A Working Definition of Islamophobia: A New Hope or Empty Expectation?
This article was originally published in Turkish in the German-based magazine, Perspektif on 27th February 2019. The original can be viewed by clicking here.
NB: Since publishing this article, my views about the ‘need’ for a working definition and the ‘function’ such a definition serves have undergone significant change. For a more up to date overview of my current thinking, please read my article available here.
In November last year, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims made history by putting forward the first working definition of Islamophobia in the UK. Its report, Islamophobia Defined, stated that: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”.
The culmination of almost two years of consultation and evidence gathering, the definition took into account the views of different organisations, politicians, faith leaders, academics and communities from across the country. Importantly, it also took into account the views of victims of Islamophobic hate crime. Garnering an overwhelmingly positive response, questions remain about the extent to which the definition will be the catalyst many wanted it to be; that is, giving impetus to politicians and policymakers to do more as regards addressing Islamophobia.
An Ongoing Process
Despite its widespread usage, Islamophobia remains a relatively new word which only entered the public and political lexicon little more than two decades ago. Yet, the process of establishing a working definition — one that has political credibility — has been ongoing and one that I have contributed to in various different ways. In the hope of bringing about a more consistent and coherent approach to tackling Islamophobia, the drive for a working definition has been underpinned both by the need to help people better understand what Islamophobia is, what it is not, and how best to determine and record levels of Islamophobic hate crime.
Another driver has been the need to counter the arguments put forward by those who seek to undermine the attempts by those advocating the need for the government and others to take Islamophobia seriously. Some examples of the detractors and their arguments include the writer Melanie Philips who claims that Islamophobia just does not exist, that it is a mere “fiction”. Philips continues to make such claims despite the fact that data on hate crimes against Muslims from the Metropolitan Police and Tell MAMA render them wholly unfounded. Another example relates to the term Islamophobia. Here, those such as the Quilliam Foundation suggest the term to be unduly problematic, not least because they claim it shuts down debate. At the most extreme, commentators such as Rod Liddle claim there just is just not enough Islamophobia.
Comparisons with racism
Irrespective of whether the new working definition of Islamophobia has the potential to counter these narratives, it still has much to offer. Short and accessible, the new definition is neither too complex nor overly academic, which maximises its potential appeal to both public and political audiences. Aligning Islamophobia with racism is also likely to be helpful because not only do people intuitively ‘get’ racism but so too do the majority deem it to be unwanted and unnecessary in today’s Britain. The same needs to be true for Islamophobia where people similarly ‘get’ that a Muslim woman being physically assaulted is equally unwanted and unnecessary.
Drawing comparisons with racism does have the potential for some confusion however, not least in conflating ‘religion’ with ‘race’. While religion has the potential to be changed and chosen, race is largely fixed and unchanging. This means it will be important to explain clearly that the comparison with racism is made to highlight similarities between the functions and processes of Islamophobia, rather than suggesting Muslims constitute a race. In this way, the new definition emphasises how Islamophobia targets markers of ‘Muslimness’ and Muslim identity: evident in how perpetrators of Islamophobic hate crime disproportionately target visible Muslim women. This is similar to how racism often targets people for the colour of their skin.
Given the new definition’s emphasis on Muslimness and Muslims, this should also go some way to allaying fears that it can be Islamophobic to not share the same beliefs as Muslims or disagree with some of their religious practices. Clearly it is not and has never been. Nor is it Islamophobic to appropriately criticise Muslims or condemn atrocities committed by any group or person who might claim to be acting ‘in the name of Allah’ or indeed, something similar. But as the new definition rightfully infers, if disagreements, criticisms or condemnations are used to demonise or vilify all Muslims without differentiation, then it is likely at least some Islamophobic views will be underpinning such an approach.
The new working definition also goes beyond merely replicating the working definition of antisemitism put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance: adopted by the British government in 2016. While substituting Islamophobia for antisemitism has been previously advocated as a quick and easy solution to the ongoing definition problem, the complexity and fallout from recent allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party highlight the weaknesses and deficiencies of such an approach. Having two separate definitions for Islamophobia and antisemitism should then ensure that some critical — and wholly necessary — distance is maintained between the two phenomena.
What people do and say
While the working definition is a welcome development, it’s worth remembering that it is only a recommendation. Whether the government intends to adopt it or not is unclear and in truth, there has been little to suggest since the definition was launched that it would. Clearly, this is a massive disappointment not least given the numerous allegations last year about Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. It would not only be a grave disappointment if the government was to continue to ignore the new definition but so too a missed opportunity to attribute the need to address Islamophobia the import and seriousness it needs.
Nonetheless, the definition is a catalyst for change and is right to be more concerned with what people do and what they say, rather than laying claim to what or who they are. Using the definition to merely call out potential Islamophobes has the very real potential to be wholly counter-productive. Instead, it must be used to build new constituencies and alliances that can work together to advocate for change. While the working definition is unlikely to appease those who ultimately deny Islamophobia’s existence, if it draws attention to Islamophobia and its negative consequences, that can only be a good thing. My hope is that it will also draw attention to how Islamophobia impacts the lives of many ordinary Muslims going about their lives in today’s Britain. This should neither be dismissed nor underestimated.