Dangerous competition

Sunny Hundal writes on the website Asians in Media about the recent spate of upset religious leaders:

In case it isn’t already obvious, competition has broken out between the religious elements of our society for the label of ‘Most Sensitive’. Every time someone gets offended, it has become standard policy to complain that followers of other faiths are treated with more respect.

Within the Asian community this competition between religions, and sometimes even caste, is long established. But the brilliantly orchestrated campaign over Jerry Springer The Opera showed that Christians have happily also jumped on the bandwagon, catching the BBC by complete surprise at the time.

The furore over Behzti has undeniably raised the stakes and given religious hot-heads a dangerous precedent. Unsurprisingly, many Sikhs complained at the time that the arts establishment was less willing to offend Muslims.

……The worry is that in the desire to be politically correct, British institutions end up listening only to highly vocal and organised religious groups. There is a tendency to assume they represent everyone in their respective communities.

Instead it’s time that the same institutions, like the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, the Arts Council and even those such as The Times stopped being lazy and found alternative voices. Or they will only have themselves to blame in the future.

I’ll add another name to that list of people who should start finding and listening to alternative voices – the government.

The government’s religious censorship legislation will feed this competition between ‘faith leaders’ and give greater authority to those who currently rule over ‘faith communities’.

Nick Cohen argued persuasively in a recent New Statesman article (that isn’t linkable) that the government is trying to cynically win back support from the ‘Muslim community’ through a policy of wooing their conservative leaders. It is cynical because (with the exception of those trapped totally in failed 1970’s multiculturalism) I find it hard to believe that many Labour people really are in favour of restricting freedom of speech about religion.

Most politicians have, throughout their careers, done deals with what are now called ‘faith leaders’. I saw how the ‘Muslim vote’ was treated in my locality when I was active in the Labour Party and the assumption was always that the ‘community leaders’ would deliver.

It wasn’t always a consciously cynical decision to exploit the hierarchies within the Mosque. Many councillors never stopped to wonder if there weren’t other voices within those communities who might have been worth meeting, listening to and supporting – like for example people under the age of 50 or even women. I recall one well-intentioned Labour councillor who constantly referred to “your people” when talking to Muslim ‘leaders’. I’ve no idea how it worked in areas with large Hindu or Jewish communities but I suspect it was a similar process and probably worked the same way in all the major parties.

The result has been that the conservative establishment within non-Christian religious groups have been empowered by politicians. They have been given importance and handed rewards that they can show to enhance their status with their followers. The government’s current approach, including the censorship bill, faith schools and other issues is transforming this effect on to a national scale.

This is a disastrous approach because the competing demands of the conservative elites within the varying religions can never be met within a secular democracy and the government surely know this. After all, why do they keep reminding those of us who are critical of or opposed to the censorship bill that it will probably, hardly ever be enforced?

In the Observer David Aaronovitch recently reflected that view when he wrote: The Rowan Atkinson-style opposition to the new incitement legislation on the basis of a ‘right to offend’ seeks to protect something that isn’t threatened. As with the race laws, almost no-one will be end up being prosecuted, save the occasional mad imam and the chairman of Devizes BNP. It’s a statement, that’s all.

If it really is only a statement then it is the wrong one to be sending out. What is badly needed is a re-statement of the basics of secularism and free speech not the fostering of illusions among competing religious conservatives that the ‘right to offend’ will be limited.

What will be the reaction if a mad imam is indeed prosecuted but then a mad Christian isn’t? Or vice-versa. And don’t think only of London with its genuinely multicultural communities. Think of the ‘bi-cultural’ areas outside the capital where there is, due to failures of public policy, a constant state of competition and the resulting bitterness and tension.

We’ve already had a taste of where this could lead us during these disturbing past months as religious leaders have been given the impression that they are finally to get the powers of censor they crave.

Ideally a progressive left would be working not only to defend secular values and free speech but to try to weaken the power of patriachal religious leaders over their communities and forge alliances with women, youth and non-conformists.

But given the British left is divided between the cynical vote catchers of New Labour and a ‘left opposition’ that is actually in bed with the most reactionary of the religious organisations, there is fat chance of that.

So we are left to hope that the House of Lords cares as much about free speech as it did about the right to hunt foxes.