The new Islamophobia definition deals with symptoms not causes

Jahangir Mohammed of the Centre For Muslim Affairs argues that a proposed new definition of Islamophobia which was heavily promoted last week by a parliamentary group, and backed by certain Muslim organisations, is flawed and has ultimately been decided by non-Muslims.

Last week the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims, published its report “Islamophobia Defined: A report into a working definition of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred”.

That a parliamentary group has finally recognised the scale of a problem that some Muslims themselves had first identified almost 30 years ago has to be welcome (my report on this subject “Race Relations and Muslims in Britain” was written in 1992).

The APPG could hardly have denied the scale of the problem because prejudice and hatred of Islam and Muslims are the acceptable face of bigotry today, not just in Europe but globally, and has long been recognised by most fair-minded people and campaign groups. Comments by politicians and media reporting over the last few decades is testimony to that.

The approach taken by politicians to the Muslim community and its problems, however, has always fallen short. It typically follows a pattern of constant denial and calls for more and more evidence, whether it be on religious discrimination, Islamophobia or the impact of Prevent.

This APPG report also collated more evidence and explored academic works on the subject. Evidence is always welcome, but there comes a point when skirting around the issues must stop, and action has to replace evidence-gathering, and comfortable discussions for political purposes.

However, a prerequisite to effective action requires dealing with the root causes of the problem, not identifying and trying to deal with the after-effects, which is effectively what this report has done.

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Why were non-Muslims leading on this?

The two key end products of this report, a racialised definition of Islamophobia and its indicators of Islamophobia (based on the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism) are inadequate. However, this was to be expected given the approach taken by the APPG.

When it is widely accepted for marginalised groups that a “victim’s perception” of their suffering is paramount, why should non-Muslims be allowed to lead and determine a narrative and process to restrict the discussion of Islamophobia and its definition to areas, such as race, where they feel comfortable and are willing to accept?

Ask Muslims why they believe they are being targeted anywhere in world and the answer will be because of their religious beliefs. Isn’t denial of the victim’s perception a sign itself of pandering to Islamophobia?

It’s not as if our politicians don’t understand persecution and victimisation based on faith. They talk about and take action about the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities around the world. They are also familiar with their own history, where once Catholics and other smaller sects were targeted and persecuted for their beliefs.

The task of defining and articulating Islamophobia is one that should ideally be left to Muslims, free from non-Muslim interference and involvement. The guiding principle should not be what parliamentarians and non-Muslims, or a secular academic framework is willing to endorse and accept. No self-respecting community allows other communities to define and contextualise the prejudice and hatred they face for them.

Avoiding key Issues?

There was a legitimate discussion to be had around “criticism” and demonisation of Islam i.e. freedom of expression to incite hatred against Islam and Muslims. Yet this was excluded from the parameters of the report, because the APPG made it clear from the outset that what this investigation was not about restricting freedom to criticise.

No religion throughout centuries has been more written about and criticised than Islam. Many of the historical stereotypes and tropes about Muslims emanate from this “freedom to criticise.”  Yet the lines between legitimate criticism/debate and mythology and demonisation is a thin one.

Obsessive and deliberate targeting of small racial or religious minorities for their beliefs and constant criticism within a majority population can and has in the past led to persecution, vilification and genocide.

Ironically, when it comes to other minority or marginalised groups, restricting freedom to criticise and express certain opinions doesn’t seem to be much of an issue. Politicians are even prepared to restrict discussions on the state of Israel, and democracy under notions of hate and “extremism”. Of all communities in Britain, the minority Muslim community is subject to most restrictions when it comes to freedom of speech and association whilst the majority are allowed a virtual free hand against Muslims.

How much of that what is dressed up as criticism and free speech is prejudice and stereotyping of Islam, or, picking on a powerless community, who when they try to counter those very criticisms are marginalised as “extremists”?

There was also a debate to be had about the role played by the War on Terror and its policies (in the UK) which also target Muslims for their “Muslimness” and the structural manifestations of “Islamophobia”.  Presumably this definition, excludes those as examples of Islamophobia because politicians and the extremism industry can hide behind “criticism of Islam” and countering “Islamic extremism”.

Islamophobia is not rooted in racism

The definition adopted by the APPG which locates Islamophobia in racism and perceptions and expressions of Muslimness is a fudge; it takes us back to the 1980s when we were located within terms such as Black and Asian.

Any definition that avoids mentioning Islam is itself a symptom of Islamophobia. Without Islam, Muslimness and Islamophobia are meaningless. It may allow those Muslims involved in politics and academia to have cosy discussions about prejudice and hate that Muslims face. However, as any experienced anti-racism activist will tell you, you don’t defeat a prejudice by denying its very essence.

Islamophobia is not rooted in racism. Hatred of Islam and Muslims has always been politically and religiously generated and dates to well before the Crusades. This hatred is rooted in a specifically European and Christian reaction to the rise of Islam as a religious and political movement that challenged Western and Christian hegemony.

Baroness Warsi is backing the new definition

Its modern reincarnation is very much in line with the past. It occurred after the fall of Communism, and especially after the “Islamic” Revolution in Iran, with the creation of what became known as the Green Peril. An entire industry complete with resources, policies, political, military and media support has been tirelessly working away to demonise Islam and Muslims for nearly four decades. So why is anyone surprised at the rise of the far right and physical attacks on Muslims which are mere symptoms not causes?

Whilst some of this demonisation morphs into traditional racist tropes, and stereotyping, much doesn’t. Underlying tropes about Islam and violence, Islam and human rights abuses, Islam and sexuality are not rooted in racism, but straight from religious and political propaganda countering the early historical rise of Islam. All the far-right movements in the US and Europe use historical narratives that demonise Islam and Muslim.

Whilst much of the IHRA code on anti-Semitism can be applied to other types of bigotry, some of it cannot, and is opposed by anti-racist groups. Sections on nationalism, identity and the state of Israel, are disputed. It would be difficult for Muslims to argue against parts of the IHRA code, if they have accepted the logic for themselves. There was a need to make the examples more Islam specific.

Whatever the Parliamentarians and their supporters do, Muslims must not impose on themselves the definitions of others based on their prejudices and limitations. We must articulate and define our oppression and victimisation the way we choose to.

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