‘Islamophobia’ definition proposed by MPs would restrict free speech

11 December 2023

Head of Public Policy Tim Dieppe comments on the latest debate on the definition of Islamophobia

Last week, MPs debated Tackling Islamophobia in the House of Commons.

The debate was initiated by two backbenchers – Naz Shah MP and Paul Bristow MP. Paul Bristow is co-chair of the APPG on British Muslims, and Naz Shah is Vice-Chair. Sarah Own, Co-Chair of the APPG also spoke in the debate. There was no actual bill and no vote, but MPs were able to discuss the issue and put on record their thoughts.

As might be expected given the affiliations of the MPs who secured this debate, there were multiple calls for the government to formally adopt the APPG definition of Islamophobia. Naz Shah in his opening speech said:

“The debate on the APPG definition of Islamophobia is over. Islamophobia has been defined. That boat sailed five years ago. When will the Minister and the Government adopt the definition?”

Paul Bristow followed, saying:

“They do not seem to know what to do about this, and I hope the Minister will tell me what she is going to do about it, but let me suggest a solution: they should adopt the APPG definition, which they could have done many years ago. We do not have to go through this any more. The APPG definition has been adopted by many different people and organisations, and if the Government adopted it, their problems would be solved instantly.”

Afzal Khan MP, another officer of the APPG on British Muslims, said:

“In 2018, following extensive consultation with academics, experts and faith communities, the all-party group on British Muslims formulated a definition of Islamophobia. In the years since, every political party except the Conservatives has adopted that definition, alongside councils, elected Mayors, trade unions, academics and community groups across the country. However, there is one blocker to UK-wide adoption of a formal definition of Islamophobia: the Tory Government. They rejected the expert definition put forward by the APPG, claiming that it is inconsistent with the Equality Act 2010.”

Several other MPs spoke in a similar vein.

It is worth remembering just how vague and expansive the APPG definition of Islamophobia is. The definition states:

“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”

Notice that Islamophobia is defined as a type of racism – no matter that Islam is not a race. Notice that it targets ‘expressions of Muslimness’ without clarification, and then roots this in perception. There is no definition of ‘Muslimness’.

I have written before about the serious problems with this definition, and how it undermines free speech in relation to Islam. I signed an open letter to the then Home Secretary warning against the adoption of this definition. Some Muslims have also rejected this definition. I have also written about how the former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, was suspended from the Labour Party for alleged Islamophobia. His case demonstrates just how restrictive of free speech the definition is.

Fortunately, the government minister, Felicity Buchan MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, spoke in defence of the government’s refusal to adopt the APPG definition. She said:

“I want to make it clear that this Government do not accept that particular definition of Islamophobia. The definition proposed by the APPG is not in line with the Equality Act 2010, which defines race in terms of colour, nationality and national or ethnic origins. The proposed definition could also unintentionally undermine freedom of speech. The term “anti-Muslim hatred” is more precise and better reflects UK hate crime legislation. Let me put it in simple terms: free speech entitles people to express views on religion or ideology, but they must not hate or discriminate against someone because of their religion. That is why we think that “anti-Muslim hatred” is a more appropriate term.”

Quite right. I have been arguing that no new definition is needed and that the term ‘anti-Muslim’ is sufficient. It is not clear whether those MPs who are vociferously arguing for adoption of the definition recognise how serious the problems with it actually are.

Given the strength of support for the APPG definition by all major political parties except the Conservative Party, if we get a change of government at the next election, it seems very likely that the government will then adopt the APPG definition. This will make it very difficult or impossible for MPs to criticise Islamic practice or doctrine. We will in effect have brought in an Islamic blasphemy code. This already exists in the Labour Party, other political parties and local councils. It is likely that a Labour government would even put this into law as part of a proposed Race Equality Act.

For now, our freedom to criticise Islam remains. The question is for how much longer?

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