• Dr Suriyah Bi

It's time to revisit BAME as a category: On Trevor Phillips and religion as an identity marker.

Dr Suriyah Bi

Trevor Philips: Photograph from The Times.

The last few weeks have seen an outcry on Public Health England’s decision to appoint Trevor Phillips to a government committee tasked with investigating why BAME communities are at higher risk of suffering from COVID-19. Members of the Black community have long argued that Trevor Phillips does not represent their community, and Muslims point out that he has a troubling history of making Islamophobic remarks, for which he has been suspended awaiting investigation by the Labour Party. However, while Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic communities can raise their targeted concerns of his appointment to a committee investigating ethnicity- and race-related comorbidities to COVID-19, these concerns are not quite as easily voiced by religious communities such as Muslims, as the committee’s focus conspicuously excludes religion. How then, can it come as a surprise that Trevor Phillips would be appointed to a committee of this nature when the government, in determining the parameters of this investigation, is sidelining religion and religious minorities’ pandemic experiences from the equation at the very outset?

Power of presence

This limitation presents itself in the term BAME. We know that many racial and ethnic minorities also affiliate with minority religions and given advances in intersectionality theory, we know that markers of identity such as ethnicity, race, class, and religion often interact. For religious communities to be provided with actual presence within this investigation then, we need to shift the parameters of the debate. Namely, BAME as a category must be amended to BAMER, (where the ‘R’ denotes religion), in order to be inclusive of religious communities and their experiences.

We know that religion is a factor that contributes to discrimination and plays a huge role in constructing inequalities. In some cases, such as for our Sikh and Jewish communities, this intersectionality is recognised from both ethnic and religious aspects, as they receive protection under the Race Relations Act, which is yet to be extended to Muslims. As I have explored more deeply in my Racialisation of Islam public lecture series at SOAS, University of London the intersectional dynamics of religion and ethnic and racial difference is acute. For instance, the Muslim Council of Britain found that 46% Muslim population live in the 10% most deprived local authority districts. In a recent report published on Muslim women’s experiences of work and career development, we found religion to be a limiting factor, often stalling and/or hindering professional development in the workplace. This was particularly true of visibly Muslim women, who faced threats to have their hijabs burned at their workplace, or were taunted during Ramadan with food and drink. Those who were medical professionals had patients refuse to be treated by them, while those who were teachers had parents pull their children out of their classes. The results also highlighted that Muslim women experience more than one obstacle in the workplace, with over 50% experiencing five or more obstacles. These included low socioeconomic background, gender, lack of career advice, and lack of confidence, to name only a few. For Muslim women, then, it was apparent that the intersection of multiple factors exacerbate their positionality, which translates into poorer work and career outcomes. No doubt, such experiences can and do translate into mental health and other health related inequalities, comorbidities that will be crucial in better understanding why such communities are more at risk of coronavirus. For these experiences to be effectively addressed, we must formally include religion as an identity marker within the government and policy vocabulary that are employed in determining the parameters of investigations such as that of the impact COVID-19 has, and will have on minority communities.

Inclusivity in intersectionality

Perhaps, however, this is part of a much larger problem embedded in the macrostructure of both our political and social discourse. In a recent paper titled “More than ‘Multiple Jeopardy’: Navigating the Legal System as a British-Muslim-Woman-Litigant-In-Person”, I argued that intersectionality theory is at present, premised on race, ethnicity, gender, class and age, but not religion. I make the case that since 9/11 the Islamic religion, and Islamic religious identity in particular, have been politicised and polarised in the imagination of the global community, which leads to higher incidences of discrimination.

For this reason, I argue that religion must be acknowledged as a valid identity marker that gives rise to discrimination on an intersectional axis. Furthermore, I point out that intersectionality theory currently assumes that each identity marker intersects equally to produce disadvantageous circumstances and/or discrimination. I argue, however, that it is more effective to identify the relevant identity markers in a particular case and provide a weighting in proportion to their role in determining the disadvantage/discrimination in question. For example, if a black woman who also suffers a disability faces a disadvantage/discrimination, each of these identity markers should be provided a weighting. It might be for example, that her disability accounted for 70% of the discrimination, her race 20%, and her gender 10%. It is this approach that is absent from inequality studies at present and it is this approach that is wholly absent when using the BAME acronym; alarmingly, we cannot assign a proportion to religion as a contributing factor that gives rise to disadvantage/discrimination if it is entirely absent from the measuring device from the outset.

Protected characteristic in absentia?

If religious identity is absent from mainstream terminologies that underpin our political and social discourse on the topic of inequalities, we must evaluate the extent to which religious belief is a protected characteristic in equality law. Absence of religion from the BAME term which is so widely used forges into the minds of the nation, and government bodies in particular, the view that religious identities are not significant markers of identity. This has severe repercussions for both policy and social outcomes, which not only perpetuate in a vicious cycle but also create a hierarchy of inequalities both between, and within community groups.

In a global crisis of unprecedented and previously unimagined scale, it is paramount that we create community allegiances rather than hierarchies based on experienced discrimination. When we validate one group’s discriminatory experiences whilst simultaneously invalidating and erasing another’s we are contributing to the perpetuation of discrimination, as in the nation’s subconscious we embed dangerous hierarchies of importance and unimportance. It is these hierarchies that form the basis of who and which groups ought to receive protection and which are able to be ignored.

Religious identity's exclusion, then, from the mainstream determining discourse on inequalities counteracts the protection it receives under equality law. This is evident in the government’s approach in assigning Trevor Phillips on to the review, despite his unresolved suspension from the Labour Party for Islamophobic comments, which has led the current Labour leadership to also express concerns. How can equality law uphold religious belief as a protected characteristic while government, the very institution that is supposed to pave the way in upholding the Equality Act, contradicts it?

Inclusive language

In amending the acronym to BAMER, I argue that Equality Act and mainstream discourse will begin to speak to one another, as they will be on the same footing. As a result, the government, in its categorisation of minorities and its language used to discuss minority issues, will acknowledge that religion is a valid identity marker that can and does give rise to inequality in multiple and complex ways. This change in acronym will, as I discussed in the Racialisation of Islam public lecture series, also ingrain the aforementioned argument into the subconscious of the nation as an important category of identity. It is not until we move towards a language that reflects the reality of both our sociodemographic and sociopolitical fabric, that we can expect for an inquiry into inequalities amidst the coronavirus pandemic to be reflective or effective.

To cite this article please use the following format:

Bi, S. 2020. It's time to revisit BAME as a category: On Trevor Phillips and religion as an identity marker. Equality Act Review.