Thursday 26 June 2008

Religion as identity, and the dangers of communalism

The Guardian continues its implicit support for the campaign to have Islam recognised as an ethnicity, by describing Tarique Ghaffur as Britain's 'most senior Muslim police officer'. Since the story is about Ghaffur's claim of racial (not religious) discrimination, this label seems tendentious, to say the least. Is Sir Ian Blair Britain's top Christian cop? Why couldn't the paper have described the assistant commissioner, who was born in Uganda to Pakistani parents and grew up in Manchester, as the country's top Asian police officer? Islam is not an ethnic identity that you're stuck with for life, but a set of beliefs about which people can change their minds. Confusing the two only encourages those who would like to see causing religious 'offence' placed on a par with racial discrimination, and changing your beliefs defined as 'apostasy' and cultural betrayal.

More encouragingly, today's Guardian also includes a powerful piece by Rahila Gupta of Southall Black Sisters, in which she accuses the government and child welfare professionals of swapping the discredited doctrine of multiculturalism, with its muddle-headed toleration of 'cultural practices' that oppress women and children, for the equally dangerous mantra of 'building cohesion'. Secular groups working with minority communities - like the Sisters themselves - have seen their funding cut, while religious organisations are courted by government, and welfare agencies such as the NSPCC call for 'the engagement of faith and community leaders in the fight against domestic violence'. According to Gupta, these efforts are deeply misguided: 

The NSPCC organised a conference aimed at the Muslim community which was attended by 50 imams. It found unsurprisingly that, 'for some imams, the issue of domestic abuse is not on their radar'. Perhaps the most telling statement of all was that 'many mosques are the premises of men only'. In the teeth of such entrenched patriarchal attitudes, calling for the training of imams feels like trying to empty a lake with a teacup.

Gupta quotes a senior police officer as saying that 'the government's agenda on terror is hampering police work on issues such as forced marriage because the government is keen not to alienate those same leaders in the fight against extremism'.  When will the government realise that engaging with British citizens of Asian origin via self-appointed, patriarchal 'community leaders' is sexist, undemocratic and reminiscent of colonialism?

(See also these recent posts)

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