The pitfalls of defining ‘Islamophobia’

Worrying times: A Worcestershire mosque daubed with a swastika (Jewish News)
Worrying times: A Worcestershire mosque daubed with a swastika (Jewish News)

Twenty years on from the war on terror, Muslim communities in the west have faced a difficult time through no fault of their own. The actions of a minority of Islamist terrorists has meant that many Muslims have been tarnished as either terrorists or sympathetic to their murderous cause.

Last week we heard evidence from MPs, activists and academics for the need to adopt the APPG working definition of Islamophobia. Labour MP, Zarah Sultana gave an emotional speech about how she had been called a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ or an enemy of the country she was born in just for being Muslim.

One show of strength against this ignorance, the racist far right and Islamists that Sultana and other Muslims face is to scrap the APPG working definition of ‘Islamophobia’ – which appears to be emulating the IHRA working definition of antisemitism – and instead focus our attention on anti-Muslim bigotry and hate.

The current definition of Islamophobia – which has not been adopted by the Conservative Party – is weak as it appears to racialize Muslims in a way Jews are viewed as an ethno-religious group. For example, the definition states: ‘Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism’.

This is of course incorrect. Muslims come from diverse backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities. Indeed, whilst Islam may have originated from Arabia, Muslims can come from any geographical location. Therefore, what can categorically be stated, is that there are communities of Muslims – and as a whole, they are not a homogenous bloc.

Furthermore, the definition is advanced with the inclusion of ‘Muslimness’. For example, the definition states ‘Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimsness or perceived Muslimness’.

The inclusion of such a variable poses a threat to diverse Muslim communities. For example, go into any mosque on a Friday for the weekly Jummah prayers and you will see many Muslims. Indeed, what will be most obvious is that no two people will look the same. Furthermore, they will not talk the same or dress the same. Thus, should such a description of Muslimness be achieved, it could potentially caricature Muslims in a way that erases the diversity that already exists in Muslim communities.

The APPG definition of ‘Islamophobia’ would be a gift to both the racist far-right and Islamists. For the former, they seek to caricature all Muslims as the same whilst the latter seeks to do this anyway. This shared goal highlights why the inclusion of Muslimness is a non-starter and should be discarded.

The definition is further weakened as it appears to ignore intra-Muslim conflict. For example, whilst Sunni Muslims maybe the largest group of Muslims, they are not the only ones. Indeed, there are Ahmadiya Muslims and also Shia Muslims to name just a few. Would conflict based on Muslim identity between these groups be considered ‘Islamophobia’? If so, how or where would racism fit into it? Since Muslims are not and cannot be a race, this is a huge intellectual oversight of the definition.

To better protect Muslim communities, it would be prudent to focus less attention on potentially caricaturing Muslims and arguing that targeting them is racist, and instead focusing on acts of bigotry and hate because a person is Muslim. Quite rightly, looking at Muslims and by extension Islam, as alien from the fabric of British society where they need special protection which would not be enjoyed by any other community, is not only bigoted, but also at odds with what Muslims think of themselves in Britain today.

For example, in a recent report by the think tank Crest Advisory, more than three quarters (76 per cent) of British Muslims believe Britain is a good place to live for them. Indeed, this view is further reinforced about the reasons why, with the most commonly selected reason being ‘freedom of religion’. Whilst the report confirms 89 per cent of British Muslims consider ‘Islamophobia’ to be a problem in Britain, the APPG working definition does not appear to reduce the reason why this is the case.

Muslim communities need to be treated equally in British society, not given special treatment and I say this as a Muslim. The APPG working definition of Islamophobia is both flawed in its thinking and in practice. These pitfalls exist because this definition exists. A better and more focused approach on to tackling anti-Muslim bigotry and hate is needed, rather than misdiagnosing the problem with a definition that is not fit for purpose.

About the Author
Wasiq is an academic and trustee for the organisation Muslims Against Antisemitism (MAAS). He specialises in the areas of academia, law and terrorism.