"It's political correctness gone mad." We've all heard that wonderful refrain before, haven't we? In fact, most of us have probably heard it within the past week, probably from someone who's just read a Daily Mail shock story about the government banning Easter eggs or something equally nonsensical.
Sometimes the anti-PC brigade have a point, but more often the arguments against political correctness are undermined by the people who make them. The sort of people who despise political correctness are, invariably, the sort of people who have a Union Jack in their back garden and regard John Terry as some kind of minor deity. The sort of people who think it's fine to use words like 'Paki', and can't understand why they're not allowed to go as Heinrich Himmler to fancy dress parties or make monkey noises at football matches.
The great comedian Stewart Lee once said that, while political correctness may not be perfect, it's better than what we had before. This seems a pretty fair summary; we may get annoyed by the pedantry and intrusiveness of some government legislation, but most of us would rather live in the Britain we have today than the one we had 30 years ago, when immigrants were regularly hounded out of their houses and hotels could display signs warning "no Irish or blacks" with impunity.
Political correctness, and the values it encapsulates, has underpinned Britain's transition from a decaying industrial behemoth into the agile, progressive country we have in 2013. It has allowed a whole generation of talented young people, from Idris Elba and Dev Patel to Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah, to thrive without fear of persecution, and given us something to laud over the rest of the world.
But while we have been consistently intolerant of our own intolerance, we have failed to stamp down on the intolerance of those who live beside us. In seeking to nullify the moronic minority of the white Anglo-Saxon protestant community, we have indulged the bigotry of Britain's other ethnic groups, an attitude which has only served to inflame tensions and encouraged the very people political correctness is designed to neutralise.
Zealots from minority groups
The latest revelations of "sharia squads" patrolling the streets of London and haranguing passers-by provide an odious demonstration of the double standards which blight Britain's approach to discrimination. While we quite rightly lacerate any attempt by the white community to bully ethnic minorities, we are terrified of condemning zealots from minority groups when they attempt to enforce their views.
As revealed by IBTimes UK reporter Dominic Gover, a small group of "sharia police" filmed themselves shouting at people on the streets of Whitechapel, east London, telling pedestrians: "We are implementing sharia upon your necks" and "This is a Muslim area". Two men were arrested on suspicion of grievous bodily harm and public order offences in relation to the threats. In a separate incident, police issued an appeal after a man was called a "fag" and "homosexual" by a so-called Muslim patrol in plain sight.
This isn't the first time hardline Muslims have used sharia as a basis to impose themselves on London's streets. In 2012, in the London borough of Newham, stickers were plastered on lamp-posts proclaiming a "sharia-controlled zone". In June, a gang wearing Muslim robes and tabards shouted "dirty prostitutes off our streets" before calling a woman a "whore" and telling a girl she was not wanted in the area.
These vigilantes are apparently being backed up by a nexus of sharia courts and councils, informal bodies set up to arbitrate on matters affecting their local Muslim communities beyond the boundaries of British law. In 2009 a study by Civitas suggested 85 such bodies have sprung up across the UK, prompting the first-ever full parliamentary debate on the issue last year.
Many observers are, understandably, worried that this rudimentary justice system of courts and patrols is completely unaccountable, and those who operate within it can make the rules up as they go along. Furthermore, just like the racists who castigate political correctness, the proponents of 'sharia justice' often undermine their own cause with the absurdity of their arguments. Last week, for example, radical preacher Anjem Choudary told IBTimes UK that the patrols were targeting "evil" and added: "There is a prevalence of prostitution and drunkenness in London and the police are not dealing with it.
"The problem is so widespread that I'm surprised more Muslims are not taking it into their hands. The area [Whitechapel] is a Muslim area so for them to say these things are not allowed is correct. They should be commended for their actions."
The views of Choudary, and other champions of hard-line sharia law, deserve derision for several reasons. First of all, they in no way represent the views of Britain's Muslim community; in fact the overwhelming majority of Britain's Muslims deplore the sort of aggressive xenophobia peddled by Choudary and his ilk, and are no more comfortable with the sort of aggressive street justice meted out by the sharia patrols than the people these gangs target.
Just hours after news of the Whitechapel patrols broke earlier this week, the Muslim Council of Britain issued a statement describing the gang members as "hateful" and "insightful", adding: "We as a nation have to stand together" against them. This undoubtedly represents a far more accurate summation of Muslim attitudes than the myopic bullying perpetrated by the sharia enforcers.
The Muslim Council made another very important point, in saying that the laws of Islam apply to Muslims only. Sharia law in fact dictates that people of all backgrounds should be allowed to live according to their own principles. Given that sharia explicitly forbids alcohol, drugs and extramarital sex, and stipulates that meat must be slaughtered in accordance with strict Halal practices, the established principles of British society are clearly markedly different from those enshrined in sharia. Any attempt to impose Islamic law on Britain's non-Muslim community is thus unfeasible, as well as misguided.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the excesses of the sharia hard-liners are fodder for far-right groups, such as the BNP and EDL. Significantly, the clip of last year's "whore" attacks was uploaded to YouTube by the EDL; the group regularly cites the proliferation of sharia courts as a key reason for demonstrations against Britain's Muslim community. In the 2010 general election, the BNP increased its share of the vote by over 350,000 on the back of a campaign to rid Britain of sharia law - proof that, for the 'no black in the Union Jack' brigade, lurid details of Muslim violence are a real vote-catcher.
The sharia 'enforcers' may represent a tiny fraction of the Muslim population, more tabloid grotesques than genuine figureheads for the religion they purport to represent. But that doesn't mean they aren't dangerous. If the British government doesn't take strong, rational action against the sharia squads, and the opaque judicial system which supports them, it will allow idiots like Nick Griffin to seize the agenda, and usher in a dark new age of race riots on our streets. Tolerance is a two-way street. If we forget this essential truth, then political correctness really has gone mad.