Last week it became clear that, according to senior police, the Tories and some non-Muslim public figures with some Muslim friends, the term “Islamophobia” is undefinable in any meaningful, actionable way. The working definition, put forward by the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims, is not legally binding; yet Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said it was “too broad as currently drafted, could cause confusion for officers enforcing it and could be used to challenge legitimate free speech on the historical or theological actions of Islamic states”. This is either ignorant or consciously misleading. There is no legal implication in the definition whatsoever.
Last week the government also rejected the definition, which in full reads: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” The communities secretary, James Brokenshire, said that accepting the definition had “potential consequences for freedom of speech” and that the combination of race and religion would cause “legal and practical issues”. Already adopted by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the definition was turned down because it needed “further consideration”. So just how much more information will it take for ministers to consider such a short single sentence?
I can help. Last week ITV News revealed the details of a leaked dossier that sets out more than 100 accusations of Islamophobia and other incidents of racism against people claiming to be Conservative party members. Members were said to have called Islam a “cult” which is being allowed to “take over our country”. Muslim people were an “infestation” who cause “mayhem wherever they decide to invade”. One member allegedly said: “Their plan is to turn this country into an Islamic state.”
Perhaps these cases will aid the Conservatives in their “further consideration”, and indeed anyone else grappling with the extreme difficulty of parsing the difference between criticising a religion and calling a people “an infestation”.
There is something common in all the quotes above – the belief that Muslims are some invading, corrupting force that is usurping and replacing the native population. There is no mention of Islamic doctrine, no criticism of Islam as a religion, legitimate or otherwise. The abuse merely claims a general intent of its followers, whoever they are, to take over the country. But this still isn’t clear enough for many who believe engaging with anti-Muslim prejudice will jeopardise law enforcement, free speech, and even historical inquiry. There is a sort of Upstairs, Downstairs element to it all. Muslims are told by those in authority that they just don’t understand the implications of what they are asking for: sure, things are tough down there in the trenches for you, with a rise in hate crime and whatnot, but have you considered what this means for those of us running the country or who are its most influential voices?
The historian Tom Holland stretched the implications even further. He tweeted: “Attacks on Muslims are criminal, and should obviously be punished as such. Pointing out that there was a religious motivation behind, say, the Muslim sieges of Constantinople or the Caliphate’s imposition of discriminatory taxes on Jews and Christians absolutely should not be.” Again, he omits the fact that there is no “criminal” element to the definition at all. Former Conservative chair Sayeeda Warsi, who has campaigned to root out Islamophobia from her party, was accused by Ben Goldsmith (Zac’s younger brother) of “working alongside some of the most illiberal, unpleasant people in Britain to silence any attempt by mainstream Muslims … or anyone else to question the Islamist ideology”.
This resistance to a mere attempt at a description of Islamophobia is not only an overreaction, it is a telling sign. It swerves the original problem – the epidemic of anti-Muslim prejudice, abuse and hate crime – and focuses instead on unrelated non-issues. In parliament Labour MP Naz Shah tried to put a stop to this tactic by saying: “Let me put this to bed once and for all: this is a non-legally binding working definition, which is why that assertion is simply plain stupid.”
All Muslims are asking for is a moral gesture, a step towards grappling with what is happening to them. I am afraid Shah is either naive or generous. The pushback is not something as benign as “stupid”: the fixation on a nonexistent legal dimension is, in itself, a manifestation of Islamophobia which refuses to see Muslims as individuals with rights, but as part of a sinister whole. One could even say it is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness. A helpful definition, isn’t it?