Definition of Islamophobia

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:09 pm on 16th May 2019.

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Photo of Naseem Shah Naseem Shah Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities) 2:09 pm, 16th May 2019

As vice-chair of the all-party group on British Muslims, I thank my colleagues, my hon. Friend Wes Streeting and Anna Soubry, for applying for this hugely important debate and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it.

Truth be told, when I look across the House today, I realise this debate is not just about the definition of Islamophobia; it is also about the ever-prevalent Islamophobia across our society and in the online world peddled by the far right, leading to attacks every day on British Muslims, and the acceptable norms of prejudice passed across the dinner table and, frankly, in enclaves of the Tory party that fuel Islamophobia or allow it to be ignored.

Those watching this debate will notice that, although every other Westminster political party has accepted the APPG definition of Islamophobia, one party has not: the Conservative party, which refuses to accept the definition. Indeed, every party in Scotland, including the Conservative party, has accepted and endorsed the definition. I pay tribute to Ruth Davidson for showing great leadership on that.

I originally prepared my speech for the debate that was postponed. Sadly, I can no longer deliver that speech because, just in the last 24 hours, I have witnessed the orchestrated nature of a machine that has come out in spectacular fashion in a continued attempt to shut down the voices and experiences of ordinary British Muslims. What I say today is neither a conspiracy nor some delusional hyperbole. I am referring to the fact that the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, Martin Hewitt, wrote to the Prime Minister suggesting that the APPG definition of Islamophobia creates some sort of security risk. 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. It is as stupid as saying that, because we have a non-legally binding definition of antisemitism, we can no longer do foreign policy in the middle east.

I am a member of the National Police Chiefs’ Council national roundtable for race, religion and belief, which until this week was chaired by Chief Constable Jon Boutcher. He was not aware of Martin Hewitt’s letter or concerns. Furthermore, Chief Constable Ian Hopkins, the national lead on matters of policing and diversity from Greater Manchester police, did not know either, and nor did John Robins, my chief constable in West Yorkshire.

What is deeply worrying is not only that Martin Hewitt attributes concerns to his colleagues without actually speaking to them, but that the intervention suggests that the police have a disgraceful lack of understanding of hate crimes. They recognise the importance of having racism and antisemitism defined, but the intervention suggests that the police are blind to the same need for Muslims, despite the fact that year on year the police have consistently produced figures that show an increase in hate crime against Muslims.

This is not just about a Government who are failing to listen to the British Muslim communities; this is about a Government who on the eve of this debate coincidently and conveniently had a security leak from within their highest office, the office of the Prime Minister, with the serious concerns of the protection of British Muslims played out as a game on the front pages of a national newspaper. This is no longer about a political party that is institutionally Islamophobic; this is about a Government telling a section of those they govern they will not only silence their voices and ignore their legitimate fears, but define their experiences and actively shut down those trying to represent their views.

If it is down to the experiences of women to define feminism, the experiences of people of colour to define racism, the experiences of Jews to define antisemitism, and the experiences of LGBTQ+ communities to define homophobia, I say to the Secretary of State: how dare he tell British Muslims that our experiences cannot define Islamophobia. If that is not a pernicious form of racism, what is it?

For me this is much more than just rejecting the definition. It is disgraceful when the most senior Muslim woman in the Tory party, the former chair of the party, Baroness Warsi, continuously calls for an inquiry into Islamophobia, yet time and again that is completely ignored. It is despicable that the Conservative party ran a dog-whistle Islamophobic campaign against the London Mayor Sadiq Khan and still refuses to apologise. It is unacceptable that, when I called for a debate on Islamophobia in this Chamber, the Leader of the House responded with blatant othering by suggesting that this was an issue for the Foreign Office, thus saying that British Muslims are not citizens of this nation. Maybe she was taking lessons from her colleague, the Home Secretary; I do not know. It is scandalous and frankly an act of misconduct in every field of work for a male to demean women for the way they choose to dress, yet it is unapologetically acceptable for the former Foreign Secretary to describe women in burkas as “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”. It is hypocrisy of the highest order when the Conservative party’s internal complaints procedure when dealing with Islamophobes is to publicly suspend them and privately sneak them back in when it thinks nobody is watching.

While all the above could be explained as a party in denial, the leak suggests this is a party in government that is willing to orchestrate a campaign to reject the recognition of the very real and prevalent nature of Islamophobia. A line has been crossed, beyond the failure to act, to send a clear message to British Muslim communities that this Government are not serious about the safety and security of British Muslims. As a British Muslim woman, that message is clear to me today, as it will be to those up and down this country.

In March 2018, when the right hon. Member for Broxtowe said to the Government that it was high time for there to be a proper legal definition of Islamophobia, the response from the Minister was:

“We do not accept the need for a definitive definition”.—[Official Report, 12 March 2018;
Vol. 637, c. 595.]

So a year ago, the Government said they did not need a definition and today they are saying they need a definition but just not the one accepted by British Muslims. They choose to reject the definition that is rooted in the experiences of British Muslims and thus is widely accepted by over 750 Muslims institutions and organisations.