Religious freedom and conversions

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I?ve hesitated to post this report. We in the UK are living in an atmosphere in which, increasingly, we cannot say certain things that we may believe to be true and in which we are constrained to say things we believe to be untrue. The ever growing amount of equality and diversity legislation can be seen as criminalizing certain speech acts, as do?hate speech?laws. For example, if a religious person says, as an expression of his or her beliefs, that homosexuality is immoral, this may be taken by the police as an expression of ?homophobia? and, hence, as a form of offensive or hate speech.

This ?mandated speech?, it has been argued, is a result of the tendency of ?liberal? governments to wish to define the moral sphere in legislative terms. In the past, morality was very much the province of religion, but now the ?liberal? tendency is to try to domesticate religion and coopt it to government purposes. The problem for the faith communities is to know how to respond to this tendency, which has been exacerbated in the UK because the government is now offering?capacity building funds?to faith communities and faith-based organizations and projects.

One of the areas in which ?mandated speech? is problematic concerns what we may and may not say about Islam and Muslims. There is an increasing strain in the UK (as in other European countries and in North America) arising out of tension between the fact of terrorism committed by Muslims on religious grounds and the ever-rising demands by Muslims in the UK for exceptional treatment by the state (as, for example, in?this story?about a recent manifesto from the Muslim Council of Britain demanding that schools in the UK better accommodate Muslim students), on the one hand, and the desire to placate Muslim hostility to any kind of critical remark about Islam, on the other. The desire to appease has been reinforced by the insertion of the term ?Islamophobia? into the public discourse about Islam. We?ve been seduced by this word. It is now all too easy to brand anyone who criticizes the behaviour of Muslims or, indeed, Islam itself as an ?Islamophobe?. This has become a term of vilification (almost equivalent to ?racist?) and is used by some to try to silence debate about Islam.

Most people don?t want to be labelled ?Islamphobic?. But the matter goes far beyond labelling. The restraints on freedom of expression that arise out of ?hate speech? legislation and the insidious blocking of debate by the use of the label have the effect of restraining freedom of religion and belief. Particularly they, and threatened and actual violence, make it increasingly difficult for people to convert from Islam to other religions.

On 20 February I attended a consultation in the House of Lords on the theme of ?Religious freedom, conversions and international human rights?. Organized by the?Maranatha Community, the consultation was jointly chaired by?Baroness Christine Cox, a remarkable parliamentarian and a doughty defender of religious freedom (with a particular focus on defending Christians), and?Lord Anderson. former chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The underlying theme of the consultation was the erosion of genuine religious freedom, particularly the freedom to change one?s religion, as a result of the creeping Islamisation and the increasing political correctness of European societies. The Maranatha Community, which – according to its website – is ?a free, open and loving Christian movement which is rapidly growing throughout the United Kingdom and abroad?, is deeply concerned about the way in which accusations of and penalties against apostasy are used by Muslim leaders to block Muslims from changing their religion.

As Baha?is in Iran know only too well, accusations of apostasy can carry the death penalty in Islamic states. However, Muslims in the UK who convert to other religions are also subjected to pressure and rejection by the mosque, their families, their friends, and in some cases have had death threats.