Tom Wilson is a Senior Research Fellow in the Security and Extremism Unit at Policy Exchange.
Later this week, Parliament will hold a debate on Islamophobia and, specifically, on the APPG on British Muslims’ proposal for a formal definition of the term. While many may feel there are bigger questions on the national agenda, what is decided now will have significant ramifications for long to come. A definition of Islamophobia is being proposed that, if adopted, could tie government’s hands on a number of vital areas of future legislation—not least on counter-terrorism. The concern here is whether once accepted this definition might impact media freedom, and freedom of expression more widely still.
There is common agreement that where it occurs, prejudice and discrimination against minorities should be combatted in all its manifestations. If that were all that the term Islamophobia was concerned with—as many well intentioned people seem to believe—then there could be little objection to the term. Unfortunately, Islamophobia is a word that comes with a deeply problematic history. As our new report published for Policy Exchange explains, this is a term that was always intended to go far beyond simply protecting individuals from persecution.
The definition proposed by the APPG states that “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”. If formally adopted by government, there is critical question of whether such a vague and expansive definition would undermine both existing and future legislation—particularly in the area of security and counter-extremism.
Conceivably, we could expect to see this definition used to challenge legislation in the courts and quite possibly there would be a further impact at the level of Judicial Review of how existing powers are used and implemented. As Richard Walton—the former head of Counter Terrorism Command at the Met—pointed out on ConservativeHome recently, under the terms of the Islamophobia definition, measures in the Human Rights Act 1998 regarding discrimination could well be used against the police in their efforts to pursue and prosecute terrorists.
Furthermore, there is the fear that definition might cause particular difficulties for local authorities, several of which have precipitously moved to adopt the APPG’s definition independent of national government. Opponents of the counter radicalisation Prevent programme have previously argued that local authorities face a conflict in being able to uphold both their Equalities duty and their obligations under Prevent. Notably, in the Runnymede Trust’s 2017 report on Islamophobia, the argument was made that Prevent effectively conflicts with the public sector equality duty on account of being discriminatory against Muslims. This claim is dubious. Yet the risk is that by endorsing the Islamophobia definition, we might see campaigners challenge local government on its implementation of Prevent by arguing that councils are conflict with their own Islamophobia definition.
Many of those minded to offer their backing for the definition without necessarily being aware of the ramifications for important areas of policy, do so out of a well-intentioned desire to show support for people who have been the victim of prejudice. But one of the great flaws in the definition concerns the groups that it leaves out.
Several prominent Muslim figures have been critical of the failure of the APPG to address intra-Muslim hatred. Commenting on our new study, Baroness Falkner noted that the APPG’s own Islamophobia report, “was as silent on the impact of Islamism as it was on the very real discrimination that Muslim minorities and secular Muslims face from within their own faith. The APPG’s definition does nothing to address this form of prejudice.” The targeting of minorities within Islam by extremists should be of considerable concern in the UK, and particularly in Scotland where Asad Shah—a member of the Ahmadiyya community—was murdered in Glasgow in 2016. Given that it is reported that the political parties there have now adopted the APPG’s definition, they must ask whether that definition is adequate given its neglect of intra-Muslim hatred.
Baroness Falkner spoke out about her own first hand experience of this form of prejudice during a Lords debate on Islamophobia in December. During that same debate, Lord Singh also noted the experience of other minorities when observing the particular attention that Islamophobia receives in public debates. As he explained, other minority groups look at this long running focus on Islamophobia and feel as if they are falling off of the government’s radar on account of lacking “a culture of complaint”.
This is something those considering adopting the definition of Islamophobia have to take into account. It has been reported that Labour, the Liberal Democrats and London City Hall have all adopted the APPG’s definition of Islamophobia. There were similar reports that the Scottish Conservatives may have accepted the definition, although the details here remain unclear.
What is notable is that so far the Conservative Government has resisted doing so. This after all is a maximalist definition, and as our report documents, highly problematic groups and individuals – of the type kept at arms length by the last Labour government as well as its Conservative successors – have played a prominent role in campaigning for an Islamophobia definition. Several appear to have fed into the definition now being proposed. A more reasonable definition—or perhaps simply a national strategy on combatting anti-Muslim hatred—might easily have won near universal backing. Instead, this definition has become a matter of contention and may yet be rejected altogether.