Monitoring Muslims

Can audits and codes bridge social divisions?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Monitoring Minority Protection in the EU: The Situation of Muslims in the UK, published by the Open Society Institute and written by Tufyal Ahmed Choudhury, a law lecturer from the University of Durham, attempts to take stock of the position of Muslims in British society – and poses a series of recommendations for improving this position.

The report says that riots in northern cities in the summer of 2001 and the events of 11 September have brought Britain’s Muslims ‘under unprecedented scrutiny and examination’ (1). Much of this scrutiny, though, has focused on Muslims’ alleged failures to integrate into British society – Muslim communities have been accused of being ‘isolationist’ and intransigent. The report claims to be trying to ‘rebalance this debate by focusing on the need for integration to be a two-way process’.

He is certainly right that social divisions are not the fault of intransigent cultural groups. Unfortunately, rather than integrating Muslims, the report’s recommendations would further divide all of Britain’s citizens.

The report calls for an increased monitoring of Muslims’ position in British public life, and an increased recognition of their identities and needs. The idea seems to be that mainstream society has been blind to Muslims’ needs and disadvantages, and so has shut them out.

So while data is collected on the levels of disadvantage experienced according to different racial groups and gender, there is no data collected on the disadvantage experienced by Muslims. ‘Muslims from the Balkans, Ghana, India, Iran, Iraq, Malaysia…remain invisible, hidden behind figures for white, black or other.’ (2)

Similarly, there are laws that protect against racial discrimination, but no laws that protect people against discrimination on the basis of their religion. The report notes how courts have found that Roma can be protected from discrimination, but Muslims, Rastafarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot. ‘The development of the law in this way has created a hierarchy of protection. Muslim communities feel particularly aggrieved that they are not offered the same level of protection that is given to other minority religious communities that are able to bring themselves within the definition of a religious group.’ (3)

And, argues the report, public services fail to recognise that Muslims will want to use the services differently from other groups, and so are letting them down. ‘[T]he failure of public service providers to take their needs into account in service delivery is a common and key concern expressed by many Muslim community groups.’

So the gearing of services according to racial groups – as happens at present – could either miss or confuse the needs of patients. NHS systems that avoid giving Pakistani and Bangladeshi patients appointments on Eid or Friday afternoons would miss Indian, Somali, Turkish and Cypriot Muslims, all of whom had the same needs. Meanwhile, if an ‘Asian’ Pakistani woman receives an ‘Asian’ home help who turns out to be a vegetarian Hindu, this would create more problems than it had solved.

The sensible point being made here is that it is fairly arbitrary to base public policies on racial groups. The racial group you belong to will be an imperfect predictor of the discrimination you suffer or the needs you have.

But organising public life on the basis of religion would be equally arbitrary. Muslims do not move around in a block, suffering the same kinds of neglect and discrimination at the hand of mainstream British society. Indeed, Choudhury was at pains to emphasise the ‘diversity’ of Muslim communities in the UK – hailing as they do from all over the world and employing their variety of talents to a variety of ends.

Instead, what this report represents is a kind of special pleading. The view is that Romas have their special programmes – Romas are monitored and protected and have their own service needs recognised, so why not Muslims?

But if Muslims, then why not any other group which claims a common identity? Or why not any individual who deems themselves to be at a disadvantage in some way? There is a multiplying effect here – every claim by a group or individual to have its particular disadvantage and special identity recognised is likely to spawn similar claims from others.

Choudhury recognises this. At the launch of the report, he stated that public bodies should be monitoring, not just faith identities, but ‘all other discriminations’. In the end, he said, ‘monitoring will take into account every aspect of individuals’. Public bodies, he is saying, should be constantly aware of the different needs of the people they are providing services for.

As Ted Cantle, chair of the Home Office’s Community Cohesion Panel, pointed out at the launch of the report, there is a logistical problem here. Already public service monitoring occurs on the basis of 12 different ethnicities, gender, age and sometimes sexual orientation. Expanding this list could severely hamper service provision.

More importantly, Choudhury’s proposals would shift the focus of public life away from working, teaching, creating – all the tasks and activities around which British citizens associate – and towards a climate of perpetual monitoring of our relationships with one another.

This would leave us with an impoverished public life. Rather than a sphere in which people come together around particular goals and ends, it would be a sphere dominated by self-consciousness and hypersensitivity – of individuals constantly thinking about how their actions could impact upon others, and looking out for ways in which they were being misrecognised or disadvantaged.

For example, the report suggests including in the school curriculum accounts of Muslim achievements in history, science and mathematics – as a way of showing ‘sensitivity to Muslim history and culture’ (4). Now, there may well be good reasons for teaching children about the role of Muslim civilisation in preserving Classical civilisation, but these decisions should be made on the basis of the historical evidence and educational considerations, not on the basis of a need to value the identities of Muslim kids.

Historians could decide that Muslims were less important in preserving the gains of Classical civilisation than the Irish monks, without this reflecting in any way upon their views of Muslims or Irish people. A healthy public life would involve citizens coming together to discuss how we should understand the past, without fear of offending others.

The increase in monitoring of citizens’ beliefs, identities and sexual preferences should also present concerns about liberty. State bodies collecting data on these intimate aspects of people’s identities represents yet another level of intrusion into people’s lives. As Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes pointed out at the launch of the report, people may not want to tell public bodies about their religion.

Over the past decade, there has been a popularisation of the idea that unselfconscious encounters between people are problematic – exemplified in the proliferation of codes governing interpersonal behaviour, and rules about what can and cannot be said. The view is that if the health service, the BBC, the education system and employers aren’t constantly, consciously thinking about how they are relating to people, then they will be unwittingly favouring some people over others.

In fact, the only genuine way to relate to other people is unselfconsciously. It is only when you stop thinking of somebody as a Muslim, and you think of them as a doctor, a documentary maker or a teacher and you relate to them according to shared goals, that we will have a truly inclusive public life. Monitoring encourages a check-list approach to everyday interactions, which can only increase people’s sense of difference.

No doubt Muslims do encounter some barriers and discrimination. But any solution to divisions in British society needs to start with the aim of bringing about a society of confident, freely associating individuals, who come together to work, educate and enjoy the arts – whatever their race or religious background.

If ailing public bodies like the health service, the education system and the BBC concentrated on raising their standards and broadening their uptake, they would do far more for the integration of Muslims than if they adopted every last proposal in Choudhury’s report.

Read on:

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(1) Monitoring Minority Protection in the EU: The Situation of Muslims in the UK, Open Society Institute, 2002, p71

(2) Monitoring Minority Protection in the EU: The Situation of Muslims in the UK, Open Society Institute, 2002, p82

(3) Monitoring Minority Protection in the EU: The Situation of Muslims in the UK, Open Society Institute, 2002, p94

(4) Monitoring Minority Protection in the EU: The Situation of Muslims in the UK, Open Society Institute, 2002, p125

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Topics Politics


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