The question of whether sectarianism is a form of racism is an important one.
Not only does it have a bearing on how we ought to understand instances of sectarian behaviour and how such instances should be dealt with from a legal point of view; it also has a bearing on the most appropriate way of managing sectarianism out of our society.
At the 2012 Festival of Politics at the Scottish Parliament, Professor Richard Finlay of Strathclyde University put forward the view that sectarianism in Scotland should indeed be regarded as a form of racism. Whilst I am not completely convinced that this is correct in all cases, I do agree that there are benefits in this position.
Firstly, it helps us break away from the narrow understanding of sectarianism in Scotland as nothing more than religious bigotry rooted in certain working class communities. In addition to this, thinking about sectarianism as a form of racism helps deliver a more accurate account of the origins of sectarianism in Scottish society.
But more importantly, understanding sectarianism this way might help bring about a structural shift in our thinking, such that instances of sectarian behaviour begin to be perceived differently, with greater social stigma attaching to them than perhaps would have been the case under popular understanding of what the term denotes:
In Scotland, sectarianism tends to be popularly understood in terms of the bitterness and hatred between two Glasgow football teams, the divisiveness and triumphalism of parades and marching bands, and the controversial existence of faith schools.
These are some of the automatic associations many of us make. However as Professor Finlay notes, the problem runs much deeper than this, and cannot be disconnected from an underlying anti-Irish sentiment which has prevailed in Scottish society for generations, particularly from the 19th century onwards.
On the other hand, Patrick Yu, Director for the Northern Ireland Council of Ethnic Minorities, has previously been on record to argue that, in Northern Ireland at least, it would be unwise to conflate issues of sectarianism and racism. His belief is that doing so would draw the courts into the wrong types of dispute, for which separate provisions already exist in law.
So is it correct to argue that sectarianism is a form of racism? Does each country have its own distinctive brand of sectarianism, with only some instances meriting description as a form of racism? Could sectarianism be a form of racism in one country, but not in another? Would that even make sense?
Or would it be more accurate to argue that there are instances of sectarian behaviour that sit outside the scope of internationally recognised definitions of racial discrimination, and therefore should merit different legal and social treatment? It is a difficult one.
Whatever the case elsewhere, there are obvious connections between Scotland’s brand of sectarianism and the racial prejudice historically displayed towards those of Irish Catholic descent living and working in this country. It has just rolled on since then, in greater or lesser degrees over the years, and taking different forms at different times.
So whilst I see the reasons behind Professor Finlay’s thinking, I am still not entirely convinced that it would be correct to say that sectarianism is a form of racism. I completely agree with the idea that it would be socially expedient to think of sectarianism in this way, if doing so helped change the way we manage instances of offensive behaviour motivated by religious hatred.
But what I also think is this – and it is why I believe we should exercise caution in seeking a closer alignment of the two – treating sectarianism as a form of racism could force a fundamental redefinition of prominent world religions that would diminish the universal nature of their core beliefs by localising them to a people, a time and place.
In addition, and perhaps more importantly, if sectarianism is in fact a form of racism, then arguably we are also holding the view that tolerating another person’s religion is the same thing as tolerating his race. We need to be careful how closely we want to tie these two concepts together –
Because not only would this seem to threaten the autonomy of religious belief with respect to race and ethnic origin; I think it could also make it very difficult to rationally debate and logically criticise belief systems promoted by other religions – as should be our right – without running the risk of making implicit criticisms and unintended negative judgements on issues of race and ethnicity.
And having built the good part of the argument on the premise that racism is inherently wrong in the first place, this could prove to be dangerous territory to wander back into.