No working definition of Islamophobia for the UK Government: Implications and Reactions

Tuesday 1st November  was the  beginning of the tenth Islamophobia awareness month, a campaign founded in 2012 by MEND (Muslim Engagement and Development) and partner organisations which aims to “showcase the positive contributions of Muslims as well as raise awareness of Islamophobia in society”1. The campaign theme for 2022 is “#TacklingDenial” of Islamophobia to raise awareness about the lived experience of Muslims and to create opportunities to bridge gaps in British society2. This campaign starts against the backdrop  of  the UK government decision to drop its plan to provide a working definition of Islamophobia.

Background to the definition

In May 2019, the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims (APPG) proposed the following definition “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”3. The APPG was established in July 2017 to build on the work of the previous APPG on Islamophobia, but had a wider remit to examine the broad range of issues British Muslims both care about, and are affected by4. Following two years of consultation, in November 2018 the APPG on British Muslims published their report Islamophobia Defined: the inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia“. 

MEND (who have adopted the definition) argue in their Why Councils Should Adopt the APPG Definition of Islamophobia” that this definition is useful because Muslims are “racialised through Islamophobic tropes”5 which stereotype them as a homogenous group who are different from the rest of British society. So, by conceptualising Islamophobia as a “type of racism” it shows how Muslims are victims of more than “overt expressions of religious hatred and abuse, but are subject to a system of discrimination, control and socio-economic exclusion”6. MEND further highlight overt forms of Islamophobia, such as hate crimes, harassment, and abuse in public places are only one form Islamophobia takes. The definition captures more covert understandings of Islamophobia and the spaces it can manifest, such as areas of employment, education, politics and policing too7.

Adopting a definition of Islamophobia is important because “we can only tackle Islamophobia effectively if we know what it means and entails”8. Having a formal definition not only allows policymakers to identify how Islamophobia manifests and functions to provide meaningful strategies to tackle it, but signals to British Muslim communities that their local councils and political parties recognise the discrimination they face and are actively working to combat it. The APPG definition then is useful in the framing of Islamophobia and has been adopted by City Councils (Bradford, Birmingham and Manchester), organisations (MEND, Muslim Council of Britain), and Political Groups (Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalist Party, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats) and others. However, MEND have acknowledged the definition is too broad, theoretical, and open to interpretation and so should be applied in conjunction with some explanatory guidelines.

Conservative Party Rejects Islamophobia Definition

Despite many U.K. political organisations adopting the APPG definition, the Conservative party dismissed it. In 2019, a spokesperson for the Conservative party stated that they are “deeply concerned at hatred directed against Muslims and others because of their faith and heritage.9.  and that  “we know that some have suggested that establishing a definition of Islamophobia could strengthen efforts to confront bigotry and division”10, but that the current definition proposed was “not in line with the Equality Act 2010” and would have “severe consequences for freedom of speech”11.At the time, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) reacted that “bad faith actors” who are “motivated by a desire to deny Muslims the right to define the bigotry and discrimination they face. The Conservative party should be wary of placing themselves on the wrong side of the argument and we call on the Party to unequivocally adopt the definition12.  James Brokenshire (the then communities secretary for the Conservative party) said that the government would come up with its own “working definition of Islamophobia”13.

In September 2021, the UK government had still failed to propose  such a working definition with with Naz Shah (Labour MP for Bradford West) stating “it is astonishing that 845 days on, we are still calling on the government to adopt the APPG definition of Islamophobia14, which in her view, shows  “utter neglect” to tackling a very real form of racism, as everyday Islamophobia has become normalised in the UK15. A spokesperson for the MCB further stated that it was “shocking that the Government is no closer to establishing a definition of Islamophobia it deems suitable”16. These critiques emerged at a time when the Conservative party was also under scrutiny for failing to deal with Islamophobia within its own party.  (see Euro-Islam “Islamophobia within the British Conservative party: The Inquiry Findings”)17.

In October 2022, more than three years after the initial rejection of the APPGs definition, the government announced that it will not combat anti-Muslim hatred with an official definition of Islamophobia18. This policy change comes at a time where Muslims are the most frequently targeted group for religious hate crime in England and Wales19. (see Gov.UK Hate Crime England and Wales 2021 – 2022 for further statistics) Muhammed Asim, a  scholar appointed in July 2019 to advise the government on the definition,  claimed that his letters and emails  to Michael Gove (the current UK Government Communities Secretary) had been completely ignored20. Asim was subsequently sacked in June 2022, without being notified beforehand. Later in September 2022, during event hosted by the Counter Extremism Group, Michael Gove declared “there are dangers if a university, or another organisation, which should be the home of free debate uses a definition like that to police what people can say in order to penalise them for it”21. Gove added that the APPG’s definition of Islamophobia is “drivel” and that he wanted to target “political Islam” which he called a “virus”22. Gove further denied being an Islamophobe and claimed the “British Government had some ‘resistance’ to that stance due to a ‘desire not to cause offence’”23.

The dropping of the definition of Islamophobia has been strongly opposed. The Shadow minister for local government and faith Sarah Owen tweeted: “It’s the start of Islamophobia awareness month. Hate crimes against Muslims increased during the pandemic & continue to hurt communities today. They can’t tackle something undefined – Govt should stop dithering & adopt the APPG British Muslim’s definition of Islamophobia”24.

Khadijah Elshayyal, a scholar from  the University of Edinburgh, recognised that there are both good and bad arguments for having an official definition of Islamophobia, however “the adoption of a definition which had the confidence of Muslim communities and organisations would have signalled to them that the government took the issue of Islamophobia seriously”25. She also argued the definition could have served as a reference point to those educating against it or seeking to redress structural Islamophobia. Yet, the “sorry saga of the Islamophobia definition illustrates that this situation is not even about indifference from the Tories, it’s about active contempt for Muslim civic engagement and activism”26.

In the same vein, for Juberiah Alam of 5 Pillars UK (an independent news and analysis-based website)  the government has decided to drop plans to create a definition  for “one simple reason :  it is institutionally Islamophobic”27. Alam disagrees that any alleged flaws in the APPG definition of Islamophobia do not constitute a valid argument and considers that the definitional disagreements detract from a larger issue :  a working definition would implicate several Conservative Party figures, MPs, councillors and journalists who have previously made anti-Muslim statements. It would also be a hinderance to future laws and policies that would discriminate Muslims28.


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