What is Islamophobia and why does Tory government not accept definition?

<span>Protesters leave placards outside an embassy in London last year, saying no to Islamophobia, but why is the term controversial?</span><span>Photograph: Hollie Adams/Getty Images</span>
Protesters leave placards outside an embassy in London last year, saying no to Islamophobia, but why is the term controversial?Photograph: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Lee Anderson’s comments about Sadiq Khan and London being under the control of “Islamists” led to the Ashfield MP being stripped of the Conservative whip, but Rishi Sunak and other senior Tories have refused to label them Islamophobic, which has opened up a row over the term. Here, we examine why it is so contested.

Is there an official definition of Islamophobia?

No. The nearest to an official definition in the UK came with the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on British Muslims’ 2019 definition of the term. It said: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” While it was adopted by many organisations, including the Labour party, Lib Dems, and Scottish Conservatives, it was not adopted by the Westminster government or the Conservative party in England.

Why didn’t the government adopt the definition?

It said the definition had “not been broadly accepted” and needed further consideration. In 2021, the government said it was “not in line with the Equality Act 2010 and would have severe consequences for freedom of speech”. Islam is protected as a religion, but Muslims are not defined as a race so are not covered by protections against racial discrimination in the act.

Is there an inconsistency with the government having adopted a definition of antisemitism?

In 2016, the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which has also been adopted by all of the main UK parties. It states: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.

Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” While Judaism is a religion, Jews are defined as a race under the Equality Act.

Similarly, Sikhs are defined as a race, based on a 1983 case, in which the House of Lords (since replaced as the UK’s top court by the supreme court) decided that a Sikh boy who was prohibited from wearing a turban at school had been unlawfully discriminated against under the Race Relations Act 1976 on the basis of his ethnic group. This was subsequently reflected in the Equality Act, which replaced the Race Relations Act.

What is the argument for a definition of Islamophobia?

Prejudice against Muslims has increased in recent years. Even before the Hamas attacks on Israel and subsequent Gaza invasion, Met Police data showed that the number of Islamophobic (a term the Met uses) hate crime incidents against Muslims in London had increased by 174% since 2012/13.

Muslims have some of the worst outcomes in employment and education, and are much more likely to live in social housing and overcrowded homes than the general population. The argument is that the government’s refusal to accept the definition or use the term downplays the hatred directed at – and issues faced by – Muslims and leads to them not being addressed.

Related: Tuesday briefing: Behind the Conservative party’s failure to address Islamophobia

What is the argument against?

Concerns have largely centred around free speech. The National Secular Society and others have also claimed it creates a de facto blasphemy code. The equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, said this week in response to the row over Anderson: “We use the term ‘anti-Muslim hatred’. It makes clear the law protects Muslims. In this country, we have a proud tradition of religious freedom AND the freedom to criticise religion.”

Badenoch said that the APPG definition of “Islamophobia” would create a blasphemy law “via the back door”. Anti-Muslim hatred has not been used by any other senior Tories.

The APPG said that its definition had “neither been motivated by, nor is intended to curtail, free speech or criticism of Islam as a religion”. It also said that the antisemitism definition had “proven that it is possible to protect an ethnic identity and/or religious group without undermining freedom of speech”.

Critics of the IHRA antisemitism definition have claimed that some of the examples it lists (seven out of 11 of which relate to Israel) stifle criticism of Israel and has a chilling effect on free speech, although that is not a viewpoint subscribed to by the government.

Without an Islamophobia definition, do Muslims have any protection under the law?

Yes. Under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, perpetrators of “basic” offences such as physical assault, verbal abuse and incitement to hatred can be charged with “aggravated” offences, or hate crimes as they are commonly known, when they demonstrated – or were motivated by – hostility based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or transgender identity.

For other offences, religious hatred can be an aggravating factor in sentencing. Additionally, certain acts intended to stir up religious hatred are an offence under the Public Order Act 1986, while there are also laws, criminalising online abuse, which could be used to prosecute Islamophobia.