Monday, January 07, 2008 

It's the bishop! (of Rochester)

I didn't particularly want to write about the Bishop of Rochester and his "no-go areas". If you're writing for a national newspaper and make lurid claims that are bound to be controversial, the onus has to be on you to provide the proof which backs them up. He has absolutely none, at least none for his specific claim that it's Islamic extremism that is creating the "no-go areas" for those of a different faith or race. His main complaint, apart from attacking multiculturalism, is that some mosques are broadcasting the "Adhan", the call to prayer; in reality, as Inayat Bunglawala writes, the (very few) mosques which are doing so have to apply to the local council for permission and agree on the volume levels, and it's only taking place in areas where there are a large volume of local Muslims. Complaints are bound to made over such things, whether they involve church bells or the Adhan, and they're for the local communities to sort out.

No, rather what
Michael Nazir-Ali is really concerned about, quite apart from Islamic extremism, is the promoting of Christianity. It would be daft if he wasn't; it is after all his job. He's concerned, as others have been, that the supposed Christian base of the country has changed into a multi-faith one, as if this somehow happened by government edict, when it has actually occurred because of the apathetic relationship the majority in this country have with religion and the natural demographic changes of a capitalist nation state. We nominally describe ourselves as Christian, but hardly any of us actually partake in worship, or probably even really believe in God. We are Christian by tradition only, not by practice. In Nazir-Ali's view, both this and the arrival of immigrants bringing their own religions with them are an equal threat: he claims that the secularist approach is not "neutral", without explaining how or why. His major beef is with how "chapels and chaplaincies in places such as hospitals, prisons and institutions of further and higher education is in jeopardy either because of financial cuts or because the authorities want "multifaith" provision" without realising that it might not be anything to do with the authorities but actually the people themselves who want a representative of their own faith, and that the authorities are responding to that demand. Nazir-Ali's answer is that "Christian chaplains can arrange for people of other faiths to have access to their own spiritual leaders without compromising the Christian basis of their own ministry" which is just the sort of wishy-washy half-way measure which he condemns multiculturalism for being. He swings at the government's "agenda for integration and cohesion" for its lack of a "moral and spiritual vision." Why on earth would anything the government does have or need to have a "spiritual" vision?

As some have already identified, Nazir-Ali's complaint when stripped down isn't really religious but racial. If he had identified this as the problem rather than Islamic extremism then he might have been on to something. There are undoubtedly tensions and problems with communities becoming cut-off or "ghettoised", but this happens under all races, all religions and those of neither. It's only been a few years since the riots in the north where polarised communities were identified as the main factor; due to the various reasons when they first emigrated here, the first-wave of immigrants overwhelmingly chose to live together, whether in Leicester or Bradford for example, out of both protection and fear of the unknown, primary human emotions and completely understandable, which has continued since. Communities such as these become insulated, and some will of course argue that consecutive government policy has done little to nothing to alter this, but if anyone can identify when multiculturalism was adopted as actual doctrine instead of coming about spontaneously and evolving other time with the various needs, they're welcome to try. These communities overwhelmingly did not come together because of their shared faith, but because of their shared ethnicity. Religion came along with them at the same time, but was certainly not anywhere near as influential in their decision-making as common similarity was.

Some of these communities may indeed now be potential "no-go" areas for those not of the same background; there's anecdotal evidence turning up on legions of blogs and forums about low-level intimidation and unfriendliness, but this occurs in all communities and to all outsiders. Women might be insulted for not wearing the hijab in some areas, just as some are no doubt mocked and hurled abuse at in others for wearing one. Unfortunately, casual abuse on the street for looking "different" is a fact of life. Rachel wrote a post I remember from last year where she described how when wearing a headscarf the youths that had previously made lewd comments at her said nothing as she went by. Most of all though, we build our own barriers around certain places, based only on innuendo and reputation. In every city or large town there's a "rough" area which you're supposed to avoid at all costs. Most likely, if you walked through it on an average day you'd probably meet next to nobody and wonder what the fuss was about. We also know all too well about how town or city centres are meant to be "no-go" areas at weekends or in the evenings, either because of anti-social behaviour or binge drinking, or a mixture of the two. It's mostly media hype, but most will avoid them like the plague simply because of the impression they have of what it'll be like. In some cases, they might be right. In others, breathtakingly wrong.

The Bishop of Rochester is then undoubtedly scaremongering, and he was right to pulled up on it. His article is a partisan, even sectarian reaching for the supposed past glory that is as illusionary as ever. 30 years ago it would have been about race rather than religion, it's only in these days of universal terror threats, and concern about all those of brown skin who might just attend mosque about what they're being preached to, what they watch, and what they're planning to do that Islamic extremism is brought up as the latest bogeyman. There are undoubted problems with integration in some communities, and with the lack of belonging that the latest generation especially are experiencing. Some have turned to a perversion of politicised Islam, just like previous generations have turned to similar all-explaining ideologies. We were too lax on the extremist preachers that many suspect of having links with the security services, a nod and a wink that allowed them to do what they liked as long as Britain itself was not the target. Those days are thankfully over.

The reason I didn't particularly want to write this post was because I didn't think that Nazir-Ali didn't need any more of a response, or if there was any need to provide much of one in the first place. His article is, to be brutally honest, complete bollocks. When someone spouts complete bollocks, you can either attack it viciously or let it lie in its own filth. Nazir-Ali's claims ought to have been left to lie in their own feculence, but they came at a time where there isn't much news to come by, at the start of the new political season, and because they're inflammatory it means that the tabloids now have an excuse to jump in with their own prejudices. Like when Jack Straw opened his mouth about the niqab, which was a perfectly decent subject for debate, what has to be remembered is that much of the press doesn't abide by those same rules of contact. What happened was open season on Muslims in general, with the Express demanding that the veil be banned in the most visibly hostile move. Hence today we have the resurrection of that now infamous picture of the woman in the niqab flashing a v-sign, without the explanation that it was taken during last year's arrests over the "beheading" of a British soldier plot, when the community was quite entitled to feel under siege (how flashing a v-sign is anything other than quintessentially British is also laughable). The article it illustrates claims that the "reaction from the politically-correct establishment is an indicator of the weight of his case." On the contrary, the fact that the only person who endorsed his article was David Davis was an indicator of how wrong he was. The government itself failed to make any comment on the matter until today, when Hazel Blears, the minister you'd least want to respond put her head above the parapet. That she has no knowledge of any no-go areas isn't surprising; only last week there was a Grauniad article about how a man was forced from his home in her constituency because he had the temerity to accept Poles as lodgers. William Hague showed Tory disunity on the matter by disagreeing with David Davis and saying he didn't recognise the description either. The Scum only amplified the lack of any argument whatsoever behind its endorsing of Nazir-Ali's comments by saying that he's "no scaremonger". Or a fishmonger one would imagine.

The one disappointing thing about the response was that we still can't have a debate without immediate calls for someone to resign simply for expressing their opinion, even if it only appears to have come from the Ramadhan Foundation. It has to be remembered that the same Muslim leaders that have quite rightly disagreed with Nazir-Ali are still incredibly slow to condemn those within their own community, such as those featured on Undercover Mosque, when they express their own far more inflammatory views. That has to change, instead of finding excuses and other reasons to skirt around the real issue. When organisations such as Policy Exchange appear to embellish evidence they need to vigorously challenged, but so do those who were found to be propagating extremist material. We all need to get the balance right, and as yet, all sides have been unable to find it.

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