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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, for calling this timely debate. The urgency of addressing Islamophobia surely represents one of the key challenges of our times.
Since the Salman Rushdie affair in the 1980s and, more recently, the attacks on 9/11 and 7/7 and the subsequent “war on terror”, Muslims have become the suspect community. The evil acts of a small number of misguided individuals purporting to be acting in the name of Islam dramatically heightened an existing and long-standing fear and hatred of the “Muslim other”. The fear of Muslims and Islam dates back to the days of the Crusades, the Ottoman conquest of Europe and the Muslim empire which spread its influence, culture and values across south-east Europe, western Asia and north Africa for more than 600 years.
The 20th century witnessed the mass persecution and killing of millions of men, women and children who were identified, demonised and dehumanised because of their Jewish faith. The Holocaust was underpinned by a fever of fear and hatred, illogical persecution and misinformation. This fear and hatred of Muslims manifested itself in the psyche of Europe for more than a millennium, with anti-Islam narratives in history, the arts, literature and the wider culture of Europe also part of a pattern of fear and illogical hatred.
Centuries-old prejudice and fear have ignited the ever-rising demonisation of Muslims, as has the adoption of draconian anti-Muslim measures and knee-jerk policy reactions, which are a threat to the safety of Muslims in many parts of Europe. We have also seen the shocking growth of so-called populism and the rise in Greece, Hungary, Italy, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands of political organisations whose principal mandate is to prevent what they call the “Islamisation” of their homelands.
From the time of Rushdie, the genie of anti-Muslim hatred was out of the bottle. In our country, even those working in the anti-racism sector to address discrimination and inequality failed to recognise the severity of anti-Muslim experiences and discrimination that were festering. This failure laid the ground for the social exclusion, the demonisation and eventually the securitisation of an entire community, including its surveillance from the cradle to the grave, as we have seen with the public sector equality duty. As the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, stated, the worry is not simply that the demonisation of Muslims has passed the dinner table test but that its pernicious effects have so profoundly influenced government policy.
I reflect on the words of the director of one prominent organisation—whose patrons include respected Members of this House—who gave a speech in the Dutch parliament headlined, “What are we to do about Islam?”. Having praised the virtues of the notorious Dutch Islamophobe, Geert Wilders, he stated:
“Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board: Europe must look like a less attractive proposition”— denying the fact that European Muslims, in their millions, are just as much citizens of Europe.
However, it is not just the words of far-right extremists and hostile secularists with which we should be concerned. Our own Prime Minister declared in her 2016 party conference speech:
“If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means”.
These sentiments raised widespread concern at the time, as was argued by the now Liberal Democrat leader, Vince Cable, who said that the PM’s words were regrettably reminiscent of anti-Jewish hatred in the previous century. He shared the opinion of many in recognising that the PM’s blatant brand of post-Brexit nationalism ignored people with multiple nationalities and identities, including migrants with century-long ties here, living as British citizens.
“Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream”.
Alarmingly, in 2015, Mr Cameron displayed concerns about the submissiveness of Muslim women, implying that if Muslim women spoke more English, it would reduce extremism. He spoke of Muslim community leaders who,
“promote separatism by encouraging Muslims to define themselves solely in terms of their religion”.
The notion was unequivocal: Muslims were largely pursuing an existence based on separatism, leading to non-violent extremism, which then leads to violent extremism—the so-called conveyor belt theory.
With this speech Mr Cameron ushered in the doctrine of non-violent extremism as the critical pathway to violent extremism. He was of course echoing now-accepted norms and ideology promoted by the same neocons and Islamophobes, including think tanks which glibly questioned, “What are we to do about Islam?”, reinforcing the proposition that conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harsher across the board. This new assault on Muslim values heralded new and old alliances and a wave of published attacks by prominent figures. Remarkably, these included the former chief of the equality commission, who utterly discredited the office for equality and social justice when he was content to assert at a Policy Exchange conference that Muslims,
“see the world differently from the rest of us”,
and that we are,
“in danger of sacrificing a generation of young British people to values that are antithetical to the beliefs of most of us”.
Urging a tougher approach to integration, he argued—despicably—that:
“Muslims who have separatist views about how they want to live in Britain are far more likely to support terrorism than those who do not”.
Once again there is the link: Muslims—separatists—terrorists.
It has not escaped the attention of those in the Muslim community, or the APPG’s new report defining Islamophobia, that the Government continue to seek counsel from many such reactionary organisations and misguided individuals and, worse still, to make funds available for sustaining a corrosive Islamophobic mechanism which has emerged in the form of repressive and backward discriminatory legislation and counter- terrorism programmes such as Prevent and Channel.
We cannot turn a blind eye to the culpability of our own senior political figures in contributing to the widespread growth of demonisation and discrimination and its likely consequences—the unprecedented level of hate attacks on Muslims in this country. The work of the APPG on Islamophobia is therefore timely. I acknowledge the effort that went into producing the report and its drive for consensus. It provides a good overview, with a range of perspectives and experiences, and shines a light on the nature of direct Islamophobia. More importantly, it has created momentum within and outside Parliament.
Although I can understand why the option of integrating Islamophobia under racism is appealing, I strongly suggest that legally defining religious discrimination as racism is an erroneous contradiction, given the distinction argued throughout the report itself. Further, the race industry has worked consistently to deny religious discrimination equal weight. As someone who has been at the forefront, and in the midst, of the anti-racist movement since the 1980s, I know that that is so. The virulent religious discrimination in Britain today demands detailed, national and structural policy responses and redress. As it is only a working definition, I expect that further consideration will be given to the matter and that Islamophobia will be removed from the restrictive box of racism. If it had fitted the standard racism test, it would have become part of our race narrative 20 or 30 years ago.
However, any doubts that I have about using racism to explain Islamophobia are in no way intended to resist the urgent need for the Government to accept and enact a definition. I fully accept that racism is still rife in all parts of our society. The full spectrum of Islamophobia continues to be a cancer in society. The corrosive scapegoating and “othering” of groups are often directed at the most vulnerable in society, often based on gender, sexual preference, age and, indeed, faith. For now, I seek further clarification on how the Government intend to adapt and respond and whether they intend to accept in all government institutions a definition such as that proposed by the APPG, and as they have accepted in relation to discrimination based on race, sex and disability.
Those of us who were there at the beginning of the anti-racist movement know that definitions have always been controversial. The definition of race as a concept was itself greeted with the same irrational counter- argument that now greets the definition of Islamophobia, regardless of whether it is seen as part of religious or race hatred. I commend the work that has gone into producing the report and look forward to continued work with the APPG to adjust and strengthen the format further.