Dismantle the last walls of intolerance and discrimination

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The Independent Online

The Queen's Christmas message this year was unusually topical. Her Majesty used her annual broadcast to deliver a plea for toleration among the various religions and cultures that make up modern Britain. Toleration certainly seems in short supply these days. A rampaging mob made up of Sikhs forced the closure of a play at Birmingham's Repertory Theatre last week because they considered it an insult to their religion. Figures released earlier this year show that large numbers of young Muslims are being harassed by the police, solely because their religion happens to be the one that al-Qa'ida terrorists claim to follow. The gutter press is waging a despicable campaign to demonise foreigners who flee to Britain hoping to find refuge from brutal tyrannies or economic depravation. In many ways we are living through an age of intolerance.

It is therefore commendable that the Queen chose to remind Britain that our diversity is not a weakness but rather, a great strength. Britain has integrated its ethnic and religious minorities more successfully than many of our European neighbours and this has contributed enormously to our economic success over the years. We are also a formidable creative force as a result of our diversity. The very worst thing would be to revert to a time when those of foreign birth, or heritage, were automatically treated with suspicion. As the Queen said in her broadcast, we ought to be dismantling the last walls of discrimination and prejudice between Britons, not erecting new ones.

But there is more to the principle of toleration than stamping out discrimination. It also entails a responsibility to stand up for freedom of speech, no matter who is exercising it. In a liberal society people have a right not to be discriminated against, but they emphatically do not have a right not to be offended. As Salman Rushdie pointed out over the weekend, it was shameful that government ministers refused to condemn the forced closure of the play Behzti, in Birmingham. Politicians must champion the freedom of expression, not turn a blind eye when it is curtailed by an intolerant mob. We have to conclude that our Government is only interested in paying lip service to the concept of toleration - nothing more.