Defining "Islamophobia"

Submitted by martin on 20 May, 2019 - 12:52 Author: various

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims has proposed a definition of "Islamophobia", and the Government has rejected it.

The definition is here

Against the definition

Chris Sloggett, a spokesperson for the National Secular Society, told us:

"Anti-Muslim hatred is a growing problem which must be taken seriously. But we also need a robust discussion on the influence which religion, including Islam, has on British society.

"Those who raise concerns about religious privileges which undermine women's rights, animal welfare, LGBT rights and the principle of one law for all are routinely shouted down as Islamophobes and marginalised from public conversation. The adoption of the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims' definition of Islamophobia, which protects vaguely worded 'expressions of Muslimness', would hasten this process.

"The government is now considering its own definition. Hopefully it will engage fully with concerns about both free speech and anti-Muslim hatred in the process. We must resist the urge to respond to this form of bigotry by going along with the censorious whims of some 'Muslim community leaders'."

He was summarising the content of an open letter supported by the NSS and others.

For the definition

Daniel Randall writes:

People whose work I greatly respect and admire, like Pragna Patel and Rumy Hasan, have signed a letter opposing the APPG definition of Islamophobia, along with some deeply reactionary figures. I think they’re wrong to have done so. Here’s why:

For years, many Muslim-background socialists, secularists, feminists, and other dissidents have been critiquing the way the concept of “Islamophobia” is used by reactionary elements within their communities to police and stifle debate.

Throughout much of that time, a large section of the organised left was in political alliance with those reactionary elements, such as the Muslim Association of Britain, the UK franchise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

These are critiques the entire left should listen to and engage with. However, I think opposing the APPG definition is wrong. Any framework that attempts to police the boundaries of acceptable speech, on any issue, can be misused to limit free speech in reactionary ways.

The text of the APPG doesn’t preclude criticism of Islam and Islamism any more than the text of the IHRA precludes criticism of Zionism and Israel (or, for that matter, Judaism as a religion).

To suggest that it does seems to me to rely on a kind of mysticism, that sees the words as a kind of magic spell that, once cast, will bind the tongues of anyone wanting to criticise Islam.

“Islamophobia” is an imperfect word for all sorts of reasons; I agree with those who argue that “anti-Muslim racism” is much clearer. But words socially accrue meaning over time; if we were rebuilding our vocabulary from scratch, we certainly wouldn’t pick “antisemitism” as the word to describe racism/bigotry against Jews. (And we certainly wouldn’t write it as “anti-Semitism”: what’s “Semitism”, FFS?) We probably wouldn’t choose “homophobia” or “xenophobia” either.

The APPG definition helps with some of the inadequacies by making clear that criticism of Islam is not automatically Islamophobic:

Undoubtedly there will be attempts by Islamists to use the APPG definition to stifle legitimate criticism of Islam, just as I’m sure there are some who will use the IHRA definition of antisemitism to attempt to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel.

But drawing the battle lines over opposition to the endorsement of a form of words, on the basis that someone could attempt to misuse or misapply them for reactionary ends, misses the point. Just as making a principle of opposing the IHRA definition has been a source of significant toxicity in the antisemitism debate in Labour, I can’t see how making a principle of opposition to the APPG will do anything other than embolden people who want their anti-Muslim bigotry to be officially licensed.

The left does need to stand for free speech, and the right to criticise religion and religious politics, at the same time as opposing racism and bigotry against ethno-religious communities (e.g., Jewish and Muslim). Opposing the APPG helps neither cause.

And finally, while we shouldn’t smear people by association based on the fact that they’re co-signatories to open letters, even if you want to oppose the definition, doing so alongside (even in the most limited sense) the likes of Brendan O’Neill is... not good.


The open letter

Open Letter: APPG Islamophobia Definition Threatens Civil Liberties

The APPG on British Muslims’ definition of Islamophobia has now been adopted by the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats Federal board, Plaid Cymru and the Mayor of London, as well as several local councils. All of this is occurring before the Home Affairs Select Committee has been able to assess the evidence for and against the adoption of the definition nationally. Meanwhile the Conservatives are having their own debate about rooting out Islamophobia from the party.

According to the APPG definition, “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”.

With this definition in hand, it is perhaps no surprise that following the horrific attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, some place responsibility for the atrocity on the pens of journalists and academics who have criticised Islamic beliefs and practices, commented on or investigated Islamist extremism.

The undersigned unequivocally, unreservedly and emphatically condemn acts of violence against Muslims, and recognise the urgent need to deal with anti-Muslim hatred. However, we are extremely concerned about the uncritical and hasty adoption of the APPG’s definition of Islamophobia.

This vague and expansive definition is being taken on without an adequate scrutiny or proper consideration of its negative consequences for freedom of expression, and academic and journalistic freedom. The definition will also undermine social cohesion – fuelling the very bigotry against Muslims which it is designed to prevent.

We are concerned that allegations of Islamophobia will be, indeed already are being, 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.

The accusation of Islamophobia has already been used against those opposing religious and gender segregation in education, the hijab, halal slaughter on the grounds of animal welfare, LGBT rights campaigners opposing Muslim views on homosexuality, ex-Muslims and feminists opposing Islamic views and practices relating to women, as well as those concerned about the issue of grooming gangs. It has been used against journalists who investigate Islamism, Muslims working in counter- extremism, schools and Ofsted for resisting conservative religious pressure and enforcing gender equality.

Evidently abuse, harmful practices, or the activities of groups and individuals which promote ideas contrary to British values are far more likely to go unreported as a result of fear of being called Islamophobic. This will only increase if the APPG definition is formally adopted in law.

We are concerned that the definition will be used to shut down legitimate criticism and investigation.

While the APPG authors have assured that it does not wish to infringe free speech, the entire content of the report, the definition itself, and early signs of how it would be used, suggest that it certainly would. Civil liberties should not be treated as an afterthought in the effort to tackle antiMuslim prejudice.

The conflation of race and religion employed under 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.

No religion should be given special protection against criticism. Like anti-Sikh, anti-Christian, or antiHindu hatred, we believe the term anti-Muslim hatred is more appropriate and less likely to infringe on free speech. A proliferation of ‘phobias’ is not desirable, as already stated by Sikh and Christian organisations who recognise the importance of free discussion about their beliefs.

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.

If this definition is adopted the government will likely turn to self-appointed ‘representatives of the community’ to define ‘Muslimness’. This is clearly open to abuse. The APPG already entirely overlooked Muslims who are often considered to be “insufficiently Muslim” by other Muslims, moderates, liberals, reformers and the Ahmadiyyah, who often suffer persecution and violence at the hands of other Muslims.

For all these reasons, the APPG definition of Islamophobia is deeply problematic and unfit for purpose. Acceptance of this definition will only serve to aggravate community tensions and to inhibit free speech about matters of fundamental importance. We urge the government, political parties, local councils and other organisations to reject this flawed proposed definition.

Emma Webb, Civitas
Hardeep Singh, Network of Sikh Organisations (NSOUK)
Lord Singh of Wimbledon
Tim Dieppe, Christian Concern
Stephen Evans, National Secular Society (NSS)
Sadia Hameed, Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB)
Prof. Paul Cliteur, candidate for the Dutch Senate, Professor of Law, University of Leiden
Brendan O’Neill, Editor of Spiked
Maajid Nawaz, Founder, Quilliam International
Rt. Rev’d Dr Gavin Ashenden
Pragna Patel, director of Southall Black Sisters
Professor Richard Dawkins
Rahila Gupta, author and Journalist
Peter Whittle, founder and director of New Culture Forum
Trupti Patel, President of Hindu Forum of Britain
Dr Lakshmi Vyas, President Hindu Forum of Europe
Harsha Shukla MBE, President Hindu Council of North UK
Tarang Shelat, President Hindu Council of Birmingham
Ashvin Patel, Chairman, Hindu Forum (Walsall)
Ana Gonzalez, partner at Wilson Solicitors LLP
Baron Desai of Clement Danes
Baroness Cox of Queensbury
Lord Alton of Liverpool
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali
Ade Omooba MBE, Co-Chair National Church Leaders Forum (NCLF)
Wilson Chowdhry, British Pakistani Christian Association
Ashish Joshi, Sikh Media Monitoring Group
Satish K Sharma, National Council of Hindu Temples
Rumy Hasan, Academic and author
Amina Lone, Co-Director, Social Action and Research Foundation
Peter Tatchell, Peter Tatchell Foundation
Seyran Ates, Imam
Gina Khan, One Law for All
Mohammed Amin MBE
Baroness D’Souza
Michael Mosbacher, Acting Editor, Standpoint Magazine
Lisa-Marie Taylor, CEO FiLiA
Julie Bindel, journalist and feminist campaigner
Dr Adrian Hilton, academic
Neil Anderson, academic
Tom Holland, historian
Toby Keynes
Prof. Dr. Bassam Tibi, Professor Emeritus for International Relations, University of Goettingen
Dr Stephen Law, philosopher and author

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