‘Islamophobia’: A contested term in UK discourse

In response to recent claims that Islamophobia does not exist, Tell MAMA, an anti-Islamophobia Muslim advocacy group, has issued a statement which points to three previous annual reports providing data and evidence that it does. The reports, which date from recent years, can be found here, here, and here[1].

The statement says that while there is a fundamental human right to the criticism of religion, people also have the fundamental human right to practise any religious belief in freedom from bigotry, hatred, or violence. This includes “the right to wear religious clothing, the right to speak openly about your beliefs or to partake in religious worship”[2]. Islamophobia is the denial of this right.

One such article which claims Islamophobia does not exist is Melanie Phillips’ column in the Times, which stated, “There [is] no equivalence between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The former was a deranged demonization of a people; the latter was used to shut down debate”[3].

Referring to Phillip’s article, Tell MAMA’s statement says that all forms of hatred must be challenged, whichever community they affect. It states, “The last thing victims of anti-Muslim hatred need are the politics of division, despair and cynicism. They need our support and collective care”[4].

Phillip’s article came after she appeared on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, where she also stated that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism could not be compared and that Islamophobia is “a means of shutting down legitimate criticism of the Muslim community”. Her words were met with significant criticism, including from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which tweeted, “Anti-Muslim hatred is a sickness which must be confronted with clarity & vigour. While in a free society it must be permissible to debate religious teachings, it can never be acceptable to hate Muslims for being Muslim or to racially stereotype any group. Bigotry is bigotry”[5]. In the same spirit, a recent ad placed in two UK national newspapers pledged Muslim solidarity with the Jewish community in eradicating anti-Semitism.

However, Fiyaz Mughal of Faith Matters (who is also the former director of Tell MAMA), has said that using the term Islamophobia is “unhelpful”. He said, “It is now 20 years old and was developed at a time when questions around faith and Islam and the targeting of Muslims were rolled into the singular term. The world was a different place at that time in 1997 … Today, we are in a distinctly different space where more people are questioning faith, including Muslims. So the term does not stack up and like any other language, things change”[6]. Those who hate Islam, might not necessarily be anti-Muslim, and thus Mughal argues the term can be seen to be too “nebulous” in its conflation of the anti-Muslim with the anti-Islam. Its nebulous nature also means it cannot be measured, while anti-Muslim hatred can[7].

He writes that he met a lot of people in his former capacity as the director of Tell MAMA who believed that Islamophobia “was a term coined to create a form of blasphemy, giving the impression that people cannot question faith. It is a word that is increasingly becoming ridiculed and maligned as faith becomes irrelevant for many, while others simply want the right to question anything in life”. Concluding, he says, “We need to have less politics around the use of the term “Islamophobia” and more of a focus on supporting the victims of anti-Muslim hatred, and reducing the hate directed towards any group of people. I care less about the defence of a religion and far more about people – the very source of where religion has come from”[8].

Earlier this year, after Conservative MP Anna Soubry called for legal recognition of in order to tackle what she described as, not a hate crime, but a blatant “act of incitement to terrorism”, the Home Office minister replied, “We do not accept the need for a definitive definition, but we know that Islamophobia is clearly recognised and that we have very effective monitoring of race-hate crimes”[9]. This thinking is perhaps along the same lines as Mughal’s; Islamophobia is not a necessary definition as hate crime adequately deals with anti-Muslim actions.

However, it is not only Tell MAMA who has identified a rise in the phenomenon Islamophobia seemingly describes in recent years. Other organisations, such as the National Union of Students (NUS), the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), and the Runnymede Trust have also detailed it, and it is a phenomenon that has been identified in multiple countries, as SETA’s report demonstrates. And what these reports point to is an institutional phenomenon which fundamentally disadvantages Muslims in all stages and aspects of their lives. The definition of anti-Muslim hate crime does not cover this (as SETA’s report details in its findings that statistics across Europe on discrimination faced by Muslims are only “the tip of the iceberg”). The NUS report on the experience of Muslim students in the UK, for example, identifies prejudice faced by Muslims under the Prevent initiative, the government’s counter-radicalisation strategy, and through the lack of suitable service provision.

The existence of this institutional and seemingly impervious prejudice (of which hate crime is part, but does not fully encompass) cannot be contested according to this evidence. The question is then, how do we define it? Is the term Islamophobia appropriate, or is its conflation of the anti-Islam and the anti-Muslim problematic for its application, as Mughal suggests? The contestation of the very existence of Islamophobia by individuals like Phillips however, does not contribute to this constructive debate.

[1] TellMAMA, 2018.

[2] TellMAMA, 2018.

[3] Woolf, 2018.

[4] TellMAMA, 2018.

[5] Jewish News Online, 2018.

[6] Jewish News Online, 2018.

[7] Mughal, 2018.

[8] Mughal, 2018.

[9] Researcher, 2018.

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Jewish News Online. (2018) ‘Melanie Phillips called a ‘bigot’ for saying Islamophobia is ‘a fiction to shut down debate’. [online] 9 May. http://jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/melanie-phillips-called-a-bigot-for-saying-islamophobia-is-a-fiction-to-shut-down-debate/. [Accessed 25 May 2018].

Mughal, F. (2018) ‘Let’s not confuse anti-Muslim hate with Islamophobia’. [online] 14 May. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/let-s-not-confuse-anti-muslim-hate-with-islamophobia-85977vgcg. [Accessed 25 May 2018].

Researcher. (2018) ‘As four UK MPs receive ‘Punish a Muslim day’ packages, the Home Office says a definitive definition of Islamophobia is not needed’. [online] 14 March. http://www.euro-islam.info/2018/03/14/four-uk-mps-receive-punish-muslim-day-packages-home-office-says-definitive-definition-islamophobia-not-needed/. [Accessed 25 May 2018].

TellMAMA. (2018) ‘Anti-Muslim Hatred Does Exist – We Are the Evidence’. [online] 8 May. https://tellmamauk.org/anti-muslim-hatred-does-exist-we-are-the-evidence/. [Accessed 24 May 2018].

Woolf, N. (2018) ‘Melanie Phillips’ terrible column on the “fiction” of Islamophobia, annotated’. [online] 8 May. https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/religion/2018/05/melanie-phillips-terrible-column-fiction-islamophobia-annotated. [Accessed 24 May 2018].