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Islamophobia - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:46 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Shadow Attorney General 1:46 pm, 20th December 2018

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in a thoughtful and important debate. I have the words of the right reverend Prelate about the importance of humility and sensitivity in matters such as this ringing in my ears. Even though this is our last working day before Christmas, a debate about hatred of British Muslims is particularly important as so many British Muslims will celebrate Christmas with their friends and wider communities, and many British Muslims alongside British Jews and members of other faith communities will be working in vital emergency services and doing other important work to allow their friends and neighbours to have a break over Christmas. That is worth remembering and recognising.

I thank in particular the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, for bringing forward this Motion and for his courage in calling out unhelpful behaviour in his party. It is not easy in any party to call out hateful behaviours; I know that. At the outset of my—I hope—not-too-lengthy remarks, I say to the Minister that while his noble friend will have said some uncomfortable things, I am sure he will listen to them. I want to approach these matters in a truly bipartisan way, not least because I know from my experience over the past couple of years that, when issues of this kind become weaponised by rival political parties, it makes it harder to deal with any problems we have in our own political parties and across politics and society. I shall approach my contribution in that vein.

I am sorry to say it, but everyone has acknowledged that racism is on the rise, not just in our country, or just on the continent of Europe, but across the world in an manner that I would never have predicted in my teenage years in the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, I thought we were in a much better place when it came to matters of race and faith, but sadly, in the light of subsequent events, I was wrong about that. While racism generally is on the rise, I think Islamophobia in particular is too often minimised, ignored and even denied in our politics and our media, including as compared with other manifestations of racism. That is not to set up a competition for victimhood but to acknowledge that a real problem has perhaps not been given sufficient space.

This is not easy to say because, generally speaking, the tenor of debate in your Lordships’ House is a lot more comfortable than in other places, including the other place, but over the last couple of years I have heard Islamophobic remarks even in this Chamber and your Lordships’ House. This has not been on a daily or routine basis but I have heard them, and I think it is important to acknowledge that.

I give special thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. I want to be clear that while it is in the best traditions of your Lordships’ House to refer to people on one’s own Benches as noble friends—a fine tradition of political camaraderie—she is both noble and my friend. Furthermore she is an incredibly distinguished politician, the first Muslim Cabinet Minister and the former chair of her party. She is a great role model, not just for British Muslims but for British people and for young women in particular. I say that by way of also recognising the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, about the importance of encouraging, not discouraging, women in public life and in politics in particular, and in recognition of her important contribution about the extra venom that political women experience, and when they are at the intersection of other groupings that experience hate it is even worse. With all that in mind, I want to say that some remarks made about the contribution by the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, to a counterterrorism debate earlier in the week were patronising, completely mistaken and, in my view, unnecessary.

I thank the APPG for doing such important work. The work is difficult and sensitive as people are always going to have differences of principle and of detail. I have read the report with some care and think it is very good, even if it cites rival views. It has made an incredibly important contribution to examining the considerable weight of evidence, and it will take us a little further forward towards a working definition of Islamophobia. Why are such definitions important? Not because hate is not hate, not because human rights abuses are not indivisible and not because there is a hierarchy of races or other hate, but because in combating human rights abuses of any kind there is value in trying to articulate particular manifestations of abuse as experienced by groups that are subject to that abuse. That is why it is particularly important to hear from those who experience anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, misogyny or any hatred that is directed at a group. That does not mean that other voices are not important in the debate or in defining the manifestation of that hate, but one has to give particular recognition to the victims, the people who are experiencing hatred in all its manifestations on a daily basis.

It is important, again in the spirit of political bipartisanship, to thank the co-chairs of that APPG for their work, the Members of Parliament for Broxtowe and Ilford North, and to say from these Benches on behalf of my party, which now has well over half a million members, that even though the word is tricky and has a complicated history—I defer to academics and historians on this—we accept the concept and existence of Islamophobia per se. I understand why some people have an instinctive and intellectual problem with the word. Of course people should be able to criticise Islam, or particular strands of it, as they should be able to criticise any other faith or belief system. However, Islamophobia as we understand it is not about criticising Islam; it is about the hatred of those who practise that faith or who are mistakenly perceived to be doing so. Hating people is not the same as hating ideas, let alone critiquing them. It is not helpful and it is completely unacceptable, particularly when that hatred translates into discrimination, persecution and worse.

As for the work on the definition itself, my party is a mass movement and a democratic one, as I say, and it is conducting its own consultation on what would be a working definition for the purposes of the Labour Party. However, I think the work done by the APPG is a good start and something that we will take incredibly seriously, including the proposed definition itself. Why do I think it is a really useful place to start? Because it talks about Islamophobia being rooted in racism. I say to some of the speakers in this debate that that is not to suggest that Islam is a race—frankly, scientists will critique the notion of race as real at all—but rather to identify that Islamophobia is coming from the same engine room as racism. The hatred is rooted in racism, even though the members of a Muslim community can be of many different races.

The other useful aspect of this proposal is that it acknowledges that this is about targeting expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness, and therefore it can be of real benefit to other communities and other people, including British Sikhs, who are—because bigotry is by definition ill-informed—misperceived on a routine basis as being Muslim. So people who are not Muslim can still be the victims of Islamophobia. I was once called the most dangerous woman in Britain. Obviously that was a badge of honour and greatly inflating to the ego, but it was probably in part founded on a misunderstanding—that I was Muslim. I almost do not like to tell that story because I should say, “I am Spartacus”; we are all Muslims together if we are going to be branded and abused in that way, and one wants to give solidarity. However, that is a useful aspect of this proposal: that you do not have to get your hatred right to be criticised for that hatred. It is plain English and I do not think it is woolly.

The issues about a phobia being innocent are not right. Homophobia, like Islamophobia, is long-established now, in the practical language of ordinary people, as hatred—in its case, of gay people. Let us not be too academic or perfect in our semantics. We have to go with a working word that people have come to understand increasingly over the past 20 years.

Finally, the statistics are real. The Home Office statistics now point to 52% of religious hate crimes—which are recorded as religious hate crimes—being directed at 5% of the population. That is a real worry and, with underreporting, the figures may be even worse than that.

This is not a competition for victimhood, and no political party or any part of society has a monopoly of virtue in this area, so I hope that in the new year, after your Lordships have all had happy holidays and a happy Christmas, we can take forward the thinking and work in the report together.