I wasn’t sure whether to do it or not but in the end I decide to accept the invitation to debate with Jeffrey Marshall from the BNP, Alan Craig from the Christian People’s Party, Frank Gelli from the Church of England and Abdullah al-Andalusi from the Muslim Debate Initiative. The discussion was held at Conway Hall last night on the question ‘’The Islamification of Britain: Reality or Myth?’’ Here is a rough transcription of what I said:
The first part of what I want to say is that “Islamification” – whatever it means and it doesn’t mean much – is not happening.
The statistics about birth rates and all that will be dealt with by other speakers. But it is enough to say that those who peddle the myth of Islamification make much of the increase of the Muslim population; in their language they often wrongly categorise Muslims together, when of course there is great diversity among those calling themselves Muslim – not only because they are culturally diverse but also because not all those calling themselves Muslim are particularly if at all religious, while some of course are. It is wrong also to assume that Muslims will be opposed to secular democracy or the liberal state just because they are Muslims, and it is very wrong – and this is extremely important – to suggest that all those who are born as the children of grandchildren of Muslims will inevitably be Muslims themselves. If the pattern of falling away from religion that has occurred and is occurring amongst other religions in Europe, then there is every reason to believe that the descendants of British Muslims today may well not be Muslims.
Social change is unsettling – it is – but the response shouldn’t be to relapse into ever more exclusive religious identities (if you’re Christian or Muslim); or into extremist politics. It is undoubtedly the case that those states of the world where Islamic law is implemented are amongst the very worse human rights violaters in the world today, where life is cheapened by a scant regard for human freedom. This situation, I think, is highly unlikely to arise in Britain. I am speaking today as a humanist – someone who believes politically in human rights, democracy and the rule of law as the basis of a liberal society and a secular approach to our shared political life. Liberals in this sense are attacked from both sides – by the Islamic extremists who carry posters saying ‘democracy go to hell’ or other anti-liberal slogans, and by the extremists of the nationalist right who blame liberals for cravenly giving up their democratic birthright in the face of islamification.
But we do live in a society of free individuals and that includes the freedom to worship, and freedom of expression, freedom to criticise political and religious ideologies. These concepts provide a framework within which we can live together in a society that is diverse, because they provide an essential basis for a shared civic identity. We are a society, and our individual actions affect our fellow citizens. So, there are things that we are not allowed to do, arising out of the commitment we have as a society. There is no justification for systems of sharia law to settle disputes if those systems violate human rights standards and are anything other than voluntary arrangements freely entered into, there is no justification for incitement to racist hatred, or to the hatred of any individual or group of people. If we are true to these principles, and use them to frame public discussion of the issues – like this one – that are controversial, then I believe we will be able to resolve them.
The second part of what I want to say is that, in spite of what I have said, there is always a need for those who support freedom, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, to be vigilant.
I think it is unlikely that our democratic institutions and our liberal society are going to be usurped any time soon. But I think we run a risk of destabilising our institutions and our habits of freedom if we do not (1) understand where they come from – that is, from a liberal democratic tradition (2) defend them in the face of ideologies that seek to tear them down – by whomever these ideologies are expressed (3) use these institutions and the freedoms we have, to negotiate our way through the consequences of demographic change.
We need education – education that will inform everyone of the basis of our shared citizenship – our freedoms as individuals in Britain and Europe. We need a better recognition of how liberal secularism protects people of every religious or non-religious belief, provided they are not harming others.
In a way I am at odds with almost everyone else on this panel. I am certainly at odds also with the Islamic extremists who are not represented here – who might argue, for example, that Islamification is happening and that it is a good thing.
But I stand here to say that it is a distraction to relapse into extremist ideologies and negative self-identifications. We need a shared civic sense that will be robust enough to accommodate all our diverse religious and non-religious beliefs – a liberal and a secular civic sense.