Modern usage of “Islamophobia” comes from the 1997 report by the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia: Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All.
I wrote in 2012 that the report was seriously flawed, because it conflates attitudes towards Islam and attitudes towards Muslims. Re-reading the report while composing this article I noted that it does not contain a short, quotable definition of “Islamophobia”; perhaps one of the many disadvantages of committee authorship.
Subsequently, there have been attempts to steer the word Islamophobia away from its somewhat nebulous Runnymede 2017 definition, and instead to use it as a shorthand for reprehensible behaviours such as:
- anti-Muslim hatred,
- anti-Muslim bigotry,
- anti-Muslim prejudice,
- anti-Muslim discrimination.
However, when people seek to use “Islamophobia” as a shorthand for the above behaviours, others respond by asserting their freedom to have negative views of Islam, and profess a legitimate fear of Islam, thereby harking back to the original meaning of “Islamophobia” as understood by the Runnymede 2017 report.
Subsequent attempts to rescue the word “Islamophobia” with a new definition
Given the widespread criticism of the 1997 Runnymede definition, there have been several attempts to rescue “Islamophobia” with a revised definition.
- In 2017, to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1997 report, Runnymede published Islamophobia: Still a challenge for us all.
- In June 2018, the organisation Muslim Engagement & Development (MEND) published their report More than words: Approaching a definition of Islamophobia.
- In November 2018, the APPG on British Muslims issued its report: Islamophobia Defined: The inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia.
Some of the definitions are too long to reproduce here. I recommend instead glancing at the full reports linked above. These attempts to rescue the word are doomed to fail for two reasons.
1. A definition cannot be enforced by the Government
In France, the Académie Française guards the French language. It fights a noble, but largely unsuccessful, campaign to defend the French language from incursions by foreign words.
English is quite different. There is no overarching authority. Words in English mean whatever the generality of English users decide that they mean.
The Government can legislate definitions for statutory purposes. As a tax adviser, I spent years advising clients about the definition of “loan relationship” for tax purposes, originally contained in the Finance Act 1996. However, such statutory definitions apply only for the purposes specified. That Act could not, and did not seek to, alter the meaning of the words “loan relationship” as used by citizens in their daily lives. (I have yet to meet a citizen who uses the words “loan relationship” for any purpose other than taxation.)
Accordingly, the Government could, if so minded, legislate a definition of “Islamophobia” for use by the criminal justice system. The definition would need to be tightly drawn so that it could be unambiguously applied by the courts. I suspect the Government regards that task as superfluous. We already have laws covering:
- racially motivated hate crime,
- religiously motivated hate crime,
- incitement to racial hatred,
- incitement to religious hatred,
- discrimination because of a person’s race,
- discrimination because of a person’s religion or belief.
Each of the above is defined in law without any need for a statutory definition of the word “Islamophobia.” Accordingly, I fail to see how creating a statutory definition would help the legal system.
In theory, the existence of a definition for statutory purposes might change the way that the word “Islamophobia” is understood by the man in the street. However, as most people have little interaction with statute law, I am dubious.
2. The pitch has been irretrievably queered
For 20 years, proponents of the word “Islamophobia” attempted to defend the Runnymede 1997 definition.
Trying to use “Islamophobia” as a synonym for the anti-Muslim bad behaviours enumerated above, while also adhering to the Runnymede 1997 definition, ran into a brick wall of opposition. Namely the Runnymede 1997 definition is about much more than those anti-Muslim bad behaviours. It is about an attitude towards Islam.
The Runnymede 1997 definition was appalling and has led to “Islamophobia” becoming a “crock of a word”, as Douglas Murray described it in the Jewish Chronicle in 2013.
Subsequent attempts to repair the 1997 damage with reports such as Runnymede 2017 have suffered from two flaws:
- Unwillingness to explicitly abandon the Runnymede 1997 definition.
- Use of the word “racism”, a word which means something entirely different to sociology academics and to the man in the street. The man in the street knows that Muslims are not a race, so how can you be racist against Muslims?
It is time to abandon the word “Islamophobia” because using it harms Muslims.
It diverts attention from serious anti-Muslim bad behaviours, as enumerated above, and instead draws people into a wholly unproductive debate about the meaning of the word “Islamophobia.” Every minute spent in such a debate is a minute when we are not talking about anti-Muslim hatred.
If people desperately want a single word to be a strict Muslim analogue to antisemitism, then a new word must be invented. It needs to be a new word, to escape the baggage which the proponents of the word “Islamophobia” have allowed to build up around it.
I have elsewhere proposed the word “antimuslimism” and offered a definition modelled very closely on the IHRA definition of antisemitism.