Tackling Islamophobia

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:36 pm on 7 December 2023.

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Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham 1:36, 7 December 2023

It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I speak in this debate from a number of different perspectives, but before I commence I want to pay tribute to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate to take place.

From 2019 to 2020, I was the United Kingdom Prime Minister’s special envoy for international freedom of religion or belief for all. I advocated and engaged with people from all across Parliament in an inclusive manner to ensure that the UK stood by and stood up for international freedom of religion or belief for all. That meant taking forward the Bishop of Truro’s report as a top priority for the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister at that time.

That report meant the UK ensuring that we stood up for international freedom of religion and belief for all faiths. During my time in office, working with the United States, we set up a 27-member international alliance of states working together to advance international freedom of religion or belief for all. We then signed off on the UK hosting an international summit on international freedom of religion or belief. During covid-19, we saw the real challenge of people around the world being targeted for their faith or belief. There was a real increase in antisemitism, in Islamophobia and in anti-Christian hatred, and we saw that across the board. I referred to that in the Westminster Hall debate when I stepped down from that role in 2020.

Having advocated, as a former UK special envoy, for international freedom of religion or belief all around the world being a top priority of the United Kingdom Government, for other countries around the world doing the right thing and for ensuring that people are treated fairly and equally, I then have to ask myself what the situation is in the UK regarding intolerance and hatred towards faith communities across the board. This debate is about Islamophobia, which some term anti-Muslim hatred.

Tell MAMA, an organisation funded by the Government, says that its latest figures demonstrate a sevenfold increase in incidents of anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia. According to independent Home Office figures on the faith communities that receive the largest amount of hate, in 2022-23, 44% of incidents were against the Muslim community, and 19% were against the Jewish community. In 2020-21, 45% of incidents were against the Muslim community, and 22% were against the Jewish community. In 2019-20, 50% of incidents of faith-based hate and intolerance were against the Muslim community, and 19% were against the Jewish community. Year after year, those two faith communities have experienced the largest amount of hate and intolerance. That is unacceptable. According to the Community Security Trust, intolerance, hatred and antisemitism against the Jewish community is exceptionally high. That is unacceptable.

Policymakers and Governments must act to challenge intolerance and hate against all faith communities in a fair and inclusive manner. That is why, at Prime Minister’s questions last week, I asked the Prime Minister about the unacceptable rise in intolerance and hate against two faith communities. In the autumn statement, the Government announced £7 million in funding to tackle antisemitism, and they were absolutely right to do that. They also provided £3 million in October after the horrific, barbaric terrorist act in Israel, carried out by the terrorist organisation Hamas. The impact of that on antisemitism in the UK was shocking, and the Government’s response was right and proper. I hope the Minister can answer my question, because the Prime Minister has not, nor has he spoken to me since I raised it with him: why was there no funding to tackle anti-Muslim hatred in the autumn statement?

I spoke to the Prime Minister in his office during the leadership contest about engaging with the Muslim community in an inclusive manner across the board, knowing the different challenges. He said that he was committed to that, and that we would work together on it. I am waiting to see the Prime Minister to this day. I have been a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Minister, an envoy and an MP; when I give my word, I honour it. If someone cannot honour their word, they should not give it, in any area of life.

Naz Shah raised an interesting point about the question I asked the Prime Minister: why do the Government not have an independent adviser on Islamophobia? Why has that role been left vacant for more than a year? A 2019 Guardian article that I have here reports that, in one of her last acts as Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mrs May appointed John Mann to the Government post of independent adviser on antisemitism. As a former British envoy for religious freedom, I worked with him in the other place. He does a terrific job. My right hon. Friend also appointed Qari Asim as the independent adviser on Islamophobia. He was in office for one year. He told me that he was never given any terms of reference by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. He was removed from office in 2022, and there has been no action to appoint another independent adviser.

I pay tribute to our former adviser on Islamophobia. I have here a document that reads:

“Faith leaders write a prayer for Holocaust Memorial Day 2020”.

The faith leaders were His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi and Imam Qari Asim. He was good enough to write that prayer and to work with faith leaders, and we must acknowledge his work. There may have been a difference in policy with the Government, but an independent adviser should advise independently.