Tackling Islamophobia

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:00 pm on 7 December 2023.

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Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Scottish National Party, Dundee East 3:00, 7 December 2023

May I start by thanking Naz Shah for the way in which she led the debate? I do not think there was a single important part of this matter that she did not touch on extremely well.

I will pick up on one thing: the issue of definition—not the APPG definition, which I will come to, but the United Nations definition. The UN describes Islamophobia as:

“a fear, prejudice and hatred of Muslims that leads to provocation, hostility and intolerance by means of threatening, harassment, abuse, incitement and intimidation of Muslims and non-Muslims, both in the online and offline world. Motivated by institutional, ideological, political and religious hostility that transcends into structural and cultural racism, it targets the symbols and markers of being a Muslim.”

That is a very technical description. I will come back to the evidence of what it means to Muslims in Scotland on a day-to-day basis, and then to the rather less technical definition.

To stay with the United Nations for a moment, the recent report by the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief found that suspicion, discrimination and outright hatred towards Muslims has risen to “epidemic proportions”. The UN says:

“Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and other…acts of terrorism purportedly carried out in the name of Islam, institutional suspicion of Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim has escalated to epidemic proportions” and

“widespread negative representations of Islam, and harmful stereotypes that depict Muslims and their beliefs and culture as a threat have served to perpetuate, validate and normalise discrimination, hostility and violence towards Muslim individuals and communities.”

All that is deeply disturbing, but what does it mean in practice for Muslims in Scotland? Well, Christine Jardine, who is no longer in her place, touched on that. The Scottish Parliament’s cross-party group on challenging racial and religious prejudice, and Newcastle University, have told us a great deal: 75% of Muslims say that Islamophobia is an everyday issue; 80% of Muslims say that they have a friend or family member who has experienced it; 79% of Muslims are fearful of experiencing it; 84% argue that social media increases it; 85% say that the broadcast media promotes it; and 89% say that the print media promotes it. We know, and it has been reported, that Muslim women are disproportionately targeted in Islamophobic hate crimes. Again, those findings—from real people—are deeply worrying.

What, though, is the official, measured scale of the problem in Scotland? Well, the number of charges brought for religious hate crimes in Scotland over the decade between 2010-11 and 2021-22 sat at a constant of about 600 a year. Sadly, the number of charges for all hate crimes in Scotland sat at around 5,000 a year. In only one year of that same decade has the number risen above 6,000, but in only one year has it fallen below 5,000, so there is a constant background noise of religious and other hatred. We also know from the statistics that 26% of all religious hate crimes are directed at Muslims. I am sure we would all agree that no right-minded person would argue that those numbers are anything other than too high.

Hearteningly, Police Scotland and the Procurator Fiscal Service take these matters seriously. It is reported that more than 80% of all the charges for religious hate crime do end up in court. That will cover a multitude of sins, but I believe at least that that matter is taken seriously. We cannot therefore dismiss Islamophobia simply because the number of those charged has sat constantly at 600 a year. We cannot disregard any hate crime, when the number is sitting at about 5,000 a year in Scotland. We cannot downplay the impact of Islamophobia, because, as we have heard from the cross-party group and others, the effect on people is widespread and profound. We cannot diminish the impact of Islamophobia on Muslims, or the rest of society, simply because a high proportion of the perpetrators are dragged to court, although I am glad that that is the case. And we cannot wish away the problem. Tackling it will need cogent, coherent and concrete action, with clear political leadership.

Let me return to the report by the Scottish Parliament cross-party group. Among many recommendations, it tells us that Scotland needs urgent education reforms to combat the scourge of Islamophobia—I am certain that is the case in England too. It tells us that Muslim women in Scotland are more likely to encounter Islamophobia than men, and calls for funding and support for organisations and initiatives that promote social cohesion and integration, particularly for Muslim women. I am certain that that demand would be mirrored in England as well. I will not go through the list of the many other recommendations the group makes, all of which I agree with.

I want now to get to the point on definition, because the cross-party group persuaded all of Scotland’s political parties to adopt the formal definition of Islamophobia. That was described as

“a landmark moment that will help tackle prejudice in Scotland.”

Members of the all-party group here will recognise the definition:

“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”

If every political party represented in the Scottish Parliament can formally adopt that, I would agree with the Labour chair of the Scottish Parliament cross-party group, who said:

“I now urge the UK Government to adopt the definition so that we can challenge hatred and prejudice wherever it exists across the country.”

That does not strike me as being contentious; it ought to have been done already and if it has not been, it should be done very quickly indeed.

I want to end with a rebuttal to those who dismiss the issue of Islamophobia. I am talking about those hard of thinking who argue that there would be no Islamophobia “if only they”—whoever “they” are—“were more like ‘us’.” It is not clear what that means. I feel strongly on this and I wish to challenge that view by quoting something that UN Secretary-General António Guterres said when marking the first International Day to Combat Islamophobia, in 2021. He pointed out that anti-Muslim bigotry is part of a larger trend of a resurgence in ethno-nationalism, neo-Nazism, stigma and hate speech targeting vulnerable populations, including Muslims, Jews and some minority Christian communities, as well as others. He said:

“As the Holy Quran reminds us: nations and tribes were created to know one another. Diversity is a richness, not a threat”.

That mirrors what many have said; it is intolerance that is the problem, not diversity. It is incumbent on all of us to challenge intolerance, including Islamophobia, and to do so, to be brutally honest, whenever we see it.