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Friday, 29 October, 1999, 10:35 GMT 11:35 UK
Lifting the veil on discrimination
Gay rights activists at an anti-Muslim protest
Question: Why can a Sikh insist on wearing his turban in the workplace, but a Muslim cannot insist on the same right to wear a beard?

Answer: Because in the law's eyes one is part of a race, but the other is part of a religion.

Racial discrimination received official recognition in law 23 years ago, a year after sexual discrimination, and 10 years before disability discrimination.

But while legislation exists to protect victims in all three groups, campaigners say intolerance on religious grounds has been allowed to fester and grow unchecked.

Aisha Ahmad:"People are dumbstruck that I can argue articulately"
On Thursday, Lord Ahmed of Rotherham raised the issue of religious prejudice in the House of Lords, in an effort to change government policy.

Why, he asked, can the protection that exists in Northern Ireland which safeguards Protestants and Catholics from discrimination not be extended to the mainland.

Two years ago a report by Commission on Islamophobia stated discrimination against Islam and Muslims had become "more explicit, more extreme and more dangerous" over two decades. It recommended religious discrimination be made illegal.

Muslims are most affected. Media images of Islamic fundamentalism, and terms such as "mad mullahs" have made a deep and lasting impression

Maqsood Ahmad, of the Kirklees Racial Equality Council, says attacks on Muslims may depend on news events thousands of miles away.

Gulf War reprisal

"During the Gulf War there were letters going to Muslim homes which said that for every soldier killed, two Muslim children would die.

"When something happens in Iraq or Saudi Arabia, the Muslim community becomes quite tense here."

He says extreme right-wing groups are "moving away from race and focusing more on religion".

Muslim women who wear the "hijaab" headscarf are often a target for abuse.

Aisha Ahmad, a hijaab wearer, says: "I'd be sitting on the train just minding my own business and someone just comes up to me and they start arguing with me about Islam."

Shagufta Yaqub, a young Muslim, says: "People have all these ideas about what it means to be a Muslim. You're Muslim, therefore you're a fanatic, therefore you're a terrorist, therefore you're guilty."

Mr Ahmad has come across cases where Islamic women have been spat at or threatened because of their appearance.

And, as the picture at the top of the page shows, Islam has been hit from all sides. In 1994 gay rights protestors including Peter Tatchell staged a demonstration outside a Muslim conference.

Protests against author Salman Rushdie: Many people see all Muslims as fundamentalists
Muslims have had limited success arguing their case under the Race Relations Act. But, unlike Sikhs and Jews, they have yet to achieve recognition as an ethnic or racial group. Hence the different legal standing between turbans and beards.

Barbara Cohen, a lawyer with the Commission for Racial Equality, says Muslims do not fit the legal definition for a racial group since Islam is a broad, diverse religion.

"According to the definition, they cannot be classed as a racial group because the Muslim people do not have a long, shared history; they do not have a geographic centre; they do not share a common language or a common literature," says Ms Cohen.

Converts most vulnerable

Converts to Islam - one of the most high-profile being Jemima Khan - are most vulnerable, says Kaushika Amim, of the Commission on Islamophobia. They are often the target of prejudice but cannot resort to race laws.

Jemima Khan: High profile convert
Maqsood Ahmad says he has had to turn away Muslims who have come to him seeking help.

"We cannot help them. That's one of the frustrations, we could help a Sikh or a Jew because we use the Race Relations Act."

Ms Amim points out that under current law, a Muslim in Northern Ireland could use the existing legislation to challenge religious discrimination, a Muslim in Liverpool could not.

Yet while it looks unlikely the government will amend legislation in response to Lord Ahmed's request, Ms Cohen says there is hope around the corner.

The Human Rights Act, which guarantees freedom of religion and religious expression, comes into force next October. And a European directive is expected within two years which will prevent discrimination on grounds of religion.

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See also:

28 Oct 99 | UK Politics
Religious discrimination ban urged
25 Jan 99 | Archive
Images of Islam
24 Sep 99 | UK
Racism rife 25 years on
09 Aug 99 | Religion
Muslims in Britain
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