Right of Reply: Denis Cobell

President of the National Secular Society

I WELCOME The Independent giving an "ordinary" Muslim the opportunity to let the rest of us see her community through her eyes. Yasmin Alibhai- Brown says that it would be unthinkable for people to say about Jews, blacks or gays the kind of slanderous things they say in the media about Muslims. The virtual immunity from criticism which Jews enjoyed in this country and the United States, for example, no longer applies to the actions of the right wing in Israel.

Neither does her statement hold water for gays who, like Muslims, are not protected by law from defamation and also, as a group, are the target of violence. But most gays have learned to live with the stereotyping and to counter it, wherever possible, with personal courage and "coming out". The more that the general populace see ordinary Muslim people sharing the same kinds of daily joys and frustrations as the rest of us, the more that each "side's" mutual feelings of persecution will subside.

Freedom of speech is an important element of our society. We should all feel able to criticise those who behave badly, whoever they are, including those who belong to our own group. If we do not criticise those acting excessively in our own group, whatever that may be, there is a real danger that our silence will be taken as condoning this behaviour - to the ultimate disadvantage of the group as a whole. Ms Alibhai-Brown has courageously taken this on, and others in her community need to follow her good example.

We should also oppose any laws that seek to give any religious groups special protection from criticism. Sometimes that criticism is justified, and must not be stifled by automatically being branded "anti-Christian", "Islamophobic", "anti-Semitic" etc.

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