Mohammed Amin MBE was a Conservative Party member for over 36 years, but is now a Liberal Democrat. He is writing in a personal capacity.
In my 15 July 2019 ConservativeHome article “I don’t like the term “Islamophobia”. But since we’re stuck with it, here’s my own definition.” I concluded with a promise:
“I am not expressing a view in this article about under what circumstances, if any, Islamophobic acts or discrimination should become criminal acts: that will be for a later piece which I hope ConservativeHome will carry.”
With apologies for the delay, I am writing to keep my commitment.
A short history
Long-standing readers will recall that I have been trying to kill off the word Islamophobia since my 26 July 2012 piece “Islamophobia – a trap for unwary Muslims” but without success.
Too many Muslim opinion formers regard preserving the word as sacrosanct, even though they have gradually realised that the 1997 Runnymede definition was a failure. Since 2017 we have seen several revised definitions, each with its own failings. The most recent one, which has been widely accepted by many organisations which, in my view, have applied insufficient critical thought to the question, is the one published in November 2018 by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims. The various definitions are reproduced in full in my article “The word Islamophobia should be abandoned.”
The Government has, rightly, rejected the APPG Definition, but has promised to come up with its own definition of Islamophobia. It is welcome to save itself effort and cost by adopting mine!
Why many Muslims fixate on the word Islamophobia
In the last seven years, I have often asked myself why so many Muslims are so wedded to the word Islamophobia. I think it comes down to something that I would describe, somewhat bluntly, as “antisemitism envy.” (As the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (“IHRA”) explains, antisemitism is the correct spelling.)
Muslims see the almost universal condemnation of antisemitism. They contrast this with widespread failure to tackle anti-Muslim bigotry, and conclude that it derives from disputes over the word Islamophobia.
I suspect that if they were polled, many British Muslims would answer “Yes” to the question “Is antisemitism a criminal offence?”, and would want Islamophobia similarly criminalised. They would contend that at present the law is applying a double standard.
A closer look at the law
Popular beliefs are often wrong. The criminality of antisemitism is no exception.
There are relevant offences on the statute book. For example:
Public Order Act 1986 s(18)(1):
18(1) A person who uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting, is guilty of an offence if –
(a) he intends thereby to stir up racial hatred, or
(b) having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up thereby.
Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 Schedule inserting new section 29B in the above act:
29B(1) A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.
However, the above legislation nowhere uses the term antisemitism, or its variant spellings anti-semitism or anti-Semitism.
Indeed, I have used the Government’s website to check all legislation from 1980 to 2019 inclusive for the word antisemitism or its above variants.
There are only three hits, on the word anti-Semitism. All of them are EU material (reproduced on the UK Government website) intended to help reduce antisemitism by promoting training, information dissemination etc. None creates any criminal offences, so I have avoided cluttering up this article with citations.
To summarise, the law has no place for the word antisemitism. Literally, UK law does not use the word.
How is the word antisemitism used?
Antisemitism is rightly regarded as abhorrent. Accordingly, any employer would regard a member of staff expressing antisemitic views to colleagues as harmful to workforce harmony, and would regard the public expression of antisemitic views by staff as severely damaging to the employer’s business. All large, and many small, employers will have staff codes of conduct prohibiting such behaviours.
If an employer is going to prohibit something, they need to say clearly what they are prohibiting, both so that staff know what they must not do, and to protect the employer from future unfair dismissal claims.
That is where it helps to have a concise word, antisemitism, to refer to the prohibited conduct. Furthermore, to avoid the employer having to create its own staff-handbook definition of antisemitism, it is extremely helpful if the employer can point to an existing definition which can be incorporated by reference. (“In this staff handbook, the definition of antisemitism is that published by the IHRA.”) Better still if the definition used has wide acceptance.
The same point applies to other codes of conduct, including media codes and codes of conduct for Government employees, where the Government is really no different from a private sector employer. Similarly, internal codes of conduct for political parties, although the Labour Party struggled for some time before it accepted the IHRA definition.
That is why the IHRA definition of antisemitism is useful. It is nothing to do with the criminal law.
Why has the word Islamophobia not achieved similar acceptance?
In my view it is not because the Government, or society at large, cares more about mistreatment of Jews than it does about mistreatment of Muslims.
The reason is the promotion by Runnymede in 1997 of a definition of Islamophobia that was fundamentally flawed and unacceptable, and the inadequacy of all subsequent definitions. Apart from mine!
Given the troubled history of the word, I do not believe that any definition of Islamophobia will receive widespread acceptance until it has the Government’s imprimatur. To repeat, that does not mean criminalising Islamophobia.
However, it does require the Government to prohibit Islamophobic behaviour in its manuals for Government employees, with the Government endorsing a specific definition of Islamophobia. Once that is done, the controversy that has rumbled on since 1997 can end.