Islamophobia should be as unacceptable as racism
Prosecuting Kilroy-Silk would set a much-needed marker for social relations
Monday January 12, 2004
Finally, it's safe to turn on your TV. Britain's minority communities can rise this morning in the knowledge that they will no longer be assailed by a vainglorious hatemonger affecting social concern on their screens. It won't just be Arabs, the objects of Robert Kilroy-Silk's latest ignorant philippic, breathing a sigh of relief. The BBC's decision to discontinue his daily talkshow pending an investigation into his article for last week's Sunday Express, in which he vilified the whole Arab world as a bunch of "suicide bombers, limb amputators and women oppressors", will be welcomed in all communities where his bigoted pen has drawn ire.
Ireland is justified in some schadenfreude for his caricature of it as "a country peopled by peasants, priests and pixies". As are young black people, for his recommendation that they be targeted by police since they show up disproportionately as offenders in gun and street crime statistics. As too are asylum seekers and visitors from Africa, eastern Europe and Asia, whom he accuses of being largely responsible for poisoning our green and pleasant land with Aids.
But it will be the nation's Muslims who have most to celebrate. For over a decade, it is they who have borne the brunt of the presenter's rabid rants. During the Salman Rushdie affair in 1989, he wrote that if Britain's "resident ayatollahs" could not "accept British values and laws then there is no reason at all why the British should feel any need, still less compulsion, to accommodate theirs". Buoyed by the support of liberals in a debate that was wrongly characterised as free speech versus censorship he went much further. "Muslims everywhere behave with equal savagery. They behead criminals, stone to death female - only female - adulteresses, throw acid in the faces of women who refuse to wear the chador, mutilate the genitals of young girls and ritually abuse animals," he wrote for the Daily Express in 1995.
That calumny was on a par with his current offence - there have been many more in between, including a recent description of the postwar looting in Iraq as the work of "a load of thieving Arabs". But the reaction then was surprisingly mild compared with the outrage evoked this time round. The Press Complaints Commission failed to uphold complaints that the 1995 piece was Islamophobic, ruling - perversely - that it wasn't directed at all Muslims, just those Kilroy-Silk disliked.
You don't have to look far for explanations. While racism has fast become a red line in our society, religious prejudice is still acceptable, dare I say, fashionable in the more well-heeled social circles. The Express can get away with denigrating Muslims, but it cannot easily shake off allegations of racism. A raft of race legislation over the past three decades has set the tone of social discourse and steered society away from xenophobia. But it has manifestly failed to get to grips with Islamophobia, of which Kilroy's anti-Arabism is an obvious variant.
The European Union's two most recent equality directives, which came into force in last July, only cover religious discrimination in employment. The only legislation under which Kilroy-Silk might be prosecuted are the racial and religious hatred (Arabs are overwhelmingly Muslim) provisions of the updated 1986 Public Order Act.
The other explanation lies in the increasing organisation of the Muslim community. Muslim groups have come a long way from the placard-waving, rock-hurling days of Rushdie. Today the community is more sophisticated, engaging in everything from lobbying journalists and liaising with the BBC to offering cultural sensitivity training and networking with the great and the good.
Kilroy-Silk's suspension was precipitated by a flurry of web messages and emails circulated by various Muslim organisations notifying people of the outrage. The circulars from the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Islamic Human Rights Commission and the Islamic Affairs Central Network, to mention a few, were focused, informative and, above all, empowering. They contained a chronology of Kilroyisms, names and contacts of editors at the BBC and the Sunday Express, and instructions on how to make complaints. In the end, the BBC was left with little choice.
The Express's response in defending its columnist is more worrying. And all the more so since it has been joined by the knee-jerk recourse of its rivals to the cul de sac of absolute freedom of speech. Suffice it to say that neither Kilroy-Silk nor anybody else would have been allowed to say the same thing in our national newspapers about black people or Jews. Suggestions that the BBC might allow him to continue, if he gives up his column, are an insult to right-minded licence-fee payers, who are loth to see their hard-earned money going to serial racists and Islamophobes.
The other reaction, epitomised by Will Hutton in yesterday's Observer, has been that Islam must assume a post-Enlightenment view of the world, failing which it must be dragged there kicking and screaming. This is the more troubling attitude, because it negates the prospect of genuine coexistence and presupposes a horrible clash of civilisations.
This is not to brush over the differences between western and Islamic value systems and their epistemological foundations. They are real. But in western liberal societies the choice is between a peaceful engagement and survival of the fittest or a likely violent conflict brought about by the imposition of secular liberalism over Islam.
The ball has been thrown into the court of the state to choose which route it wants to take. The attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, must decide if a prosecution for incitement to racial hatred is warranted, a decision he will arrive at after consideration of the facts and also what lies in the public interest. A prosecution would set a much-needed marker for social relations.
Whether this is likely is a different matter. Very few prosecutions have ever been brought successfully under this legislation. And, given Goldsmith's perception in the Muslim world as pro-Israeli, Britain's Muslims are not holding their breath that he will initiate a prosecution against someone writing for a proprietor with similar political leanings.
· Faisal Bodi is a commentator on Muslim affairs
Race in the UK
UN conference against racism
Reports into riots in British towns
Home office independent review team's community cohesion report (the Cantle report - pdf)
Oldham independent review report in full (pdf)
Burnley task force report in full (pdf)
Bradford race review report in full (pdf)
Bradford Race Review
Commission for Racial Equality
Institute of Race Relations
Muslim Council of Britain
The Monitoring Group
Black Information Link
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