Are British Muslims allowed to define their own suffering amid rising hate crimes and the ever increasing normalisation of Islamophobia in society? Does Islamophobia really exist, or are we just overly sensitive to criticisms of our faith? Those are the questions politicians will once more be focusing on in parliament today during a debate on the definition of Islamophobia.
As British Muslims continue to be subjected to growing hate crimes, both online and in person; and as certain newspapers continue to print inaccurate and sensationalist stories – at the same time as far-right political parties whip up anti-Muslim sentiment among sections of their populations to win votes – our parliamentarians appear more interested in debating semantics, rather than dealing with the everyday Islamophobia experienced by Muslims.
What’s more, a definition of Islamophobia already exists – it was formulated by the APPG on British Muslims in consultation with a wide range of academics, community groups and faith organisations. It has already been adopted by major political parties, including the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Scottish Conservatives.
Yet the Conservative Party rejected the definition, claiming that it was not in line with the Equality Act 2010 and could “undermine free speech”. This, despite the fact that the definition is not legally binding, and the report into the definition repeatedly references guaranteeing free speech.
Even senior police chiefs who had initially expressed scepticism – over fears the definition could undermine efforts to combat extremism – later urged prime minister Boris Johnson to adopt it, saying they had been reassured it would not hinder their work.
But perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the party of government is more interested in definitions, rather than dealing with the discrimination and hatred faced by Muslim communities. Its own party leader made derogatory remarks about Muslim women who wear the burka looking like “bank robbers” and “letterboxes” – which itself led to a 375 percent increase in hate crimes.
Nor should we forget that a Hope Not Hate report, last year, found that 57 percent of conservative party members had a “negative attitude” towards Muslims, with almost half (47 percent) believing that Islam is “a threat to the British way of life”. In addition, 58 percent believe “there are no-go areas in Britain where Sharia law dominates, and non-Muslims cannot enter”. Some conservative MPs have retweeted Tommy Robinson – and other members have called for Muslims to be thrown off bridges and sterilised.
With Islamophobic sentiments so widespread in the party, the refusal to adopt a formal definition not only allows it off the hook; but also means it can continue to portray hatred and discrimination against Muslims as a matter of debate.
For those of us who have experienced Islamophobic abuse, or who have family members that have been subjected to hatred simply because of choosing to wear a headscarf, the debate is yet more proof of the disconnect that exists between politicians and the very serious dangers posed by Islamophobia, which has overaken immigration as the main driver behind the rise of the far-right.
Every time the government (or many others for that matter) ask us to once more “explain” Islamophobia, I’m reminded of the words of Toni Morrison: “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”
There are no doubt those who will claim “Islam isn’t a race”, as they read this piece. You’re quite right, it isn’t – but that doesn’t stop Muslims being racialised. How else would you explain Sikhs being attacked for “being Muslim”?
It’s time for the government to stop repeatedly kicking this issue into the long grass and to formally adopt a definition of Islamophobia. More than two years ago, in May 2019, the-then communities secretary James Brokenshire pledged that the government would come up with its own “working definition of Islamophobia”. We’re still waiting.
A failure to take Islamopohobia and bigotry aimed at Muslim communities seriously will only further embolden bigots who think Muslims are fair game, and will allow them to continue to hide behind the government’s own obfuscation over this issue.
The fight against Islamophobia isn’t one that demands “special” treatment for Muslim communities, but “equal” treatment. There shouldn’t be a hierarchy of racism amongst politicians – we should all abhor and seek to combat all forms of hatred.
Basit Mahmood is co-editor of Left Foot Forward