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Islamophobia - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:41 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Burt of Solihull Baroness Burt of Solihull Liberal Democrat 12:41 pm, 20th December 2018

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the amazing speakers that we have heard so far. I feel quite humbled.

As I understand it, the point of this extremely important debate today is to assess the impact of Islamophobia in the UK, although there has been much discussion in getting to a definition of what Islamophobia actually is.

There is a point in establishing this, since if we cannot say what something is, how can we measure its prevalence? The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, has already referred to the Runnymede Trust definition of “unfounded hostility towards Islam”, but I do not feel that that goes far enough. For me, it is more than that: it is giving expression to the underlying hostility that some in this country feel towards people or beliefs that are “not like us”—the “other”, for which marking characteristics such as the hijab are a useful identification on which to hang this insular feeling.

Of course, this applies to women and other racial groups too, but the presence of terrorist groups purporting to act in the name of Islam has enabled some to feel greater justification for their prejudice. Why people feel this way, and why we suffer spikes in racism after events like the Brexit referendum, is a subject for a whole other debate; sadly, we do not have enough time for that today.

Islam is blamed for many things but in truth, pure Islam, and most other religions, are innocent of the malign characteristics sometimes ascribed to them. It is those who seek power over others to interpret the words of Allah—or the name of any other God—and bend them to their own ends who are to blame for many of the injustices in this world.

The all-party group’s short definition says:

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

I was really impressed with the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, who argued very persuasively for this definition.

My first question to the Minister was also asked by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh: do the Government intend to adapt the APPG definition? I expect that my noble friend Lady Falkner will have a word or two to say about definitions —and she is not the only one. The National Secular Society calls this definition “vague and unworkable”, and says that it conflates,

“hatred of, and discrimination against, Muslims … with criticism of Islam”.

Criticising Islam, like criticising any religion, is quite legitimate, of course. As a Liberal, I would be the first to ensure that this precious freedom should never be sacrificed for fear of offending any group in society. Fear of criticism leads to some bizarre decisions. An appropriate example at this time of year is the complete rubbish spoken about using the term “Christmas”, as if saying “Christmas holidays” or “Happy Christmas” is going to offend those of other religions. The worst term, in my view, is “winterval”. We disrespect those of other faiths by imagining they might be offended by our expressions, any more than we would choose not to say “Happy Eid”, or “Happy Hanukkah”.

Whatever definition we use, it is the effects of this unreasonable and irrational view of Muslims and Islam that are damaging the fabric of our society and the lives of so many thousands of people. While researching for this debate I was intrigued to learn about Tell MAMA, which the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, has already mentioned. MAMA stands for measuring anti-Muslim attacks. The number of attacks has increased each year, and about 70% were offline, at street level. The majority of the victims were Muslim women—most easily identifiable through their clothing—and the majority of the perpetrators were white men. That does not paint a very attractive picture, does it?

This is a worry, because according to the Runnymede Trust, British Muslims are the most economically deprived group in the UK. Half of British Muslims experience household poverty, compared with a national average of 18%. Only one in five is in full-time employment. The Social Mobility Commission says that young Muslims face considerable barriers to progression in schools, education and the labour market. What a waste of talent to society.

What are the Government doing about this? Apparently they launched a nationwide public awareness campaign this autumn to educate the public about what hate crime is. I must have missed it, unfortunately. Since the last action plan in 2016 they have “engaged” with 17,000 young people to challenge beliefs and attitudes. For my second question, could I ask the Minister what form this challenge took, and whether he believes that engaging with 17,000 young people is sufficient to achieve a meaningful change in the perceptions of our youth?

There are several other measures in the hate crime action plan, both from 2016 and announced in the update this year. I am glad that two of those measures were to require police forces to disaggregate crime—presumably hate crime—statistics by faith, and to give Tell MAMA £2.5 million to help with its work in encouraging reporting of Islamophobic and anti-Muslim incidents, and supporting victims. What we do not measure, we cannot manage.

I suggest that the Government quickly implement for ethnicity the equivalent of pay gap reporting for women. For my third and final question, I ask the Minister: is that on the cards? It would make a big difference to the way in which many companies think about how inclusive they are and who they have on the payroll. We know that more ethnically diverse and inclusive businesses do better because they have a wider talent and ideas pool on which to draw.

Whatever definition of Islamophobia we choose to use, we need only look at the rising statistics for Islamophobic attacks every year, and our wasting of natural talent and lack of productivity as a country, to understand that we have to do more to celebrate the diversity and talents of all our citizens.