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Dispute over ‘Islamophobia’ definition continues

31 May 2019

The Government is to appoint expert advisers to work on a formal definition


The Housing Secretary, James Brokenshire, arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street, last week

The Housing Secretary, James Brokenshire, arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street, last week

A WORKING definition of Islamophobia which describes it as a form of racism has been rejected by the Government, which argues that it would cause “legal and practical issues”, including potential consequences for freedom of speech.

On Thursday of last week, the Communities Secretary, James Brokenshire, said that the Government would instead appoint two expert advisers to work with the cross-government Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group on establishing a formal definition.

The announcement was made during a debate focused on the non-legally-binding working definition offered by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims last year: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”

It has already been adopted by the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the SNP, and the Scottish Conservatives, and has the support of more than 750 British Muslim organisations. But Mr Brokenshire said that it failed to meet the Government’s criteria: “That any definition reflects the experiences of those who have experienced hatred because they are Muslim; that we are satisfied that it will have the positive effect it sets out to achieve . . . and do no harm; and that it commands broad support within communities and wider society.”

It was not in line with the Equality Act 2010, “which defines race as comprising colour, nationality and national or ethnic origins, none of which would necessarily encompass a Muslim or Islamic practice”.

The APPG’s report says that Islamophobia is “now so prevalent in society and dispersed across institutional, social, political and economic life that it deserves to be recognised as Britain’s ‘bigotry blind spot’.” The term is now well-established in the country’s vocabulary, it says, and is the “term of choice” among British Muslims to describe their experience.

Noting that 70 per cent of Muslims polled by the Equality and Human Rights Commission said that they had specifically experienced religion-based prejudice, it argues that it would be “absurd to interpret Islamophobia merely as a form of racism restricted to biological traits”. It is “a form of cultural racism”, it says, stemming from “a criticism of the religion based on cultural racist tropes, which denigrate Islam on the basis of a perceived deviation from dominant values such as democracy, freedom of speech and gender equality.”

The group’s co-chair, Anna Soubry, told the House of Commons debate: “The definition of racism — or the definition of race — is no longer about biology; it is about a social concept. It can be defined by that antagonism, but it is also now, in the modern world, about groups that share the same culture, the same history, the same language — it can even include social classes.”

Her co-chair, Wes Streeting, said that the report made it “crystal clear that our definition does not preclude criticism of Islam or Islamic theology. . . While our definition cannot prevent false-flag accusations of Islamophobia to shut down reasonable debate and discussion, it does not enable such accusations. In fact, it makes it easier to deal with such behaviour.”

The report recommends the “five tests” for determining whether something is “reasonable criticism” or Islamophobia produced by Professor Tariq Modood, Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy at the University of Bristol, which include asking: “Is it about Muslims or a dialogue with Muslims, which they would wish to join?”

“The term Islamophobia does not shield the religion from criticism, but sets the boundaries within which the criticism can be moved without racialising Muslims,” the report says.

Some respondents to the APPG consultation argued that “good faith” criticism of Islam did not exist.

Among those who have disagreed with the group are the Southall Black Sisters, who argue that “Islamophobia” is “riddled with ambiguities and conflates too many issues since it implies not just hatred of Muslims but of the religion itself”.

The director, Pragna Patel, is among the signatories to an open letter that warns that the APPG’s definition would “shut down legitimate criticism and investigation”. Others are Wilson Chowdhry of the British Pakistani Christian Association, and Peter Tatchell.

The chairman of the National Police Chiefs Council, Martin Hewitt, said this week that it was concerned that the definition was “too broad”, and “could be used to challenge legitimate free speech on the historical or theological actions of Islamic states. There is also a risk it could also undermine counter-terrorism powers, which seek to tackle extremism or prevent terrorism.”

The APPG’s group draws on the definition of anti-Semitism produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which was adopted by the College of Bishops last year (News, 14 September). Earlier this year, the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge retracted the offer of a visiting fellowship from Jordan Peterson, after seeing a photo of him with his arm around a man wearing a “Proud Islamophobe” T-shirt (News, 19 March).

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