What is Islamophobia?

8 March 2019

In November 2018, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims released a report ‘Islamophobia Defined’, urging the government to adopt a legal definition of Islamophobia. Certainly, anti-Muslim hatred and discrimination need to be addressed, but the report and its definition are problematic and only likely to make the problem worse. Tim Dieppe examines the report and the proposed definition and finds that adopting this definition will seriously inhibit free speech.

The definition

The proposed definition from the APPG is as follows:

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

‘Cultural racism’

Tellingly, there is no attempt to define ‘Islam’ in the APPG report. What they have done instead is racialise Islam so as to make Islamophobia a form of racism. It does not matter that Islam is not a race, or that many Muslims do not see themselves as anything like a separate race. The authors want Islamophobia to be seen as racist. The report explains:

The concept of racialisation thus situates Islamophobia within anti-racism discourse which is not however just informed by biological race, but by a culture – broadly defined – that is perceived to be inferior to and by the dominant one.” (p39)

The idea is to define ‘Islamophobia’ as ‘cultural racism’, making it unacceptable to criticise Islamic culture or practices. By this definition, viewing a culture that gives less rights to women as inferior to one where women have more rights would be Islamophobic. Expressing that it is better for women not to have to cover their faces would also be Islamophobic. Arguing that polygamy should be outlawed because it is bad for society would also be Islamophobic. One would not even be able to say that UK law is preferable to sharia law. Once we agree to the concept of ‘cultural racism’ and Islamophobia defined in this way, we lose the freedom to criticise Islamic culture.

What is Muslimness?

The definition of Islamophobia hinges on ‘Muslimness’. What exactly constitutes ‘Muslimness’ is left undefined, perhaps deliberately so. The proposed definition of Islamophobia is actually rooted in “perceived Muslimness”, making it entirely subjective. It is not clear whether the “perceived Muslimness” is perceived by the perpetrator or the victim. Presumably ‘Muslimness’ is perceived by appearance, though it is not the case that all Muslims wear distinctive clothing.

Sara Khan, Lead Commissioner for Countering Extremism, has written:

A narrow understanding of “Muslimness” leaves behind those Muslims who, because of how they choose to live their lives or practise their religion, don’t have a “Muslimness” that other Muslims find acceptable.”

This is a stark warning. Ofsted have been accused of Islamophobia for questioning whether young girls should wear the hijab at school (p55). What about Muslims who do not want their girls to wear the hijab?

It seems that according to this definition, it is impossible for Muslims to be Islamophobic. What about attempts by hard-line Muslims to police the behaviour of others? What about hatred of Muslims for being the wrong type of Muslim? As Sara Khan comments:

Other Muslims boycott Ahmadiyyah businesses and restaurants, bully Ahmadiyyah children at school, and distribute leaflets calling for their death.  If this abuse was experienced by Muslims at the hands of non-Muslims, it would be perceived as anti-Muslim hatred; why should it be any different just because the perpetrators are Muslims themselves?”

Who is an Islamophobe?

The list of those who have been accused of being Islamophobic is long and illustrious. For example, there’s Theresa May; Tony Blair; Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Amanda Spielman;  Sarah Champion, MP for Rotherham, who spoke out about Islamic grooming gangs; Maajid Nawaz, founder of Quillium; and Sadiq Kahn, Mayor of London. An accusation of Islamophobia seems to be made against anyone who raises questions about Islamic beliefs or practices. There is no attempt in the APPG report to determine when accusations of Islamophobia would be inappropriate.

The problem with Islamophobia

The Casey Review highlighted the problem with Islamophobia:

“Too many public institutions, national and local, state and non-state, have gone so far to accommodate diversity and freedom of expression that they have ignored or even condoned regressive, divisive and harmful cultural and religious practices, for fear of being branded racist or Islamophobic. …”

“At its most serious, it might mean public sector leaders ignoring harm or denying abuse.”

This is the real problem – fear of being branded Islamophobic. Perhaps we should call this Islamophobiaphobia? At its worst is has meant that public sector institutions have been reluctant to tackle Islamic rape gangs because of Islamophobiaphobia, leaving more girls to be abused.

What about free speech?

The APPG report pays lip service to free speech claiming that it does not intend to curtail free speech or criticism of Islam as a religion (p11). It noted that many responses focused on the issue of free speech “with particular emphasis on whether the term is or could be used to silence legitimate criticism of the religion.” (p34). The National Secular Society objected that “‘Islamophobia’ confuses hatred of, and discrimination against Muslims with criticism of Islam.” (p34). This is a serious problem. As it stands, people who criticise Islamic teachings, beliefs or practices are often labelled Islamophobic. The report makes no mention of whether criticism of Muhammad should be deemed Islamophobic.

But then the report wants to prohibit criticism of Islam, if that criticism is perceived to be humiliating or marginalising to Muslims:

“As such, the recourse to the notion of free speech and a supposed right to criticise Islam results in nothing more than another subtle form of anti-Muslim racism, whereby the criticism humiliates, marginalises, and stigmatises Muslims. One, real life example of this concerns the issue of ‘grooming gangs’.”

“Participants reported being told that ‘Mohammed is a paedophile’, for instance. This comment does not, in a strictly grammatical sense, have the victim themselves as subject, but is rather an example of the ‘criticism of Islam’ as it is actually articulated and experienced. Yet, clearly, it is aimed at (and can achieve) harm to individual Muslims, and is not rooted in any meaningful theological debate but rather in a racist attempt to ‘other’ Muslims in general, associating them with the crime our society sees as most abhorrent of all.” (p35)

What is being referred to here, as the report acknowledges, is actually criticism of Muhammad, not of Muslims. It is also criticism of Muhammad that is based on Islamic traditions. It appears then that the authors of the report do want to silence criticism of Islam or of Muhammad and that they consider that such criticism should be called Islamophobic even if it is rooted in Islamic teaching. This is therefore a flagrant attempt to curtail free speech.

Loyalty to Ummah

Amongst a list of examples of Islamophobia is this one:

“Accusing Muslim citizens of being more loyal to the ‘Ummah’ (transnational Muslim community) or to their countries of origin, or to the alleged priorities of Muslims worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” (p56)

This would mean that the Casey Review would be Islamophobic for reporting:

“We found a growing sense of grievance among sections of the Muslim population, and a stronger sense of identification with the plight of the ‘Ummah’, or global Muslim community.”

Reporting of factual information like this would be censored as Islamophobic under this definition.

Councils are adopting the APPG definition of Islamophobia

Last year, Newham Council was the first to officially adopt the APPG definition. Other councils that have followed include Oxford Council, Islington Council , and Redbridge Council.

Government has not defined Islamophobia yet

So far, the government has resisted calls to define Islamophobia. Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth said in 2017 when asked in parliament:

“The Government do not currently endorse a particular definition of Islamophobia. Previous attempts by others to define this term have not succeeded in attracting consensus or widespread acceptance.”

Victoria Atkins MP was also asked in parliament whether the Government agreed that the time had come for a proper legal definition of Islamophobia, and answered:

“We do not accept the need for a definitive definition.”

However, following the APPG report, the Home Affairs Committee is now conducting an inquiry into Islamophobia which includes considering the impact of official adoption of a definition of Islamophobia. Furthermore, in response to a recent written question in February from Lord Pearson about the proposed definition of Islamophobia, the government said that:

“We are examining the options for a definition of Islamophobia and intend to examine this issue through the newly appointed Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group. Any such approach would need to be considered carefully to ensure that this would have the positive effect intended.”

So the government has moved from not accepting the need for a definition to examining the options for a definition. I suggest that it is very hard to define Islamophobia in a way that does not restrict the ability to criticise Islam. One also wonders also about why a specifically anti-Muslim hatred working group has been set up? Will anti-Christian, or anti-secular, or anti-Hindu, or any other similar groups be set up?

The proliferation of phobias

As Christians we believe there is no place for hatred or antagonism towards individuals. When it comes to ideologies or religions, however, freedom of speech requires that we must be able to criticise each other’s beliefs in the strongest terms.

There is a problem of competing victimhoods in our society, seen in accusations of homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia etc. Accusations which sometimes have merit, and other times are used to shut down debate. There is no place for racism or for discrimination against individuals because of their beliefs. As Christians, we do not want to get into a competition for victim status, so I personally am uncomfortable with the term ‘Christophobia’ for similar reasons to my objections to ‘Islamophobia’. ‘Christophobia’ can also be used to silence criticism of Christianity or of the beliefs and practices of Christians.

No definition needed

The problem with defining ‘Islamophobia’ is that any definition will not get away from the word being interpreted as encompassing criticism of Islam. The word references ‘Islam’ rather than ‘Muslims’ and therefore will always be used in ways which conflate attitudes towards Islam and attitudes towards Muslims.

We already have laws which cover religiously motivated hate crime, incitement to religious hatred, and discrimination because of a person’s religion or belief. There is no need to specify a definition of Islamophobia in law. Furthermore, Freedom of Information inquiries have found that some crimes recorded by the police as ‘Islamophobic’ were actually committed against Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, atheists, and even Jews. This kind of problem will only increase with a legal definition based on perception.

‘Anti-Muslim’ is a better term

The Network of Sikh organisations, in its submission to the Home Affairs Committee Islamophobia inquiry, said:

“We are of the view that ‘anti-Muslim’ hatred(like ‘anti-Sikh’ or ‘anti-Hindu’) is much clearer language to describe hate crime specifically against the Muslim community.” 

One advantage of using ‘anti-Muslim’ is that it makes clear that it is directed against Muslims as individuals rather than against Islam as a religion. One could also use the term anti-Christian.

Islamic blasphemy law

Defining Islamophobia in law as a form of ‘cultural racism’ will seriously inhibit free speech. It will protect Islam and Islamic culture from criticism and will create what is in effect an Islamic blasphemy law. We urge the government to resist the pressure to define Islamophobia in law. If Islamophobia is defined according to the APPG report, then the freedom to criticise Islam will be lost.

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