Our Islamophobia definition is no backdoor blasphemy law – the government must stop dawdling and take it on board

After years of contesting the need for any definition of Islamophobia, the government has been brow-beaten into commissioning its own review

Wes Streeting
Friday 09 August 2019 12:36 BST
James Cleverly says there will be an investigation into Islamophobia in the conservative party

When the Labour Party rejected, and attempted to redefine, the IHRA definition of antisemitism, it was not only patronising and lacking in self-awareness, but also sent out an awful message that the Labour party was not ready to listen or trust British Jews with defining their experiences of antisemitism.

If we simply change the words Labour to Conservative, IHRA definition of antisemitism to APPG on British Muslims definition of Islamophobia and British Jews to British Muslims, it feels like we are experiencing groundhog day.

Last weekend, I welcomed James Cleverley’s announcement as the new Conservative Party Chairman that his party had finally accepted the need for an independent inquiry on Islamophobia as it was long overdue.

Given the catalogue of evidence – example after example of misconduct by members of the Conservative Party, they simply could not continue to bury their heads in the sand. But his assertion that the Conservative Party is waiting for a definition is ringing alarm bells with those looking for leadership and action.

The definition of Islamophobia put forward by our cross-party group of MPs and peers offers the Conservative Party – or any other organisation for that matter – a framework to understand, recognise and tackle conscious and unconscious bias, discrimination and prejudice aimed at Muslims.

More than 750 British Muslims organisations and Institutions support the APPG definition, over 70 academics have penned endorsements to it, 17 councils have passed it as a motion, including cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester. Every political party in Scotland – including the Scottish Conservatives – have supported it, as have most parties in Westminster with the notable exception of the Conservative Party.

Criticisms of the definition haven’t stood up to scrutiny. Some took two sentences from the definition – that Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness – and then criticised the definition for lacking clarity. That strangely overlooked the examples and case studies that form an integral part of the definition, just as the IHRA definition of antisemitism is underpinned by its own examples.

Some have stated that our definition is a backdoor blasphemy law, despite the fact that our definition is about protecting people, not omnipotent deities. As I told the House of Commons, God, if we believe in such a thing, does not need protection from criticism. Ideas must always be subjected to debate and challenge.

Some have even claimed that our definition would harm counter-extremism work (which is absurd as Muslim communities are often the victims of racism and far-right extremism), citing a leaked letter from Martin Hewitt, the Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council to Number 10.

But as Hewitt and Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, the Met’s Head of Counter-Terrorism Policing, have said in a letter to the APPG: “Our concerns centred on what we believed to be a single-line definition. We are assured by your confirmation that the definition includes examples and case studies similar to those provided in the IHRA working definition of antisemitism.

“A definition that includes this further context should address our concerns about the potential impact on our work in countering terrorism and violent extremism”.

Anyone with any lingering doubts about this should listen to the Chair of the Intelligence Security Committee Dominic Grieve QC, a former Attorney General who has poured scorn on such claims.

After years of contesting the need for any definition of Islamophobia, the government has now been brow-beaten into commissioning its own review to find a definition. The Conservative Party can’t kick their review into the long grass while this process runs its course. As we have warned ministers repeatedly, confidence in the government’s ability to come up with its own definition is low and the most important test is that any definition is done with Muslim communities and earns their widespread support.

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Our all-party group spent six months consulting with Muslim organisations, academics, victim groups, institutions, and touring the country speaking to grassroot British Muslim communities. Yet the government, to date, have only appointed one of two advisors that are supposed to be starting this process.

Britain deserves better than having both of its major political parties mired in controversy about how it treats two of our major faith communities. The prime minister needs to acknowledge his own contribution to the misery experienced by Muslim women as a result of his inflammatory remarks comparing them to pillar boxes and bank robbers.

Most importantly, the government needs to show through their actions that Islamophobia has no place in the Conservative Party and that it will show real leadership. They’ll fail, unless they first understand the problem. Our definition leads the way.

Wes Streeting is the Labour MP for Ilford North and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims.

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