The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims has put forward the first working definition of Islamophoba in the UK, set out in its report ‘Islamophobia Defined’.
Launched in 2017, the cross party group of parliamentarians was established to highlight the aspirations and challenges facing British Muslims, celebrate their contributions, and investigate prejudice, discrimination and hatred against Muslims in the UK. The APPG recognised that Islamophobia has had a ‘significant negative impact on the life chances and quality of life enjoyed by British Muslims” across a number of areas, including employment, education, criminal justice, housing, healthcare and hate crime. The report has also been motivated by the impact Islamophobia has on social cohesion, inclusion and harmony, with British society holding a number of false ideas or misrepresentations that result in discriminatory outlooks.
Context of the report and the definition
The report places itself in the context of, and a development from, when the term ‘Islamophobia’ first entered the political discourse two decades ago, with the seminal publication, ‘Islamophobia: A challenge for us all’ by the Runnymede Trust, and almost a decade since Baroness Warsi’ statement that Islamophobia had passed the ‘dinner table test’, the idea that Anti-Muslim hatred had become so socially acceptable as to make it into polite conversations where controversial issues are usually avoided. The report also highlights that while the vast majority of Muslims [94%] feel able to practice their religion freely in Britain, 63% harbour grave misgivings about their acceptance in society, believing that there is more prejudice against Muslims than against other religious groups. This perception is especially widespread among young Muslims and graduates, with an even higher number personally experiencing religion-based prejudice. A chapter of this report is devoted to detailing islamophobic incidents suffered by British Muslims, which were raised during the inquiry.
The APPG considers a definition of Islamohpbia “vital if we are to take seriously an “explain or change” attitude in response to inequalities faced” by British Muslims. In coming to this working definition, widespread consultation was held with parliamentarians, experts, lawyers, community activists and victim-led organisations.
The main take-aways from the report:
- While an alternative term, anti-Muslim hatred, was also considered, an overwhelming amount of evidence, suggest that the term ‘Islamophobia’ had established itself in the political and policy lexicon, has gained traction, and what Muslims predominantly used to describe their experiences.
- The normalisation of Islamophobia: Islamophobia has passed the ‘dinner table test’, with the threshold being so low that Muslims are subject to ridicule and discussed in every day bigoted discourse.
- In line with previous definition of Islamophobia, three key factors are seen as necessary to the definition: the process of Islamophobia, the actions that qualify as Islamophobic, and the impact of Islamophobia.
- Based on the evidence presented, the APPG proposed the following working definition of Islamophobia:
“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”
- Its effects are seen in individual behaviours and institutional processes.
This definition has been supported and promoted by Muslim MPs, including Afzal Khan and Naz Shah. Baroness Sayeda Warsi called it “A definition rooted in communities, underpinned by academics and framed by parliamentarians”. It has also been endorsed by high profile commentators such as Aqeela Ahmed and Shelina Janmohamed, the latter stated on twitter that this “clear agreed definition will lay the groundwork to properly tackle the problem”.
The Muslim Council of Britain contributed to the report and said they were pleased to support this definition “given that it has received such widespread support from British Muslim Communities”. Miqdaad Versi, from the MCB, said that “things are going in the right direction”, however he also said that it was important to “recognise the scale of the problem we’re facing…there’s a long way until Muslims are being treated equally”. Overall, the definition has the backing of more than 750 British Muslim organisations, 80 academics and more than 60 cross-party parliamentarians.
However, though support has been widespread, a number of Muslim academics and commentators have voiced their concerns, or out rightly rejected this definition. Some of the basis of their criticism is outlined below.
Resorting to the secular language of racism:
Yahya Birt, PhD candidate in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds, commends the fact that the definition has cross-party support and the backing of a such a significant number of organisations and individuals. However, he reflects on the fact that Muslims have resorted to using other forms of resistance, such as anti-racism, because they have struggled to ‘find allies with an Islam-infused public language’.
Birt considers it an intergenerational shift; while young Muslim activists are likely to be inspired by movements like Black Lives Matter and and the rise of white nationalism, particularly post Brexit, he urges that those who may champion this narrative to not dismiss or forget the older generation, who were the first to develop the concept of Islamophobia in Britain in the 1990s, particularly around the Salman Rushdi affair. They used a different kind of language and discourse, one that “differentiated themselves from a secular race relations industry they saw as not standing up for their interests”. For example, they attempted to extend the blasphemy law to non-Anglican traditions, and then shifted towards tackling religious discrimination. Birt sees this as a contrast to today, which has relied on the “secular public language of anti-racism”. While this may produce more result, Birt warns against emphasising an “identity of oppression over our identity of being”, and the effect of the secularisation of Muslim’s language and identity.
Conflating religion and race:
Shaykh Mohammed Nizami also has concerns regarding the reference to anti-Muslim ‘racism’, which he sees as racialising Muslims in the same way that the report and definition attempts to denounce. He believes that there is an undue focus on the Asian community in the report, while also side-lining those Muslims who aren’t Asians, for example by often making a distinction between those who are white and those who are Muslim. Rather, he argues, “the racialisation of Islam as a brown man’s practice ‘otherises’ believers in a way that is detrimental to believers and the cause of faith in Britain”. It may also allow those who claim something is an “expression of Muslimness” to shut down valid criticism of their ethno-culture, such as forced marriage. The exclusion of other ethnicities from this definition has also been argued by other commentators. Michael Mumisa, Cambridge Special Livingstone PhD Scholar at the University of Cambridge, highlights that even in the surveys they quote to highlight Islamophobia, which ask questions such as “Do you think most white people in Britain would mind/would you mind if a close relative were to marry a person who is Muslim/of black or West Indian origin?”, “The report excludes white/black people from the definition of ‘Muslim’”
Symptoms not causes
Jahangir Mohammed, from the Centre of Muslim Affairs, argues that the definition deals with symptoms/after effects of Islamophobia and not the root causes because the inquiry did not, and explicitly excluded, discussion around the criticism of Islam, when this often means freedom of expression to incite hatred against Islam and Muslims. He argues that the line between legitimate criticism and demonisation is a thin one, and warns that the ‘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”. He points out that government has been willing to venture and place limits on this issue of criticism in other situations, for example, restricting discussions on the state of Israel and democracy. This definition may therefore miss a number of examples of Islamophobia which “can hide behind “criticism of Islam” and countering “Islamic extremism””.