MPs definition of Islamophobia menaces free speech

It protects the idea of Islam, rather than Muslim people


By Peter Tatchell

London, UK – 22 August 2019


The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims has produced a well-intended but worrisome definition of Islamophobia.

It states: ‘Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.’

There are three big problems with this definition.

First, while Islamophobia can be an expression racism, is not ipso facto racist because neither Islam nor Muslims are a race. Islam is an idea and Muslims include people from many different races. Moreover, prejudice against Muslims can be driven by fear of Islamist extremism and by Christian and Judaist religious sectarianism – neither of which are motivated by racism.

Second, Muslimness is a vague and subjective term. It is not defined. Who gets to decide what it means? Muslimness means different things to different sects of Islam – Sunni, Shia, Sufi and Ahmadi. Some ultra conservative and Islamist Muslims claim to represent true Muslimness and use it to justify their opposition of women’s and LGBT+ rights.

Third, this definition could be abused to restrict free speech. It’s defenders dispute this but the definition includes no robust caveat to protect freedom of expression.

Islam is an idea and like all ideas, including my own, it should be open to scrutiny and criticism. Yet very often all critiques of Islam are denounced as an attack on Muslim people.

This is unfair. In a free society, it perfectly valid to criticise the idea of Islam – or any other belief system. What is not acceptable is to be prejudiced against Muslim people and to consequently victimise them. Discrimination against ideas is reasonable, but not discrimination against people.

I try to avoid the term Islamophobia. Anti-Muslim hatred much better, since it focuses on the prejudice against Muslim people that undermines their well-being and life chances.

I speak as someone who has defended the rights of Muslim people for decades but who also defends freedom of expression.

From personal experience, I know how the smear of Islamophobia is used to silence critics and debate. In 1994, I protested against the Islamist extremist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. It had endorsed the killing of LGBT people, women who have sex outside of marriage and Muslims who turn away from their faith. I was denounced as Islamophobic. But I was merely confronting the hateful ideology of theocratic Islamism, not Muslim people, the vast majority of whom do not subscribe to such murderous injunctions.

My protest in 1994 could fall within the sweeping definition of Islamophobia proposed by the APPG, where Islamophobia is said to target expressions of Muslimness. But as I previously argued, the word Muslimness is an ambiguous, nebulous term that can cover anything that anyone perceives to be Islamic or Muslim.

Citing the APPG definition, Hizb members could say that I was Islamophobic because death for LGBTs, adulterers and apostates is a part of the Islamic tradition – and therefore part of Muslimness.

The definition could also be used by Islamists to challenge legitimate criticisms of their extremism. They could use it to argue that any critique of their version of Islam is illegitimate and out of bounds.

The charge of Islamophobia has been levelled at Southall Black Sisters and Maryam Namazie over their defence of Muslim women against patriarchy, against the LGBT+ group OutRage! for protesting against extremist clerics like Yusuf al-Qaradawi and against some university Atheist Secular & Humanist societies for mocking all religious superstition, including the superstitious nature of Islam.

No-one in our society should be discriminated against because of who they are. Yet, the term Islamophobia downgrades protecting Muslim people and mistakenly puts the focus on protecting the idea of Islam. This perverse prioritisation has to be challenged. It is a disservice to the Muslim community, which suffers from unacceptable levels of intolerance, discrimination and hate crime.

Instead of offering practical, concrete solutions to the prejudice faced by Muslim people, parliament has opted for an ineffectual and flawed definition that is open to abuse. Far more useful to stem the tide of anti-Muslim intolerance would have been new legislation to curb bigoted media reporting of Muslim issues and mandatory education in schools about religious toleration. These measures would do much more to undermine anti-Muslim bigotry.

So far, the APPG’s definition has been adopted by Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Mayor of London and several local councils and trade unions, without a scintilla of reservation or qualification.

We are, it seems, drifting towards a de facto threat to free speech and liberal values, where many progressives are terrified of appearing anti-Muslim, and are more interested in virtue-signalling than specific policies to protect Muslim people.

The APPG should think again.

  • This is an expanded version of Peter Tatchell’s essay in the book, Islamophobia – An anthology of concerns. Edited by Emma Webb, it was published by Civitas in London on 22 August 2019