Byline: JENNY JAMES
Originally appeared in “The Christian Herald” 10th February 1996
Q-News, Europe’s influential first Muslim Weekly newspaper, is campaigning for new legislation to make ‘religious discrimination’ a crime.
The paper, with other Muslim groups, believes religious discrimination and ‘Islamophobia’ are preventing the establishment of Islamic state schools.
They have repeatedly dismissed the Commission for Racial Equality who see the issue as race-based as ‘incompetent’ and ‘secular’.
Said a spokesman for the paper: ‘Some estimates say Muslims are 65% of the total ethnic minority community in Britain now – and we are concerned that you can be accused of being anti-Semitic against Jews, but not against Muslims, although we’re the same race.’
Home Office Minister Michael Howard has so far resisted moves for a law against religious discrimination, despite sympathy in the rest of Europe where race legislation is less effective than in Britain.
The Swiss have recently voted, in a referendum, in favour of a law against religious discrimination.
Michael Howard has asked for more evidence while arguing there is already ‘indirect provision’ under the 1976 Race Relations Act:
- Flexibility in workplace clothing was introduced in 1980 to allow for headscarves and trousers to be worn as uniform by women.
- In 1992 the company Precision Engineering was found to have indirectly discriminated when saying it did not want to employ any Muslims
- A tribunal in 1993 upheld the right of a Muslim worker to take unpaid leave to attend Eid.
Observers note that legislation would have to steer a careful path around practices considered barbaric in British culture – which are considered religious in others: female circumcision and public ritual slaughter for example.
The CRE also believes that the establishment of the Church of England could itself be seen as discriminatory in light of current demographic trends.
At the moment, 26 Anglican Bishops sit in the Upper House as a matter of right although some religious groups, including Muslims, already have more active members.
A new Religious Discrimination Working Party for the Church of England, which has so far met just four times, made representations to the General Synod Policy Committee in March 1996.
Its convenor Christopher Lamb, Anglican Inter-faith Secretary, believes it is ‘far-fetched’ to think legislation could backfire against free speech or wider constitutional issues.
‘I think it would depend on how it’s worded. What is in mind is a law that has to have a victim as is the case with race relations and gender legislation. I don’t think you could argue that the C of E actually makes victims in that way.’
The joint action document which was agreed to by 14 of the 15 European Interior Ministers in Brussels in January 1996 would seek to make a crime ‘public incitement to discriminate… in respect of the group of persons by reference to colour, race, religion or national or ethnic origin.’
Bishop Lessie Newbigin, who referred to ‘the Islamic mission’ in his Gospel and Culture lecture on 1 December 1995 at Kings College, London, said it was important to define discrimination.
‘If it means with respect to housing and healthcare, then of course we are all against it. If it means discrimination that you make claims and counter claims with regards to truth then it destroys all possibility of inter-faith dialogue.’
Some observers see the Qur’an and the Bible as disciminatory and even in some verses inciting to religious hatred, although Lamb discounts the possibility of legal complaints against holy scripture.
He says some religious publications might qualify – especially the anti-Christian videos of South African polemicist Ahmed Deedat, widely distributed from Islamic bookshops around Britain.
‘There is already in existence religious publications which are derogatory and some Christian material is liable to the same judgement,’ says Lamb. ‘We all have to be careful on that score.’
He and others are advising the Archbishop of Canterbury on framing legislation against intentional incitement to religious hatred which would be more workable than has proved the case in Northern Ireland.
Said a spokesman: ‘We are not opposed to such a law in principle, but we recognise that the government of the day would need to be persuaded that a) there is a significant mischief that is not covered by existing laws, and b) that technical problems of providing sufficiently tight definitions can be overcome.’
Meanwhile Michael Howard is busy meeting large numbers of Asian groups in the run-up to the next election.
The Asian business pound is significant to the British economy and Asian votes are going to be important in determining the outcome of the next election.
Says Myant: ‘Our single member constituency system gives ethnic minority power potentially greater weight than it might otherwise have.’