I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend.
My view has always been that Islamophobia—which I find quite easy to identify in my own mind—is a process whereby utterly law-abiding individuals who wish to live in peace with their neighbours and get on with their daily lives find themselves subjected to abuse with no rational basis whatsoever, and it is very prevalent. Part of that may be a result of the disturbed conditions in the middle east and the growth of terrorism. I do not think it possible to disconnect the one from the other: the connection is very clear. However, that does not reduce our duty to try to do something about it.
That brings me to the work of the all-party parliamentary group and the foreword that I wrote. Those who were present at the APPG meeting which I attended will remember that I issued a gentle critique of the definition that it had drafted, and we had a very interesting discussion, in particular about the word “racism”, which is common parlance in the House and indeed the country, but whose usage has changed significantly over recent decades. It started as an attempt to define a prejudice or discrimination on the basis of someone’s immutable colour characteristics, but it has evolved over time into meaning something rather broader—I think the penny has gradually dropped that our colour characteristics are not necessarily all that immutable—and has taken on a far more cultural and wider context. It can be defined as hostility to the “other” outside one’s own group.
It was for that reason that the APPG looked at the definition in trying to establish a working definition of Islamophobia that might be useful. As I have said, during the meeting I gently pointed out that I could see where the pitfalls were likely to be, but I wrote the foreword because it seemed to me that it was possible to go round and round in circles, and that seeking a redefinition could well be useful to public authorities and groups that were trying to tackle Islamophobia. I should emphasise that neither I nor—I think—any member of the APPG thought that a new legal definition was being enacted, and that condign punishment would be visited on any individual who transgressed what someone else’s definition might be.
I have to say that I am rather depressed to see some of the reaction to this work. I am sorry to have to say it, because I have great respect for Policy Exchange, but a great deal of this report is total and unadulterated rubbish. It strays off into areas that are about a million miles removed from Islamophobia. I really do not know about Mr Hewitt and the police officer and his issues concerning counter-terrorism, but how it could possibly be argued that this definition could prevent the police from enforcing the law against terrorists in this country is beyond my comprehension. It is breathtaking.
The lesson that I derive from this is that, unfortunately, we are treading on eggshells. When attempts to crystallise a definition to enable better debate and understanding—which, in my view, were clearly well-meaning—are immediately transformed into a culture war in which it starts to be alleged that what is being attempted is the suppression of free speech, I become profoundly depressed. The exaggerations in the report seem to demonstrate a reverse fear that, somehow, the word “Islamophobia” is being used as a weapon on the law-abiding when people reasonably highlight anxiety over terrorism, or practices within some communities which are regarded as being bad, a view that I believe to be shared throughout the House. That is far removing us from what I think the issue is.
Let me issue a plea to the Secretary of State. He has a rather unenviable task in this respect, but I hope that he will not dismiss the APPG’s report out of hand, because it does not deserve to be dismissed. It is clearly based on good intentions and a wish to identify a way forward. If we stop flying off the handle and disappearing into the most extraordinary and bizarre places—I am sorry to have to say that I felt that that was happening a little bit when I listened to my right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes—we may make some progress, and I hope that this debate will facilitate it. That, I think, was the purpose of the APPG’s report, which is why I wrote the foreword.
I cannot get away from the fact that there is a real problem here, and we need to tackle it. This is an area in which we need to show leadership.