Tackling Islamophobia

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:34 pm on 7 December 2023.

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Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Labour, Manchester, Gorton 2:34, 7 December 2023

Islamophobia is an insidious kind of racism that is prevalent not just in British society but globally. Across the world, Islamophobia looks like the continued torture in concentration camps of Uyghur Muslims in China, the merciless killing of 51 worshippers in New Zealand, and the ongoing persecution of Rohingya Muslims at the hands of Myanmar’s brutal regime.

I commend the UN for designating 15 March as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia, and thank the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation for its effort. Recognising the existence of Islamophobia and how it plagues society is vital if we are to begin to tackle it. Canada and the European Commission have tasked key individuals with combating Islamophobia, and to mark Islamophobia Awareness Month, the US has announced that it will develop a national strategy to counter Islamophobia. Regrettably, we do not have the same leadership domestically, despite Islamophobia damaging public and political life in Britain. Most victims of religious hate crime in the UK are Muslims, and in October, Islamophobic incidents were up by 600%. A recent report found that 35% of British mosques experience a religiously motivated attack at least once a year.

Islamophobia is not just hate crime: it permeates every aspect of a Muslim’s life. Muslims are more likely to live in poverty, they are the UK’s least liked religious group, and most Muslims have experienced religion-based discrimination in their everyday life. All of that makes it harder for Muslims to live as equal members of British society. When I was first elected to this House, I swore my oath in English and Urdu—a language that Queen Victoria also proudly spoke. I was then subjected to a barrage of hate for daring to speak another language and for boldly expressing my Muslimness. There is a small, but increasingly vocal, minority in this country who hate the idea of a rich, pluralistic society that British Muslims contribute to. It is that minority that we all must stand up to, and to do so, we must have a clear, community-endorsed definition of Islamophobia.

In 2018, following extensive consultation with academics, experts and faith communities, the all-party group on British Muslims formulated a definition of Islamophobia. In the years since, every political party except the Conservatives has adopted that definition, alongside councils, elected Mayors, trade unions, academics and community groups across the country. However, there is one blocker to UK-wide adoption of a formal definition of Islamophobia: the Tory Government. They rejected the expert definition put forward by the APPG, claiming that it is inconsistent with the Equality Act 2010. To adopt that definition of Islamophobia at Government level would not be legally binding—it would be intended to serve as a workable measure for action against Islamophobia. No legislative change is being proposed, so the Equality Act would not be undermined. In reality, most acts that are deemed Islamophobic under the APPG’s definition would also be considered religious discrimination under the Equality Act. The APPG’s definition and the Equality Act complement each other—one does not challenge the other.

Given that the Government’s argument against that definition does not stand up, and considering that they have abandoned all plans to develop their own definition, can the Minister outline why the Government still think that the APPG’s definition of Islamophobia breaches the Equality Act if it is not legally binding? I imagine that this Government are reluctant to adopt any definition of Islamophobia, because the longer we do not have one, the longer the Conservative party cannot be in breach of it for failing to deal with the widespread Islamophobia within its own ranks.

In the local elections earlier this year, three Conservative councillors were re-elected despite having previously been suspended for alleged Islamophobia and racism, with no information provided on why they were readmitted to the party and deemed fit for public office. If we are to begin to tackle Islamophobia in British society, we need strong leadership and a commitment from the very top to root out this dangerous hate. Other nations across the world are waking up to the threat that Islamophobia poses and are doing something about it, but not the UK. The longer the Tories stay in Government, the longer we will have no leadership and no action on Islamophobia. My constituents and British Muslims across the country deserve better.