“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” This is a proposed definition urged on the Government by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims. Let’s ponder it for a few moments.
Some people who hate Islam or Muslims or both are undoubtedly racists. But are all of them? We don’t believe so, for two main reasons. First, some are members of the same race – if that is quite the right term here – as very many Muslims themselves. It would not be easy to postulate a racial difference between, say, a Hindu and a Muslim originating from the Punjab. Second, others clearly detest Islam or Muslims for religious reasons, not racial ones.
We believe that hating Muslims is always wrong and hating Islam completely unreasonable. Then again, much hangs what one means by Islam. Like Judaism and Christianity, its fellow Abrahamic religions, Islam is a vast, multi-faceted, complex faith. This site has always maintained that a distinction can and should be drawn between Islam and Islamism. The first is a great religion, the majority manifestation of which, throughout its history, has been the traditional, classical variety. The second is a politicised variant – a kind of bastard child of Salafist practice and western technology. ISIS are at one of its scale and the Muslim Brotherhood at another. On our view, one should be phobic about it.
It is to the credit of the all-party group that it in no way seeks to silence opinions of this kind. “Criticism of religion is a fundamental right in an open society and is enshrined in our commitment to freedom of speech,” it says in its report, Islamophobia Defined, which proposes the definition. But if people are to be free to be phobic about Islam – or Judaism, or Christianity, or atheism, or any other form of belief – would it really make sense for public policy to target something called Islamophobia, any more than it might target, say, Judaeophobia, Christianopobia or Atheismopobia? Wouldn’t government do better to take aim at anti-Muslim hatred and prejudice?
Our sense is that the report recognises the problem. “Rooted in” appears to betray a certain nervousness about the claim of racism, almost as though the report’s authors had thought through the weaknesses in it that we outline above. The end of its proposed definition is much nearer the mark than the beginning. It is incontestible that Muslims are sometimes singled out for violence and hatred because of expressions of their religion: wearing a headscarf, say, or attending a mosque. “Muslimness” may be a jargony word, but it describes a real thing. Indeed, the report itself is the result of “an inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia/anti-Muslim hatred”, as it confirms. The yoked mention of the second may reveal a residual nervousness about whether the first is of any real use.
We apologise if our analysis of this definition seems a bit abstracted – offered as though the terms concerned were debating points for an evening at the Oxford Union, rather than having implications for people and their lives. Which they do. After all, words have consequences, and the Group wants the Government to adopt, promote and further its own definition of Islamophobia, in much the same way that successive governments have long taken up the Working Definition of Antisemitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. (Yes, that’s the one to which Jeremy Corbyn and his claque have been so resistant, with consequences to the Labour Party’s name and electoral performance.)
The Government presently uses no definition at all. We suspect that the driving reason is that it recognises the deep problems that the term “Islamophobia” presents for public policy. It wouldn’t do for Ministers to seem to be giving Islam special protection from criticism. But we believe that it would be right for them to work towards a working definition of anti-Muslim hatred and prejudice that government would adopt in much the same way that it does the working definition of antisemitism. One does not have to agree with the report’s claim that Islamophobia is “Britain’s bigotry blind spot” to believe that anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred is an evil – and a problem. Criticising religious beliefs is one thing (though we prefer it to be done with temperance). Abusing its practioners, even when the bar is set below the level at which the law bites, is another. The report has plenty of examples of the last to offer.
It is worth adding that for government to adopt a working definition of anti-Muslim prejudice, to sit alongside the anti-semitism one, would reopen a question whose implications for the way we live stretch wider than both.
It is, in a nutshell: who decides? A racist or religious hate incident is defined as being so “if the victim or anyone else thinks it was carried out because of hostility or prejudice based on race or religion”. In one way, this makes sense. A Jew or a Muslim is likely to be more alert to prejudice aimed at either than a third party will be. In another, and we believe more profoundly, it doesn’t. There must surely be some objective basis to determining a claim, let alone a crime. Feeling should walk in step with fact. On its own, it isn’t enough, or shouldn’t be.
This line of thought can be applied to the five tests which the report sets out “to determine whether what we are dealing with is reasonable criticism of Islam or Muslims or Islamophobia”. The fifth is “insincere criticism for ulterior motives”. The last is everywhere and so is the first. But who is to decide who else has a motive that may be malign, or whose criticism is insincere? The question can’t be ducked if any new definition is to have real teeth. And there would be no point in having a working definition of anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred without them, even if it aims to work without further use of the law and the courts.
The Government should be very wary of tests that are essentially subjective, or giving anyone special status to judge motives and sincerity. This is part of the reason that this site is reflexively hostile to seeking to define extremism in law. So: let government adopt a working definition of anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred. That’s the central, correct thrust of the all-party group’s report. But it must be based on objective criteria, overseen by people we elect, and who can therefore be held accountable. Meanwhile, “Islamophobia” should be dropped altogether. The report reads to us as though its authors know that the word, first popularised by the Runnymede Trust over 20 years ago, has outlived its time and is lingering on life support. But they cannot quite bring themselves to turn off the machine.