Insted - Tolerance, Equality, Difference

Tolerance, Equality, Difference


Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia

Debate and disagreement

Source: adapted and abbreviated from Islamophobia - issues, challenges and action, Trentham Books 2004. There is background information, plus also a copy of the full report, at


It is sometimes claimed that use of the word 'Islamophobia' is a way of stifling legitimate debate and disagreement. This paper starts by quoting a colourful statement of this view and continues by discussing and clarifying the differences between 'closed' and 'open' views of Islam amongst non-Muslims. It points out that the closed/open distinction is relevant to disagreements within communities as well as between them, and to Muslim views of 'the West' as well as non-Muslim views of Islam. At the end there are notes on the sources of quotations.

No longer argue?

'Can we no longer even argue with a Muslim?' asked a headline in October 2002 over an article by Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday. The article was about someone who had been charged with 'religiously aggravated threatening behaviour' following an altercation with his Muslim neighbour. The columnist robustly criticised the police and political correctness - 'the constabulary is terrified of being accused of institutional racism and would probably charge a brick wall with harassment if a Muslim drove into it' - and also the new legislation under which the man was charged.

Further, Hitchens had a go at the Crown Prosecution Service, the Human Rights Act and the prime minister's wife: 'This is a new crime invented in the mad, hysterical weeks after the Twin Towers outrage. During this period most politicians simply took leave of their senses, which is presumably why the enemies of free speech in the Home Office chose this opportunity to slip it past them. As for the CPS, this incident proves that it's not just dim and useless but nasty as well . The CPS, which cannot defend the public against crime, is fully signed up to the anti-British, intolerant speech codes of Comrade Cherie Blair and her friends .The authorities are far more effective at policing ideas than at suppressing crime. Perhaps the CPS should in future have a new name. How about Thought Police?'

The headline - 'can we no longer argue with a Muslim?' - was rather lost sight of as the article continued. It was a useful way, however, of posing an extremely important set of issues. Is it really the case that criticising Islam is not acceptable and may even be unlawful? Does action against Islamophobia involve being uncritical towards Islam? The reply to both questions must, of course, be no. There is all the difference in the world between reasoned criticism and disagreement on the one hand, referring to some aspects of Islam, and blind hatred on the other, referring to all of Islam. However , this distinction is frequently lost in polemical writings by journalists and commentators - even when they explicitly claim that they are not referring to all Muslims but only to some.

'Mindless Islamophilia'

In The Guardian (18/9/01) Julie Burchill drew an interesting and potentially valuable distinction between what she called 'mindless Islamophobia' and 'mindless Islamophilia'. She appeared, however, to think that the latter is considerably more prevalent and serious than the former and directed virtually all her polemic at fellow journalists who try to counter Islamophobia by presenting positive images of Islam in their work. She mocked the BBC for giving airspace to what she called a strong Muslim woman (SMW for short), and for systematically implying that 'British Empire = bad' whereas 'Islamic Empire = good'. There was no mention during the BBC's recent Islam Week, she complained, of 'the women tortured, the Christian converts executed, the apostates hounded, the slaves in Sudan being sold into torment right now.' She continued: 'Call me a filthy racist - go on, you know you want to - but we have reason to be suspicious of Islam and treat it differently from the other major religions . While the history of the other religions is one of moving forward out of oppressive darkness and into tolerance, Islam is doing it the other way round.'

Burchill's emotive generalisations and imagery ('oppressive darkness') were deeply offensive. Her claim that she was being rational, however, ('we have reason.') was interesting and worth attending to. For clearly there is such a thing as legitimate criticism and suspicion of religious beliefs and practices, even if Burchill's colourful language implied that she was not herself in this instance engaging in it. In castigating both mindless Islamophobia and mindless Islamophilia she was commending a stance that is mindful. Such a stance is suspicious when suspicion is warranted. But also it is ready, as appropriate, to respect and appreciate.

Closed and open views

In its 1997 report, the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia grappled with the problems that Burchill raised. When and how is it legitimate for non-Muslims to disagree with Muslims? How can you tell the difference between legitimate disagreement on the one hand and phobic dread and hatred on the other? The commission suggested, in answer to such questions, that an essential distinction needs to be made between what it called closed views of Islam on the one hand and open views on the other. 'Phobic' hostility towards Islam is the recurring characteristic of closed views. Legitimate disagreement and criticism, as also appreciation and respect, are aspects of open views.

In summary form, the distinctions between closed and open views are to do with:

The words 'open' and 'closed' were derived from the title of a classic work on the psychology of dogmatism, The Open and Closed Mind by Milton Rokeach, first published in 1960. Rokeach was interested not primarily in the content of bigoted people's minds but in how their minds worked. Open-minded people are ready to change their views both of others and of themselves in the light of new facts and evidence; and are fair-minded in the sense that they do not caricature or over-generalise, and do not claim greater certainty than is warranted. Open-mindedness and fair-mindedness are components of what is sometimes termed civility, or moderation, or the middle way. 'At the heart of the concept of the middle way,' writes a member of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists, 'is the principle of fairness, the "fair play" so integral to the English conception of good character.' He continues:

Let us be clear about the origin of the English word 'fair', because it shows . how closely this idea is connected to Islamic principles. The English word 'fair' has two meanings: the first is 'just, equitable, reasonable', and the second is 'beautiful'. But the meaning of the original Germanic root is 'fitting', that which is the right size, in the correct ratio or proportion. The range of meanings of this word 'fair' reflects a truly Islamic concept, the idea that be just is to 'do what is beautiful' (ihsan), to act in accordance with our original nature (fitra), which G-d has shaped in just proportions (Qur'an 82:7) as a fitting reflection of divine order and harmony.

'The core issue,' writes someone on the basis of observing issues of religious affiliation in Scotland, 'is whether minds are closed - viewing other religions (or all religions) as being alien harmful monoliths, or whether they are open - to the facts of diversity, in which religious communities are given respect as people who are sincere in belief, morality and desire to become full partners in political and civic enterprise.' She goes on to stress that it is not only individuals who have closed or open minds but also groups and communities:

"Within every world religious community, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, the open and the closed views are in contention. The open communities seek alliance and partnership; extremists of the closed tendency form cliques, factions and sects that can resort to militant action. The "closed" extremists terrorise their co-religionists along with all the others who stand in their way."

The distinction between open and closed minds corresponds to the distinction which Akbar Ahmed, writing as a professional anthropologist, draws between inclusivism and exclusivism. In the first instance Ahmed is referring to two different ways in which Muslims themselves understand and practise their religion, and relate to others. But his distinctions also apply to 'the West'. He writes:

"Exclusivists create boundaries and believe in hierarchies; inclusivists are those who are prepared to accommodate, to interact with others, and even listen to them and be influenced by them.

Inclusivists are those who believe that human civilisation is essentially one, however much we are separated by religion, culture or language.

… I believe the real battle in the 21st century will be between the inclusivists and the exclusivists."

Self-criticism and recognising diversity

Professor Ahmed's remarks stress that the closed and open distinction applies to everyone - Muslims in their views of 'the West' as also non-Muslims in their views of Islam. Further, he stresses that openness is a quality which a person has towards their own traditions and community as well as towards others. It therefore sometimes involves self-criticism. Also, it necessarily involves a readiness to engage with 'the Other', and to co-operate with others in building a common life.

'Saddam Hussein was, and remains, a product of our own culture,' writes a British Muslim. 'While much more brutal, he is not that much different from all the other despots in the Arab world. We need to ask why Muslim societies are so prone to despotism and dictatorships, still so deeply anchored in feudalism and tribalism. Are we getting the leaders we deserve? Why is routine torture so prevalent in Muslim societies? Why are basic human rights, including the rights of women, so starkly missing from Islamic societies? What role have we played and are playing in our own destruction? These are uncomfortable questions. We do everything to try and avoid them.We would much rather wallow in nostalgia, recount the glories of our "Golden Age", and insist on how Islam provides an answer to everything, than take an objective and critical look at our own shortcomings.'

'A culture cannot appreciate the values of others, remarks Bhikhu Parekh, 'unless it appreciates the plurality within it … A culture cannot be at ease with its differences from others unless it is also at ease with its own internal differences.'

As she stood down in 2002 as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson said that for all the warnings, the phenomenon of Islamophobia has spread throughout the United States and Western Europe. 'When we speak of Islam', said Robinson, 'we are speaking of the religion of over 20 per cent of the human population spread across the globe and expressed through many cultures. It is important to recognise the greatness of Islam, its civilisations and its immense contributions to the richness of the human experience.' This stress on diversity is a hallmark of what above is called an 'open' view of Islam.

Concluding note

The themes of this paper are are discussed in detail in Islamophobia - issues, challenges and action.. The distinction between open and closed views is fundamental in all considerations of media coverage (chapter 10) and is essential in teaching about Islam and 'the West' in schools (chapter 8). Also, it crucial in community cohesion programmes (chapter 9).

Inclusivism, open-mindedness and the middle way cannot be compelled by law. The law can, however, encourage and foster them. Alternatively, alas, the law can be unhelpful and unsupportive. The potential of UK law, with particular regard to recognising British Muslim identities, is discussed in chapters 6 and 7.

Sources of quotations

Let us be clear..': Jeremy Henzell-Yhomas (2002), The Challenge of Pluralism and the Middle Way of Islam, Association of Muslim Social Scientists

'The core issue..': Elinor Kelly (2004), Integration, Assimilation and Social Inclusion: questions of faith, Policy Futures in Education, vol.2 no.1, March

Exclusivism: the quotation from Akbar Ahmed is from Islam Under Siege (2003), pp. 18-19

'Saddam Hussein.': Ziauddin Sardar, Hope and Resistance, Emel, November/December 2003

'A culture.': the quotation from Bhikhu Parekh is from Rethinking Multiculturalism (2000), pp.337-38.

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