What is the difference between an extremist Muslim inciting racial hatred and a member of the BNP racially abusing Muslims? The Muslim is likely to be found guilty. The BNP activist will be acquitted. This was the outcome in the recent cases of Mizanur Rahman, a 23-year-old web designer, and Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP. Rahman was involved in protests over the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. He was filmed carrying placards with slogans such as: "Behead those who insult Islam." Griffin was filmed by the BBC describing Islam as a "wicked, vicious faith" and declaring that Muslims have turned Britain into a "multiracial hell-hole".
The law turned out not to be colour blind. As Gordon Brown pointed out, Griffin's remarks were offensive to "mainstream opinion in this country". Yet the courts saw it otherwise. Indeed, in the case of Griffin, the law seems impotent. This is only the latest in a series of acquittals. So do we, as the Chancellor suggested, need to "look at the laws again" and change them?
I don't think there is anything wrong with our race laws. They have served us well for decades. The problem is with the juries. The 12 citizens randomly picked from the Clapham omnibus are not going to convict a white person of inciting racial hatred. Black and Asian people, on the other hand, would have the book thrown at them. This is true of juries not just in Britain, but throughout Europe.
That's why it is futile to use criminal law to regulate hate speech. My position is supported by a recent study. "Viewpoint Absolutism and Hate Speech" by Eric Heinze and published in Modern Law Review (July 2006) suggests, rather than reducing racial intolerance, that measures to combat incitement to racial hatred may in fact be working in the opposite direction. "If there is any straightforward, causal relationship bet-ween levels of hate speech and intolerance, it now appears to be one of distinctly inverse proportion," Heinze concludes.
Race hatred is not a legal but a social problem, and we require social mechanisms to solve it. Three decades after the 1976 Race Relations Act, we still need to convince majority Britain that an open society cannot be based on open prejud -ice. But we also need to appreciate the fact that racism has changed. It is now linked to religion, and discrimination against Muslims and immigrants on the basis of faith has become a proxy for old-fashioned racism. As the Rahman case shows, it is no longer limited to whites. We need to recognise that racism is thriving not just in the Muslim community, but also among Asians and blacks. Multiple identities - where culture, religion, colour and sexual orientation have become simultaneous markers of difference - have made the issue of prejudice even more complex.
So it is time to go beyond the old-fashioned anti-racism that focused on ethnicity and difference, and get to grips with the complexities of a pluralistic, multi-everything Britain. We urgently need a new race politics that rejects both Islamophobia as well as prejudice from minority communities - particularly religious extremists - and makes a common cause on equality and social justice with all Britons regardless of race or faith. This is uncharted territory. We don't really know how we should talk to each other as individual citizens rather than as ethnic groups who are represented by self-appointed or government-designated speakers. Where do we go to discover new ways of talking to each other?
Step forward the New Generation Network. Established by Sunny Hundal of the online newsletter Asians in Media, the network aims to start a "national conversation" on the new politics of race. The network's manifesto, published this week, highlights the "need to foster a clim ate in which people can have private differences which include religion, language and culture, but also have a public space where such differences are bridged". It declares that the struggle against racism, and for equality and better access to public services, is a struggle for all Britons not just ethnic minorities. "White working-class communities currently stand among the most deprived in Britain today. Their concerns should not be ignored or blamed on other groups, else their fears will continue to be exploited by the BNP." My sentiments exactly - and why I'm supporting the network, and subscribing to its manifesto.