Our govt refuses to define Islamophobia because it is Islamophobic

Secretary of State for levelling Michael Gove. Editorial credit: Jakub Junek / Shutterstock.com

Juveriah Alam says the government has decided to drop plans to create an official definition of anti-Muslim hatred for one simple reason – it is institutionally Islamophobic.

As Islamophobia Awareness Month begins, we have received some timely news – the government has dropped plans to create an official definition of anti-Muslim hatred.

This despite the fact that, according to the Home Office, Muslims are the most commonly targeted group for hate crimes.

It’s important to explain the reason why the government set out to create a definition of Islamophobia in the first place.

In 2018, the All Party Parliamentary Group definition of Islamophobia was drawn up and accepted by the Labour Party and others while the Tories rejected it, citing vague reasons such as the definition not having been “broadly accepted.”

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

Examples of Islamophobia included:

  • Making mendacious, dehumanising, demonising, or stereotypical allegations about Muslims such as the myth of Muslim identity having a unique propensity for terrorism, and claims of a demographic threat posed by Muslims or of a Muslim takeover.
  • Accusing Muslims as a group of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Muslim person or group of Muslim individuals.
  • Denying Muslim populations the right to self-determination e.g., by claiming that the existence of an independent Palestine or Kashmir is a terrorist endeavour.
  • Using the symbols and images associated with classic Islamophobia (e.g. Muhammed being a paedophile, claims of Muslims spreading Islam by the sword or subjugating minority groups under their rule) to characterise Muslims as being ‘sex groomers,’ inherently violent or incapable of living harmoniously in plural societies.

Soon after the government rejected the above definition, it promised to work on its own one. Many Muslims such as myself were highly sceptical about any definition of Islamophobia created by an institutionally Islamophobic government. We wondered what kind of inadequate, watered-down definition they would come up with – especially when they sought the help of the government-friendly imam, Qari Asim.

However, the reality has been far worse than many of us imagined.

Right-wing think-tanks

Our government has now admitted that it has scrapped plans to come up with a definition of anti-Muslim hatred altogether. Communities Secretary Michael Gove (he of the Trojan Hoax affair) stated that it “would be very difficult to get a precise definition.”

Well yes, it would indeed be difficult to come up with any sort of definition without consulting the Muslim community and, with Qari Asim’s sacking earlier this year, it is infinitely clear that the government has no intention of ever doing so.

Therefore, not only has the government failed to adopt the APPG definition, it has also failed to honour the promise it made three years ago – to work on a new definition.

On hearing this news, my initial thoughts went to those who heavily criticised the APPG definition of Islamophobia while welcoming a new definition in future. In a Henry Jackson Society briefing paper, Dr Rakib Ehsan criticised the APPG definition while stating that there should be a future definition of anti-Muslim hatred “which focusses on the lived discriminatory experiences of British Muslims on the grounds of their religious identity.”

I thought that academics such as Dr Ehsan, a regular guest on GB News, would find it difficult to defend this move by the government. I was surprised then, to read an article by Dr Ehsan defending the government’s failure to define anti-Muslim hatred.

Now defending the indefensible isn’t easy as Dr Ehsan’s article demonstrates. He begins by deflecting from the primary issue by criticising the term “Islamophobia” and stating that it is “problematic.” However, the group set up by the government to work on the definition was called the “Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group.” Qari Asim was appointed as the chair, to help work on a definition of “anti-Muslim hatred,” not “Islamophobia.”

Editorial credit: Jerome460 / Shutterstock.com

Although many of us use these terms interchangeably, one of the key criticisms of the APPG definition of Islamophobia was the word “Islamophobia” itself. The criticism was that the word itself is a misnomer and infers criticism of Islam rather than Muslims. This argument was popularised by Maajid Nawaz (formerly Quilliam Foundation) who stated that Islamophobia was a backdoor blasphemy law.

Almost all the right-wing think-tanks who had a say in this matter agreed that the term “anti-Muslim hatred” would be more appropriate. Evidently, the government also agreed and thus the formation of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group.

As such, on the matter of dropping plans to define anti-Muslim hatred, criticism of the APPG definition of Islamophobia or criticism of the word “Islamophobia” itself is irrelevant and only serves as a deflection from the primary issue.

It really must be stressed that any alleged flaws in the APPG definition of Islamophobia do not constitute a valid argument in favour of the government breaking its promise to come up with its own definition of anti-Muslim hatred.

In fact, Dr Ehan focusses his whole article on criticising the APPG definition. The effect is that an unwitting reader would be led to believe that the matter at hand is that Mr Gove had decided to drop the APPG definition, rather than the real issue – that Mr Gove has decided to drop is own plans to work on a definition of anti-Muslim hatred.

Defending Mr Gove’s decision, Dr Ehsan states that a definition of anti-Muslim hatred would risk “opening multiple cans of worms – potentially doing more harm than good,” suggesting that the government would have difficulty balancing “the interests of the Muslim Council of Britain and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association UK on matters of intra-religious sectarianism.”

Now while the very idea that the government cares about balancing the interests of different Muslim groups is laughable, this line of argument is deeply flawed.

It is possible for religiously-motivated sectarian violence to be taken just as seriously as anti-Muslim hatred; however, it makes no sense to include it in the definition. It is by nature, an entirely separate matter. There would be practical implications of including sectarianism within a definition of anti-Muslim hatred.

For example, anti-Muslim hate crime statistics would be misleading. Attempting to analyse the data would be very difficult as we try to distinguish the incidences related to sectarianism from genuine anti-Muslim hatred caused by an increasingly hostile environment. And, as a result, this would undermine attempts to improve public policy to address increasing hate crime against Muslims.

In any case, the whole idea to work on a definition of anti-Muslim hatred was the government’s idea. After sacking Qari Asim, the government could have appointed someone else more suitable in its view. The government could have proceeded to include sectarianism as part of the definition of anti-Muslim hatred – but they are evidently not concerned about what everyday British Muslims think.

So what’s the truth?

So, the question remains: why drop the plan altogether for working on a definition of anti-Muslim hatred?

The truth is, even a heavily watered-down definition of Islamophobia or anti-Muslim hatred would risk opening up a can of worms for the current government. A working definition would implicate the several Conservative Party figures, MPs, councillors and journalists who have made clear anti-Muslim statements in the past.

The definition would also risk being a hindrance to future laws and policies which could discriminate against Muslims. The effect would be that such proposed laws would not make it past the bill stage. Current policy already in place, such as police stop-and-search powers would also be at risk as well as religious profiling.

And finally, the direction the government is heading with regards to the Prevent strategy, such as seeking to widen the definition of “Islamist extremism,” would be undermined by any half-reasonable definition of anti-Muslim hatred.

The harsh reality is that no definition of anti-Muslim hatred would be harmonious with our current institutionally Islamophobic government.

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