Tackling Islamophobia

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:59 pm on 7 December 2023.

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Photo of Naseem Shah Naseem Shah Labour, Bradford West 12:59, 7 December 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of tackling Islamophobia.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to this general debate on tackling Islamophobia. I also thank the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims, and particularly its co-chairs, my hon. Friend Sarah Owen and Paul Bristow, for their continued work to push this debate and for their ongoing efforts to tackle Islamophobia. It must be noted, however, that Members of this House have, over several years, repeatedly requested that Government time be granted to debate such a pertinent issue, but those calls have fallen on deaf ears. The Minister will no doubt tell us that the Government take this issue seriously. Oh, the gaslighting.

I assure all those listening to this debate, who might not really understand the issue, that when Muslim communities speak up on the issue of Islamophobia, we are not looking for preferential treatment. In fact, quite the opposite. We are asking for equal treatment, free of discrimination, injustice and hatred.

In the US, the Biden Administration have formed an inter-agency working group to counter rising levels of Islamophobia. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has appointed the first ever special representative on combating Islamophobia to advise the federal Government. The United Nations designated 15 March as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia, following the General Assembly’s acceptance of a resolution proposed by the 60 Muslim member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. And yet, despite all this—despite the US, Canada, the UN, 60 Muslim nations around the world and almost every mainstream Muslim organisation in the UK, and Muslims more generally, defining the experience as Islamophobic—our Government refuse even to call it Islamophobia. Internationally, Governments are standing up to this dangerous, insidious threat to our communities but, here in the UK, this Government are shamefully still playing with semantics.

According to the latest statistics, there has been a 600% rise in Islamophobic incidents here in the UK, including both verbal and physical abuse as well as vandalism, such as the dumping of a pig’s head at a proposed mosque in the market town of Barnoldswick. That is not all that is happening when it comes to Islamophobia. The recorded incidents are just a snapshot of a picture that is much uglier than any stats can paint. Make no mistake, Islamophobia is an entire industry.

The reality is that Islamophobia has become an acceptable prejudice. In fact, you can openly spout Islamophobia and nobody, neither politicians nor journalists, will even bat an eyelid. Sadly, almost no one will speak up or challenge it. In fact, you can be a former adviser to a Prime Minister and the current Conservative parliamentary candidate for West Suffolk and advocate for special laws just to deal with Muslims, including: creating a register of imams and mosques; closing down mosques, Muslim charities and Muslim TV stations; and banning the burqa and the hijab in schools. You can call for a whole legal structure to deal with those Muslims, as if they are a specific problem. And guess what? You can continue to be a Conservative party member and prospective parliamentary candidate without any consequences.

You can suggest that Muslim culture is inherently in

“the grip of a death cult that sacralises bloodshed” and a week later, without any apology, be invited on to platforms such as “Question Time” as a key guest. You can also say that Muslims “are not like us” and are a “nation within a nation”, sowing the seeds of division and hate without ever retracting those statements, never mind apologising for the hurt they have caused to communities. And guess what? You can get a regular slot as a presenter on a mainstream news channel.

You can even be an open Islamophobe like Douglas Murray, who calls for conditions for Muslims in Europe to be made harder across the board, and be platformed by The Daily Telegraph and The Jewish Chronicle, and—wait for this one—even be defended at the Dispatch Box by the then Home Secretary.

On the one hand, under the banner of free speech, you can say pretty much anything about Muslims and Islam and still occupy a mainstream space. On the other hand, when thousands of people use their democratic right to protest and raise their voice to call for a cease- fire in Gaza and to support the Palestinian cause, they are labelled as “hate marchers” and “terrorist sympathisers.” Even the Prime Minister joined the former Home Secretary in aiding that dog-whistle politics.

This is no surprise to British Muslims, because we all know that this Government have made Islamophobia the central piece in their manufactured culture war to deflect from their incompetence and their failure to govern this nation. As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. Only in the last hour we have heard the shocking revelation from Rehman Chishti, who is a former Minister and a former vice-chair of the Conservative party, that the PM has “written off” engagement with Muslim communities and does not take Islamophobia as seriously as other forms of racism. He has gone further by saying that the Prime Minister is paying “lip service” to tackling hatred against Muslims.

Despite everything that British Muslims are facing, I cannot remember the last time a Prime Minister or a Home Secretary visited a mosque to show a gesture of support to British Muslim communities. The failure to support British Muslim communities at a time when they are worried about attacks, and at a time when the Government’s own hate crime reporting centre has seen a 600% rise in attacks, shows that the problem goes right to the heart of Government. Not only Labour MPs are saying that; Conservative MPs are concerned, too. The hypocrisy and the disparity in behaviour from the Government stinks.

British Muslim communities want a level playing field so that they are equally part of modern Britain, of building our economy, building our NHS, building our businesses and entrepreneurship, and building Britain to be the best nation in the world. British Muslims know and understand that if Britain succeeds, they and their families succeed. I want people across society to understand that when all communities, including British Muslims, succeed, Britain succeeds—we all succeed.

The success we should have is hindered by the racism faced by Muslim communities across Britain today. Nobody is asking for exceptional treatment. They are simply asking for parity. If the Government can allow other communities to define the prejudice and hatred that impact them, why can they not allow British Muslim communities to define Islamophobia? If the Government can engage with mainstream organisations from other communities, why do they pursue a policy of non-engagement with mainstream Muslim organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain?

If, at a time when antisemitism is on a sharp rise, the Chancellor can rightfully announce an extra £7 million of funding in the autumn statement to tackle it, why, at a time when Islamophobia is also rising, did he refuse to announce a single penny of extra support for British Muslim communities in the same statement? If the Government can have a working independent adviser on antisemitism, why, three and a half years after the announcement of an independent adviser on Islamophobia, have they been unable to appoint one or to take the role forward? I hope the Minister is making notes, because I expect a response to every single one of these disparities.

Where I come from, you cannot be a bit pregnant—you are either pregnant or you are not. You are either on the side of equality or you are not. In the same vein, you either stand up for human rights or you do not. The problem for this Government is that they choose when they want to be pregnant. They never actually see the pregnancy through to full term, which is why they have never given birth to a serious policy, let alone nurtured a policy to drive a change that helps Britain to reach its full potential as a country.

Madam Deputy Speaker, if you will allow me to indulge my curiosity, I am eager to know, four years after announcing an adviser, announcing a working definition of Islamophobia and announcing that they take anti-Muslim hatred so seriously, what progress the Government have actually made in responding to the urgency they insisted upon. Moreover, what does the Minister understand Islamophobia to be? I would be happy to give way to her if she would like to explain—that deafening silence allows Islamophobia, in all its pernicious forms, to thrive.

According to Home Office statistics, hate crimes targeting Muslims rose by 25% last year, making Muslims the most targeted religious group. Almost half of religiously motivated attacks were against Muslims, a trend that has stayed consistent for the last six years. Every year these statistics are released, and every year there is zero action taken by the Government. What is worse is refusing to call out Islamophobia. Sticking to the term “anti-Muslim hatred” recognises the consequences once an attack, assault or physical or verbal abuse has taken place, but it denies Islamophobia, so nothing is ever done to treat the cause. Instead, we respond only to the symptoms. This means that we recognise the murder of 81-year-old Mushin Ahmed from Rotherham, but we do nothing to challenge the radicalisation that influenced his killers, who called him a “groomer”, stamped on his head and beat that innocent grandfather to death as he returned from his early-morning prayers. It means that, on the one hand, we call out his murder and that, on the other hand, we allow mainstream voices, including those of many in this House and some who were previously in government, to perpetuate far-right conspiracies about Muslim grooming gangs, contradicting evidence from the Home Office’s own inquiry.

People do not just wake up and decide to commit acts of terror against Muslims. They do not just attack a mosque one day to commit criminal damage. They do not just randomly pull someone’s hijab or whack a hijab-wearing Muslim woman over the head because they are violent people. They do these things because they are radicalised by Islamophobic conspiracies that go unchallenged.

In the same manner, this issue is not just about hate; it is about the prejudice and racism faced by British Muslims. A newspaper investigation has shown that if someone simply changes their name to Mohammed from John Smith, while keeping all the other details the same, their car insurance could cost them another £1,000. Other research has shown that CVs with Muslim-sounding names are three times less likely to result in an interview.

We see the same disparities across the board in healthcare, business and society. These acts of prejudice and clearcut racism are not necessarily acts of hate, but the unwillingness to accept Islamophobia and the willingness to accept only anti-Muslim hate mean that no one is able to understand those disparities or to challenge that injustice. How can we define something we do not even understand?

That is why members of the Muslim community are not surprised by the alarming rise of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate crimes. They see the everyday micro-aggressions throughout society. They see how people can say things on the media about Muslims, and how they can fuel hatred against them in a way that no one would accept with any other community, but still maintain the cloak of respectability in mainstream spaces.

Many people now fear for their children’s future in Britain, and those who can afford to do so are leaving. Some of the brightest, most intelligent minds, including our best doctors, engineers, bankers and traders, who can help to rebuild Britain, transform our economy and support our NHS, and who love Britain and are British, are looking to resettle due to fears of what will happen as things get worse.

That is why I say to the Government that Muslim communities are not asking for special treatment. They simply see the Government’s own recorded statistics on attacks against Muslims rising each year. They see their Government’s inaction and unwillingness to take control. They see, on the one hand, how things are becoming worse and, on the other hand, how they are being patronised and gaslit by a Government who will not even call Islamophobia what it is.

The Government’s inaction has directly or indirectly allowed Islamophobia to become institutionalised, embedded and even normalised across society. In China, there are Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, while Muslim women are being forced to marry non-Muslim men. In Myanmar, we have seen the genocidal campaign to wipe out Rohingya Muslim communities, with more than 25,000 killed and almost 1 million refugees fleeing to Cox’s Bazar. In Modi’s India, with extremist groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, we see an environment ripe for pogroms against Muslims. At this moment, we are witnessing collective punishment being endured by the people of Gaza. With the horrors of Srebrenica in living memory, the road map of inaction and growing far-right narratives, it is all too clear to Muslim communities where we could be heading.

My warning to the Government is that, if we do not act now, Muslims in this country might also face a Christchurch-style terrorist attack. The recent election of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands should worry us. Fringe, extreme views enter the mainstream when they are left unchecked. We can tackle this rising tide of hate only when good people speak up, when we become upstanders and not bystanders, and when we agree and openly believe that Muslims also matter.

If Governments such as mine can call out the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China and can implement sanctions, how can they be so silent or offer only empty words when international law is brazenly and openly ignored by an ally nation? True justice takes brave conversations, because it means speaking truth to power, whether it is to a friend or anybody else.

For that reason, I recently accompanied my local dean, Andy Bowerman from Bradford cathedral, on a visit to Jaranwala in Pakistan with Islamic Relief—a Muslim charity for which I am an ambassador. I met Christian communities and provided them with aid and support following the religious persecution they have faced. As a Muslim of Pakistan/Kashmiri heritage, I felt it was my duty to support these minority communities facing persecution. Among the many stories I heard, the one that struck me the most was about how their Muslim neighbours stood between them and their attackers as their lives were put in danger—an act of bravery, courage and solidarity. I mention that because people do not expect everyone to fix their problems, but one thing that does give them hope in the darkest of days is the real sense of solidarity they receive from others who stand with them. Let us stand together and challenge all injustice equally.

My ask to the Minister is simple: will she today announce any new solutions and policies that the Government will act on to help tackle Islamophobia? The debate on the APPG definition of Islamophobia is over. Islamophobia has been defined. That boat sailed five years ago. When will the Minister and the Government adopt the definition?

Three and a half years ago, at the same time as they announced an adviser on antisemitism, the Government announced an adviser on Islamophobia. Three and a half years later, there is rightly still an adviser on anti- semitism, so why are the Government not taking seriously, and recruiting somebody for, the role of Islamophobia adviser? Given the rising levels of Islamophobia across society—this is much like what we saw with the announcements in the autumn statement—what new funding will the Minister announce to enable us to tackle deep-rooted Islamophobia?

There are good colleagues here on both sides of the Chamber, and from all parties, calling out Islamophobia and the Government’s failures. If the Minister does not provide answers and solutions today but prefers to use her time at the Dispatch Box to further gaslight British Muslim communities, that will once again signal to them that the Government will do nothing to challenge the Islamophobia they face and will signal to wider society that there is a hierarchy in racism. Although inaction may mean nothing to the Government, the danger of not acting would, sadly, be felt by British Muslims. Taking no decision is also a decision.