It was a shocking incident. The man walked up to the couple in the café, slammed his fist hard on the table and shouted "I hate you xxxx religious people..the sooner this country is rid of you the better'! The couple had been talking quietly to each other about their faith. They had experienced more - there was the online abuse – everything from 'expletive deleted' abuse, to threats of violence and even death threats. All because of their faith. I have come across this kind of thing many times – which is why the recent report from the Scottish Parliament into Islamophobia 'triggered' me.
The report itself is disturbing, fascinating and predictable– as were the reactions to it. Politicians and faith leaders queued up to express their support for it. The Very Rev Dr Susan Brown, convenor of the Church of Scotland's Faith and Impact Forum, stated, "Racism is a sin and the Church stands in solidarity with our Muslim sisters and brothers."
It's always worthwhile reading such reports in full and asking questions of it – such as the methodology and purpose. If after all, it is as the Rev Brown said "crucial that the Church recognises these findings" and the "realities highlighted", then we had better make sure that the findings are real.
The trouble with these kinds of reports is that they are designed to generate an emotive and political response. It is horrendous when someone is abused for their faith, or the way they look. And so when an official report says this is rampant, the immediate and correct reaction is to feel empathetic and seek to help. If you are a politician you can't really do anything else. And therefore no one really asks the deeper questions because, after all, who wants to be accused of being Islamophobic? And yet reports such as this can end up doing more harm than good. They do need to be questioned and not just reacted to emotionally.
The main problem is that no one seems able to define what Islamophobia actually is. The report itself assumes, but cannot define it. Indeed one of the recommendations is that there should be an official government definition. Is Islamophobia a form of racism? The problem is that Islam is not a race, but a religion which is open to everyone. People don't choose their race – they do choose their religion.
The Church of Scotland thinks that being opposed to Islam is racist. Which leaves them with a problem - given that the Church is opposed to the faith claims of Islam. Does this mean they are self-defining as racist? And likewise, does the Church think that those who are Christophobic (critical of Christianity) are also racist?
In the same way, we are offered as evidence of Islamophobia the fact that 65 per cent thought that an employer should be free to ask a Muslim woman to remove her veil at work. Why is that Islamophobic? Or the claim that resistance in some planning departments to the building of mosques is Islamophobic? I wonder if the Scottish Parliament would produce a report which states that anyone who refuses to let people wear a cross to work is racist, or that when a church is refused planning permission it is the result of racism? Yes, mosques being vandalised is wicked, but I have lost count of the number of churches I know that have been vandalised – even to the extent of being forced to close. Yet no Parliamentary committee writes reports about such Christophobia?
What quantitative and qualitative data is there on Islamophobia? The report itself laments the lack of data. In the survey, 75 per cent of respondents said that Islamophobia was a regular or everyday issue in Scottish society. I am astonished the figure is so low. The survey itself has just 447 respondents (60% from Glasgow) with all the weaknesses that such an approach has. It is impossible to extrapolate from such a limited self-sample survey, any qualitative data. We are just left with anecdotes and impressions, and with the political prejudices of those who drew up the report.
As an example of this, we are told that one of the reasons for Islamophobia is Brexit because it 'gives a voice to those who hate'. Could the same argument not be used for Scottish nationalism? (I reject both arguments – but what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander!) We are dealing here with political opinions, rather than objective fact.
Making government policy on the basis of anecdote and sentiment, with limited data, is not wise. Especially when the recommendations are as sweeping as those in this report. Amongst other things, they argue that the Scottish government should fund research and projects that adopt an intersectional approach to Islamophobia; the Scottish Government should fund and support initiatives that educate the people of Scotland about the damage that Islamophobia does to Scottish society; the police force should seek to recruit more Muslim officers; school pupils and teachers should receive compulsory education in Islamophobia; the government should fund and support initiatives that demonstrate the positive contributions of Scotland's Muslim population to Scottish society, politics, culture and history; that all educational institutions should be required to create safe spaces for discussion, prayer and reflection; and that schools be required to establish dress-code polices that are sensitive to the needs of Muslims.
Just read over those recommendations again and put the word Christian in place of Muslim. Can you imagine the outrage from politicians, media and others if such recommendations were made? The Muslim population of Scotland is just 1.5%. Why should taxpayer money be used to promote the Muslim faith in a non-Muslim country? Will the government be offering the same financial, political and educational largesse to other faith groups?
Another 'evidence' of Islamophobia cited by the report is that 41 per cent of people agreed that Scotland would begin to lose its identity if more Muslims were to come to live in Scotland. Scotland, by rejecting its Christianity, is already losing its identity, but that identity will again change if Sharia law, or Islamic traditions become the norm.
You can argue that it would be a good change of identity – but you cannot logically argue that there will be no change of identity. Douglas Murray's The Strange Death of Europe is a brilliant exposé by a gay atheist of what will change if a country loses it's Christian identity. I suspect that in the new Scotland such books, if not directly banned, will certainly not be permitted in any educational or media establishment!
The suggestion that the government, media and education systems should be used to teach just one narrative about Islam, is a suggestion for state propaganda. The report asks that all media should consult with the Islamic community before it publishes certain stories. They also ask for a 'more rounded approach to history' – which really means a rewriting of history which I suspect will leave out the fact that Scotland was largely founded on Christian principles. Will anyone who questions this now be considered to be Islamophobic and subject to Scotland's new hate speech laws? Ominously, the report itself asks for "more harsh punishments and penalties on those who are found to have committed Islamophobic crimes or hate crimes against Muslims in any form."
The report claims that "in certain quarters, an unfounded association has been made between terrorist networks, human rights violations and Muslim communities". But the assertion that this is "unfounded" is itself an unfounded assertion. There is a connection between ISIS, al-Qaeda and Islam. There is a connection between the repressive treatment of Christians, women and homosexuals in many Muslim countries, and the fact that they are Islamic. It is foolish and wrong to claim that all or most Muslims, or Muslim politicians are potential terrorists, but it is just as foolish and wrong to deny that there is a link between Islam and Islamism.
No politician will challenge this. Nor will most church leaders - or journalists. Because to question this kind of report in the simplistic binary world of today's culture is to open yourself up to the accusation that you are Far Right and that you support Muslims being beaten up.
What does it matter if the new state doctrine is to teach that Islam is the religion of peace and that anyone who questions Islam in any way is being racist? It matters because there are consequences in effectively regarding all criticism of Islam as racist. For example, the official review into the Manchester Arena bombing, where 22 young people lost their lives, was released last week. It contained the extraordinary testimony of a young security guard, Kyle Lawler, who saw the bomber, Salman Abedi, behaving suspiciously for over an hour. Yet he testified that he did nothing because "he stated that he was fearful of being branded a racist and would be in trouble if he got it wrong".
Or what about the police, social workers, politicians and others who turned a blind eye to the hundreds of Rotherham girls being abused because they did not want to be considered racist? Ironically the fear of being called racist is a great deterrent to treating everyone the same.
Let's return to the couple in the café. They were not Muslims – they were Christians. And the kind of abuse they received is the kind of abuse, mockery and discrimination I have faced all my life in modern Scotland. That's one of the reasons why I fully support my Muslim neighbours and their right to be free from such abuse. It's why I have written on this website defending the rights of Muslims to build mosques.
But you don't defend or protect people by telling lies. We need to be able to tell the truth – the good, the bad, and the ugly. The kind of propaganda, intimidation and silencing proposed by this report will only aid extremist anti-Muslim groups.
I have experienced what happens to some Muslims who become Christians. For example, a few years ago a young Muslim girl converted and had to go into protective custody – the police even had a special sub unit set up for such incidents – in Scotland! I think, too, of the teacher who lost his job and is now in hiding because he was perceived to have blasphemed Islam? Or the Muslim students in a 'liberal' Islamic further education establishment who told me that anyone apostasing from Islam should be punished by the state? To deny such incidents, or even the possibilities, does not help.
I am thankful that the Lord has brought so many Muslims to the UK. Because it gives Christians here a tremendous opportunity to do what we would be banned from doing in most Islamic countries – tell them of the love of Christ. We have the opportunity to speak the truth in love. Let us pray that our politicians don't make this a hate crime.
David Robertson works as an evangelist with churches in Sydney, Australia. He blogs at The Wee Flea.