Definition of Islamophobia

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:20 pm on 16th May 2019.

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Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government 3:20 pm, 16th May 2019

I hope my hon. Friend will understand if I say that he has not been part of the debate and I am slightly tight on time.

I welcome the chance to respond to this debate. There have been a number of powerful and important contributions. As several Members acknowledged, the shadow of what happened in New Zealand just two months ago is inescapable—people murdered while at prayer, and so many lives devastated and tragically cut short. It was a senseless and shocking assault on New Zealand’s values of freedom, openness, democracy and decency—values that we all share. It was an act that I would describe as the epitome of evil. That is why it was right that as we grieved for those affected in mosques, synagogues, churches and other places of worship up and down the country, we reaffirmed our unity against all forms of hatred. We stood together with that sense of purpose against extremism and the false narratives that so often underpin it. We came together in love and solidarity, underlining not only our condemnation, in the strongest possible terms, of this attack, but the fact that all communities stand shoulder to shoulder with our Muslim brothers and sisters, because we know that an attack on one group is an attack on all of us. To persecute anybody because of their race and religion goes against everything I believe we stand for as a country and underlines the need to tackle this hatred head on and the need to do more.

That is why the Government have taken steps to ensure that, for the first time, police forces are required to disaggregate religious hate crime data, to allow us to better identify anti-Muslim hatred. As a number of Members have underlined, that data has sadly revealed that Muslims are a commonly targeted religious group, accounting for over half of religiously motivated hate crime, and that the number of all religiously motivated hate crimes has gone up by 40% from 2016-17 to 2017-18. It is utterly unacceptable and deeply troubling for our Muslim neighbours, colleagues and friends to be living in fear, as so many Members have described.

No one should feel unsafe while practising their religion. No one should feel unsafe living in their community. That is why we doubled the places of worship fund to £1.6 million, to physically protect mosques and other places of worship and reassure communities, and are making it easier for people to apply for the funding from July 2019. In addition, we have announced a new £5 million fund to provide security training for places of worship and a consultation on what more can be done to protect faith communities. There is nothing more important than keeping people safe and ensuring that they feel safe.

As well as doing more to protect vulnerable communities, we must get a firmer grip on the nature of the bigotry they face, which I believe means creating a formal definition of Islamophobia to strengthen that. I am grateful for the input of Members across the House and their work on this important issue and hope that today’s debate acts as a further step of progress. I note in particular the incredibly valuable work undertaken by the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims to develop a definition of Islamophobia. I pay tribute to Wes Streeting and Anna Soubry for leading that work. I hope, as my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Grieve said in his foreword, that the APPG’s report

“can give all of us food both for thought and positive action.”

The APPG’s work makes an important and—I underline—serious contribution to how best to tackle bigotry, division and the pernicious narratives within our communities.

The issue of the definition was discussed at a roundtable on Islamophobia that I chaired on 5 March with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, where members of our anti-Muslim hatred working group and expert stakeholders such as the Runnymede Trust and the Commission for Countering Extremism shared their views. It is vital that we get this right and that any definition reflects the experiences of those who have experienced hatred because they are Muslim; that we are satisfied that it will have the positive effect it sets out to achieve—a point made by Mr Mahmood—and do no harm; and that it commands broad support within communities and wider society.

The APPG definition, with the best of intent, does not yet meet those criteria, and further work and consideration are needed; I frame it in those terms. The proposal defines Islamophobia as “a type of racism”. I am in no doubt that racism forms a part of the bigotry that we need to confront, but combining race and religion within the definition causes legal and practical issues. As a starting point, it is not in line with the Equality Act 2010, which defines race as comprising colour, nationality and national or ethnic origins, none of which would necessarily encompass a Muslim or Islamic practice. There are potential consequences for freedom of speech. I recognise, as stated in the report, that that was not the intention behind the recommendation. There is also the issue of how we address sectarian hatred. I will reflect on how we can best respond to that, so that we are moving this issue forward.

It is clear that we must interrogate this complex issue further as matter of urgency. The Home Affairs Committee is undertaking a review into the issue, but the Government need to do more. That is why we will appoint two advisers. We will ensure that that reflects the need for community representation and drives the process forward, building on the important work already undertaken by the anti-Muslim hatred working group, and other bodies, which will remain central to our efforts to engage with Muslim communities. Our priority is to arrive swiftly at a collective position that strengthens our resolve when tackling anti-Muslim hatred and challenging the false narratives that underpin it, and we must reflect on and respond to the strength of feeling that we have heard in the House this afternoon.

I know there is more work to do, and we must do everything in our power to stand up for our diverse, tolerant and vibrant society. In so doing, we must stand up for our Muslim friends, and for all communities that face hatred and bigotry. In the immortal and incredibly powerful words of Jo Cox, there is so much more that unites us than divides us, and I hope that Members across the House will go forward in that spirit to make Islamophobia, and all forms of hate, a thing of the past.