Dr Martin Parsons is a former aid worker in Afghanistan and Pakistan and has a PhD in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.
The Conservative Party does not have a problem with ‘Islamophobia’ but, as with virtually all political parties, a handful of ordinary members have let the rest of us down by expressing anti-Muslim sentiments.
That distinction is crucial. There is nothing in the party’s policies or organisation I have observed which encourages anti-Muslim hatred – and therein lies the clue to the problem with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB)’s attack on the Conservative Party.
What exactly is ‘Islamophobia’? Well actually there are two distinct definitions, and they tend to get blurred.
The first is the encouragement of anti-Muslim hatred, which all of us should unhesitatingly condemn. The second is seeking to prohibit criticism of Islam, which is in effect an Islamic blasphemy law.
This amounts to a violation of a number of fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and academic freedom.
The origins of this go back at least as far as December 2005, when the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) held their third extraordinary Islamic Summit. At this they launched a ten-year strategy which included a major section on ‘Islamophobia’. This solely defined ‘Islamophobia’ as ‘defamation of religion’ and sought to persuade all countries to adopt ‘deterrent punishments’ i.e. make criticism of Islam a criminal offence.
What is most extraordinary about this document is that the section on Islamophobia makes absolutely no mention at all about stopping anti-Muslim hatred, although the OIC later realised this was a tactical mistake. Their 2005 Islamophobia strategy was solely concerned with seeking to introduce what is in effect an Islamic blasphemy law in all but name to all non-Islamic countries.
The OIC then followed this up with a number of UN resolutions calling for this, including attempts to persuade the UN’s Human Rights Council to adopt motions to this effect. This was despite blasphemy laws in a number of OIC countries being directly responsible for very serious violations of human rights both of non-Muslim minorities and Muslims, particularly those who speak out against these laws. The abuse of human rights such Islamophobia campaigns represent has been repeatedly condemned by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, whose work is widely regarded as something of a gold standard for international reporting on freedom of religion or belief.
The trouble is that in the UK and other western countries a significant number of Islamic organisations, including some otherwise quite respectable ones, have very unfortunately blurred these two categories. That is not only disingenuous, it is also dangerous, as it also provides oxygen to groups like Britain First and the EDL whose recruitment narrative focuses on telling ordinary people that the political establishment ‘does not allow you to say anything about Islam’.
That is why the action that the Home Office took in summer 2016 was so significant. Very quietly, and without any fanfare, the Home Office’s hate crime action plan quietly dropped the term ‘Islamophobia’ and replaced it with the much more appropriate ‘anti-Muslim hatred’.
Doubtless the MCB do not like this, and will probably have been quietly working to try to get ‘Islamophobia’ back in the latest version of the hate crime plan when it comes out next month. But, no one should be in any doubt, replacing the ambiguous term Islamophobia with ‘anti- Muslim hatred’ was a major achievement of the Home Office under Theresa May.
In this country we protect people not beliefs, ideologies, or ideas – and that is a fundamental tent of Conservatism. That is why the Conservative Party does not have the sort of ideological problem with anti-Muslim hatred that the Daily Telegraph demonstrated the Labour Party has with anti-Semitism.
As a Christian, I may sometimes find it painful the way my belief is lampooned and ridiculed, though that is more likely to be in the left-leaning media such as the Guardian than among those sympathetic to Conservatism. I therefore empathise with Muslims upset at criticism of their faith, which is not always done respectfully or even even accurately.
But allowing my beliefs to be publicly criticised is the price not only of freedom of religion, but also of the freedom of speech on which democracy itself depends. We must never confuse protecting beliefs with protecting people. That unfortunately, is something that the MCB either does not understand or does not want to.
The expression of anti-Muslim hatred needs to be roundly condemned wherever it happens – as does every other form of prejudice, as Brandon Lewis, the party chairman, put it: “discrimination of any kind has no place within the Conservative Party”.