Definition of Islamophobia

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:34 pm on 16th May 2019.

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Photo of Imran Hussain Imran Hussain Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:34 pm, 16th May 2019

First, I thank all those who have taken part in this important debate. In particular, I thank Mike Gapes and Anna Soubry for securing it. We in this House have an absolute duty to eliminate all forms of hate crime and discrimination.

My hon. Friend Naz Shah, and perhaps others, have referred to personal experiences. I believe it takes guts and great courage to refer to personal situations in this place. Tragically, in the current political climate, many politicians and public servants in the frontline are being subjected to some atrocious behaviour, and I salute the courage of those who speak out. I, like many others, constantly receive Islamophobic hate mail and other expressions of Islamophobia, but I refuse to recount those instances here today. I refuse to give air time to those who want people like me to air their views—their views of hatred and division—in this place. I refuse to do that here today.

Of course we need a definition of Islamophobia—on that much, I think everyone can agree. There are a number of definitions, starting with the Runnymede definition; then there is the all-party group’s definition, and I know that in my home town Bradford’s Council for Mosques is working on a definition. All those are important, but it is the aim of all of them that I want to focus on. The aim of the definition is to eradicate Islamophobia, and that is where I want to concentrate my remarks. We cannot eradicate Islamophobia if we do not understand Islamophobia. That is the point.

This debate takes place against a disgusting backdrop of rising Islamophobic hate crime. Over half of all religiously motivated hate crimes recorded in 2017-18—almost 3,000—were committed against Muslims. Although abusive behaviour forms the core of recorded Islamophobia, we cannot downplay the number and severity of the physical attacks, many of the offences being of an extremely serious nature. Even at mosques and other places of worship, where Muslims should feel safe, they face both physical and verbal abuse and violence, with the number of attacks on mosques doubling and Muslims being left scared and vulnerable.

We simply cannot ignore the stark evidence facing us that Islamophobia is dramatically on the rise. We certainly cannot do so at a time when we are witnessing the rapid resurgence of far-right, fascist, white supremacist groups now fixated on persecuting Muslims and promoting Islamophobia. Those groups are pushing bigoted, xenophobic views of Muslims and others, and they are not only feeding on, but driving, an environment where it is now seen as acceptable to abuse and attack Muslims. With growing traffic to far-right websites and social media personalities, a growing number of foiled far-right terror plots and a membership that is younger and more extreme than before, the far right is now a key threat. Let us make no mistake about that.

None of this is surprising given the rhetoric espoused by the media and public figures, as was alluded to earlier by my hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi, but it is an absolute disgrace when Members of this House and the other place join in this divisive rhetoric, reinforcing the false narrative that Muslims are dangerous, second-class citizens and creating an atmosphere in which Islamophobia not only flourishes unchallenged but is actively promoted. By doing so, they have normalised Islamophobia. There is now so little accountability, self-awareness, guilt or shame that Islamophobic comments are not just accepted but casually tossed around as though absolutely fine.

The normalisation of Islamophobia created by the media, public figures and even policies such as Prevent and others, under which Muslims are treated as policing and social policy problems, is extremely damaging. Islamophobia is not just a far-right extremism issue, and the extreme abuse and violent attacks on Muslims are not the only issues they face. The commonplace and trivialised views of Islamophobia send out the message to Muslims that they are outsiders in this country and that they are excluded as society divides into two groups—us and them.

This belief of exclusion resonates further when it is applied on top of existing barriers that all ethnic minorities face: poorer educational and employment prospects, poorer life chances and poorer healthcare compared with their white counterparts of similar backgrounds. Ultimately, Islamophobia leaves all Muslims feeling isolated and insecure in their own homes, despite the lengths to which they go to include themselves, their deep sense of belonging in this country and their keen desire to belong and join in.

As a proud British Muslim myself, I want to be clear that Islam is a religion of peace, love and charity, and for many it is not just our religion but our identity, and one that we are deeply proud of. Nowhere is this more evident than when Muslims open up their customs and practices to wider society. Much in this debate has been negative, but I want to celebrate the achievements and work of Muslims, celebrate the fact that Muslims open the doors of mosques, invite all communities to join in their religious celebrations, throw themselves into community life and initiatives that benefit all and spread awareness and understanding of what their culture is all about.

It is fitting during this holy month of Ramadan to point out that Muslims in Britain this year alone will donate tens of millions of pounds to charity, which I celebrate and the Charity Commission praises. Yet, sadly, because of the normalisation of Islamophobia, instead of feeling like they are productive and included members of society, Muslims are made to feel marginalised and isolated. They are excluded from what should be the shared life experiences between those of all backgrounds that make our society and culture so much richer.

I will conclude, Madam Deputy Speaker, as time does not permit me to speak for long—although I am grateful for the 10 minutes I was promised. We must commit ourselves to ending the marginalisation of Muslims in society and to enforcing a zero-tolerance approach. If the Government are to prove they are serious about tackling the shameful rise in Islamophobia and the isolation of Muslims, they must do more to tackle the dangerous rise of the far right and end the practice of giving a high-profile platform to extremists. They must reaffirm and ensure an absolute responsibility and obligation on those in public office and in the media not to promote, fuel and normalise Islamophobia and Islamophobic tropes. They must take every available action, including legislation and adopting a firm definition of religiously and racially motivated hate, to ensure the perpetrators of Islamophobic hate crimes are brought to justice.

I say to the Minister that a definition cannot be forced downwards by political leaders or organisations, but must come up from the grassroots Muslim community. The House has a duty to speak up for Muslims and all those who face abuse, prejudice and discrimination. It is time we demanded more.