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

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and he is absolutely right. The truth is that the Conservative party refuses to accept the definition accepted by over 750 Muslim institutions and organisations from across the spectrum, spanning from the Muslim Council of Britain, the largest umbrella body for British Muslims, to prominent Muslim women groups such as the Muslim Women’s Network, to British Muslims for Secular Democracy, and that is in addition to 80 academics, some of whose life’s work has been on racism.

In the spirit of speaking about freedoms, let me turn the Secretary of State’s attention to article 3 of the universal declaration of human rights:

“everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of a person”.

So I ask him: when Mohammed Saleem was murdered in 2013 in an Islamophobic terrorist attack, where was his freedom? Where was his right to life? Where was the national response from the Government? Where were the advisers forming a definition of Islamophobia?

When Mushin Ahmed, an 81-year-old grandfather from Rotherham, was murdered in 2015 in an Islamophobic terrorist attack, where was the Government response to his murder? In fact, never mind the Government not forming any sort of strategy to tackle Islamophobia: after his right to life was denied—after the duty to protect a Muslim grandfather was failed—where was the Government statement? Where was the Cobra meeting? Why wasn’t there a taskforce? Why have this Government failed to act while Islamophobia has continued to rise and rise and rise? It then took the third far-right Islamophobic attack, the mowing down of Makram Ali outside Finsbury park in Ramadan 2017, for the Government to finally acknowledge that this was terrorism.

I make no apologies for my emotions today. It has only been two months since we saw the deadly attacks in Christchurch, where over 50 Muslims were murdered at their place of worship. I do not want to personalise this debate, but I think it is important to give examples to illustrate the problem. These are just a handful of comments directed towards me—the ones I could read without crying. Beyond that, Muslims receive such abuse every single day as they go about their lives: “String her up”; “I will do time for you”; “I hope you see your children dead in your arms”; and “You don’t deserve life...You are pure evil and your clock is ticking.”

Lives have been lost, globally and in the UK, and only now has the Islamophobia debate got to this stage —and even then through a Backbench Business debate. If we do not act today, I ask which Muslim’s life must go next before we simply recognise and understand Islamophobia. Never before have I shared this openly, but I do question, as many Muslims across this country do, which Muslim’s life will be next and whether it will be mine.

So I ask the Secretary of State and the Government to rethink their decision. It is high time we accepted this definition and moved forward to actually tackle Islamophobia. For those of privilege, a definition—or no definition—is just semantics, but for British Muslims, it is about their safety, the security of their lives and the fear of their sisters’ hijabs being pulled off on the streets. It is about their places of worship being attacked while they pray; it is about being denied a job because of their Muslim-sounding name and struggling to make ends meet; and it is about their right to be equal citizens because of the faith they belong to.

I have also discussed this matter at length with the Foreign Office Minister, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon. As well as being the Prime Minister’s special representative on freedom of religion and belief, he is one of the most senior members of the British Ahmadiyya community. He agrees with the term “Islamophobia” and believes that this definition protects the Ahmadiyya community. What better assurance could the Government want than that? I share this because, when speaking to various Ministers from the Home Office, one of the concerns raised has been the issue of the definition not dealing with sectarianism. I put it to the Minister that, if sectarianism is something that this Government want to address, we can convene a roundtable with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, representatives of ultra-orthodox and liberal Jewry, the plethora of sects and castes within the British Hindu community and representatives of various Muslim sects and other religions to ensure that we consider the issue of sectarianism in its totality. Surely the Secretary of State is not suggesting that the Government are only interested in sectarianism within the Muslim community, because such an exceptionalist approach would be dangerous and divisive.

To conclude, the choice of which side of history the Government choose to stand on is a choice for them, but the fight for equal protection for British Muslims will go on. Those of us, Muslim or not, who believe in equality for all will stand shoulder to shoulder with them. The Conservative party has sadly always found itself on the wrong side of history. It did so with women’s rights and with the rights of black people and of the LGBTQ+ community. Every time, it finds itself on the wrong side of history and, every time, it is my party that has to teach it what equality means. Once again today, as we see Islamophobia on the rise, we see the Conservative party failing even to acknowledge the term “Islamophobia” or give this latest form of racism a definition.

Over the past month, I have seen this Government—and those connected to them through a tangled web of think-tanks, newspapers and other ideological bedfellows —ramp up their opposition to British Muslims who are seeking a protection framework equal to those given to our fellow citizens. This has not gone unnoticed in Parliament, in our constituencies, on the streets or in the homes where a young British Muslim community feels that, under this Government, it has been forced to frame and fight its own civil rights movement. The effect of this will eventually be felt in Parliament when the Conservatives, now no longer fit to govern, feel the consequences, through the ballot box, of failing to give everyone in this country equal value and worth. If I, as a Muslim woman MP representing the largest Muslim constituency in the country, do not feel safe, how do I tell those people that they will be safe?