MHMD1 Identity: Tensions between Institutions and the Individual

MHMD1 Identity: Tensions between Institutions and the Individual
13th May 2008
Three discussions: Tensions between Institutions and the Individual


Ms Shami Chakrabarti, Director, National Council for Civil Liberties
Dr Richard Stone, Alif-Aleph UK, formerly Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Panel member & Chair of the Commission on British Muslims & Islamophobia
Ms Sue MacGregor, CBE

Running order

7.00 Introduction by Chris Riley of the organising committee + introduction of speakers by Ms MacGregor
7.05 Speaker 1: Ms Chakrabarti
7.25 Speaker 2: Dr Stone
7.45 Q & A

Summary of Discussion 1

The first in this series of three Discussions focused on issues of identity. Both speakers confronted the politics of identity in a complex society. Ms Chakrabarti drew attention to those who “challenge concepts of universality, the idea that we do have the common ground… that comes from common humanity.” Dr Stone showed by example “how our authorities undermine trust by the exercise of their power to disadvantage those from… minority ethnic backgrounds.”

Ms Chakrabarti argued that a human rights perspective provides a useful framework to examine the concept of identity, or our multiple loyalties, in a society comprised of individuals from very diverse backgrounds. A civilised society demands that we protect the freedoms of the individual, and human rights law enables us to examine the limits of tolerance and integration. Religion was taken as a prime example where we can elect for a range of options on a continuum between giving a particular religion a privileged status “above all other belief systems” (eg Afganistan under the Taliban) and stamping it out altogether on the basis that it is not based in rationality (eg Stalin’s USSR). Ms Chakrabarti advocated a human rights approach where religion is given “neither a privileged nor punished status” because interference with the choice of any individual can only be justified where “it is necessary and proportionate to protect other people.”

Dr Stone spoke from his experience on the panels of the Stephen Lawrence and David Bennett Inquiries. They both concerned institutional racism; the first in the police and the second in the National Health Service. He showed how an “all-white” mind-set inhibited those in positions of power in institutions, from grasping the essence of problems felt by non-whites, even when the problems were clearly articulated. A knee-jerk reaction is to look for a scapegoat – someone to blame, particularly those who are not “People Like Us”. This has the effect of isolating those who are discriminated against, and preventing those who discriminate from examining their own attitudes and behaviour to bring about changes which will reduce disadvantage generally. Dr Stone suggested that both groups – the discriminated against and the discriminators – should leave their own comfort zones and meet face-to-face in the spirit of neighbourliness. It requires effort on an individual basis to find the common ground which can, and does, unite us. As an example he showed that Alif-Aleph UK, an organisation of British Muslims and British Jews “stand up for each other when we see a ‘stranger’ under attack”.

Whilst both speakers acknowledged that pessimism is fed by those who have vested interests in perpetuating our differences, each pointed to different directions whereby it is possible to be aware of, and concentrate on, our common ground.

It is our hope that the Miriam Hyman Memorial Discussions will help to draw more and more attention to these ideas and initiatives.