Are You Sectarian?

Are you sectarian?

The chances are you’ll answer that with a resounding ‘no’. But there’s also a decent chance that someone might disagree with you. Conduct that you would class is harmless, traditional or even ironic may be viewed by someone else as crass, offensive and downright bigoted. Songs you sing may shock others. And equally, songs others sing may leave you with an unbridled sense of anger.

What does it meant to be sectarian? Legally, it can mean up to five years in jail. But are the people who sing the songs really bigoted individuals? Do they leave the stadiums and search out those of different religious beliefs and continue their verbal assault? Do they form campaign groups or political parties that aim to discriminate against other groups for their own benefit? Do they attack people in the street for their beliefs? Do they do anything to suggest that they are bigots?

Sectarianism in Scotland is a tricky issue, not least because there has never been any consensus on what does and does not constitute sectarianism. Successive governments have launched campaigns, spent what will no doubt amount to millions of pounds, and even introduced new legislation, all designed to tackle a problem that nobody has dared give clarity to. Can the government give clarity? Can anybody?

The problem is that sectarianism is incredibly hard to define, especially in modern Scotland. Dictionary definitions simply don’t cut it in Glasgow. Years of government rhetoric, accusations, counter-accusations, mock outrage and unaddressed confusion have created a nation where sectarianism means both everything and nothing. So watered down has it become, that it is now an insult traded between fans. A catch all attack on your rival and the fan base he/she belongs to.

But it’s also the basis of what Salmond hopes to be his tenure-defining piece of legislation. The problem for him is that being accused of sectarianism is actually now more offensive than many of the songs sung by football fans. Nobody likes being accused of holding beliefs they do not hold, especially not when it is an elected government and police force doing the accusing. The backlash from fans has an overall negative effect. Football fans do not like being told they are something that they are not. The focus on sectarianism from our government has done nothing but breed resentment.

Little attempt has ever been made to engage with fans on the issue of sectarianism. Sure, police and government representatives have met with fan representatives, but next to nothing has ever been done to bring a wider group of fans into the discussion. The people who the legislation targeted were given next to no opportunity to give their input to the debate. Journalists who have spent years making a living from exaggerating the problem were invited to Holyrood to discuss the issue, but the fans who consistently objected to their demonising were ignored. At no point were important questions put to the people who could find themselves in jail for five years: What do fans think constitutes sectarianism? Do they hate people of other religions? Do they believe themselves to be sectarian? Why do they sing the songs that they sing? What can be done to tackle sectarianism? Does anything need to be done? Questions like this should’ve been asked of fans from the outset. Instead, they were accused of being something they didn’t believe they were.

So where has it got us? We now find ourselves in a peculiar situation where we have a nation of football fans, angered and confused by years of attacks and unanswered questions, who are unaware of what it is acceptable to say, shout and sing. And we’ve got ourselves here by being unable to hold a serious discussion on what sectarianism means in Scotland. Instead, we’ve rushed through a piece of legislation that punishes football fans for reasons they’ve never had explained to them. That makes football fans angry, and can you really blame them? They can’t even get their government or police forces to tell what is and is not banned! Instead, they are met with the stock answers of “common sense tells you” and “you know what you’ve done wrong”.

The problem with the war on sectarianism is that nobody, not even the government, has said what the war is actually on. And you have to ask yourself why that is. If I was to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s because addressing the problem of definition would result in it becoming abundantly clear that sectarianism is not the problem it is made out to be. That in turn would lead to questions on why so much money has been spent with little effect and the politically motivated anti-sectarianism crusade being revealed as the sham that it is.

So what does sectarianism mean in modern Scotland? Truth is it has little real meaning anymore. It has become grown men impatiently waiting to hear something they can claim to be offended by. It has become an insult to throw at rival fans. It has become a political vehicle used to win votes.

Real bigotry does exist in Scotland, religious bigotry included. But years of media sensationalism, transparent government hijacking, uneven fan treatment and refusals to engage with fans have led us to where we are now; a nation that is so obsessed with sectarianism, it doesn’t have a clue what it is. A peculiar set of circumstances. So I ask you again; are you sectarian? In a world where we don’t even know what sectarianism is, it’s a hard question to answer.

Kevin Q Anderson is the Social Media Editor at Rangers Media.