It seems the government is poised to reject the definition of Islamophobia proposed by the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims. Instead, it appears to have capitulated to a small group of vocal and well-established ideologues, some of whom have misrepresented the definition.
Those who oppose the definition have thrown everything into the cause: they claim it limits free speech, that it is emanating from Islamists, and most recently, that it hampers counterterrorism efforts.
The leaders of the APPG itself have rebutted most of these arguments (see Wes Streeting’s defence here). It is also supported by all the main political parties as well as a broad cross-section of Muslim communities representing hundreds of mosques and organisations from religious to secular and across the UK.
Still, astonishingly, a government spokesman claims there is not enough support for the definition, ignoring the views of the impacted communities and the country’s leading experts. Instead, the government will “appoint two new independent advisers to produce their own definition”: because, it would seem, they know better.
How did we arrive here?
In March 2018, Home Office minister Victoria Atkins said “we do not accept the need for a definitive definition (of Islamophobia)”. This was just after an insidious campaign against prominent Muslims and mosques who were told that they would be subject to a “Punish a Muslim Day”.
When the APPG launched its definition in November 2018, the government response in the House of Lords in December and January 2019 kicked the issue into the long grass, with an expectation that this would be looked into at some undefined point in the future.
However, as the APPG definition gained greater traction with all the main political parties (even the Scottish Conservatives supported it) and as the debate on the definition of Islamophobia in parliament has returned, now the stance has fundamentally shifted to a rejection “on free speech grounds” and because it has “not been broadly accepted”, despite the broad support outlined above.
It appears in the interim period, there has been sustained pressure from a number of influential figures who appear to not understand the definition’s wording.
Take the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, which has been busy leading the charge by issuing three reports opposing Islamophobia: a research note in December 2018, a report on the definition’s impact on counter-terrorism in April 2019 and a broader report on the definition in May 2019. This was the same organisation accused in 2008 of fabricating evidence against a mosque by BBC Newsnight and whose funding is deemed “highly opaque”. It is therefore not unreasonable to draw the conclusion that the organisation may not be acting entirely in good faith.
The Quilliam Foundation – a self-appointed “counter-extremism” organisation whose 2017 report on grooming gangs was considered “a piece of inflammatory pseudoscience” by the renowned expert Dr Ella Cockbain due to its “major methodological problems” – has also raised concerns that can be summarised as Muslims not requiring the same protections as Jews, and that any definition of Islamophobia (but not anti-Semitism) should include sectarianism.
Both are championed in the fight-back, particularly by sections of the right-wing media. It is telling that the latest Policy Exchange report had a particular focus on successful campaigns to call out inaccurate bigotry in the media. Edward Faulks let the cat out of the bag in the Spectator: ‘Acceptance of the definition would pit Conservatives against their supporters in the mainstream media. How is that in the party’s interest?’
Yet while bad faith actors are not lacking, there are also good faith actors who repeat similar concerns, in particular related to free speech, some of whom may have given evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee.
It is important to tackle this concern head on. If true, it would mean that defining (with no legal consequences) the racism that targets Muslims or expressions of Muslimness somehow impinges on free speech, and this is always articulated as an attempt to protect “criticism of Islam”.
The Islamophobia definition website explains the wording of the definition on this issue: “being critical of Islam does not make you an Islamophobe. You are only an Islamophobe if you use the language of racism or racist tropes targeting expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness to express your views”.
And the authors of the report have explained the intent: “our report makes it crystal clear that our definition does not preclude criticism of Islam or Islamic theology. God, if you believe in such a thing, doesn’t need protection from criticism.”
It’s difficult to see how this tallies with accusations that the right to criticise Islam would be undermined.
We are left with two conclusions: either the government (and a Conservative Party embroiled in accusations of Islamophobia) is intentionally playing to voters lost to the Brexit Party by opposing calls to protect Muslims from bigotry, or given the lack of engagement with proponents of the APPG definition and broader Muslim communities, the government has simply concluded that their voices do not merit being listened to.
Miqdaad Versi is a spokesman for and former assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain.