Religions are systems of belief. Nobody has to have a religion, and nobody has to accept the truth-claims of any religion, unless they wish to do so.
As a Muslim, I believe that the truth-claims of every other religion are incorrect, except where they are consistent with Islam as I understand it. Similarly, I believe that the views of every other Muslim about Islam are incorrect, except to the extent that they are consistent with my own views.
In a sense, the statements in the previous paragraph are almost tautologies. If I believed that someone else’s views, different from mine, were correct, I would immediately change my views by adopting theirs.
If you believe that the truth-claims of a religion are incorrect, you are free to say that, in any society that claims to allow freedom of speech. That is a right which I wholeheartedly support.
Accordingly, I defend the right of all people to assert that the religion of Islam is completely incorrect, and that the Quran is not the word of God.
Consequently, I also defend the right of Christian preachers to assert that Christianity is the only true religion, and that Muslims who refuse to accept Christianity risk being cast by God into eternal hell-fire after death. That is why I believe that the prosecution of Pastor James McConnell was misconceived.
However, while people are free to criticise every religion, they are not free to denigrate the people who practice that religion.
While I believe that the truth-claims of Christianity are incorrect (except where they overlap with my religious beliefs), that does not permit me to denigrate Christians, to verbally abuse them, or to assert that they are a lower form of life. Even less does it permit me to treat Christians badly by discriminating against them or by physically assaulting them.
In reality, people often disguise their real hatred by claiming to criticise something else.
I have often written about the question of when criticism of Israel is a disguise for hatred of Jews. See for example my page "When is being anti-Israeli evidence that you are antisemitic?"
Similarly, I am acutely aware that many people who claim only to criticise Islam as a religion actually have a deep hatred of Muslims and regard Muslims as less human than other people.
There is no easy way to set out general rules to draw a dividing line between criticism of a religion and hatred of its adherents. In any particular case one must consider what is said, and also take into account what the person concerned has said and done elsewhere.
I touched on these issues in a recent article on the Conservative Home website. That article primarily focused on making clear the distinctions between three different kinds of undesirable behaviour:
You can read it below.
Mohammed Amin MBE is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity.
I have written several times about the distinction between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism, most recently in my Conservative Home piece “Critics of the IHRA definition of antisemitism are wrong.”
Similar issues arise regarding the boundary between freedom to criticise other religions, and the promotion of hatred against their adherents. To make the writing simpler, I will focus on Islam, but essentially the same issues arise for all religions.
In my view, there are three separate boundaries that need to be determined. Not double standards, but triple standards!
Stirring up racial hatred has been an offense since at least the Public Order Act 1986 (POA 1986). For example, see POA 1986 s.19 regarding publishing or distributing written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting, to stir up racial hatred.
However, for many years there was no equivalent offence of stirring up religious hatred. This was remedied by the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. This inserted equivalent religion related offences into POA 1986. For example the newly inserted POA 1986 s. 29C(1) “A person who publishes or distributes written material which is threatening is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.”
Parliament had understandable concern about freedom of speech, so the newly inserted POA 1986 s. 29J makes it clear that nothing in the new legislation:
“prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.”
Those setting out to incite religious hatred often seek shelter behind the above words.
The legal dividing line is normally relatively clear. Indeed, despite having received some pretty offensive stuff over the years via electronic means, it was only very recently that I first reported an item to the police as being prima facie criminal.
Ultimately what is socially acceptable depends on you, your background, the groups you mingle with, and your environment.
For example, some Humanists regularly attend events organised by the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. On Facebook they can be pretty dismissive of all religions, not just Islam. For me, it is water off a duck’s back. Conversely, one of my Muslim friends found the same Facebook postings deeply offensive, because people react differently based on their life experiences.
Politicians must operate to a still higher standard than mere social acceptability within their own circles.
Not only do they need citizens to vote for them, they also serve as the representative of all the citizens in their constituency. That becomes problematical if they are seen or heard criticising the religious beliefs of those citizens. Furthermore, what a politician says affects not only the attitude of voters towards him or her; it reflects on their party nationally.
At the same time, no politician can be expected to deny whatever religious beliefs, or non-beliefs, that he or she may hold. This can make it difficult to answer questions about the politician’s religious beliefs, as Tim Farron found during the 2017 General Election campaign when asked about his religious beliefs regarding homosexuality. There is no easy solution, but it does help to have a prepared standard answer to such questions.
Tom Holland’s book "In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World" and the related TV documentary proposes that the founding of Islam did not take place in Mecca, but further north, possibly near the Dead Sea. While I have no problems with him proposing this (though my book review disagrees with his conclusions), some Muslims I know consider that he went beyond social acceptability. I haven’t seen any allegations that his book was criminal.
I personally don’t care if someone burns a copy of the Quran, provided they bought it and do so without creating a fire or smoke hazard. Derision is the best response to someone foolishly trying to anger you with such behaviour. However public burning of the Quran outrages many Muslims, and empirically risks creating breaches of the peace around the world as we saw in 2010 with Pastor Terry Jones of the USA. As Andrew Ryan found in 2011, it is illegal in the UK as constituting religiously aggravated harassment.
While Thomas Carlyle lectured on the Prophet Muhammad as a hero, no non-Muslim has to admire Muhammad. Scholarly opinions vary from doubting his existence (a minority perspective) to a mainstream one of considering that Muhammad composed the Quran from widely extant Jewish and Christian stories. However, if someone “bangs on” (to use David Cameron’s wonderful phrase about a different obsession) about Muhammad and the number of his wives, and other aspects of his sexual behaviour, one can reasonably conclude that this person hates Muslims.
A Conservative Councillor shares on Facebook an image of a woman wearing a black niqab, with a similarly dressed daughter. They are standing on the pavement between two black bin bags full of rubbish. The caption is “I congratulated her on her three lovely daughters.” BBC Radio Nottingham consulted me about precisely this example. Sharing such an offensive cartoon is clearly unacceptable for a politician, as it will drive Muslim voters away from the Conservative Party, not just locally, but nationally. It may not transgress social acceptability in the company he keeps, but most people would regard it as offensive.
There were a number of comments posted below the article. While Conservative Home periodically tidies up their site by deleting comments, until then they can be read below the original article.
While my articles touching on Islam often receive hostile comments, in this case many of the comments were much more reasonable.