Muslims aren’t like us. They won’t integrate. They will always be separate from us. They see the world differently from us. Deal with it.
This is the advice of the former head of the Equality and Human Rights commission, Trevor Phillips. Pretending otherwise is the deepest form of disrespect, he said. This is partly in response to David Cameron’s recent demand that Muslim women should be required to learn English or leave. A failure to integrate, in his view, increases the risk of terrorism.
Now, let’s replace the word ‘Muslims’ above with, in succession ‘Women’, ‘the Disabled’ and ‘Transgender people’ and see what happens.
With women, we have a problem. Who is us? Half the world is a woman. Does ‘us’ therefore presume that they are not us? What does integrating mean? Probably we – if ‘we’ means men – can agree that they will be separate, and that they see the world differently – at least in some respects. We deal with it happily. Vive la difference, as they say in the country where the immigrants come from.
Will the disabled integrate? In most cases, they’d love to. They would like to live as if they were not disabled. But they require society to change to accommodate them. They want slopes put in for their wheelchairs; they want lifts and escalators where the rest of us are happy with stairs. They want subtitles and audio description. They want braille on packaging and signage. Some of them even expect us to learn a new language to communicate with them. Society changes, out of common humanity – we deal with it. Do they still see the world differently from us? Mostly, I would guess they do. If life is full of challenges which the rest of us do not encounter, that must have an effect on outlook. But in the Inclusivity Utopia, those challenges would dissolve, and perhaps we would have a world where disability was invisible, not just to the world, but to the sufferer too. Then perhaps they would see the world just as we do.
And the Transgender? They clearly see the world differently to the extent that the world tells them that they must adopt their biological gender. What would integration mean? That they accept the world’s opinion and shut up about the gender with which they identify? That isn’t integration so much as repression. Integration, in the Inclusivity Utopia, means the world being blind to any distinction between the genders, so that it is irrelevant how a person wishes to dress and behave with respect to gender. Again, it is society which changes.
There is a sense in which Mr Phillips’ sentiments are trivially true. Muslims are different, but only to the extent of their difference. Prick them, do they not bleed? But ask them to abstain from prayer, eat bacon, to embrace homosexuality as normal, women as equals, to laugh at a cartoon of Muhammed, then they can only do any of those things in denial of what their religion says. To that extent, they cannot integrate. Integration in that sense involves abandoning their identity as Muslims, so that if they did, they would be Muslim no longer, just as it would for a trans person who was forced to integrate by adopting their biological gender. If all the Muslims in the country integrated in that sense, the Phillips statement would still be true. Those integrating wouldn’t be Muslim any more.
The question, however, is the extent to which it is reasonable for society to change to accommodate the differences of Islam. In a recent TV programme about being gay and Muslim, the makers approached 200 imams to speak about homosexuality in Islam. Only one agreed. And what did he say? That it was forbidden. It will not be controversial then, to say that Islam is fundamentally opposed to homosexuality. There are no liberal imams who tolerate it. Strictly speaking, it carries the death penalty.
Are we to tolerate this? Does the tolerant society tolerate intolerance? Can it be right that a council, a school, and a multinational corporation can all be prosecuted for discriminating against homosexuals, while a mosque cannot? Can it be allowed that disputes between individuals can be resolved not by the Civil Courts of the land, but by religiously guided Sharia courts? One might interject at this point that consenting to resolve disputes by some means other than the courts is a widespread practice which is firmly encouraged by the civil courts. Mediation, arbitration, ombudsmen are all examples of this. But when the principles guiding decisions about marriage, compensation and ownership are religious rather than rational – for if they were not, why not use more conventional means? – it is hard to find reasons to oppose the stereotype of a Muslim subculture enforcing and upholding values which are fundamentally different from those of its host culture.
A brief, but relevant aside: Yesterday, concerns were expressed by schools regulators about inappropriate use of the veil in schools where it interfered with learning. We are not talking about headscarves here. The niqab covers the whole of the face, and leaves only the eyes visible. The thought that a child may have to be taught by a teacher wearing a veil in the classroom is alien to me. I would imagine that it is alien in many Muslim cultures too, where it is not the tradition for women to work. In any case, the veil is not prescribed by Islam; it is a cultural preference derived from Saudi Arabia, and an artificial barometer of faith: I am required to be modest, and hiding my face is more modest than not doing so. More modest still, though, not to presume to stand up in front of children and seek to educate them. Surely the most modest thing is to stay at home and never speak? Surely if there is an example of a mismatch of values, this is it. Muslim teachers should be simply required not to wear the veil while at work. There would be no more religious discrimination in requiring a woman not to wear the veil than in asking a Christian not to wear a cross.
It may indeed be the case that Muslims will not integrate. It is certainly the case that they see the world differently from our secular viewpoint, as it is of all religions. But I do not share Mr Phillips long term pessimism. If the rational secular world has any value, it is its inescapable truth, and it is far more likely that those will infect the minds of the religious and free them from their delusion than that the infection will spread the other way. It’s just a shame that there’s going to be a little difficulty along the way.