Let’s have a heated debate

Officialdom's calls for a 'gentle, nuanced' debate about race, veils and multiculturalism is just another way of policing public discussion.

Munira Mirza

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Topics Politics

In August, at the launch of her new Commission for Integration and Cohesion, the UK minister for communities, Ruth Kelly, called for ‘a new and honest debate’ on the subject of race relations (1). This was widely seen as a change of heart on the government’s part, and an admission that multiculturalism had hardened into an unquestioned orthodoxy over recent years. At the time, many welcomed Kelly’s speech as a chance to open up robust discussion about issues such as free speech, religious discrimination and racial tensions.

Yet discussions over the past fortnight reveal how anxious many political figures are about ‘honest debate’, and how strong are their impulses to police public discussion. Former foreign secretary Jack Straw’s recent comments in his local Lancashire newspaper about the wearing of the veil by some of his female Muslim constituents provoked concern among race relations figures and Muslim groups, who claimed that they might have a potentially incendiary effect.

This week, Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, who expressed some sympathy with Straw’s comments, argued: ‘This is a debate we must have. But we have to have it in the right way.’ He called for a ‘gentle, nuanced’ debate, arguing that the veils row might act as ‘the trigger for the grim spiral that produced riots in the north of England five years ago’. Likewise, Dewsbury Labour MP Shahid Malik said: ‘If we don’t take a grip of this debate now, it will have serious social consequences.… It takes only one spark to set things off.’ John Rees of the left-wing anti-war party RESPECT added: ‘Straw’s disgusting comments will fuel racism and Islamophobia…. Along the road from Straw’s constituency in Preston there have been violent attacks against a mosque and those attending the mosque, including the stabbing of one young Asian man.’ (2)

Interestingly, what many of these comments reflect is a belief that there is a ‘right’ or ‘civilised’ way to have a debate on these issues, and that the slightest word out of place might spark a massive race riot. Straw’s critics have not necessarily attacked his arguments about the wearing of the veil; rather, they have accused him and his supporters of saying things the wrong way and not treading carefully enough around people’s sensitivities. Their argument is that we need a debate that is responsible, respectful and does not cause discomfort – in other words, nothing that might cause a bit of disagreement or dissension, lest things spin out of control.

Public discussion about race issues is often circumscribed by the fear of exacerbating tensions. This week, for instance, the Home Office released figures which showed that almost half of all victims of racially motivated murders were white (3). Police officials admitted there is a reluctance to discuss these figures publicly, in case the evidence is seized upon by far-right groups and used to sow discontent. In Monday’s Channel 4 debate on Muslims and free speech, human rights lawyer Imran Khan repeated the oft-made argument that the right to free speech could be dangerous for Muslims, and that the Danish cartoons encouraged violent attacks on Muslim communities.

When political figures and community activists call for ‘civilised’ debate or ‘the right kind of dialogue’, what they are effectively saying is that any opinion deemed too controversial is a risk to public safety. The merit of the actual argument comes secondary to the alleged danger it might cause. This is the worst of both worlds: debate is denigrated because the issue itself is not thrashed out, but instead silenced by a ‘You can’t say that!’ statement of disapproval; and free speech is undermined by the idea that words can easily lead to violence and harm. Ideas are brushed under the carpet, and speech is problematised.

Underlying these arguments is a precautionary approach to public discussion. ‘Think before you speak’ is the official warning. While politicians (despite their support for censorious legislation against ‘religious hatred’) will pay lip service to freedom of speech, they seem afraid when anyone might actually want to use it in practice. The justification for such concern about this ‘wrong’ kind of speech is that the public might turn into a kind of lynch mob, easily incited to commit violence. The tendency is to call for an officially sanctioned etiquette by which people ought to discuss issues. The choice of words and phrases cannot be left to people, apparently, but instead must be regulated by designated experts – as the CRE recently proposed, we apparently need a ‘Highway Code’ for debate. Instead of the ‘new and honest’ debate promised by Ruth Kelly, we actually have a kind of emotional blackmail that stifles public discussion: ‘Don’t say that or someone will get hurt!’

The predictions of race riots, however, do not bear out in reality. The overwhelming public response to debates about the Danish cartoons and the veil has been relatively calm. The odd Islamist cranks in Al-Mujaharoun or the racist bigots of the British National Party are by far the minority in public opinion. This is even the case in countries like Holland, where debate about the Muslim population has been particularly feverish. Ian Buruma, in his new book on the murder of controversial film director Theo van Gogh, Murder in Amsterdam, writes how in the immediate aftermath of van Gogh’s murder, fears of riots by Dutch commentators were exaggerated: ‘In fact, the country wasn’t burning at all…. The “civil war” that some feared, the pogroms on Muslim areas, the retaliations by newly recruited jihadis, none of this actually happened. Most people kept their cool.’ A recent Pew survey examining relations between Muslim and non-Muslim populations throughout the world found that both groups retained solidly favourable attitudes towards each other, despite fears of escalating tensions (4).

Controversial issues require heated debates, not conformity of opinion. Projecting the worst-case scenario of race riots can end up encouraging a form of self-censorship. If people are given scare stories about public reaction, they may be less likely to stick their head above the parapet. This allows ill-informed opinions to reign and prejudices to fester. We need to have a much more positive conception of free speech, particularly the kind that ruffles feathers and arouses passions. A healthy democracy can only work if people are not afraid to disagree, even if that means taking a not-very-gentle tone.

Munira Mirza is a writer and researcher based in London.

(1) Ruth Kelly speech, 24 August 2006

(2) Jack Straw: Resign now or be driven out at the next election, RESPECT statement

(3) Racial murders: nearly half the victims are white, The Observer, Sunday 22 October 2006

(4) The Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2006 ‘Europe’s Muslims More Moderate: The Great Divide: How Westerners and Muslims View Each Other, Pew Research Center

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Topics Politics