What’s in a definition? The UK’s emerging quest for a definition of Islamophobia

The All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims (APPG) attempted to propose a working definition for Islamophobia. It opened submissions on the definition between May and June 2018 that addressed a range of issues. The consultation process included written submissions from academics, legal experts, and organisations, with community consultations within local communities in Manchester, London, Birmingham and Sheffield.

The proposed definition was as such:

“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”

 The definition proposed by the APPG was endorsed by the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish Conservatives, and over 750 British Muslim organisations called on the government to also adopt the definition. However, last week the government rejected the definition.

Why is this an issue?

The APPG document itself set out two consequences of failing to adopt a definition of Islamophobia. The first is that without a clear definition, it is difficult to challenge the discrimination faced by British Muslims which would be categorised as Islamophobic (e.g. hate crimes). The second is that the absence of a definition will negatively impact the ability for victims to access resources, or understand the differences between victim groups.

Many of those who contributed to the APPG consultation disagreed with the government’s decision: “There is strong evidence that Muslim communities are suffering considerable discrimination. Of course, there are different types of racism – faced by Jewish, Muslim and black communities – which have varying attributes. What connects these as racisms is the common experience of discrimination, and the use of cultural pathologies and stereotypes to vilify racialised minorities for decades.

We strongly urge ministers and the government to recognise that racism must be an integral part of any definition of Islamophobia.”

However, the government claimed that adopting this definition could mean people who criticise aspects of Islam might be prosecuted under discrimination laws, they also claimed legal difficulties with calling Islamophobia a “type of racism” because Islam is a religion rather than a race. Instead, the government are looking to appoint two expert advisors to work with the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group to develop a new definition.

The justification that is said is that ”conflating race and religion in conflict with legal definitions could cause confusion, undermine free speech and may not adequately address sectarian hatred” according to the UK Communities Secretary, James Brokenshire.

Within the APPG’s report, they identify the claim that Islamophobia may not be the most appropriate term to describe anti-Muslim sentiment, but they also engage with the debate of whether the term itself impedes upon freedom of speech.

The debate on this issue is in which ways, or on what basis can Islam be criticised without warranting the label ‘Islamophobic speech’. This is crucial because discussions on Islam need to be encouraged in order to dispel any myths or misconceptions that may exist, and therefore there must be a difference between criticising aspects of the religion, and vilifying the religion or followers which would then constitute Islamophobia.

The report also discusses how the accepted definition of anti-Semitism has “proven that it is possible to protect an ethnic identity and/or religious group without undermining freedom of speech within a rights-based framework”.

It is also worth noting that creating a definition of Islamophobia to go along with anti-Semitism may give the impression that these two communities are the only ones who are suffering, and others such as Sikhs, Hindus do not, and therefore a definition of islamophobia may create a hierarchy of victims.

Whilst a term such as ‘anti-Muslim hate’ might be more accurate to describe the phenomena, and allow for a more concise definition, ‘Islamophobia’ has become an accepted lexicon. Therefore the issue needs to be the definition of the term, rather than the word itself.

One thing that needs to be noted is that a significant number of non-Muslims are victims of Islamophobia or anti-Muslim hate, especially when looking at the experience of hate crime. This is because Sikhs, Hindus, and others of South Asian appearance are assumed to be Muslim and are therefore victimised on that basis. This misidentification of non-Muslims as being Muslims is in part because religion has become racialised, or rather than race and religion are understood as co-occurring. Therefore any definition of Islamophobia needs to incorporate a racial element of the phenomena.

This response has been met with criticism, a spokesperson from the Muslim Council tweeted: “If this free speech rationale is true, it would mean that the government believes that defining the racism that targets Muslims or expressions of Muslimness somehow impinges on free speech. Defining anti-Semitism does not do so, but defining Islamophobia.”

 Definition Flaws

In addition to the above, however, the APPG definition did suffer from some flaws outside of the discussion over free speech and conflating race with religion. Assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Neil Basu, the head of UK counterterror policing, said the definition was “simply too broad to be effective and it risks creating confusion, representing what some might see as legitimate criticism of the tenets of Islam – a religion – as a racist hate crime”. Another connected criticism is that the definition does not include Islamophobia that happens within different sects of Islam.

There was an open letter to Sajid Javid criticising the rush to accept the APPG’s definition. Here it is reproduced in length: “We are concerned that allegations of Islamophobia will be, indeed already are being, used to effectively shield Islamic beliefs and even extremists from criticism, and that formalising this definition will result in it being employed effectively as something of a backdoor blasphemy law.” They highlight how the definition could be used to shut down legitimate criticism, and recommend that the term “anti-Muslim hate” be used instead. They also take issue in who determines the “Muslimness” that is central to the APPG definition, and how this could be problematic for those who are not deemed as being acceptably Muslim enough.

 Finally, both before and after the release of the APPG definition, there have also been alternative definitions put forward. These include definitions by Runnymede, TellMAMA, and Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right among others.

However it might be more appropriated to look at criteria rather than a strict definition, Professor Tariq Modood recommended the following tests to establish whether something is a reasonable criticism of Islam, or it is Islamophobic:

  1. Does it stereotype Muslims by assuming they all think the same?
  2. Is it about Muslims, or a dialogue which Muslims could join?
  3. Is mutual learning possible?
  4. Is the language civil and contextually appropriate?
  5. Insincere criticism for ulterior motives? (Or sincere, e.g. if citing gay rights/feminism)

Ms Sadie Chana is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a doctoral candidate at Rutherford College, University of Kent. Her profile can be found here:

© Sadie Chana. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).