The Ranting Kraut

19.3.2006 – 27.9.2010

Mark Thompson, Islam and the BBC

Posted by rantingkraut on October 21, 2008

The BBC’s Mark Thompson, according to the telegraph, argued in a lecture to Theos that Muslims should be treated more sensitively than Christians because they “… are a religious minority in Britain and also often from ethnic minorities…”.

These comments, of course were promptly played down by the BBC: “A BBC spokesman said Mr Thompson did not mean Islam should be given preferential treatment, just that all religions are different. He said: “People should look at his actual comments rather than trying to infer additional meaning that isn’t there.” (Source)

Looking at his actual comments is not so easy though: the comments in question appear to have been in the ‘question and answer’ part following the lecture itself and are not contained in either the transcript or the podcast on the Theos website.
A verbatim quote supplied by the telegraph goes like this:

“What Christian identity feels like it is about to the broad population is a little bit different to people for whom their religion is also associated with an ethnic identity which has not been fully integrated.

“There’s no reason why any religion should be immune from discussion, but I don’t want to say that all religions are the same. To be a minority I think puts a slightly different outlook on it.” “ (Source)

If you are a secondary school student studying English anywhere in Europe, you would probably have to repeat the year if you came up with that kind of garbled grammar. Some interpretation is clearly required to make sense of this passage and the telegraph’s interpretation (summarised at the beginning of this text) does not seem unreasonable.

A more interesting question than the current standard of BBC English is whether Thompson has a point.

Regardless of whether Muslims belong to an ethnic minority, their religion is conceptually distinct from their ethnic background. Many British Muslims belong to the same ethnic minority as British Hindus. It is also far from clear that heightened sensitivities around Islam proper are best suited to further integration.

In fact, if the media were to apply the same rules to Islam as to any other religion this should tend to promote integration. For this is what integration means: playing by the same rules and being judged by the same standards as all other members of society; having the same opportunity to earn respect while sharing the same exposure to criticism as all others.

The question at this point is whether Thompson, or indeed significant parts of the Muslim minority in Britain, want that kind of integration. The notion of playing by the same set of rules as the rest implies that there is an existing set of rules to be played by. It is in this respect, that Thompson’s view of integration becomes problematic. The Theos speech does mention the Satanic Verses incident, and then continues with this passage:

The tensions revealed by this story – the cognitive dissonance between the values and worldview of a given minority and the expectations of the majority in a liberal democracy, the revelation that we live in a very small world where secularity in one country does not make you immune from religious fervour in another, above all the reminder that for billions of people in the modern world, religion is not a debating point or a private leisure activity, but an all-consuming, central part of their lives – these tensions are ones we still live with today.”(Source, Word Document)
To anyone who subscribes to conventional notions of tolerance in a liberal society it should be clear how these tensions are to be contained. Anyone in such an open society should be permitted to feel strongly about any religion, but has no right to extend the taboos and rules of the chosen religion to others. In an international context, it should be obvious that the religious norms of one country don’t extend to another. It is one aspect of national defence to assure in the ultimate instance that this remains so in practice.

Mark Thompson is not very explicit as to where he stands on these issues, but the fact that the above passage is framed by a reference to cognitive dissonance is very revealing. The casual reader unaccustomed to psychology jargon may be forgiven in thinking that cognitive dissonance is nothing more than a euphemism for misunderstanding. It isn’t.

The concept has originally been introduced by Leon Festinger in 1957 and generally can be said to relate to an inconsistency in knowledge or opinion. Logically inconsistent (dissonant) views are psychologically unpleasant, and people usually strife to remove this dissonance. In some cases this may be done by finding a form of rationalisation that resolves the inconsistency. In others, one of two conflicting values may be abandoned.

The fact that the conflict between Islamism and Western Secularism is defined in terms of cognitive dissonance immediately questions the notion that the existing norms of western society are the ones that should be adopted in a process of integration. Cognitive dissonance is a purely descriptive concept. This is adequate in social science, but in the case of the present cultural conflict its use seems to indicate multiculturalist relativism: the cognitive dissonance is resolved if either of two conflicting cultural paradigms is abandoned. There is no a priori indication that the incumbent cultural norm should prevail in guiding the direction of integration.

In the absence of outside norms, and as far as the criterion of cognitive dissonance is concerned, there is no reason why a conflict between freedom of speech and religious piety should not be resolved by abandoning freedom of speech. To reach the conclusion that religious demands should be constrained by everybody’s basic right to freedom of conscience, belief and speech requires a basic value judgement.

It is a value judgement affirming the very basics of an open and tolerant society which alone makes the peaceful coexistence of conflicting believes possible. If the head of the BBC can’t bring himself to make such a basic endorsement of fundamental enlightenment values he no longer needs to spell out that the BBC is prepared to yield to Islamist pressure. Those who look closely enough will naturally suspect as much.

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