Experts challenge Islamophobia definition

17 May 2019

Christian Concern’s Tim Dieppe comments on a widely publicised letter to the Home Secretary.

An open letter to Home Secretary Sajid Javid has been signed by over 40 leading experts from a range of religious backgrounds, warning the government against adopting a proposed definition of Islamophobia.

The letter, representing many Christians, atheists, Sikhs and others, criticises the definition proposed by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). Signatories include Professor Richard Dawkins, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, Lord Singh of Wimbledon, author and historian Tom Holland, and Christian Concern’s Pastor Ade Omooba MBE, as well as myself.

A new definition

The APPG has been keen for the government to adopt a definition of Islamophobia. The proposed definition set forth in the report Islamophobia Defined states that:

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

I wrote earlier this year about the serious problems posed by this definition.

The need for “adequate scrutiny”

The open letter argues that the definition “is being taken on without an adequate scrutiny or proper consideration of its negative consequences for freedom of expression, and academic or journalistic freedom.” Yet already the definition has been adopted by several political parties – including the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats – the Mayor of London, and a number of local councils.

While the signatories wrote of their concern for acts of violence directed at Muslims, they were also concerned that the adoption of the APPG’s definition had been “uncritical and hasty”.

A “backdoor blasphemy law”

The letter continued, saying:

“We are concerned that allegations of Islamophobia will be, indeed already are used to effectively shield Islamic beliefs and even extremists from criticism, and that formalising this definition will result in it being employed effectively as something of a backdoor blasphemy law … we are concerned that the definition will be used to shut down legitimate criticism and investigation … No religion should be given special protection against criticism.”

Already it has been used to label critics of Islam as ‘Islamophobic’. A report by the think tank Policy Exchange gave the examples of Labour MP Sarah Champion, who highlighted the issue of grooming gangs; Maajid Nawaz, founder of counter-extremism group, Quilliam; and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a journalist who criticised veils.

The letter argued that defining Islamophobia as a sort of racism conflates the ideas of race and religion, stating that,

“the confused concept of ‘cultural racism’ expands the definition beyond anti-Muslim hatred to include ‘illegitimate’ criticism of the Islamic religion. The concept of Muslimness can effectively be transferred to Muslim practices and beliefs, allowing the report to claim that criticism of Islam is instrumentalised to hurt Muslims.”

Existing laws are sufficient

As the letter points out:

“Current legislative provisions are sufficient, as the law already protects individuals against attacks and unlawful discrimination on the basis of their religion. Rather than helping, this definition is likely to create a climate of self-censorship whereby people are fearful of criticising Islam and Islamic beliefs. It will therefore effectively shut down open discussions about matters of public interest. It will only aggravate community tensions further and is therefore no long-term solution.”

It’s not often that the National Secular Society agrees with Christian Concern

Writing for Premier Christianity, Stephen Evans, CEO of the National Secular Society said: “It’s not often that we at the National Secular Society agree with Christian Concern! So when we do, it’s always worth sitting up and taking notice.”

He is quite right. Several commentators were impressed with the range and calibre of the signatories to the open letter. Organisations and groups that are more often opposed than in agreement were united in seeking to protect free speech by urging the government to reject this dangerous definition.

Historians threatened

Historian Tom Holland, a signatory to the open letter, highlighted in a strongly wordedtwitter thread the problems that the definition would create for historians. Holland has written about the origins of Islam and has been accused of Islamophobia and even received death threats for his work. In one of his tweets he wrote:

“The definition of Islamophobia the Government is being asked to approve is one that threatens to criminalise ‘claims of Muslims spreading Islam by the sword or subjugating minority groups under their rule’. But most Muslims, for most of history, would have been fine with these claims.”

Other tweets continued:

“The definition of Islam we are being given is of a liberalised, westernised Islam – but Islamic civilisation is not to be defined solely by liberal, Western standards. Military conquest & the subjugation of minority groups have absolutely been features of Islamic imperialism.”

“We risk the ludicrous situation of being able to write without fear of prosecution about the Christian tradition of crusading or anti-semitism, but not the Islamic tradition of jihad or the jizya.”

Holland’s points need to be taken very seriously indeed.

Police also concerned

An article in The Times this week revealed that another letter to Theresa May had been written by Martin Hewitt, chairman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, warning her that adoption of this definition would hamper counter-terrorism efforts: “Mr Hewitt also tells the prime minister that counterterrorism specialists worry that the definition could lead to judicial review of terror legislation, perhaps rendering even efforts to curb the distribution of extremist material technically Islamophobic. Representatives from counterterror policing, he notes, were not invited to give evidence to the parliamentary group.”

Richard Walton, former Head of Counter-Terrorism Command of the Metropolitan Police has also warned that adopting this definition would “over time cripple the UK’s successful counter-terrorism strategy and counter-terrorism operations.”

“The APPG definition would thwart the prosecution of individuals for possession of extremist material and dissemination of terrorist publications; even prosecution for membership of (and encouragement of support for) proscribed terrorist groups. Imagine how Anjem Choudary might have used the label ‘Islamophobic’ in his defence.”

Muslims should move away from a victim mentality

The proposed definition of Islamophobia was debated in the House of Commons yesterday. Khalid Mahmood, MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, was the first Muslim MP to be elected to Parliament. He spoke against the definition:

“I have been on the receiving end of hate mail and actions from both the far right and from the Islamist community. … I will take no lessons from anybody who tells me that I am Islamophobic or that I am too much of a Muslim.

“We are proud Muslims, and we should start to move away from a victim mentality and be positive about who we are.”

John Hayes MP, in his contribution to the debate, quoted Muslim scholar, Professor Mohammed Abdel-Haq:

“Most Muslims in this country see the preoccupation with Islamophobia, which is increasingly peddled by guilt-ridden white liberals and self-appointed Muslim campaigners, as far from being in their interests, an initiative that is likely to separate, segregate and stigmatise them and their families.”

Government to appoint advisors

The government responded by deciding not to adopt the proposed definition from the APPG. The Communities Secretary, James Brokenshire, however, announced that the government will instead appoint 2 expert advisors to lead a new study to propose another definition. He highlighted the problematic way in which the APPG definition conflates race and religion which would conflict with existing legal definitions enshrined in the Equality Act 2010.

‘Anti-Muslim’ is a better term

The problem with the term ‘Islamophobia’ is that it inevitably conflates the religion with the people. It may well turn out that attempting to define this term in ways that will not restrict free speech turns out to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, as has been the case for government attempts to define the term ‘extremism’. Using the term ‘anti-Muslim’ makes clear that it is discrimination and hatred of people that needs to be tackled, but can also allow for robust criticism of Islamic beliefs and practices so that freedom of speech is not inhibited. Existing laws suffice as people have already been prosecuted for anti-Muslim hate crimes. I am pleased that the government has rejected the APPG definition. I hope that it comes to see that no new definition is needed.

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