use of 'threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, within the hearing and sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby', a phrasing that conflates offence, hatred and violence. The use of the concept of Islamophobia has helped further erode such distinctions. The distinctions are, nevertheless, important, as are the different ways in which we should respond to the different categories.
I will argue in this chapter that the giving of offence should be acceptable in an open, plural, democratic society.
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