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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Burt. We all sympathise with the suffering of the Muslim community, encapsulated in the word “Islamophobia”. It is our common responsibility to tackle it but we have to be clear about its meaning to do so. To me, the suggested definitions are still woolly and vague; I will try to give a more precise one. If we do not have a clear definition, “Islamophobia” risks being seen as an emotive word intended to get public sympathy and government resources—a concern raised by the APPG on British Muslims.
Unfortunately, it is a fact that some communities use government funding to produce questionable statistics to show that they are more hated than others; groups without a culture of complaint, such as Sikhs, fall off the Government’s radar. We have had debates on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, but what about other communities? Should we not be thinking about all communities, not just those in more powerful positions? I believe that the Government must be even-handed.
The result of that effective lobbying is seen in the half-term report on the Government’s hate crime strategy, which gives some 20 government initiatives to protect Abrahamic faiths from hate crimes. However, it is totally silent on hate crimes against other communities. We have heard mention of statistics being plucked out of thin air or provided by Muslim groups. In the report, there is no common statistical basis for comparing hate crimes suffered by one community against those suffered by others. Figures produced by organisations such as Tell MAMA are based on perception and include attacks on Sikhs and others. I appeal to the Government to start treating all vulnerable groups in an even-handed way, using common statistical evidence with clear definitions of what we are measuring.
To my mind, there are four distinct aspects of hate crime against Muslims that are collectively known as Islamophobia: hate crime arising from common prejudice; hate crime arising from assumptions about the teachings of Islam; hate crime arising from perceptions of Muslim behaviour; and hate crime against non-Muslims due to mistaken identity. Let us start with the common prejudice experienced by those “not like us” and not of the majority, as the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, referred to. It is easy to assume that prejudice is found in only a small number of people. That is not true. We all have our prejudices. We are all hard-wired to be suspicious or wary of those we see as different. It is only through education and social contact with others that we begin to see that superficial differences such as skin colour, appearance, language or national or geographical origin obscure all too easily the reality that we are equal members of one human race.
Perversely, group identity is strengthened by negative perceptions of others, even when groups are not real. Some years back, New Scientist magazine reported on an opinion poll in the States asking respondents about their views on Jews, Negros, Asians, Darnerians and Wallerians. Although the last two groups were entirely fictitious, they were hated none the less. Even today it is common to refer to Germans as “Huns” and the French as “frogs”—to say nothing of the bureaucrats in Brussels wasting all our money.
Today the one-time distant foreigner with a different culture and religion, whom we could safely ridicule at a distance to give us a greater sense of cohesion, is now very often our next-door neighbour. For a harmon- ious society we must work to remove the distorting fog of ignorance and prejudice, and see others as they really are: equal members of our one human family. This can be done only through much greater emphasis on teaching of respect for different religions and cultures.
I turn to the second aspect of hate crime against Muslims: negative perceptions of Muslim teachings. What generally passes for religion is, in fact, a complex mix of superstitions, rituals, culture, group history and uplifting ethical teachings. Negative attitudes to others found in general society are often seen in a more virulent form in the recorded history embedded in some religious texts and in claims of an exclusive access to the one God of all—even God is suggested to have prejudices.
Texts condoning the killing or ill-treatment of the innocent, taken out of the context of the time when they were written, lead to horrendous crimes and savagery, not only between faiths but even within the same faith, and to increasingly familiar terrorist outrages in the name of religion. Negative perceptions of Muslims can be removed only by members of that religion doing some drastic spring cleaning—we all need to do this—explaining dated social and cultural practices in the context of today’s times.
The third aspect of Islamophobia is negative perceptions of Muslim behaviour. Political discrimination and misunderstanding of Islam cannot justify the unacceptable behaviour of some Muslims in the UK and abroad. Terrorist outrages and the behaviour of Muslim grooming gangs inevitably lead to negative images of the Muslim community. Again, only the Muslim community can address them.
The fourth and last component of the amalgam of unacceptable behaviour collectively referred to as Islamophobia is the hate and physical violence experienced by Sikhs and others who are mistaken for Muslims, and which is recorded as Islamophobia. Several Sikhs were killed in mistaken identity attacks in the United States following 9/11—the first person killed was a Sikh. Similar incidents have occurred in this country. Again, religious literacy would help make such attacks less likely.
In summary, while I sympathise with the suffering of the Muslim community from hate crimes arising out of common prejudice, there is no statistical evidence whatever to suggest that this is greater or less than that suffered by other communities. To my mind, we need to do a little disaggregating. The only components of hate crime that justify the term “Islamophobia” are those arising from negative perceptions of Islam, or what is seen as inappropriate behaviour by members of the Muslim community. It is again a task for the Muslim community. It is not an easy one. The Muslim leaders and clerics deserve our full support in this.