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Islamophobia - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:10 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Chair, EU Financial Affairs Sub-Committee 1:10 pm, 20th December 2018

Since I do not know what comment the noble Baroness is referring to and since I cannot prove or disprove, in belief terms, what is or is not true, I think I will let that one go.

My other broad problem with the analysis is that, while it takes pot shots at other political ideologies, it is almost entirely silent on Islamism and political Islam. So while there is reference to incidents of hate crime and Islamophobia spiking after a terrorist incident, or after sustained negative media coverage of Muslims, the report does not contextualise those rises against the broader backdrop of the portrayal of Islam as being problematic due to Islamism. It seems hardly surprising that there has been a rise in Islamophobia over the last two decades when it is seen against the back- drop of the 9/11 attacks, our knowledge of the Taliban’s ideology during the Afghan conflict, and the sustained and ongoing nearly two decades of Islamist terrorism in the West, including the UK. We can add to this the rise of violent extremism within the UK—yes, right-wing extremism as well—and the identification of Pakistani men as a particular category in sexual grooming in the UK. To this long list let me add the necessary military intervention by the United Kingdom and its allies in the war against Islamic State. This causal relationship in the “normalisation” of Islamophobia that the report claims exists has taken place against a backdrop of the public being exposed to an unprecedented display of medieval savagery, entirely inimical to our values, in Islamic State’s actions in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, the fact that so many western Muslims have chosen to lay down their lives in that cause has come as a surprise to the public.

So context is important, and that is what is missing in the report. One could look at things the other way, as many of us do, and the report picks this up insufficiently: we are intensely loyal to Britain; we believe we absolutely belong here; and we are full and active citizens partaking of the opportunities this country offers. Despite the malign acts of our co-religionists and their impact on public perception, the majority of us get on and live our lives day in, day out without thinking of ourselves as victims of something undefinable. I think the dissonance between the report and what I have described lies in the narrow specialisation of the contributors of the evidence. In academia they are drawn mainly from sociology, criminology and geography, with a particular critical theory bent, while the rather more balanced view of Muslim ideology and its implications, which belongs to the mainstream of the political sciences, has been ignored. Hence the extremely narrow framing of the narrative as religious discrimination rooted in race, rather than anti-Muslim acts sitting in a western, liberal, rights-based, pluralistic national framework.

Missing are the thinkers of contemporary Islam: Ali Allawi, Bassam Tibi, Abdullahi An-Na’im, Reza Aslan, Olivier Roy, Gilles Keppel and even the problematic Tariq Ramadan. The few with dissenting voices who make it into the analysis, such as Rumy Hasan, are sadly dismissed. I should say that I have had the privilege of discussing these issues over many years with almost all of those I have mentioned. Instead we have Tahir Abbas describing the various typologies of Islamophobia so widely that it could encompass most people in this country: alongside hate crime we have failed multiculturalism discourses, ideology where the political right and left are hostile to Muslims, and organisations that are susceptible to Islamophobic groupthink. Intellectuals are included, as these influential right and left-leaning thinkers are in denial, according to him. The media gets it in the neck, as noble Lords would expect, while neoliberalism, which is an economic concept, is thrown in for blame too. Finally, in this net are other religions: so Christians, Jews, Hindus and others are hostile, he claims, to Muslim minorities. Moreover, to him Islamophobia is not just “an individual matter” but,

“part and parcel of a wider social, historical, political and cultural discourse that continues to evolve and grow”.

This, for him, leads to,

“an ecosystem in which anti-Muslim racism festers and manifests itself”.

The problem with indulging in a sweeping critique of all around you is that it trivialises what is undoubtedly a serious and growing problem that should concern us all. By portraying it as a deep-seated, racially motivated, institutionalised attempt to “keep Muslims down”, it risks dividing the very community it seeks to protect.

I have discussed the report with several people who are expert in this area and we share a dismay that the tangible problems relating to discrimination, respect and hatred have been subsumed into a well-intentioned but misguided cry for protection from intangibles such as culture and society. I accept that culture wars can be destructive but I also recognise that contestation is a necessary element of rubbing along together in a diverse society, and that we cannot legislate for human nature or indeed for prejudice where it is nebulous and subtle or “normalised”, as the report claims.

The definition says:

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

When you define a religion—in other words, a belief system—as an adjective and declare that this is rooted in race, which is biological, you ascribe to belief an immutability which cannot work. People live their lives on a spectrum of belief, at some points in a deeper sense and at others less so. Their visible and cultural identity will depend on where they are on this spectrum and may change over time. By basing Islamophobia on biological characteristics and saying that Muslims are a racially homogenous group, you are speaking to the plight of only a section of the BAME community. Where does that leave white European Muslims—Bosniaks, Kosovars and Albanians—as well as converts to Islam in Europe? One assumes that their protection would come under religious hate crime.

I could have gone on for rather longer but, in conclusion, Islamophobia is a problem for Muslim communities and needs to be monitored and counteracted. In my opinion, much of the response must come from existing criminal and civil law and guidance, rather than from the creation of new criminal definitions and categories. There is a role for government, and I commend the Government’s efforts in this regard, but it must also come from Muslims themselves, who need to actively use the law as they find it, individually and collectively where that is appropriate. What we should not do is live our lives in a narrative of victimhood, which holds us back from achieving our potential as active citizens of this country we all choose to call home.