Christians, Muslims and the reality of religious persecution

Published in The Guardian (April 22nd, 2013)

It is hard not to laugh. Three Christians are taking a landmark legal case to the European Court of Human Rights because they believe they are being punished for ‘thought crimes’ by our courts acting in conjunction with a Conservative-led coalition.  Their claims of persecution, already rejected by various British and European judges, include a nurse who refused to stop wearing a cross dangling from her neck in defiance of health and safety rules and a relationship counsellor who would not work with gay couples.

The allegations are part of a noisy campaign to ingrain the idea that Christians are the new victimised minority, their rights being trampled on as our newly multicultural society stumbles its way towards a settlement of equality, respect and tolerance. The campaign is spearheaded by George Carey, the increasingly absurd former archbishop of Canterbury, who argues Christianity is being “driven underground”.

Such shrill claims and silly court cases only serve to shore up any feelings of intolerance that might exist. Undoubtedly, there is some cultural prejudice against Christians; it is seen as uncool to go to church and they are a soft target for second-rate comedians. Yet it is impossible to take seriously claims they are a persecuted minority in an Orwellian state when the Queen is defender of the Church of England’s faith and they have 26 bishops in parliament, even though Christians now comprise considerably less than two-thirds of our population.

The latest census figures showed how we should be discussing the disestablishment of the Church of England. But if these people want to demonstrate the desire to follow their doctrine, they should speak out against the real religious bigotry that exists on our streets – that faced by Muslims, especially women, on an almost daily basis. To take one recent case at random, a mother was with her eight-year-old son in Bristol when a drunken man with a knife came up to her and said: “Take the hijab off before I stab you. This is England, you are not allowed.”

This is the true face of intolerance towards a minority, the kind of fear-fuelled contempt that has such a corrosive effect on families, communities and our faith in one another. A national anti-Muslim hate crime project recorded more than two cases each day in its first year of operation. They included a young family forced to flee their Nottinghamshire home earlier this year after enduring barrages of abuse in the street, racist graffiti scrawled in their driveway and finally a cross wrapped in ham left on their doorstep.

This is also part of al-Qaida’s lethal legacy – the daily drip-drip of distrust. It is inflamed each time an alienated young Muslim, struggling to integrate and searching for identity in the false certainty of extremism, commits another terrorist outrage in the bastardised name of their religion – as probably seen in Boston.

Yet as initial US media coverage of these events showed, labelling one injured Saudi a suspect, we must be wary of jumping to conclusions – or making over-the-top responses. Indeed, it is worth pointing out that in the eight years after 9/11, the number of jihadist attacks in Europe represented less than 1% of total terrorist incidents on the continent.

A recent Chatham House study by Matthew Goodwin, a Nottingham University academic, found fewer than one quarter of Britons perceived Islam as not a threat to western civilisation; just a similar number could be found who thought the religion compatible with our way of life. These are disturbing findings. Other surveys have found Muslims more patriotic than other Britons; it is, after all, a religion that places a premium on hospitality. But such are the ignorant suspicions that make bile against Muslims the acceptable dinner-party bigotry, encourage gangs to vandalise mosques and drive discrimination in the workplace.

We have been here before, of course. Each new wave of immigration provokes the same fears before newcomers are assimilated into evolving nations. After Irish immigration rose and Fenian bombs started going off in Victorian Britain, there were claims the country’s stability was at risk from adherents of an alien religion who owed loyalty to an authoritarian figure in Rome. Just over half a century ago, the same fears over Catholic fundamentalism threatening liberal democratic values clung on in a book topping best-seller lists. Now even our monarch can marry into the faith.

An important new report and poll by the British Future thinktank to mark the 20th anniversary of the Stephen Lawrence murder underlines how prejudice wanes over the years. Although the cancer of racism lingers on in Britain, it found we live in a far fairer and more tolerant society than at the time of that brutal bus-stop slaying in south London. Yet interestingly, even as prejudice declines against black people, there is acceptance of the unique problems now faced by followers of Islam. More than half of Britons accept there is considerable intolerance in this country towards Muslims – while barely one in 10 believe those spurious claims that Christians face serious prejudice.

Unfortunately, the highly charged and crucial debates over diversity, immigration and multiculturalism have been hijacked by this mistrust of Muslims; just take a glance at David Goodhart’s flawed new book on these subjects or listen to the language of too many politicians. Whether on economic, security or societal grounds, we have a shared interest in bringing Britain’s Islamic communities in from the cold. But at least recognition of a problem is the starting point to finding a solution.

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