Islam at the Dinner Table: Baroness Warsi, Religious Illiteracy, Dichotomies and Road Safety
Yesterday, Baroness Warsi, co-chairman of the Tory Party and the first Muslim woman to serve in the cabinet, warned that anti-Muslim prejudice is becoming normal in the UK. According to a BBC report on a speech she was to deliver later that day, the baroness warned “against dividing Muslims into moderates and extremist” saying that “such labels fuel misunderstanding”.
Baroness Warsi will say anti-Muslim prejudice is now seen by many Britons as normal and uncontroversial, and she will use her position to fight an “ongoing battle against bigotry”. In extracts of the speech, published in the Daily Telegraph, the peer blames “the patronising, superficial way faith is discussed in certain quarters, including the media”, for making Britain a less tolerant place for believers. […]
[…] Baroness Warsi is to say publicly what many Muslims privately complain about – that prejudice against them does not attract the social stigma attached to prejudice against other religious and ethnic groups.
[… In the past, Baroness Warsi] told the 2009 Conservative Party conference that anti-Muslim hatred had become Britain’s last socially acceptable form of bigotry, and claimed in a magazine article last October that taking a pop at the Muslim community in the media sold papers and didn’t really matter.”
In her speech, she is expected to say the description of Muslims as either moderate or extremist encourages false assumptions.
“It’s not a big leap of imagination to predict where the talk of ‘moderate’ Muslims leads; in the factory, where they’ve just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: ‘Not to worry, he’s only fairly Muslim’,” she will say.
“In the school, the kids say: ‘The family next door are Muslim but they’re not too bad’.
“And in the road, as a woman walks past wearing a burka, the passers-by think: ‘That woman’s either oppressed or is making a political statement’.”
Baroness Warsi will say terror offences committed by a small number of Muslims should not be used to condemn all who follow Islam. But she will also urge Muslim communities to be clearer about their rejection of those who resort to violent acts.
“Those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law,” she will say.
“They also should face social rejection and alienation across society and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims.””
It’s bizarre to find myself saying this (in that Baroness Warsi is a Conservative), but I totally agree with her on this. I certainly find myself having conversations with I would say the vast majority of my friends, about Muslims, which we would never dream of having about other faith groups. I was talking to friends at the weekend, and I started to digress on my own personal thoughts about when this started to happen. When I did so, the traditional beacon of 9/11 appeared to be the turning point. However, for me at least, this was not a moment where conversations on Islam started to take an overall negative turn, but it was the first time that I can remember EVER having conversations about Islam at all.
Now there are perhaps two keys reasons for this: firstly, I went to school in Northern Ireland, where until recently, ‘Religious Education’, even up to GCSE Level, consisted of studying Christianity. You didn’t have to agree with it (although I do remember a certain lad getting into heated arguments with teachers about whether God existed or not, etc), but the subject matter was simply Christianity, in a few of its locally-represented forms; secondly, again, this was Northern Ireland… which a decade ago was certainly not the most ethnically diverse country on the planet. I remember there was a black kid in one of the years above me… and one of my best friends had an an Arabic-sounding surname, but that was about it as far as diversity went. Even when I was a committed Christian, I don’t think I ever really stopped to consider what ‘other’ people believed… just that they didn’t ‘believe in God’. It seems that my trips to Egypt and Tunisia, and pop-cultural references (such as the many “By Allah’s” in Aladdin) just went completely over my head. And it wasn’t just Islam… I can remember the topic of another good friend’s father’s religious beliefs coming up in conversation at one point, and the response came ‘He’s a Buddhist… they don’t believe in God’, and I never thought about it any further.
I wonder how similar this is to the experiences of other 20-somethings in the UK? Probably not… given that most other parts of the UK probably had ‘actual’ Religious Education… and because most places aren’t quite as boringly homogeneous as Northern Ireland was at the end of the 90s (although, in the Northern Irish case, maybe a little less ‘religious diversity’ might have been a good thing? In fact, with the influx of immigration from various parts of the EU and further afield, we have actually seen some groups of ‘Protestants’ and ‘Catholics’ putting aside their differences to do physical harm to these new arrivals… ‘delightful’, isn’t it?). However, I have no doubt that had I not decided to embark upon Religious Studies at University, purely out of curiosity, I would be buying into the contemporary pervasive attitudes towards Islam even more than I already (hopefully unconsciously) do.
This pervasive attitude has emerged in the wake of 9/11, other terror attacks, and other sensationalised statements and actions of small minorities. The only ‘Islam’ which the vast majority of the British population are presented with, and indeed the only Islam that they are remotely interested in, is a media-distorted version propagated by a small minority of extremists/fundamentalists. In a way, this pervasive Islamaphobia is exactly what the perpetrators of various terror attacks, and the preachers of extreme interpretations of Islam would have wished to create. How could things have turned out better for them? The ‘common man’ in the ‘West’ didn’t have any major attitudes towards Islam before terrorist atrocities, combined with biased and un-educated, deadline-driven media coverage (a charge from which the BBC is not exempt), and instant internet-based publicity platforms for extremists on all sides, started to form this negative opinion.
I am not going to start talking about religious toleration… or pluralism… or where we draw the line between ‘dinner-table’ conversations and ‘bigotry’. Firstly, this is because I have almost completed another post about everyone’s favourite pastor -Mr Terry Jones – but I left my laptop at home with the document on it… boo! And secondly, because I have a very inherently negative attitude towards most forms of inter-faith dialogue etc, where the ‘religious’ are seen as having something which the ‘nonreligious’ don’t… and therefore they should all band together and try to protect this very important thing which ‘unites’ them… when really the whole idea of a religious faith essentially precludes this unity. But… before I get drawn into this.. I will echo the sentiments I stated in my very first blog post, 18 months ago, that EDUCATION about religion is ‘absolutely necessary for the future co-operation, integration and progress of the human race as the world becomes smaller, and the stakes grow higher and higher.’
On this note, I am becoming more and more swayed by the idea that certain outspoken atheists are doing a pretty good job in educating the wider public about ‘religion’ in general. Obviously, they have their own agenda which may or may not be helpful, but the simple fact is that many, many ‘religious’ people know very little about the specific tenets and narratives of the ‘faith’ that they claim to belong to, and the information provided by atheistic texts etc (if accurate, which isn’t always the case) might at least spur them to read more widely into their faith, and the faith of others. It’s one way of getting people ‘interested’ in religion again, I guess.
But, back to Baroness Warsi. Dichotomising tendencies are an inherent human problem… we all do it, and we always will. But even if people are not educated in the idiosyncrasies of individual religions, political views etc we can try and espouse an ethos where we repeatedly and continuously question the reason why we hold the opinions that we do. Religion is not a monolith. Neither is Islam. Neither is Islam a dichotomy between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’. If you ever hear someone trying to apply ‘common sense’ dichotomies like ‘black and white’ or ‘male and female’ to complex, human situations, you need to be suspicious. People are not either ‘religious’ or ‘nonreligious’… they are not either ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’… they are not either ‘moderate’ or ‘extreme’… the list goes on and on. Each person is an individual… whilst they may choose in certain circumstances to identify with certain groups or ideals, and whilst ‘we’ may categorise them , on occasion, dependent upon contextual variables, we tend to be much more ‘fuzzy’ than these rigid, contextualised categories allow.
Does anyone else remember Tufty the squirrel? I definitely have one of these badges kicking about in my parents’ house somewhere. Tufty advised on road safety… and his motto was, of course – “Stop! Look! and Listen!” Maybe we need to instigate a similar motto for people to use in situations where people with verbal diarrhea come out with dichotomising statements? Perhaps Baroness Warsi would like to design the mascot for this campaign?
Feel free to send in suggestions :P