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Islamophobia - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:32 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 12:32 pm, 20th December 2018

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, on securing this debate. It is to be expected that more than half of the speakers are from the ethnic minorities, and this is one of the very few debates where this has been the case.

It is a real pleasure to follow the very eloquent and passionately argued presentation from the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. If I disagree with her from time to time, it is not out of disrespect but simply to explicate further what she has been saying.

The word Islamophobia comes to us from the Runnymede Trust report of 1997, with which I was associated. The report began to make it clear that the word Islamophobia is useful but also risky. It is useful for all kinds of reasons, which the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, mentioned, but it is risky for two reasons. First, it confuses Islam with Muslims. To talk about “Islamophobia” simply means that I resent Islam while taking a different attitude towards Muslims. Secondly and more importantly, “phobia” absolves the agent of responsibility—for example, one might say, “I suffer from agoraphobia”, or say that they have a fear of heights or of speaking in public. If someone says, “I have this phobia; there is nothing I can do about it; it is an irrational, deeply ingrained fear”, it gives them a get-out. As the report argues, one therefore needs to think of an alternative explanation that captures the idea of Islamophobia while not remaining restricted to it.

The expression it used was “anti-Muslim racism”. That also does not quite work, because I do not know what “racism” is doing there. It looks like verbal obesity, using an extra word when “anti-Muslim” would convey what you wish to convey. It also fails to capture the specificity of Islamophobia. I therefore suggest that, rather than talk about “anti-Muslim racism”, one simply says that something has to be done about anti-Muslim hostility and discrimination in all areas of life.

This discrimination also occurs towards other minorities, but in addition Muslims have been subjected to something unique—a kind of irrational, instinctive fear. Whenever somebody talks about Muslims in a university or elsewhere, the feeling is: “Oh my God; keep it out”. Where does this irrational antipathy, this refusal to talk about it and closure of the mind, come from? This is peculiar to Muslims; it does not extend to black people or others. In that sense, I want to retain the word Islamophobia while recognising that it does not capture the full range of anti-Muslim discrimination.

If you recognise that there are two realities—anti-Muslim discrimination and Islamophobia, as I have just defined it—you require a dual strategy. One strategy should counter anti-Muslim discrimination, hence the useful repertoire of anti-discriminatory mechanisms we have developed. A very different strategy is required for Islamophobia, and I will spend most of my time talking about that, because I think it is very subtle, very deceptive and, if we are not careful, extremely dangerous.

When does Islamophobia in that sense arise in our society? I trace its origins to the Iranian revolution. When the ayatollah appears on the scene, Muslims in Iran and elsewhere acquire a tremendous sense of power and the feeling that what was done in Iran could also be done elsewhere. There is therefore an enormous growth in self-confidence, a desire not to be taken for granted or marginalised and to stand up for their rights. It is in this context that Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses appears, followed by an approach to the ayatollah and resulting in the fatwa. That is the seed, the origin of Islamophobia—the combination of the Iranian revolution, the ayatollah’s fatwa and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. If you look at these, four things come together.

First is extraterritorial loyalty, the feeling that Muslims are somehow more loyal to the ayatollah than to their own sovereign—reminding them of the Pope asking the British people to revolt against Elizabeth I. Secondly, the argument arises that Muslims are somehow against liberal values, freedom of speech or gender equality. Thirdly, and increasingly importantly in recent years, is the idea that somehow minority identities—in this case, Muslim identity—are valued more and that the identity of the majority community in society as a whole is being systematically undermined. Finally, there is the argument that Muslims are keen to introduce religion into public life and question the secular settlement.

This combination of four different ideas generates a kind of instinctive, morbid and irrational fear of Muslims. How do we get rid of this? How do we counter this deep-seated, irrational fear? When you have a phobia of this kind, when one simply refuses to counter or even face something, it is a case for a kind of political psychoanalysis. One needs to refute it step by step. We must show that this is wrong, as I have done in my writings, and as others, such as my friends Tariq Modood and Varun Uberoi, have done. There is quite a lot of literature showing this. The noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, has talked about it as well. We need to show that the four different values and combinations are wrong. For example, on extraterritorial loyalty, it is argued that there is no sense in it as 95% of Muslims say that they are absolutely loyal to this country. They are not questioning secularism but simply want to redefine it to make it more hospitable to religion, but not to religionise public life. They are not hostile to liberal values. In short, one has systematically to unpack and attack this knot of values that is held against Muslims.

The other thing that is very important is for Muslims to be in positions of power where they are seen as responsible members, standing up for society as a whole. That, happily, has been happening. I cannot remember a situation before now when a Muslim has been talked about as a possible Prime Minister of this country. That is a great achievement, and if we look at many walks of life, a Muslim presence is seen, which is being recognised.

Then there is the question of creating a situation in which Muslims in their day-to-day context are accepted as a part of life. Sometimes I fear the Muslim rhetoric—the rhetoric of young Muslims who are angry needs to be toned down so that there is a better space for communication between them and the rest of society.