THE working definition of Islamophobia has been attacked in a series of essays for constraining free speech and shutting down debate over Islam.
Last year, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims produced their definition of the term: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”
But a group of academics, activists, and politicians, organised by the right-of-centre think tank Civitas, has produced a booklet condemning this definition as “vague” and inappropriately referencing race.
Many of the contributors have warned that if the APPG definition were widely accepted, it would effectively prevent criticism of Islam as a faith.
Peter Tatchell, the veteran human-rights campaigner, said that Islam was not a race, nor were Muslims; he also questioned who got to decide what “Muslimness” meant.
“Islam is an idea and, like all ideas, it should be open to scrutiny and criticism,” he wrote. “Yet very often all critiques of Islam are denounced as an attack on Muslim people.This is unfair.”
Professor Richard Dawkins said: “Hatred of Muslims is unequivocally reprehensible, as is hatred of any group of people such as gay people or members of a race. Hatred of Islam, on the other hand is easily justified, as is hatred of any other religion or obnoxious ideology.”
Earlier this year, the Government said that it was not happy with the APPG definition, and commissioned two expert advisers to write a new one (News, 31 May).
But the APPG’s definition has been adopted by the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Conservatives, and the Scottish National Party, as well as some Muslim groups.
The APPG report denies that its definition will have any impact on freedom of speech. “The term Islamophobia does not shield the religion from criticism, but sets the boundaries within which the criticism can be moved without racialising Muslims,” it states.
Contributors to the Civitas booklet reject this, however. The head of public policy for Christian Concern, Tim Dieppe, wrote that any form of legal definition of Islamophobia as a form of “cultural racism” would “seriously inhibit free speech”.
“As Christians, we do not want to get into a competition for victim status, so I personally am uncomfortable with the term ‘Christianophobia’ for similar reasons to my objections to ‘Islamophobia’.”
Among other Christians who have backed the campaign against the APPG definition are the former Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, and Dr Gavin Ashenden, a missionary bishop to the UK for a breakaway episcopalian denomination.
Lord Singh of Wimbledon, a crossbench peer, has also welcomed the Civitas booklet. He said that the essays would help to protect free speech and legitimate criticism of Islam, without preventing society from understanding why Muslims are sometimes the target for hate crimes.
“Perpetrators of such crimes do not carry out a detailed study of a religion before expressing antipathy.
“Hatred arises out of ignorance in which small differences can assume frightening and threatening proportions. It can only be removed through greater emphasis on religious and cultural literacy.”