Definition of Islamophobia — [Mrs Sheryll Murray in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:25 pm on 9th September 2021.

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Photo of Naseem Shah Naseem Shah Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 3:25 pm, 9th September 2021

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I echo the words of Mr Baker. This debate is much richer for the contribution made by my hon. Friend Zarah Sultana. In our words, may Allah make it easy for you.

In the main Chamber right now, there is the debate on the legacy of Jo Cox. My hon. Friend mentioned what happened in Batley and the divisive attitudes from different quarters, particularly with regard to Islamophobia. I and I am sure many others wanted to attend that debate—it is a shame that we cannot—but let us in Westminster Hall not forget the words of Jo Cox, that we

“have far more in common than that which divides us.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 675.]

We are here today because this Government have failed British Muslims. Prior to 2018, the Government disregarded the need for a definitive definition of Islamophobia altogether. Having come to their senses in May 2019, the Government were happy to accept a definition—just not the one that the Muslim community supported. Instead, the Government proposed to appoint two independent advisers on Islamophobia to go in search of their own definition, and 845 days later we have only one nominal Islamophobia adviser and no definition. It is clear that this is not a matter of the Government not trying; it is a matter of the Government not caring.

Time and again, I have raised the fact that if it is absolutely okay for women to understand and define patriarchy and feminism, for Jewish people to define antisemitism, for people of colour to define racism and for LGBTQ+ communities to define homophobia, why will this Government not adopt a definition of Islamophobia rooted in the experience of British Muslim communities? In total, 75 academics and over 750 Muslim organisations and institutions have endorsed that definition, from the Muslim Council of Britain to British Muslims for Secular Democracy, including organisations representing every single sect of Islam.

In my adult life, I have never seen an issue in the Muslim community receive such widespread formal support as this definition has. In rejecting that definition, are the Government really telling me, this Chamber and the House that their proposed definition will also garner the support of Muslim communities? The Labour party has adopted the APPG definition and we have also written to Labour councils to follow suit by adopting it on a local level. The Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National party, the Greens and even the Scottish Conservatives have adopted the definition, and yet this Government feel that they can silence Muslim communities by rejecting the definition that those communities support.

The last time that there was a debate on this issue in the main Chamber, the Government’s concerns about the APPG’s definition of Islamophobia centred on the opinions expressed in a letter to Downing Street by police chiefs, which was leaked, insinuating that it would hinder UK counter-terrorism efforts. Yet on further investigation, both police chiefs—Martin Hewitt and Neil Basu—concluded that the definition does not in any way affect counter-terrorism efforts. It was this ludicrous claim about the definition that the former Member for Beaconsfield and former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, described as “total and unadulterated rubbish”.

Additionally, it has been repeatedly noted by the APPG and experts that the working definition of Islamophobia being proposed is a non-legally binding definition and therefore presents no challenge to statute, which takes legal precedent, and therefore it does not impede on free speech, as the Government claim. The APPG definition of Islamophobia is a working definition, similar to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.

In fact, the APPG definition of Islamophobia is built on the IHRA framework; every single example used by the APPG definition comes from the IHRA definition of antisemitism. If one definition does not impede free speech, why do the Government think that another definition, which is built on the very same framework, does so? If the APPG’s definition does contravene the Equality Act 2010, as the Government have previously suggested, why do they not publish the legal advice they have taken on holding such positions?

The fact is that the Government maintain their silence as hate crimes targeted at Muslims exceed 50%. They turn a blind eye to the qualified, educated Muslim women denied jobs. They benefit from the Muslim contribution to the pandemic response—need I remind the Government that more than 50% of doctors’ fatalities from covid have been Muslims?—yet ignore the Islamophobia that 81% of medical professionals face. They allow social media to perpetuate narratives of terrorism around Muslims, while failing to call out the one in three articles that misrepresent and generalise Muslims. They delay a definition that is both timely and imperative; a 2019 YouGov poll found that 45% of British people saw a “fundamental clash” between Islam and the values of British society, while 73% of complaints in the Government’s own party relate to Islamophobia.

This is not a matter of a Government’s not trying, but of a Government’s not caring. If the everyday Islamophobia faced by British Muslims is not enough to shake this Government into action—if the daughter of the Muslim Scottish Health Secretary being denied a nursery place because of a Muslim-sounding name and a young Sikh boy wearing a turban being called “Taliban” and racially attacked for being perceived as a Muslim are not enough—then the terror attacks that have taken place against Muslim communities should wake them up.

Mohammed Saleem, Mushin Ahmed and Makram Ali are the three grandfathers who have already been murdered in Islamophobic terror attacks across the UK. Across the world, we have witnessed 51 Muslims murdered by a far-right terrorist in Christchurch, New Zealand, and only this June we witnessed a terror attack that led to three generations of a single family being murdered in Ontario, Canada.

It has been a decade since Baroness Warsi, the former Conservative party chair, said that Islamophobia had

“passed the dinner table test”.

We have seen not only a year-on-year increase in Islamophobic sentiments online, in the media and across society, but a terrifying rise in attacks on Muslim communities.

When I say that all the evidence points to the Government not caring, I am not saying it merely as an Opposition Member, but because if, God forbid, there is another deadly terror attack on Muslims in the UK, this Government’s inaction, negligence and often silent condoning of Islamophobia will be partly responsible. When they deny Muslim communities even a simple definition of Islamophobia and halt the work of the Government’s own anti-Muslim hatred working group, it is that serious.

If the Minister disagrees, I am happy to let him intervene to tell the House the last time the Government’s anti-Muslim hatred working group actually met. Who are the two independent Islamophobia advisers? Has one of the advisers the Government appointed even started his role, two years on from his appointment? The answer is no—just as I thought.

The reality is that Islamophobia is widespread. A report by the Centre for Media Monitoring, analysing media output over a three-month period in the fourth quarter of 2018, comprising analysis of more than 10,000 published articles and broadcast clips, found that 59% of all articles associated Muslims with negative behaviour, and 37% of articles in right-leaning and religious publications were categorised with the most negative rating of “very biased”. More than a third of all articles misrepresented or generalised about Muslims, and terrorism was the most common theme.

Recent research by Professor Imran Awan and Dr Irene Zempi found that, be they one-off events or a series of repeated and targeted offending, Islamophobic hate crimes not only affect the victim, but send reverberations through communities as they reinforce established patterns of bias, prejudice and discrimination. In the British context, Islam and Muslims have increasingly been seen as culturally dangerous and threatening to the British way of life. Muslims have been labelled both “deviant” and “evil”.

We know, and we witnessed through the height of the pandemic, how untrue those sentiments are. When the nation needed communities to come together, to serve, to unite and to protect our nation, British Muslims played a leading role. Sadly, however, far-right extremist and Islamophobic stereotypes peddle a narrative that can lead to worrying consequences for Muslim communities.

Adopting a definition is only the first step. Preventing, tackling and challenging Islamophobia is a debate that must still take place. Nobody—not I, nor the British Muslims here today or in my constituency—is asking for special treatment from this Government. All we are asking is simply that the Government accept the definition, so that we can help people and better understand Islamophobia. We need to put out a political statement that Islamophobia, in all its forms, is unacceptable and that attacks on Muslims must stop. That is all we asking for—literally, it is just equality. This is not about requesting a change of law, or Muslims asking for extra protection. We are simply asking the Government to recognise Islamophobia, accept a non-binding working definition and make a political statement to that effect. That is why I end by asking the Government to end the discriminatory behaviour towards Muslims. The Government should accept the definition, and let us all work together to tackle racism, prejudice and hatred in all its forms.