Government seeks own definition of Islamophobia

31st May 2019

Hamed Chapman

The British Government is setting up its own process to establish a working definition of Islamophobia after rejecting an initiative already agreed by other political parties.

The new process, which further deflects from the persistent accusation of institutional Islamophobia within the Tory party, includes the appointment of two Government advisers to work in collaboration of the Government’s own Anti-Muslim Hatred Group set up back in 2012.

Last November, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims issued a report on a working definition of Islamophobia/anti-Muslim hatred that determined it was “rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of ‘Muslimness’ or perceived ‘Muslimness’.”

A spokesperson for the Government told The Muslim News that the APPG’s definition had not been “broadly accepted” in the way the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism had.

However, the wording was accepted by all the main political parties, including Labour, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, Scottish National Party (SNP) and Scottish Conservatives, though not the Conservative Party, and adopted by the Mayor of London and backed by 750 Muslim organisations and institutions.

Speaking in Parliament this month, Communities Secretary, James Brokenshire, said that he welcomed the work undertaken by the APPG to develop a definition but confirmed that the Government will not be adopting the proposed language. Although he accepted there needs to be a formal definition of Islamophobia, he made clear that the proposed definition raises what he called practical and legal challenges.

As a definition akin to “a type of racism”, it was not in line with the definition enshrined in the Equality Act 2010. Conflating race and religion in conflict with legal definitions could cause confusion, undermine free speech and may not adequately address sectarian hatred, Brokenshire argued.

The Minister came under fire both the two founding members of the APPG on Muslims, Labour MP Wes Streeting and ChangeUK MP Anna Soubery. “Hatred against Muslims does not begin with the sound of gunfire breaking through the peaceful calm of a place of prayer (like in the Christchurch terrorist attack), it begins with simple prejudice that can go unchecked and unchallenged in our schools, workplaces and communities. It is amplified on the pages of national newspapers. It is legitimised by political leaders who use Muslims as punchlines and bigotry as a vote winner,” Streeting said.

“The fact is that if the Conservative party is to understand why proportionately more people from black and ethnic minority communities voted for Trump in America than voted Conservative in 2017, it has to examine the reaction to this report,” said Soubry. “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.”

During the debt, dozens of other MPs also criticised the Government’s refusal to accept the definition. SNP MP for Glasgow, Chris Stevens, said he did “not quite understand some of the criticisms of the report or the definition, which has come about as a result of a six-month inquiry. As we have heard, that inquiry took evidence from academics, lawyers, victims groups and British Muslim organisations, and included input from Member of the Scottish Parliament Anas Sarwar, who is chair of the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party group on tackling Islamophobia, along with the Scottish Ahlul Bayt Society.”

“All that input has gone into looking at a definition, and as we have heard that definition has been endorsed by the Muslim Council of Britain, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, the Muslim Women’s Network and the Edinburgh central mosque in Scotland. The Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru have adopted the definition, as has the Scottish National Party Westminster group. We are now going to feed that into our internal party structures so that the definition can be adopted at our next conference. It seems to me that a lot of serious work, thought, input and discussion have gone into the definition.”

Naz Shah MP argued that the definition was not legally binding. “The Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, Martin Hewitt, wrote to the Prime Minister suggesting that the APPG definition of Islamophobia creates some sort of security risk. Let me put this to bed once and for all: this is a non-legally binding working definition, which is why that assertion is simply plain stupid. It is as stupid as saying that, because we have a non-legally binding definition of anti-Semitism, we can no longer do foreign policy in the Middle East,” she said.

But the Communities Secretary insisted that we “must interrogate this complex issue further as a matter of urgency.”

The Home Affairs Committee was also undertaking a review into the issue, but the Government, he said, need to do more.“That is why we will appoint two advisers. We will ensure that that reflects the need for community representation and drives the process forward, building on the important work already undertaken by the anti-Muslim hatred working group, and other bodies, which will remain central to our efforts to engage with Muslim communities.”

The priority was to “arrive swiftly at a collective position that strengthens our resolve when tackling anti-Muslim hatred and challenging the false narratives that underpin it.”

Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was concerned that the Government rejected the Islamophobia definition. “This is a very serious issue. The Islamophobic attacks are taking place on the streets of our country and the abuse on individuals, particularly Muslim women face. We need an urgent definition of Islamophobia and urgent action on Islamophobia,” Corbyn told The Muslim News.

“I am sorry the Government is wrong on this, they should act quickly and adopt the definition the same way as the Labour Party has,” he added.
Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan condemned the Government’s rejection of the definition.

“Just like the LGBT community has had a massive role in defining what homophobia means, the Jewish community have had a massive role in defining what anti-Semitism is, it is not unreasonable to allow Muslims to define what Islamophobia is. And a lot of work was undertaken by the APPG before they came to this definition. If the Government and the Conservative Party had concerns, they should have engaged with the APPG,” Khan told The Muslim News.

There has been an increase in Islamophobia in the last few years, not only in London, across the country, but across the world too, he said. “Unless it is addressed and tackled head-on, we will see, I am afraid, more examples of Islamophobic attacks. It breaks my heart that our Government, it is our Government, that doesn’t realise that it is a real issue in Britain in 2019,” Khan said.

Khan refuted allegations by Hewitt and others that the definition will restrict free speech and was a way to bring in Blasphemy law. “Right of free speech comes with rights and responsibilities. What APPG are saying makes clear that hatred is against the followers of the Islamic faith. Islam as a religion does not need protection. We are not talking about Blasphemy law.

We have seen in London, in Christchurch and around the world consequences of Islamophobic attacks,” London Mayor said.

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