Beware the intolerant certainties of European liberals: Islamophobia in Britain

Beware the intolerant certainties of European liberals

By Trevor Phillips

The Independent, 25 October 1997

The problem with European liberals (small “l”) is their intolerance. They will oppose, to the death, any kind of bigotry but their own. Their capacity to know what is best for others is unlimited, riding roughshod over the fact that people may not choose the same values as most Western Europeans. The famous Voltairean assertion of the right to free speech appears to be limited to precisely that – a defence of a man or woman’s right to say what he or she likes, as long as he or she does nothing about it; at that point, tolerance runs out. Such is the liberals’ certainty that their own version of the world is right that they entertain no doubts at all about condemning others’ traditions, even where adherence to those traditions is the free choice of nearly a billion people worldwide.

This week the civilised, “rationalist” version of liberalism swung into action against Islam. Some people, including Polly Toynbee in these pages, clothed it in an assault on all religious practice, but the issue here is the growth of Islam, and the critique is moving rapidly from being a defence of human rights to a disrespect for others’ beliefs that verges on the racist.

The Runnymede Trust’s report on Islamophobia this week has brought a welter of liberal indignation. As chair of the trust, I sat on the commission which drafted the report, along with 17 others, the majority of whom were not Muslims; about half professed no particular faith. As it happens, I spent much of my childhood in Guyana, where a substantial Muslim community lived and worked side by side with Jews and Christians, with no apparent difficulty; I now find it hard to remember which of my classmates was a Muslim and which a Hindu.

The crime of the Runnymede report, it seems, is to assert two facts and to advance two propositions. The first fact is that Islam is a fast-growing, heterogenous faith. People all over the world, including women, choose to adhere to this faith. In countries like Pakistan, the move from secular, military, domination towards democracy produced states which were more rather than less Islamist. We may take the view that some versions of Islamist life are illiberal; but when faced with the choice between democracy and liberalism, I’ll take democracy. Otherwise, we might still be debating the merits of slavery; liberal opponents of abolition argued for decades that though slaves were human, they were really children who might make the wrong choices for themselves.

The case against Islam rests heavily on the supposed experience of women. I instinctively find it hard to understand the apparently inferior position of women in many Islamist societies; however, the reality of life for many Muslims does not support the proposition that all, or even most, Muslim women feel oppressed because of their faith. Can one ignore the evidence of many independent, clearly self-possessed Muslim women who say that within their tradition, their status and their rights as women are protected? They also say they are appalled by what they see as the disrespect shown to women by non-Muslim societies.

The second fact was to point out that British Muslims often face discrimination because of their faith rather than their race. Once again, rather than bringing our own views to this question, we should listen to the experience of British Muslims. It is indeed, difficult to separate colour prejudice from religious bigotry; however, when someone refuses you a job on the grounds that the firm can’t have people going off to pray all the time, this is not racial discrimination.

The Runnymede team made two major propositions. First, that religious discrimination should be outlawed. Even if you do not accept others’ right to profess a faith, it is a fact that the law, for the moment, allows Britons to do so. What, then, should we do where it is clear that the reason for people receiving inferior treatment is their faith? The report cites several episodes in which this is the case; yet to gain redress, the individuals concerned have to tell the courts that they believe that they were discriminated against because of their colour. Besides the fact that we would be asking people to lie to courts in order to gain justice, where does it leave the white convert, who cannot claim racial prejudice? We have laws in Northern Ireland which do precisely this job in protecting the rights of Catholics.

The second proposition made by the team was that state support for denominational schools should be made available to all denominations who can show that they are able to provide an acceptable level of educational achievement in the national curriculum. This is presently the case for most of Britain’s major faiths. There is no reasonable justification for denying the opportunity to those Muslim schools which can show competence and which already have waiting lists of hundreds. Yet the proposal is attacked on the ground that this would lead to separatism, and that it is almost impossible to define a religion. But you only need a prior definition if you want the state to lay down which beliefs are acceptable and which are not.

This is the contradiction at the heart of the rationalist liberal’s critique. If you take the view that only certain religions should be state-supported, then what price religious freedom? If you say that no religious institutions should have state backing, you effectively impose a new religion: secularism. But should the new Britain embrace diversity or not? The liberals cannot have it both ways. If they accept differences in our society, the more than one million British Muslims must be part of that diversity. If they don’t accept diversity, it is tantamount to saying that the only way of being British is to accept the secular, rational, traditions of some parts of Western Europe; in short, to be “white” in our values, whatever our individual backgrounds.

Two days ago I had tea with a charming, civilised man, who for some 45 years has been a stalwart of our cultural life. His mission has, in some respects, been to bring the values of high art to the nation. In the middle of our conversation, he used the archaic phrase “the nigger in the woodpile”. I could have let it pass – after all, the man is over 70; but that’s how these things persist. So I tried to remonstrate, gently. For all the effect this had, I might have been talking Serbo-Croat or Twi. In his civilised, rational, liberal world, my feelings must seem bizarre and ridiculously fussy. Like most people of his kind, he will never understand why other people don’t share his values; but that’s his problem. Liberal insensitivity must not be a reason for Britain to disrespect the feelings of many of its citizens.